Debbie Jacobs is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer with additional certification in clicker training. She is a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She specializes in rehabilitating fearful dogs. Her website fearfuldogs.com/ was set up as a means of support for those dog owners who are living with fearful dogs. Debbie’s book ‘A Guide to Living With & Training a Fearful Dog‘, http://www.amazon.com/Guide-Living-Training-Fearful-Dog/dp/0615387519 is a resource for owners and rescuers.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Debbie about Ripple’s aggression towards unfamiliar dogs.
We adopted Ripple when she was just 3 months old. According to the report from the rescue group, she was surrendered from an owner who didn’t have time for her. In that home, she had spent a large part of her day (sometimes more than ten hours) in a crate. When she came to us, we had an older dog, Zach, who was intolerant of her. Zach was five when we adopted him. He had come from a hoarding situation, and who knows what before that. He did not like being encroached upon. He did not like excitability. He did not like Ripple. As such, Ripple’s childhood included being snapped at and charged upon by Zach.
Q & A with Debbie:
1) Ripple is insecure around unfamiliar dogs, and this often results in aggressive displays when we have encounters on walks or during community gatherings. What are some things that we can do to help Ripple work through her fears?
The first thing is to make sure we don’t give the dog opportunities to rehearse behaviors we don’t like to see. Dogs get better at behaviors they practice, so if you have a dog who when he sees another dog behaves a certain way, then that’s basically the behavior that you’re going to see every time [he] sees another dog. To change it we do two fundamental things: we change the emotional response that the dogs have to things that scare them, and we teach the dogs behaviors that are more appropriate to those situations.
The reason that a dog like Ripple performs those kinds of behaviors is because they’re affective at keeping other dogs away. Most dogs don’t want to fight, and when they see a dog that behaves [that] way, most of the time their response is to say, “Okay never mind.” This in turn reinforces the behavior. How we deal with this differs from dog to dog. But first we have to maintain a feeling of safety [for the dog,] and we have to develop new skills, while at the same time going through desensitization and counter conditioning.
Desensitization and Counter-conditioning:
It’s not that we want to take a fearful dog and say look, come and play with this Boxer he’s really nice. Then you’ll only see an escalation in Ripple’s behavior. With these dogs, we keep stepping back with them through counter conditioning and desensitizing, getting them slowly to the point where they no longer have to go into [a] big display.
You might be inside the house with the door open and the other dog across the street. [Ripple] has to be able to see [the other dog,] but cannot reach a level of arousal [where she is] unable to take whatever food rewards you’re trying to give or can’t turn and look at you. You don’t want to see any extreme arousal from the dog, [because that will] make it harder for her to learn. We want the dog to be able to focus on us. It doesn’t mean that they can’t look at the thing that scares them, but we want [her] to be able to come back and look at [us.]
Counter-conditioning [is done] at the same time because we’re associating the click with the trigger. We pair the trigger [another dog] at a level that the dog can tolerate with something that the dog really loves [treats.] We use a clicker when the dog looks at something and then the [sound of the] clicker generally spins them back around to us, because the click is associated with a treat.
Teaching new skills.
Dogs that are trained using positive reinforcement feel good the minute you walk into the room, because you mean they get to do something and they get a reward. We take advantage of that with scared dogs, by giving them a whole bunch of good foundation behaviors, sitting, waiting, standing, lying down quietly on a mat, and auto-checking in. If they’re trained using positive reinforcement, [like clicker training] when we’re out in the world and we ask them to perform those behaviors, it makes them feel good.
We teach these new skills in a place where the dog feels safe. You don’t learn to play the piano in a traffic intersection with cars whizzing by. So, we teach all of these new skills in our homes or in our yards, in low stress situations. [This way,] we have really good behavior in low stress situations, before we expect the dog to do it in high stress situations.
Auto-check in becomes useful in all kinds of situations. So, if I’m outside I have food rewards with me so that anytime a dog turns and looks at me I tell him, “good dog,” and if he wants to come back to me and get a treat that’s great and if he wants to keep walking he can. But anytime a dog waits for me, I reward it and anytime a dog comes to me I reward it, because those are behaviors I want to see and this is how we get more of them.
2) What is the safest way of dealing with these types of encounters when they occur
The goal should be, until you and your dog have some skills, that you avoid these situations. Otherwise it just gets harder. What that means for some people is that they walk their dogs at 11 o’clock at night, or at five in the morning, to avoid encounters with other dogs. Because if every time you go out and your dog can anticipate seeing another dog, then the level of arousal begins as soon as you put on the leash. The leash predicts going out for walks and going out for walks predicts running into dogs.
That’s why with these dogs, we have to get them to anticipate good things rather than bad things. But that can take a long time. There’s no biological advantage to forgetting something that scared you. If you did you might get eaten.
Another set of behaviors that we work on is the, “get out of dodge moves.” Where, again, in the privacy of your home, when the dog can think, you practice, when I say, “let’s go,” and they feel pressure on the leash, they turn and walk away with you. There’s different ways that we teach this, but basically in [a bad] situation you want the dog to just go the other way.
We teach this in a way that’s happy and upbeat, so that we [and the dog] are not panicking. Because we’re learning something as well. That if I see the dog notices something and is getting aroused, I can say, “Okay, this way,” and we just spin around and go the other way. Because the dog has practiced this so many times, when it does happen that we run into another dog, I can calmly defuse [the situation.]
3) Ripple’s fear of other dogs may have been the result of the treatment she received from Zach early on. What are some of the things we could have done to prevent this dynamic?
One of the problems was that by the time you got [Ripple] she was already a dog who was somewhat disabled by her lack of experience with novelty. I mean, by three month olds that window for socialization and their ability to deal with novelty is rapidly closing. Sometimes you have a dog that was living close to the edge, and you tap him and he goes off into the abyss, where you have other dogs that can take a few bumps and bruises and frights and they might move to the edge, but never go off.
Your dog was right their by the edge.
One thing, and I think you already know, is that Zach shouldn’t have been allowed to pounce on her. The other thing is that we can intervene [after it's happened] by using counter conditioning. We can say, “Yeah, that was pretty crummy wasn’t it. You want to go get an ice cream.” That way they can get over it, as opposed to having something really horrible happen and then they’re just stuck there.
But your dog might have been afraid of other dogs even if she had never been pounced on. When you get a dog that’s spent three months in a crate, this is what you can expect. All of this is very normal behavior for a dog that came up with that kind of history. [To help Ripple,] find a good trainer that does reactive dog classes.
Leslie McDevitt’s: Control Unleashed: http://controlunleashed.net/
Grisha Steward’s,Behavior Adjustment Training: http://functionalrewards.com/
Turid Rugas. Calming Signals: http://www.canis.no/rugaas/
Reactive dog article: http://www.canineuniversity.com/articles/behavior/behave_12.html