How to handle a nice dog's mean moods
January 10, 2013 9:53 PM   Subscribe

My wife and I have a corgi/heeler mix who will be two years old in May. She's an absolute sweetheart most of the time but gets into foul moods occasionally where she will snarl and bite. Once she's in a bad mood she tends to stay that way for a few hours. How can we correct that behavior?

Certain things will set her off. If we get too close when she's eating or getting accustomed to a new, unfamiliar toy, she becomes territorial. We live in a quiet apartment complex and scold her if she barks, then send her to her cage for timeout. She becomes meanest at those times; she does obey but protests loudly with loud rapid barks and snaps at our hands if we get too close.

I think part of the problem is due to the way we raised her. We got her as a puppy and it was our first time raising a dog. We trained with negative reinforcement (a slap on the rump, gentle tug on the ears, or timeout like mentioned above). We're worried that we screwed up when she was younger, and now it's too late to correct the damage.

We used to reward good behavior with treats, but 95% of the time her behavior is fine and we haven't done that in a long time. We really love her. She spends most of her time lounging around or playing with her toys. She's very affectionate and always wants to cuddle! But of course her bad moments concern us as we think about starting a family... we can't trust a dog like this around an infant. So I'm asking here for alternatives to putting her up for adoption. We don't want to do anything so drastic if it's avoidable.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis to Pets & Animals (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Certain things will set her off. If we get too close when she's eating or getting accustomed to a new, unfamiliar toy, she becomes territorial.

Focus on the triggers and work on each one separately. For example, if she's protective of her food you could start approaching her almost within the distance that sets her off and dropping a treat that's way tastier than what she typically eats – a piece of cooked chicken, hot dogs, cheese, peanut butter, whatever she really loves (the amount doesn't matter; dogs get more excited about the awesome smell and "specialness" of the treat than the actual amount of food, so keep it small). Save that treat for those times only. Come in just a couple of inches closer every day and keep doing it until you can be right there with her and bug her or take her food away without any issues (you want her to happily anticipate being rewarded with a treat for tolerating you there). Proceed slowly. If you come too close and you set her off, back off and restart from farther away. Same for new toys, etc. It might take some time depending on how food-motivated she is, but considering that you'll probably want her around for a while, the time commitment should not scare you.

Basically, teach her that every time she gives a resource up – food, a new toy, territory – she gets something way better as a reward.

If your dog really needs a cage and you expect her to spend time in there, you should avoid using it as a tool for punishing her; it's supposed to be her safe place. There are lots of different ways to train a dog not to bark, do a bit of reading and you can find one that works best for her personality – timeouts don't seem to be productive.

Don't punish the snapping. That's a warning behavior, and while unusual toward people and obviously undesirable, if you train it out she'll have nothing left but to go ahead and bite. Teach her that she shouldn't even think about doggie teeth touching human skin, ever, by yelping loudly (and I mean loudly, you want to really startle her) whenever they get too close – like with snapping – and turning away, crossing your arms, etc. for a few seconds. It's not exactly punishment, but she gets a clear message that you don't like it, and most dogs live to please their people.

My pit bull (he is a rescue, we did not have him as a puppy) used to be rather careless when playing tug-of-war and it only took about a week of yelping for him to be super aware about avoiding hands, even when crazy excited about the game. He is now consistently and adorably careful when playing, even (and especially) with the toddler I occasionally babysit.
posted by halogen at 11:03 PM on January 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

We're worried that we screwed up when she was younger, and now it's too late to correct the damage.

To use a cliché, that's a defeatist attitude and not the case at all – you'll be training your dog and changing or shaping her behaviors throughout her lifetime. The sooner you realize and accept that, the better for everyone involved.

Also, to reassure you, for most of the domestic dogs' existence as a species, negative reinforcement methods were used to train them and they did just fine. You probably should, however, save the physical punishment you described for extreme misbehavior (although many people would consider snapping at humans extreme).
posted by halogen at 11:15 PM on January 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

She's protective of high value items (new toy, food). The plan to combine gradual approach with even more awesome only for this training treats (like slices of hot dog) is the route.

Don't go too fast. Back off instead if you've gone too far too fast. And eventually you may be able to stick your hand in the food bowl while your dog is eating with no complaint.

Oh, also, hand feed your dog for while.
posted by zippy at 11:23 PM on January 10, 2013

Our rescue became territorial about food and treats for a brief period once she settled in to the household, but we made it very clear that we control the fud, and she very quickly phased out of this behavior. I'm not sure if how I did it would be called either negative or positive conditioning (hmm), but I make her respond to commands in order to get her reward. For example, she would rush her food bowl like an insane thing as soon as I set it down, so I made her sit and stay a certain distance away. If she broke the stay and ran to the bowl, I picked it up and wouldn't put it back down for five minutes. It took her no more than a half-hour to learn to always sit and stay until I tell her it's okay to eat, and she does this perfectly, all the time, now

Same thing with treats. I make her sit, or lay down, and set the treat down (in the beginning at some distance, so I had time to grab it up again if she broke the stay), and she can't go for it until I say it's okay.

The first time she growled when we gave a super high-value treat and then came near her, I admit I yelled. I also took the treat away. And then I figured that doggy-mind was thinking, "yep, yep, just as I suspected they do want to take my treat for themselves ooooh that makes me soooooo mad!!" So the routine of making her obey a command and then getting the precious once she does that works really well. She knows she always gets the thing she wants as long as she does the required behavior, and we are very consistent not to cast any doubt on this.

Now we can stick the best thing in the world in front of her nose and she won't budge 'til we say it's okay, and we can take something from her mouth (if needed -- we don't this for funsies) and she won't snarl, growl or anything else. She just goes to sit or lay and waits for us to give it back, or replace it.

(by the way, I made the mistake of actually using the word "okay!" to release her from her sit, which isn't optimal, since every time we say "okay" she perks her ears up. It still works because we say it with a special tone that she mostly recognizes, but sometimes I have to say "okay!" a couple of times because she has some doubt if I'm saying "okay" THAT way. If I were starting from the beginning, I think I would say "take it," or similar.)
posted by taz at 11:25 PM on January 10, 2013 [9 favorites]

I realize it's not as easy as it sounds, but it is more effective to instill a positive good behavior in a dog than it is to stamp out an undesired one. It's also helpful to remember that your dog is not trying to be bad. She's trying to communicate important dog messages to you in dog language.

With the resource guarding, the goal is to instill the idea that every time people approach her and she's got something she really likes (food, a cool new toy) she's going to get something else really awesome! Stock up on small but highly palatable treats (I like the Pupperoni sticks, they are probably full of horrible chemicals but they're readily available, odorous, and easy to break off into tiny reward bites).

If she has a toy, start by luring her off the toy with a treat placed a few feet away. Don't even take the toy the first few times; just get her to leave the toy for the treat, then let her go back to it. Then work up to luring her off the toy, picking up the toy briefly, then giving it back. Soon you should be able to work up to getting her to drop a toy on command. When she's really good at that you can work on getting her to even drop actual food in exchange for an alternate (very useful if you have one of those dogs that sometimes manages to dig corn cobs out of the trash or finds chicken bones in the gutter while out for walks).

In a similar vein, progressively build up the skill of resisting the urge to lunge or grab something tasty or inviting ("leave it") until either you say it's ok, or reward her with an alternative treat.

It is very, very hard to train a dog not to bark. Your best bet is to start by understanding what's going on here: your dog is trying to warn you of something she perceives as a threat. She's doing what dogs have been bred to do! When she starts barking, tell her cheerfully "thanks for the message! I'll take care of it!" and then distract distract distract. If your dog is food motivated, a small handful of kibble scattered completely across the room is a good combo reward/distraction to head off barking. While she's off hunting kibble, tell her "quiet, good girl." If she can be distracted by playing a game with you, that's also great. If she barks when the doorbell rings, teach her an alternative and incompatible behavior that will garner rewards, like sitting on her mat or fetching a toy.

I personally don't think time-out is an effective training method for dogs. Crating may be necessary at times, but they are just not going to learn anything meaningful about stopping the behavior by time-out.

You don't specifically mention it, but if you are having problems with snapping at you when she's done something "bad" and you try to grab her collar to put her in time out or control the situation, here's a good short article on dealing with that. (summary: stop grabbing your dog by the collar to send it to a punishment or remove it from a fun situation, and then gradually condition it to associate your handling it by the collar with good rewards).
posted by drlith at 5:55 AM on January 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Snapping or growling is never acceptable -- it's not 'moodiness', it's threatening behavior. She will probably spend her whole life with you, but like you said -- if you have a baby, have visitors over or, god forbid, she end up in a shelter some day, those behaviors can be a death sentence. As a foster mom, I would not consider a dog who engaged in those behaviors to be "adoptable".

But it's usually easily fixed! (I'm assuming she's neutered, yes?)

Along with trading items for higher value items, a lot of people would recommend reinforcing the idea that her humans are the source of all good things. Make her sit and wait a moment before meals, as described in prior comments. If she eats dry food, you can run your hands through the food to get your scent all over it, and then feed her from your hand. Also, many smart dog rehabbers swear by the NILF-- Nothing In Life is Free philosophy. She needs to know that you are pack leader, not by force but just by who you are. So humans get the best sleeping spots (don't let her on the bed/couch unless you invite her) and humans get to go out the door/down the stairs first, and humans determine if she gets the yummy treats and the best toys . . .

And, for the record, it's not very related to how you raised her. It's possible you 'spoiled' her a teeny bit, but more realistically, some breeds (often the smart ones!) are more aware of the power hierarchy, and therefore more likely to try and test it at times -- especially in adolescence. For a data point, most of the dogs who end up at the shelter are adolescents. They are adorable puppies but then they look grown and start acting like teenagers and a lot of families give up. So yeah, this is usually the hardest part, but GIANT KUDOS to you for asking how to handle it, and in a couple months with a little nudging in the right direction, she should settle into an excellent friend.
posted by MeiraV at 6:06 AM on January 11, 2013

Oh, and crates are supposed to be a happy place. It's fine to send her there if you need to be sure she is safe while you pay attention to something else or go out, but it's best if they are not used as a time-out. I tend to pat the top, say "House!" and toss a treat in for them when it's time to be crated. Barking or whining in the crate is IGNORED -- for hours, if need be -- because I am NOT going to reinforce that behavior, lol.

Some people have had luck teaching the dog to bark on command (ala 'speak!') and then once they know what barking in called by humans, it can then be taught the other way -- 'no speak'.

And if you've ever played 'tug o war' with her, you may want to stop, at least for a couple months while you reinforce who the boss is.
posted by MeiraV at 6:14 AM on January 11, 2013

We used to reward good behavior with treats, but 95% of the time her behavior is fine and we haven't done that in a long time.

Just to really emphasize what other people are saying above, the key to training with positive reinforcement in your situation is NOT going to be waiting around and giving her kibble or treats randomly when you notice she's acting "good" (not snapping), but rather to start slowly putting her in situations where you know she's likely to get stressed and territorial--and at the very beginning of that stressed-out process, you start short-circuiting her natural snappy/growling response by providing positive reinforcements.

If it were my dog, I'd also totally stop the punishments when she misbehaved. There's a limited set of situations where I think punishing (versus positive reinforcement for alternate behaviors) is effective--and those are almost never when the dog doing a totally natural behavior (growling, barking, snapping) because it is stressed, scared, or territorial. If your dog growls when you get too close to a new toy, and you respond by slapping her rump and putting her in time-out without the toy, you're reinforcing her belief that people who get too close to new toys steal them. If you instead grab a high-value treat (wet cat food is the BEST for this), exchange a bite of treat for the toy, then give the toy right back, you're instead teaching her that people coming close to new toys is totally okay and they won't steal from her.
posted by iminurmefi at 6:51 AM on January 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

And just to give you a little real-world hope: my brother has been dealing very successfully with an incredibly similar problem--an older corgi-mix dog who was trained with negative reinforcement for 10 years, ended up incredibly growly and snappy around toys and food, and once they had a kid on the way they had friends saying things like "oh you can't possibly be thinking of keeping that dog once you have an infant." I suggested he go to the local Humane Society for some one-on-one training classes, and they basically walked him through the process for using positive reinforcement to start breaking down the resource guarding behaviors. (They were the ones who suggested using little spoonfuls of cat food as a high-value treat, and it's seriously amazing stuff. Smelly enough to make the dog drop whatever is in his mouth and come over for a bite, which is key when you're trying to "exchange" a treat for a toy.)

So, if you're feeling overwhelmed with trying to start a whole new way of training, I'd definitely suggest looking into whether your local Humane Society offers one-on-one training sessions for "problem dogs." It was about $100 for my brother and I think he'd say it was totally worth it; he learned a lot and it was helpful to get a very experienced person who could look at the exact behaviors that were worrying my brother and walk him through how to do the training targeting that behavior step-by-step.

My brother now has a tiny infant and a (less-growly) dog and I'm not going to tell you the dog is a perfect angel, but it's leagues better than it was and no one is really afraid of the dog's aggression anymore.
posted by iminurmefi at 7:02 AM on January 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Trainers are a lot cheaper than you think they are. It's worth 1-2 sessions to get started, with a followup in a month or two.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:45 AM on January 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

I came here to write pretty much exactly what drlilth wrote. Everything you've mentioned is very fixable, dogs behaviours aren't set in stone so don't worry, old dogs can learn new tricks and lots of them. I honestly think a couple of sessions with a trainer will give you the basics you need to know what you have to do and will make you feel more confident about doing them. All your problems with resource guarding and the barking can be helped with reward based training.

If you want to reward good behaviour too sometimes you have to put your dog in a position where they can make a choice between 2 behaviours so you can reward the "correct" one. So you ask your dog for the toy, if they hand it over they get the delicious treat you are holding, if not you keep the treat and leave, you may have to try a few different treats until you find the one your dog will give anything up for. Heck for my dog getting the toy back with a pat and a "good boy" is treat enough.

Same with the barking, you don't reward your dog randomly during the day for not barking, you reward it if something they would normally bark at happens and they don't bark. In my case that meant getting a recording of a doorbell on my tablet, setting it off and rewarding the dog when he came to me instead of running to the front door like a mad fool, yours might be when the neighbours slam their door or whatever.
posted by wwax at 1:09 PM on January 11, 2013

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