Help for a Psycho Dog?
August 22, 2006 8:46 PM   Subscribe

Soooo, my sister's beloved dog is kind of psycho. Any tips to help lessen the crazy?

His name is Sky, and he's a medium-sized American Eskimo/Sheltie mix. She adopted him from the pound three years ago, and since then they have lived in mutual adoration. He's the smartest dog I've ever encountered - kind of a foppish little fucker, but knows about a million tricks and is aware and alert enough that sometimes I forget he's a dog at all.

Let me emphasize that he looooooves my sister, and, to a lesser degree, everyone else in her circle. When anyone he loves comes home, he starts yipping and dancing and frolicking and yipping and yipping, which is endearing if you don't have to deal with it all the time, but seriously annoying if you do. Kirsten and her boyfriend (whom she lives with) have tried to calm these outbursts for years, to no avail - it's like a compulsion. Even when he finally stops, he still hiccups barks every couple seconds like he has Tourette's or something.

Which sort of segues into the actual psycho part. He's got a bit of an anger management problem. When my sister adopted him, he was a big furry depressed lump in the back of his cage who'd snap at anyone who came near him (when Kirsten said she wanted to meet him, the kennel attendant was all, "Uh-uh, I'm not getting that one out, he's gonna eat me!"). He instantly bonded with Kirsten and calmed down, obviously, but he still has aggression problems that have been getting worse lately. I'll hand it over to my sister here:

"He has always shown aggression towards strangers--- specifically, if he's on a leash and they reach down to pet him. Sometimes he'll even snarl when they're just talking to me in the elevator. He's never bitten anyone, but there has been teeth-knocking. I tell everyone who expresses interest in petting him that "he's protective" or "he's unpredictable".

"Over the last year or so, he's taken to growling at me a little bit. At first, only if I took a bone away, or tried to clip his nails-- somewhat understandable. But lately, he's almost incorrigible in some situations.

"If I'm about to drive somewhere and he jumps in the car, attempting to stow away, he will growl at me and even show his teeth when I try and get him out. (I have left him for over a month with family on three occasions, backpacking internationally, so he has a slight case of separation anxiety.) If he's under the bed (his den) and I try and reach in and touch his feet, or even call him out, he growls at me.

"Sometimes after a situation like this, he gets in this odd growly mood where every exhalation is a growl, and his eyes are really wide, and he will only calm down if I pet him and speak very sweetly, but I feel like this is rewarding his bad behavior. .

"In the beginning I may have encouraged it slightly (by laughing or fake-growling back) because I'm a moron and I thought it was funny because he loves me so much (he'll often growl AS WELL AS kissing me and nuzzling me as if to say "grrrrroowwwwll I'M SORRY I LOVE YOU grrrrrooowwwll").

I know about the "dog whisperer," I've taken a class on behavior modification, and I know the basics of dog training. But I want your perspectives, not Cesar Milan's."

So, there you have it. Dog drama! What to do?
posted by granted to Pets & Animals (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Obedience training is really the way to go. You need to make sure that when the dog behaves in an undesirable way, there are consequences.

The way I have been instructed to train my dog is when the dog does something wrong, I say NO in a loud, commanding voice, then take the dog by the collar and lead it around in a circle. This seems odd at first but what you're really doing is asserting command over the dog, and the dog knows it.

So if the dog growls at you, say NO and do a circle. You're being the alpha dog, and it's not mean to the dog, it's enforcing good behaviour and, in my opinion, it strengthens the bond between owner and pet.

Another tip I read for a dog who goes crazy upon your return is not to pat and hug the dog and try and calm them, but to ignore them a bit (not entirely, of course). When they calm down a little, start paying them more attention, when they start getting overexcited, turn your back on them and do whatever you are doing. This has worked surprisingly well for me in calming down a jumping dog who would go mad with glee on seeing me return.

That moment of return should be a fun and happy one, but it can be overshadowed by a dog who gets too excited, and it can be rather confronting.
posted by tomble at 8:54 PM on August 22, 2006

You need professional help. You let the dog growl at other people and now he's progressed to dominating you.... and you're surprised, which demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of the canine mind. I'm not trying to be mean but you really need a pro here or he's going to bite someone and you're going to lose him.

I've fostered a lot of dogs and this is easy enough to deal with but everyone in the house needs to be on board and you are going to have to be realistic about the fact that he is a dog and not a human. If you can't do that then this is not the dog for you. Sorry to be blunt, but there it is.

And for pete's sake don't put your face anywhere near this dog when he's growling at you. He IS going to bite you one day.
posted by fshgrl at 9:12 PM on August 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

The growlie I dealt with was a poodle, so this advice is easier for me than you. But what I did was grab him firmly my the muzzle, forcing his mouth closed, and tell him several times "no!" whenever he growled at me. Occasionally I'd just put my hand in his mouth, making it clear to him that my hand was too big to bite. Alternately, I'd hold him down by the throat gently, putting him on his side or back, not compressing his airway, just making it clear that I was the dominant pack leader, and repeat "no!" and "bad dog".

He used to growl if I picked him up or moved him, or if the other dog got in his space. He no longer does it. He still plays and we'll even mock fight if I make it clear I'm initiating it, in which case he'll mouth me (mostly my hands) and slobber, but without ever biting down. (Not that he ever bit down before, I should note.)

Now both of them still go yippity jumpity wild whenever anyone comes in the door, and with me they like to lick/mouth my hands when they do it, but that's because I always feed them treats as soon as I arrive. The jumping I have no idea now to stop.
posted by orthogonality at 9:13 PM on August 22, 2006

Watch "The Dog Whisperer" (or get his DVDs). And I agree with most comments here: She has to be reminded that he is a dog and he has to reminded that he is not leading the pack.
posted by bluefrog at 9:20 PM on August 22, 2006

The jumping can be stopped by putting a leash and pinch collar on the second you come home and putting them in a sit/ stay until they knock it off. Leave the leash and collar on when other people are expected and use it if the dog ignores your verbal commands.

To be totally honest I don't care all that much if it's just me and I let my dog act like an idiot, but when guests come over I don't want her jumping on them. All I have to do is head towards the drawer where we keep the leash and she behaves.
posted by fshgrl at 9:24 PM on August 22, 2006

jumping up is another dominance display

No it's not.
posted by rajbot at 10:12 PM on August 22, 2006

No, it's not.

I could quote from the scientists who study animal learning theory, but most people choose to cling to the myths about dog behavior that they've heard all their lives, which is too bad. Science is often ignored around here.

I'll quote from The Culture Clash, Jean Donaldson, 1996, p.116:
[...skip background on inherited wolf/pup greeting rituals] Greeting may become exaggerated when dogs live with humans because the social group is continually being fractured, then reunited: we leave and come back a lot, necessitating constant broad rituals. We're also vertical: the dog wants to get at our face. We also tend to let tiny puppies get away with it and then change the rules when they grow larger.

Dogs also jump up becasue no one has taught them to do otherwise. I'm not talking about punishments like kneeing dogs, pinching their feet or cutting off their air with a strangle collar. This sort of abuse has been the prevailing "treatment" but is inhumane and laden with side-effects. [...]

The key in training dogs not to jump up is to strongly train an alternative behavior that is mutually exclusive to jumping.
posted by rajbot at 11:12 PM on August 22, 2006

Definitely read Jean Donaldson rather than Cesar Millan. Many/most of Millan's methods are outdated and his refusal to accept that dog behaviour modification methods other than dominance and intimidation are not only more effective, but sounder in terms of how dogs actually behave and learn, makes him anything BUT a "dog whisperer" in my opinion. He is most definitely correct about dogs' need for exercise, but the backwards, archaic and downright dangerous advice I have seen him offer (including the throughly discredited "alpha roll", which is an entirely human invention, and extremely dangerous to boot) makes me more than leery of most of his advice and methods. Jumping up is not dominance, it's greeting behaviour (and as I repeat ad nauseam here, dominance is NOT a useful concept in training the average dog, very few dogs are truly dominant - the issue is correcting inappropriate dog-human interactions, not dominance).

Your sister needs to get her dog into a good obedience training class at least once per week, and work the dog on a daily basis. Smart dogs NEED to work. He also likely isn't getting enough exercise, it's almost never the case that a dog needs LESS exercise than it's getting, and the single most effective, and simple, way to improve a dog's behaviour is by increasing its exercise - a tired dog is a good dog. More exercise for its body and brain can only help (and training not only teaches the dog how to behave and gives it skills for managing stress, it also improves relationships with humans and allows for better communication).

As a stopgap measure, a new policy needs to be implemented in which nobody even looks at the dog while he's being hysterical - as long as the dog is jumping around and freaking out, he is invisible. The second he quiets down, calm and quiet stroking (not petting, stroking) and soothing talking can be done, but any freaking out means he becomes invisible again.

The dog growls when people try to drag him out of places he's in because this is a very invasive thing to do and your sister seems to be aware that she has made this problem worse by teasing the dog in these situations. If this dog isn't crate trained, he needs to be - dogs have a natural denning instinct and many/most dogs feel more secure if they have a safe haven to go to in times of stress. Also, why is the dog in a position where he can just go and get in the car when your sister is leaving? Why isn't he at least properly fenced in, or inside the house (ideally in a crate)? I would start leaving a short leash on the dog at all times when he isn't crated, in order to allow safe removal of the dog from places he shouldn't be, but since it seems likely that the dog is retreating to beneath the bed in order to have a safe, quiet place, I'd normally just let him stay there unless there was some urgent need to move him (and then I'd lure him out with food rather than just grabbing him and dragging him out - dogs deserve to be treated with more respect than that, and dogs definitely deserve to have a place they can go to be left alone).
posted by biscotti at 4:10 AM on August 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

By the way, dogs like this usually prefer the Vari-Kennel style of plastic crate, which are more enclosed and den-like, not the wire kind, which are more open and cage-like.
posted by biscotti at 4:12 AM on August 23, 2006

The Gentle Leader collar has really helped us with our sometimes aggressive pound dog.
posted by davcoo at 4:40 AM on August 23, 2006

I think an easy thing to do...he's need to be grounded.

Everything he gets he works for.

Never feed him, let him sit on couch or bed, pat him, let him jump in car or walk out a door without first making him sit patiently. So when it's dinner time call him (if he's not already there) and make him sit before you place the bowl down.

I think a little time on the leash in the house. When he jumps up on the couch pulll him right back down until he stays, make him sit and then give him the "ok" command.

I think it doesnt address all the issues but him knowing he isnt the alpha is very important.
posted by beccaj at 5:42 AM on August 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

I agree with the suggestion of good obedience training, asap.

Your sister might also want to take a look at So Your Dog's Not Lassie: Tips for Training Difficult Dogs and Independent Breeds. It addresses how to work with dogs with any (or many) of these traits: independent, dominant, super-intelligent, extra-determined, very low and very high energy. I've used it successfully with my dog.

Good luck.
posted by mmw at 8:08 AM on August 23, 2006

"If this dog isn't crate trained, he needs to be - dogs have a natural denning instinct and many/most dogs feel more secure if they have a safe haven to go to in times of stress."

Personally I think this is bullshit: our dog's self-chosen "safe place" is under the sofa, where it's dark, comfortable and out of the way -- and where he decides when to enter and when to leave. He's not stupid enough to regard a place we confine him to at our discretion as his den; the crate is a solitary-confinement cell, one we put him in, that he endures because we're bigger and stronger. Rationalizing it as in the above example reminds me too much of those "justifications" for black slavery, that they really like it and they're happier and better off that way. Put simply and honestly, in situations like crating the explanation is power and the threat of brute force. We temper it by making going into his crate an act we reward with a special treat, but he knows damn well that if he refuses to go in we'll just put him in. Not because crating is ideal for him, but because it's often more practical for us (however little we like it) -- for a few hours at a time.

And I agree that Sky should be trained (dominated and maybe bribed some) into accepting an appropriately subordinate place. Perhaps a variant of our approach might work, appealling to his intelligence. E.g., 'You know you're not going to get your way in this, so why not accept "payment" for doing what I want -- instead of being forced into it and getting nothing?'

Sky's "anger management problem" might well be something of a threat given that he's not a wee 10-pounder like our wondermutt, so maybe flat-out power-trips (perhaps including insinuated threats of force) are called for. I'd try to avoid actually hurting him though: one can go a long way with an angry "macho" face and tone. E.g., 'Sit your ass down NOW', then while he sits stand over him commandingly for a couple seconds -- and then reward him for obeying you. ("Benevolent despotism.") But then again our Li'l Joey is simply unable to hurt me badly if he wanted to (and I think he's very gentle by nature anyway), so you might try biscotti's (and Donaldson's) methods first. (In theory, even with "dangerous" dogs I'd rather use gentle methods, maybe leavened with macho posturing, than rely on military-style tactics.)

I think biscotti's overemphasized 'jailing' here but generally I agree with her advice. She sounds like someone I'd trust with my dog, despite our differences of theory and rationale. And besides, Joey is my very first dog. (So maybe I should read Donaldson too.)
posted by davy at 9:12 AM on August 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

Hello, my name is Kirsten, and I have a psycho dog.

Hello, Kirsten.

I want to thank everyone for their informative and helpful advice. I also want to clarify a couple things, although on Metafilter it seems a day-old thread is a forgotten thread and no one will ever read this.

I definitely don't *let* Sky growl at other people! Man alive! I've done a great deal of research, and in fact I do believe I have a decent enough understanding of dog mentality to realize that growling is leash anxiety, feeling trapped, in the same vein as being cornered under the bed---he isn't such an asshole when he's off a leash and meets a stranger. I do think a lead is a good idea, at least to help ward off liability. As for obedience training, I agree, and the only reason I'd been putting it off was financial concerns (I'm a freelance writer. Yes, it's my own fault). Plus, he's often a total asshole around other dogs when he's on a leash, although we went camping (leash-free) with five other dogs of assorted size just this weekend and he was wonderful. Plus Plus, he already knows every command in the book and beyond (come up! bang bang! wave! my personal favorite--do the happy dance!)

95% of the time, Sky is a fantastic, wonderful dog. He's at my feet right now, and he says Hi! If I had him on a short leash all the time--God forbid--I imagine he would become insanely neurotic. I live in a loft in downtown San Diego, and I walk him twice a day (otherwise, my floors would smell). But he loves to run, and it kills me that he rarely gets to. Once this lease is up in January, I'm moving to a place with a backyard. What do you think about adopting another dog-- a larger, female, mellow type, once we move? He loves my boyfriend's momma's fat old lab, Snickers, to pieces.

I want to add that I love the idea of making him sit before anything + the idea of "benevolent depotism"-- Right on! And no more invading his underbed den---I'll lure him out instead. The only times he's attempted to stow away in the car were when involved here I had left him when I traveled abroad).

And whoever mentioned that me might not be the dog for me, don't make me weep. He's my daemon. I'll do anything for him. For all you who read this far, I think a picture is in order. Meet Skyball.
posted by changeling at 9:40 AM on August 23, 2006

Response by poster: I linked that picture in the very first sentence, dumbass.
posted by granted at 10:07 AM on August 23, 2006

Oh, but it's a cute doggie, I don't mind looking at it twice.

What do you think about adopting another dog-- a larger, female, mellow type, once we move?

Understand that any discipline issues you have with your first dog will be much harder to resolve once you add a second dog to the mix, and a second dog may pick up the bad habits the first one has. Many dogs are happier/calmer/whatever with another dog around, but I wouldn't suggest that until you've resolved the behavior issues that Sky has now.

In addition to Jean Donaldson, the author I will recommend reading is Patricia McConnell- specifically, How To Be the Leader of the Pack...and have your dog love you for it - it is a quick read, and very clear about how to set boundaries, without always relying on a leash (which, as she points out "If you always use your leash to control the movements of your dog, who is in control? Must be the leash. Congratulations, you've just elected a thin strip of nylon as the President of your house.") The other book of hers that is very worthwhile reading is The Other End of the Leash which really helps make you aware of how much non-verbal communication your dog reads in your body language.
posted by ambrosia at 10:25 AM on August 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

granted and I are twins, which is why she thinks she's allowed to be mean to me
posted by changeling at 10:31 AM on August 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

cruelty is the birthright of all siblings - twins or otherwise.
posted by Julnyes at 11:42 AM on August 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

Along the lines of what was said before, grounding is a great way to keep your dogs behaving politely and respectfully. To deal with his hyper behavior when you come back, biscotti's advice to ignore it is dead on. Any sort of interaction is positive reinforcement in this case. If you reward his enthusiasm with more excitement, it creates a feedback loop which has him anxious for that superfunhappygood time when you come back and he pines for it the entire time you are gone. If you give him minimal attention he'll settle down and eventually you going away is no longer the desolate awfulness. It was heartbreaking giving up that crazy outburst of love from my dog but I realized that it was a selfish act and my dog was actually happier when I was away, and loved me no less. You want less contrast between when you are gone and when you are there.

One of the fastest ways to change a dog's behavior is to hand feed his meals. Instead of just putting out a bowl of food for him to eat (or worse, always leaving out food for whenever he wants to eat), carry his kibble around in a bait bag and make him earn it by doing a sit, a down, a short stay, settling down, dropping a toy, or even giving you eye contact when you call his name. You don't have to feed all of his food that way if you don't have time, but the more you are able to do this the better. Do it during commercial breaks while you're watching your favorite tv show or any other time you have just 2 minutes to spare. Even if you only have time to squeeze in 10 minutes a day, that will make a big difference (18 minutes in a one hour tv show!). Without going into dominance/submission, it can really change the dynamic of your relationship when he realizes that listening to you is a positive thing that results in rewards and that saying come isn't always a sign that fun time is over.

For a smart dog mental exercise is just as important as physical. There are many things you can teach a dog (and not necessarily party tricks) that can keep him busy. Give him a Kong to work treats out of, teach him to fetch specific toys and then hide them, practice his come command by hiding and then calling him and rewarding him lavishly, teach him to deliver objects to someone, have him find your keys. There are lots of things that he can learn that put his fantastic nose and ears to work.
posted by hindmost at 3:29 PM on August 23, 2006

hindmost, do you know of any good online resources on how to train the things in your last paragraph? We've kind of run out of simple things to teach our dog, and once we get to a certain level of complexity it's hard to communicate what we want him to do.

It doesn't help that he's not really that motivated by food....

Thanks, and sorry for the derail.
posted by dilettante at 4:42 PM on August 23, 2006

the crate is a solitary-confinement cell, one we put him in, that he endures because we're bigger and stronger.

I don't fundamentally disagree with you, but I assure you that many dogs who have been properly crate trained (i.e. gradually accustomed to it with lots of positive reinforcement, rather than just thrown in there and ignored for 10 hours a day) LOVE their crates (my sister's dog will try to get into any crate that's open, including ones several sizes too small for him to fit anything but his head into, which is pretty amusing). My own dog doesn't like being crated, is reliable when left to roam free in the house, and as such he is only crated when necessary (like in the car), but many dogs not only don't mind their crates, but actively seek them out as a place of refuge and comfort.

I'm sure you could also call obedience training "brainwashing", and it's certainly at least partly that, but it's also teaching dogs to communicate, teaching dogs to live well with people and teaching dogs how to know what is expected of them, all of which benefit the dog. There are things we have to do in order to help dogs learn to live well with people, all of which can be done gently and positively with the dogs' best interests in mind, or which can be done harshly and with no regard for the dogs' nature and psychological wellbeing - you can spin things any way you want, and it's certainly true that for SOME dogs crates are like jail (it's certainly true for my dog, except in the car, where he loves being in his crate), but it's inaccurate in the extreme to assume that because you (a non-denning human) would find being shut in a crate distressing, that all dogs (denning canids) would agree with you, and it's also missing at least some of the bigger picture here. In a case where a dog is having trouble living well (which means the dog AND the people it lives with are happy), sometimes you need to consider that it's better to do something the dog may not love in order to help the dog learn to change its behaviour and ultimately be happier and more peaceful, than the possible alternatives which are often far worse for the dog.
posted by biscotti at 4:47 PM on August 23, 2006

The guide I used for beginning clicker training was and I found articles at that helped me troubleshoot, with this article in particular being very useful in teaching your dog to think. You don't have to use a clicker (I find it helpful to tell a dog exactly what he's doing right) but it explains the general idea of rewarding a very basic action and gradually turning it into what you want using a combination of luring and teaching him to be creative in offering you behaviors. Offline Karen Pryor has a book on operant conditioning as well as a few videos. I borrowed Clicking With Your Dog from my local library and it covered the basics and had a lot of jumping off points for more advanced training.

Finding a toy can be done by placing a toy a little ways away from a dog and then running with him to get it, and bringing it back to the starting line. Reward him and play with the toy then have him drop it for you. Once that's solid, start staying closer to the starting line so he brings the toy to you. Then start putting the toy further away, then under a chair, then under an object so it's hidden, or just around the corner out of the room, etc. Switch your keys out for the toy, repeat the procedure, but with a different cue word, repeat with the remote and your slippers.

With two people, take a toy and alternate calling the dog to you to play with it, and reward him for coming to you. When he's got the idea, teach him to go to a person with a toy when you say their name. This might be easier with more people, rewarding only when he goes to the right person. Upgrade to delivering an item instead of a toy. Then increase the distance between you until you're in different rooms. Stop when you can hand him something and say "Susan" and he'll deliver it to Susan.

For advanced training a targeting stick is very useful, especially one of the telescoping pointers that you'd find in an office supply store. Automotive stores also carry it with a magnet on the end. Rub a little food scent on the end and click and treat for a nose touch or a paw touch. You can teach different words for nose and paw. Use the stick to transfer the touch to other things and gradually shrink the stick away. That can be used to teach closing cabinet doors, turning off the lights, pushing objects around, spinning in place, and anything else you can think of involving a paw or a nose.

The basic gist is just getting him to repeat the behavior in its simplest form and very very slowly upping the difficulty. Hide and seek with a dog is just saying come and having him find you. Once he can do it when you're in the same room, disappear around the corner or behind the sofa. Cleaning up his toys is getting him to "drop it" when you hold a box under his mouth and upping it to him going to the box, to him finding the toy and dropping it in the box. If he's not food motivated (and feel free to try things like tiny pieces of cheese or hamburger instead of kibble, especially for more difficult tasks) replace that with something that he does love, like belly rubs, or a game of tug, or keep his favorite toy somewhere and bring it out to play only for training. Always keep the training lessons short and upbeat and keep him wanting more.
posted by hindmost at 6:41 PM on August 23, 2006 [3 favorites]

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