Bad dogs!
December 30, 2011 7:47 AM   Subscribe

We broke our dogs and we don't know what we're doing wrong. Please help!

We have two dogs--a male Basset around 4 years old and a female hound mix around 3. Both are fixed. My husband had the Basset before I came into the picture; he was jealous of me (and still is, barking and interfering when my husband shows attention to me instead of him) and that's part of the reason we got the second dog.

When we got the mixed breed (she was about 3 months old, from the pound, and the Basset was about a year old) we had some problems with food aggression--she attacked the Basset a couple of times. We worked with a trainer and did obedience classes and worked through that issue pretty well over the course of a year or so, though there was still an occasional flare up, mostly revolving around couch territory. Whenever that happened, we would order them off the couch and they'd have to go to crates or sit nicely or otherwise prove their good behavior for a good, solid time-out before they were allowed to get back.

They will get very excited when people come over/deliveries are made, although they calm down after a while. They also bark relentlessly at everything that moves when they're in the back yard--people, wildlife, the neighbor dogs. These are people/animals they see every day, not strangers.

Recent unpleasantness:
A few months ago we had to go out of town twice in fairly quick succession and boarded them. (We used to board them with our trainer, but one time they came back and our hound mix was very fearful afterward, so we stopped using him.) When we came back after the second trip, we were told that our Basset was no longer welcome--that he had gone after some of the other dogs aggressively during play time and then went after the handler when she tried to break it up. This was a bit of a surprise as we had never had any problems at the dog park--he would bark a lot, but he was never aggressive.

Shortly after that, my husband took them on a walk (he ends up being the primary dog-walker in our family because of my work schedule). There are often many loose dogs in my neighborhood, and they ran into them on this walk. Both dogs lunged forward, angry, barking, completely uncontrollable, and it was all he could do to just drag them far enough away to end the problem. On another walk, they did the same to some kids. In the past, the Basset was always super excited and gentle around kids so this was especially surprising. My husband made a concerted effort to work daily with the dogs, reinforcing their training and confidence (I have also reinforced the training in my interactions with them) and in all other ways they have been behaving better than ever.

He started walking the dogs later at night to try avoid those loose or tethered dogs and kids because every time it just ended with the same bad results. When it did happen, he tried his best not to panic and to reassure them with confidence and food, but nothing could calm them until the source was gone.

Which brings us to last night:
On last night's walk, a neighbor was walking his extremely well-behaved German Shepherd and the typical chaos ensued. The other dog passed and was 20-30 feet past them and was completely ignoring the madness of our two dogs. Somehow my husband lost the leash of the female who immediately charged the GS (twice her size) and attacked it unprovoked. The GS's owner had to kick our dog to fend her off.

Fortunately, no one was hurt, but we're in a bind. We don't feel like we can take them to the dog park anymore, and after last night, even going for walks feels like a bad idea.

We don't really have the finances to get true, professional help from a behaviorist. What can/should we do?
posted by elizeh to Pets & Animals (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
well without positive reinforcement there is never growth: I would continue walking the dog, but bring plenty of treats, and hook the leash to you in some way. If you see another dog out and about go another direction. I think it'll just take a long time to really get them back to where they were.

Aside from your dog I would actually start calling the police on the loose dogs in your neighborhood. that is completely inexcusable and in the past I have leashed up said dogs, tied them to a post and called the pound.
posted by zombieApoc at 8:03 AM on December 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have posted this link before, it's a PDF article called "Dog Parks: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly". Maybe reading this will help you to make a decision on taking your dogs to a dog park or daycare/boarding without feeling bad about possibly limiting or eliminating them entirely from your dogs activities.

It also sounds like you are dealing with some pack aggression and it might help if your husband is able to walk the dogs separately. I have two dogs that misbehave quite a bit more when walked together, and are much easier to handle separately. Each dog enjoys the time alone with me, and gets more attention. I have a dog that is very dog reactive and if he has a bad episode with another dog (loose dogs running up are the worst), it can take days for him to calm down and get over it (in fact the chemicals released in the dogs body during an incident takes time to rebalance). When I lived in Chicago I had an excellent trainer who did help me to learn how to limit bad interactions and keep my dogs as calm as possible - you can find many good resources on her website see also her link for a reading list.
posted by catrae at 8:19 AM on December 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

I am not a veterinarian or certified animal behaviorist; this is not advice on how to handle dog aggression.

I would recommend you take this very seriously. Your dogs both seem to be triggered by other dogs and children. It's probably now pretty established in the neighborhood that you are aware that your dogs have a problem with aggression. They are currently a clear liability to your family.

You say your female got lose and ran after another dog who had already passed and was fairly distant. Next time it may be a smaller dog with a less forgiving owner or a child. Dogs usually exhibit an assortment of behaviors before resorting to overt aggression, but your dogs seem to be skipping right over posture, raising of hackles, bearing of teeth, growling and all that.

Until you can get this under control with the help of a trainer certified for aggression or your veterinarian (I recommend you schedule a visit to discuss the problem with them right away; ask if anyone there has any experience or interest in behavior / aggression), the responsible thing to do would be to not bring your dogs around people who have not been informed of your dogs' aggression and consented to it.

You may want to invest in a couple of Italian basket muzzles for added security in the meantime. They are comfortable, light weight and dogs can eat and drink while wearing them. Please refer to the documentation and do your own research on how best to use them.
(I have no affiliation with the above site, but I've used one of the Italian muzzles before)
posted by rocketpup at 8:21 AM on December 30, 2011 [8 favorites]

I would immediately go and see a trainer and start working on this problem immediately. I don't think you have broken your dog but something has made him a lot more reactive. I have had similar situations with our 2 rescue dogs.

Our Rat Terrier would get super focused on things and bite anything that came near him, in his case we used a water pistol to "break" the focus and get him listening to us and then we would calmly say let's go and make him walk past whatever he was fixating on. If he stated to carry on again then BAM another squirt with the water pistol.

Our second dog a Silky Terrier is the one that get's tough when he's got back up or is on the lead. The best solution for us has been to immediately say no and "Lets Go" and make him walk past the situation in a brisk business like manner. The idea being that he has been informed it is not his problem and to just keep walking. He is not great at this and it only works about 75% of the time now, but we are still working on it. It helps that we have an idea of his ideal reaction zone and try and keep things that might trigger him outside of them.

In both cases LOTS of praise as soon as they do well. With the Silky we have starting using clicker training as well, so if he see's something he normally reacts to and doesn't react he gets a click to reinforce that's the correct behaviour.

With both dogs we have started going agility and obedience training as well so that they learn to listen to us in many situations and are exposed to a lot of new stimuli so that they can learn how to handle scary things without going crazy.

You might find a citronella collar a help too. We were going to use one on our ratty but he yodels instead of barks when hi fixates and that didn't set it off consistently so that's why we resorted to water pistols. The collar would help with the crazy barking around the house and if he starts to bark and carry on while out walking. They are unpleasant not painful so don't work to reinforce fears in scared dogs, which is what your dog sounds like. I am wondering if while boarding he got in a fight with another dog and is now scared of them.

I am not a professional dog trainer, I have however adopted 2 dogs with training issues as I wanted to help them and have worked with a very good trainer to get them where they are now. It has taken me over 18 months so that we can walk, our Rat Terrier without him going crazy and except for the fact I have a water pistol in our pocket you'd never pick him as a dog that would attack anyone or dog he saw if you saw us out walking. I still wouldn't take him to the dog park, but that is my goal for him for next summer.

TL;DR Get a good trainer that knows how to work with reactive dogs. The problem can be helped I would guess your dog might have been in a dog fight while boarding and is now attracting dogs out of fear.
posted by wwax at 8:24 AM on December 30, 2011

Oh and seconding getting a good muzzle for while you are out walking, your first requirement is to make sure your dogs don't hurt anyone. Also talk to your vets for recommendations of a good trainer who can deal with these issues.
posted by wwax at 8:33 AM on December 30, 2011

I am also not a dog person, but I did wonder whether this was some sort of exaggerated pack behaviour - the two dogs are feeding off and reinforcing each other's presence when out walking, so that while they may niggle each other in the house, when out and about they act in concert and see passing dogs, children etc as a threat to "The Pack" (them and your husband / you). I know it's probably not practical on a long-term basis but do you have the ability to walk them separately for a week or so, to see if the excitement calms down? Perhaps get someone else (I know you have work commitments) to walk one of them and your husband the other?
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 8:47 AM on December 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I used the following technique to train my Husky to ignore other dogs/people. While walking, as we would approach someone coming in our direction with a dog, I would put a highly valued (and smelly) food treat in my closed hand and hold it at my side with the command "walk nice".

Husky would be so focused on that food treat, with her nose up against my hand, she would ignore the other dog as we walked by. Once we are well by the other dog, I let her have the treat. We continued this for a couple of months on our walks, and I still do it once in a while to reinforce the "walk nice" command.

She now (3 years old) will come to my side and focus on me with that command, with or without a treat in my hand. I always make sure I bring her to my side before she starts getting excited about the other dog.

The disclaimer here is that she was not agressive towards the other dogs, she merely wanted to interact with them. The agression you're seeing will certainly impact on how well this might work.
posted by tomswift at 9:40 AM on December 30, 2011

You need to find a trainer who has successfully worked with aggressive dogs. Right away.

Most places that sell muzzles have advice on training dogs to wear them.

Also, the dogs are obviously excitable. Try to keep everything very low key and low arousal. Be as calm as possible when ever you speak to them, feed them, or are around them. It sounds like they could be looking for opportunities to be aroused - don't give them any.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 11:12 AM on December 30, 2011

I showed this to my daughter who's studying to be a veterinarian and works in an animal hospital, and here are her suggestions:

1. Stop taking them to the dog park. It's just too much for them, it's stressing them out and they're behaving badly.
2. For now, walk them one at a time, with very delicious treats in your hand. As you walk (they should be on a choke chain with a short leash, walking at your side), continually stop and make them sit and wait for a treat. Then heap on the praise. Right now, they're acting like a bad pack and it needs to stop. So it's most definitely a pain in the bottom, but walk them separately.
3. If after 2 days of Step 2 they're still lunging or being aggressive towards anything, then you need to muzzle them when they're out.
4. At home, continue with making them earn every bit of food they get by beginning with a short sit/stay, then down/stay, increasing the time until they realize they get food only when they're good doggies.
5. The couch should be off-limits forever to all pets. Only people. It reminds them that you're the leaders.
6. You may want to try the spray-bottle of water in the face when they get overexcited in the house and bark. Ideally, if you can get a friend to help you, have them get in the yard and as soon as the dogs get nutty, a quick spritz in the face with a loud "No" will get them to stop. If you do this in conjunction with the ongoing sit/stay treats, they'll learn to quiet down at outside things and focus on you.

It's going to take some time and it's going to take some work, but she says you need to be consistent and after a few days, you will see better behaviors. At that point she says that many dog owners will become complacent and the dogs will regress to naughtiness, so keep up with the training.
posted by kinetic at 11:16 AM on December 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

I am a dog trainer, but I am not *your* dog trainer. :) A lot of what a good trainer uses to diagnose problems in dogs is body language and pack dynamic, so I am doing what I never do and trying to take your descriptions of what's happening as what's happening.

I'll start by saying this: A dog coming home and acting fearful after boarding is not necessarily an indicator of ill-treatment. Yes, it can be, but from the progression of aggressive behaviour you're describing I think your original trainer is taking a bum rap. Neither of your dogs is a natural dominant personality (Dominant dogs are usually quite calm up until the moment that they aren't), and their uncertainty is going to manifest as fear and over-reaction. I trained a dog once who had learned to throw himself on the ground and scream like he was being killed whenever he didn't want to do what was asked. The couple came to me on the brink of divorce because the wife thought her husband was abusing the dog when she wasn't around. The husband was more firm about the house rules, and the dog manipulated the wife like Machiavelli's protege.

So, to sum up: Basset shows possessive aggression to new person in relationship, so you got the puppy a puppy. (Bassets are large dogs, despite their leg length, and mature mentally as well as physically at around 4 years old) Basset taught possessive aggression to puppy (hence the food and couch fights). Now, as an aggressive pack, they are escalating their claims to space and possessions and feeding off of each other in a crazy loop. They're getting increasingly dangerous.

Right now, from what you're describing, your dogs have no respect for people in general or you in particular. Your dogs have attacked another dog, with intent to harm, when that dog was controlled, on-leash, and walking away. Your dogs don't need reassurance or confidence -- they need firm boundaries. When your husband reassures them or gives them food while they are going crazy, he is condoning and encouraging that behaviour. Think of it this way: You're in a grumpy mood, and you yell at a kid who came on your lawn. Instead of telling you to lighten up, your husband gives you $50 and tells you you did the right thing. Each time a kid gets near you, you get encouraged to respond aggressively with praise and money, and you are encouraged to react to kids who are farther and farther away. This is what's happening when your husband is running into those dogs and kids. He most likely sees the kid and, anticipating trouble, tightens up on the leash. The dogs think "Oh! A packmate is expecting trouble. We'd better run that danger off." They react aggressively, and your husband starts reassuring them and giving them treats. Dogs perceive a light, soft tone as praise, which is why we trainers sound like such total morons when talking to dogs. :)

The first thing you need to do is start walking them separately. They are feeding off of each other, and while I can't say definitely without seeing the pack dynamic of your house, it sounds like the mixed breed listens to the Basset, and the Basset doesn't listen to either of you. If you want to take one dog and have him take the other dog, fine, but you need to walk in different directions. You need to get them under control separately before you can get them under control together.

The next thing you need to do is save up some money and get back with a trainer. If the original trainer feels comfortable working with aggressive dogs, get that trainer back. If you just can't handle having that trainer back, find a trainer who understands aggression problems. Your dogs need to learn respect, and while that doesn't mean hurting them, it also doesn't mean coddling them.

While you are saving, do some research on working with aggression/dominance/disrespectful dogs. I am a big fan of using Nothing In Life Is Free (NILIF) for cases of aggression. Some dogs, after a year or so of NILIF can be weaned off of it totally, but each case is different. It's a lot of work, but your dogs are dangerous. I recommend against pack theory (aka Dog Whisperer) because it's confrontational, dangerous, and pretty well debunked.

Really, you are playing with fire here. Get with a trainer who understands aggression, and do it soon. Your dogs have attacked another dog, and they have shown aggression to kids. Your dogs are dangerous. If you allow this to escalate, you could be looking at dead dogs and injured humans that your dogs attacked

MeMail if you have any questions.
posted by Concolora at 11:26 AM on December 30, 2011 [21 favorites]

Concolora has fabulous advice.

What struck me was that the Basset showed jealously about you. That means you are 3rd on the totem pole and your husband is second. That should have never happened in the first place, and if it did, the correction of behavior should have started there.
posted by Vaike at 11:37 AM on December 30, 2011

In addition to NILIF, which is a top-notch suggestion and one you should heed, talk with your vet about ruling out medical causes for the aggression such as hypothyroidism. Invest in better harnesses fitted to your hounds correctly and learn to use a leash (ideally with a locking clasp for security) in a way you will never drop it. Work with a trainer to teach your dogs "look at me" when out on walks. Learn to read your dogs' body language like an expert so that you can take appropriate action before their full arousal.

A book worth reading is Brenda Aloff's Aggression in Dogs: Practical Management, Prevention & Behaviour Modification.

If a main trigger is the off-leash dogs, then for the love of god, get to work on that with animal control. This article "He Just Wants to Say Hi" by Suzanne Clothier is well worth a read by anyone with a dog, but is highly applicable in this situation.

I also agree with everything Concolora has written above. I disagree with another poster's suggestion of a choke collar, which is an aversive tool often used incorrectly, only heightening the aggressive dog's reaction. You want to use the tools that de-escalate your dogs, including calming signals.
posted by vers at 1:22 PM on December 30, 2011

Concolora has it. I learned from a trainer years ago that leash aggression is triggered by humans. You need a trainer not for the dogs, but for you, as the owners, to see what it is you're all doing that's reinforcing their behaviour. Dogs can sense your anticipation of trouble at the other end of the leash and react accordingly.

And I do understand - hounds are hard. I've had dogs all my life, and worked with trainers and read up on everything I could in order to have good dogs. I currently have a (rescued) Basset. I read all about them before I got her and was swayed by how good they're supposed to be with kids, and how they're big dogs on short legs (a winning combination in our house) and thought I had it in the bag -- and it's waaay harder than I thought. Because I have a hound, other people with hounds have befriended me and I poke around on the forums, and I've learned that they, too, are constantly training, reinforcing and making accommodations in order to have well-behaved dogs.

My dog is difficult. She's blind in one eye, and was not well-socialized as a puppy. She can be great at the off-leash park once we get there - but if a dog approaches her on her blind side on the leash, she's snappish. And she's a hound, so she's loud and it sounds ten times worse than the other guy's poodle. I do a leash%20aggression%20i">lot of prevention on walks, performed as I learned from our trainer - working on eye contact, having her sit aside and praising her for sitting and focusing on me and ignoring other dogs etc. She only works for food. She has no real desire to please me or anyone other than her nose and she's just a bit aloof even on a good day. I've accepted this about her. It's work. Walks are not enjoyable for me. What's most enjoyable about her for me is that when she's tired out, she'll happily sleep on her chair for a few hours so I can get things done without guilty puppydog eyes looking at me.

So, what I'm also saying is that you have to give up the idea that your dogs are pure enjoyment, a hobby or something you can pick up and put down, even if you've been doing a good job with them up to a certain point. You just don't have "easy" dogs who live to please. I don't have one either. It also sounds like your dogs don't have routine and structure . And, hound dogs hanging out in the back yard are bored dogs who bark. That's something innate in them, plus that environment makes them territorial. To get dogs not to bark, you have to train them to bark on command, or keep them too busy to bark. That is way, way harder with stubborn hounds. Honestly, on top of the stubborns, mine has the retention of a funnel.

Though you say you don't really have the finances to get true, professional help from a behaviorist, a trainer for us was about $45 an hour, and within the first session she'd tell me things like "You don't expect her to respond fast enough." Three sessions were often enough for us to see a huge amount of improvement , but that also meant we did our homework in between. It's cheaper than vet bills, fines and court costs. Obedience class teaches the dog how to behave in class, but not what to do when someone shows up at your door - you have to do that. A good trainer will show you what will work for you and your dogs. They are worth every penny, for you all a more peaceful life. Do get a good trainer before someone gets hurt, or you start to resent the dogs much more. Because if you don't fix it, it makes them a danger; and rather unadoptable should you need to make that decision; and all through it just stresses you out to no good end. Good luck, sincerely.
posted by peagood at 9:10 PM on December 30, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for all the good suggestions. I'll definitely be following up with Concolora with more specific questions. We are deeply aware of what the stakes are and are committed to making this work. I know that a lot of this is our fault in that we are not great dog owners--I work too much to be very involved in their training, and my husband is such a gentle soul that I think maybe the dogs aren't really buying his "alpha dog" act, or that it's making them anxious somehow. (Honestly, we're perfect cat people who ended up with dogs.) But we'd be heartbroken to give these dogs up when the fault is so clearly our own.

Our dogs are on a pretty good schedule (except that later-than-usual walk we were trying to avoid distractions). They sleep in crates, they're up at 5:30 every morning, even on weekends, and they work for their food and treats. This has been their schedule for years. Work for their breakfast in the morning, outside to poop, inside for the day, outside at lunch, inside for the afternoon, walk in the evening, then work for their dinner. They have to sit whenever we open a door. We're beginning to revisit the "stay" and "leave it" commands.

For now we're banning them from the couch entirely (keeping them out of the living room when we're not in there--they can chill at our feet if they want to be near us). Today we found a fairly empty park where we can practice walking separately without distractions.

One interesting thing is that the Basset really isn't the alpha. He wants to be, but he defers to the mixed-breed. Sometimes the Basset will express his frustration or unwillingness to perform a command by barking aggressively, and the mixed-breed jumps into the fray and tries to discipline him or protect us (which is another problem, I'm sure--we separate them immediately when that happens). She's a pleaser, but the Basset is a wanter--he'll just do whatever it takes to get the thing he wants.

tl;dr... thanks. We know we suck at this, we know the dogs are dangerous in their current state, we know this is bad, bad news for all of us and that it'll take a lot of work. But we're going to try. Thanks for the good advice, and especially that link to Nothing in Life is Free. We had been operating on that principle, but clearly we didn't know all the nuances and I know we're going to take away a lot from that article.
posted by elizeh at 10:38 PM on December 30, 2011

Jumping in quickly -- I see at least one issue with their current schedule. If they're only getting one walk a day, you're penning up a lot of energy there. A tired dog is a good dog, and both of your dogs were bred to run all day long trailing a quarry. The reality is that moderate exercise (which Bassets need and regular hounds need more) for a dog is two 30-45 minute walks a day. At 3 and 4, they're only just out of the puppy stage (mentally at least), and the younger dog especially is having her arousal heightened by inactivity.

But your trainer will tell you this too. :D
posted by Concolora at 5:33 AM on December 31, 2011

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