Ain’t Misbehaving, Part Two

Your Dog is Talking…can you interpret what he’s saying?

Spring is in the air and it 'twas a busy week for me. It’s amazing how problems seem to crop up in waves, and true to form, this was a week of leash aggression and territorial barking. 

Sifting through the questions that came in after my (please continue to send in your questions!) the dominant theme also centered around leash pulling and reactivity to other dogs and people.  I highlight two cases:

Reggae is a two year old Mini-Dachshund who "thinks he's Napolean.”  When I arrived, I was met by a frenzied chorus of barking. I instructed his owners to stand back while I assessed the situation. Ten pounds of sausage dog charged with a bull's determination. "Oh! He likes you!" his mom assured me, "Usually he bites!" And it's true…he did like me.

By the end of the three-minute assessment, Reggae's tail is up, his narrow little face is scrunched into a canine grin and his front paws are resting on my knee. He welcomed my gentle caress and I gave his owners the good news: Reggae  isn't an aggressive dog. He is a passive dog who feels compelled to be the family guardian.

Yes, he weighs just ten pounds. Yes, he stands no more than eight inches at the shoulder. But because Reggae perceives that the people aren't in control, he feels he must assume it. He would much prefer that his people be in charge because he's just not that good at the job—so he's afraid and biting out of fear. His reactivity is fear-based: he’s so afraid of what might happen that he bites to ward off strangers and other dogs. He’s really a friendly, sweet thing, and I happily told his owners that I could, rather quickly, teach them how to help him feel more safe. 

Apparently this was the last thing they expected to hear: they’d been told medication and a shock collar were their only options. Can you imagine?  Here is a frightened, sweet natured Doxie who "ain’t misbehaving," just reacting in what he feels is self-defense as he longs for direction.  The solution came within the hour and as you see in the picture, some gentling reassurance worked wonders. He walked calmly on the leash and greeted Balderdash with civility. 

Next up: Rocky, a lab/hound mix who shares his space with a enthusiastic and loving crowd of people and other dogs.  Rocky's life is busy and full. At one moment, he's backing up Coco the Bulldog as they bark at passersby. The next, he's leaping over (and terrifying) Sparky, a Maltese mix, to get first dibs on any possible human attention.

Rocky weighs 80 pounds and can pack an inadvertent punch when he makes an airborne grab for a treat or pat. More than one dog fight has broken out over Rocky's overzealous love of the spotlight and the lovable lunkhead often finds himself cooling his heels in the laundry room to keep the peace in the house. But Rocky "ain’t misbehaving," he’s just a passionate young dog whose uncivilized behavior is causing more isolation than inclusion—and it is this vicious cycle that needs to be addressed.

I want to leave you this week with a new way to consider a dog's behavior.  A dog will generally respond to an unfamiliar situation in one of four ways:

Excitement: A wild response doesn’t always highlight a dog's joy—it is often a stressed response that is reinforced with human attention.  A habitual jumper is often addicted to a behavior that has been reinforced. Pushing isn’t discipline in a dog’s eyes—it’s confrontational play.

Defensiveness: Dogs that stand erect, bark, growl or bite feel compelled to take charge of a situation. The question becomes how to manage the dog so he/she views the person in charge and can stand down/look away on command.

Fearfulness: Dogs who possess a more timid or yielding personality will grow fearful in unpredictable situations. Training teaches them to reference and rely on their humans, but without direction these dogs become increasingly overwhelmed. This reaction is often noted by a lowered posture (tail, ears, and body) but as in Reggae’s case, it can lead to fear-based aggressive responses when they feel they have no one to turn too.

Referencing: When a dog is trained to some basic routines and commands he can be encouraged to reference his people. It is a natural reaction to look to a leader to define the right course of action: people need the training to learn how to communicate and listen in a language their dog can comprehend.

Send on your questions: more next week!

Gina April 09, 2012 at 02:20 PM
How do you stop a dog from barking and scaring people at the door by jumping on them and also train it to stop urinating when someone comes in.
Sarah Hodgson April 20, 2012 at 10:27 AM
Hi Gina- Just seeing this now. Patch used to send me an alert. Since I'm touching on those subjects in this article (which will be out Sunday) suffice it to say that your dog is experiencing a heightened level of transitional anxiety whenever someone comes to the door. Too much reactivity on the humans part can cause dribbling (common in young dogs) to become a life reaction: the dribbling in an unconscious reaction to stress. More to come!


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