Ever wish for a do-over? It’s been nearly three years since Mike and I adopted Ripple. We’ve been through three dog training classes, three private trainers, and many hours of follow through both in and out of the home. While I would not give up on Ripple for the world, somehow I still find myself reflecting on situations, wondering how time and again that dog so quickly overwhelms me.
Here’s what happened recently.
Our neighbor and his two little girls stopped by. It was wonderful to see them. It had been a while. During their visit, I was too busy fending off Ripple’s attempts to mouth, and jump on the little ones to enjoy my guests. Ripple loves kids. But if the girls hadn’t been dog-savvy, someone could have gotten hurt.
Our Boxer/lab mix, Ripple
Photograph courtesy of Lee Ingrahm
A few months before this happened, I had taken Ripple to dog trainer, Casey Lomonaco, who educated me about reactive dogs. “A parent of a reactive dog always has to think ahead, and be prepared,” she said. She also gave me some great strategies for handling these types of situations. But as usual, in the moment I was too frazzled to apply what I had learned.
A reactive dog is one that displays lunging, vocalizing, and excitability in certain situations. In other words, a reactive dog is like Ripple. For her it happens when she greets familiar people, anytime she’s off leash, and when she encounters other dogs if she’s on leash. Each instance has it’s own, very different outcomes.
When Ripple is off leash she goes into a hard run, doesn’t respond to commands, and if anything catches her eye – joggers, cars – she takes off after it. When Ripple encounters another dog she displays what’s called fear aggression. The hair comes up along her back and she growls, snarls and lunges. The intent is to drive the other dogs away. It works well for driving away dog owners too.
Easy Dogs, Difficult Dogs
I’ve had the pleasure of raising some very easy dogs in my life. Our dogs Lexi, Jami, and Chloe were great with people. We could walk them off leash, invite people into our home, and encounter other dogs without stress. Even our dog Zach, who came to us with baggage, was able to turn his behavior around more quickly than Ripple. But while Zach became more tolerant of people in a short time, he was still a dog that liked his personal space. When Ripple came to live with us, she was often on the receiving end of Zach’s toothy reproach.
Mike and I tried to block and intervene, but Zach’s wrath occurred as much without warning as with. Ripple was just three months old when we adopted her. I often wonder if that early experience had caused her fear aggression with other dogs.
But from what I’ve read about reactivity in dogs, Ripple’s condition may have started before she even walked through our door.
There are Critical Stages in Canine Development
Like children, puppies develop physically, psychologically, and emotionally in stages that begin at birth and carry on into adulthood. The earliest stages – up until about 8 weeks of age – are when new borns get their bearings in their new world and bond with their litter mates. The stage that comes next is called the human socialization period. This is when puppies are usually adopted and brought into human families. It’s when they learn how to behave around people, kids, and other animals. It’s also a confidence-building time, as puppies begin to explore the world around them.
According to the rescue group, Ripple was surrendered because her former owner didn’t have time for her. As a pup, she spent her days home alone, crated for as many as ten hours. Doing the math – assuming that she was first adopted when she was eight weeks old and knowing that she was surrendered to rescue at the age of 3 months – Ripple likely spent her human socialization period in isolation.
What happens when a dog is deprived of experiences during key developmental stages?
The human socialization period is a critical time in canine development that occurs between 7 wks and 12 wks of age. Lack of exposure to people, especially kids and other dogs during this period is thought to be one of the main reasons for behavior problems in dogs later on. A dog that is isolated during this stage may show lack of confidence and inappropriate reactions to non-threatening situations for the rest of its life – which is exactly what Ripple does.
What can be done to help
One of the things that Casey recommended was to use classical conditioning. This is how Pavolov got his dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell. He kept pairing the bell with food, eventually triggering the physiological reflex (salivation,) which had previously been reflex triggered by food, with the presentation of a secondary stimuli (the bell).
So, the theory is that, if every time Ripple sees another dog, we feed her something she really likes and lots of it, then someday instead of the fear reflex triggered by the sight of another dog, she’ll salivate, or feel hungry and hopefully turn to Mike or myself to satisfy that feeling. Casey called this strategy, “open bar, closed bar.” It’s something with which we’ve been having good results.
Another thing Casey suggested was to put Ripple “in park,” whenever someone comes to call or we encounter friends on walks. When those things happen, we’re supposed to stand on Ripple’s leash, and ask our friends to ignore her. When Ripple is calm I can give her treats, and perhaps even ask my friends to do so, but if she’s vocalizing, or doing her crazy-Ripple act, she gets no attention. This is a strategy that also works well, when we have our acts together enough to apply it.
A tip for prospective dog owners
For the most part, the reactive dog is a preventable outcome that results from lack of stimulation and socialization during key stages in a dogs puppyhood. If prospective dog owners understand canine development, and take steps to socialize their puppies, the pups will likely develop into a happy, well adjusted dogs. My advice, make an effort to bring your pup into the community, expose it to a variety of situations with all different kinds of people as well as other dogs. (It’s not enough that there are other dogs already in the home, puppies need to learn how to behave during novel experiences.) In this way, your dog will have a happier, less stressful life, and so will you.
BUT if you feel that your dog may be reactive, don’t panic. Involve a trainer. There are things that can be done to help, and you can still have wonderful pet
To read Casey’s report on Ripple, which includes some strategies, links to videos, and resources click the highlighted words above.
To read my interview with trainer Debbie Jacobs
about Ripple’s fearful aggression, click on her name.