Dog socialization or dog training first?
January 26, 2020 8:04 AM   Subscribe

We adopted my mother's four year-old German Shepherd last June. He pretty much lived inside with my mother for the first four years of his life. We have successfully trained him away from pulling his leash on his walks, but he is still pretty barky at other dogs he sees. Should we do training at PetSmart first or socialization at dog daycare first?

My mother adopted a German Shepherd puppy after my father passed away for company and a sense of security. Because she very quickly had a stroke after adopting him, the dog only had a fenced backyard for his exercise and never went on walks. He did start life with an old Labrador my mother had, but that dog passed away within a year of the German Shepherd entering the picture.

My mother finally accepted that she needed to move to an apartment, but would only do so if my family took her German Shepherd. We already had a Dachshund (and a child), but we managed to make it work. An independent trainer came to our house and helped us to get the Dachshund to accept the German Shepherd, but couldn't seem to make a dent in the Shepherd's leash reactivity.

We have the dog on a health care plan with our local vet-in-a-Petsmart. They have remarked several times that he seems to be very social for a German Shepherd. He loves to meet people and never barks at just a person. You can take him up to a stranger and he will lick their hand and wait to be petted (I don't do this on purpose, but occasionally, someone will come up to him on our walks and just start trying to interact with him). He's been very patient with our Dachshund, who is an older female who thought she ran the place.

We take him for a walk every day unless it is pouring rain and usually go 3-4 miles for 45 minutes to an hour. We live in a quiet neighborhood in our city with long wooded streets. The independent trainer did help us with techniques that have significantly minimized his urge to pull. After the first 5 minutes, he usually will stick next to your thigh calmly, although he always wants to lope briskly. But the independent trainer couldn't get him to stop barking at her dogs when we tried that lesson and seem a bit flummoxed.

So when we see another dog he barks and barks. He doesn't want to attack the other dog it doesn't seem, he wants to run over and play with it. But he is quite big (80 pounds) and lots of times the other owner is visibly intimidated by this big barking male German Shepherd. We usually turn and head the other direction, which stops his barking, but that can be a pain.

We just started a routine with peanut butter on a stick and are trying to distract him and calm him through getting past other dogs. But now we wonder, since he's four or five years old and well past early intervention, should we start with more dog socialization, such as at a doggy day care place (he stays at home when he's not on a walk)? Or should we start with more dog training at our PetSmart? The trainer there has met him when we have taken him to the vet, and he is always a charmer with people, so she likes him.
posted by Slothrop to Pets & Animals (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I would be making an appointment with an expert dog behaviourist to work on his leash reactivity. Leash reactivity is a specific behavioural issue that (while it might be connected to poor socialisation) won't be fixed by general socialisation or generic training classes that focus on obedience. Note that you want a behaviourist who understands dog communication and behaviour, not a general trainer. Make sure the person you hire is all about positive behavioural modification, not punishment or aversion.
posted by Balthamos at 8:09 AM on January 26, 2020 [7 favorites]

I think a doggie daycare and/or dog parks are a great idea. My dog looooves other dogs and is a barrel of energy, and she needs that chance to socialize and play. If she doesn’t get that chance, she acts like your dog does toward other dogs — just way too eager and excited, to the point that it freaks the other dogs and owners out.

I take her to the dog park on my days off and she goes to doggie daycare twice a week, and that’s in addition to a 45-60 minute walk every morning and again every evening. I think your dog might need more exercise than he’s getting and he might need more playtime and social time, too. (The socializing is also mentally exhausting for dogs, just like the playtime is physically exhausting).

I also take my dog to a weekly obedience class, but because the dogs are all on leashes and right next to their owners and not allowed to socialize naturally/independently there, I think it’s actually kind of more stressful for them than playtime in a park or at a day care. That’s true for my dog, anyway. I mean, I think you should take him because obedience training is a great bonding activity and mental workout, but I don’t think it’s a great socialization opportunity per se.

My dog is a young adult foxhound, for reference (I think around 3 yo).
posted by rue72 at 8:33 AM on January 26, 2020

Seconding Balthamos that an independent dog behaviorist focused on positive training techniques is the way to go here - a dog being comfortable with other dogs off-leash in a daycare or dog park environment just doesn't necessarily translate to that dog being calm around other dogs when on-leash. And PetSmart classes can be good for teaching a lot of things (our dog loved them), but unless they have a specific leash reactivity class, again, I don't think you're going to get transference to the calm on-leash behavior you need. I see that you bolded the fact that you've already worked with an independent trainer, but just because that one didn't have the answer doesn't mean this isn't the way to go. When you interview possible behaviorists, specifically ask them about their experience with leash reactivity and the techniques they use.

Fwiw, at the advice of our behaviorist from about 7 years ago, we've had success at drastically reducing leash reactivity by encouraging our pup to sniff the ground (initially by tossing lots of small bits of high-value treats into the grass, and we still bring treats with us on walks) when she would otherwise have lunged and barked. As our trainer put it, sniffing is a self-soothing behavior in dogs, somewhat like people playing with their cell phones when they get nervous and need to be fiddling with something - so the key is to help encourage that behavior rather than to try to distract them (since they're still very aware of the thing that's bothering them anyway). It took a lot of consistent work for us to get to the point where our walks in city neighborhoods were pleasant for all of us, but it was well worth it. I believe we had about 3 sessions with that behaviorist.
posted by DingoMutt at 9:23 AM on January 26, 2020 [4 favorites]

My part-GS mutt barks as part of her play. Her bark sounds ferocious, but other dogs react playfully to her and her play is gentle (mostly sniffing and some nudging, tail wagging and doing the front bow posture). It definitely makes some owners nervous even if their dogs don’t mind, so I tend to warn people about it as we approach to play.
posted by sallybrown at 9:30 AM on January 26, 2020

We found a local class for reactive dogs that's been very helpful with our rescue mutt.

We learn how to handle the dog and ourselves (clicker training, treats, remaining calm), and have controlled interactions with -- and exposure to -- other dogs. Six dogs, one teacher with two assistants, so the supervision/observation is direct and steady.

[Metro Boston south (Franklin), if anyone wants to PM me for the place.]

Hang in there!
posted by wenestvedt at 9:46 AM on January 26, 2020

Check out the "Look At That" game, which I first read about in Leslie McDevitt's book Control Unleashed.

I've used this method with my dog who has similar reactivity to other dogs while out on walks.

You need to have a foundation of clicker training or training with another marker (like the word "yes"). This is easy establish if you have a dog that is motivated by food.

You'll start by teaching your dog to target (look at) benign objects that he has no reaction to. Initiate the target by saying something like "look at that", and as soon he looks at the object, mark the behavior and reward. You'll move this game outside and work at it at a distance from other dogs. Cue your dog to "look at that" to see another dog (or when he looks at another dog on his own) mark the behavior and treat. You can keep moving closer to dogs and working on this, as long as your dog stays under threshold and doesn't react. If your dog lunges/barks, move further away and keep working at that distance until you can progress. It helps to have REALLY good treats your dog loves.

My dog is at the point now where a dog can be walking by and he will sometimes automatically look at the dog and then look back at me to get his treat before I even mark him. He still sometimes relapses, especially if another dog is staring him down, but it's still a huge improvement over where we were and makes walks a lot less stressful.

Try searching Youtube for "Look At That" game for some examples. Here's a pretty good demo:

Also, if you can find a good positive reinforcement trainer that can be a huge help. It can be tough to find good trainers though so screen carefully. Look for trainers that only use positive methods, or ones who emphasize clicker training is a good place to start.

Good luck!
posted by pilibeen at 9:59 AM on January 26, 2020 [4 favorites]

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