Ask Professor Boo is our recurring, positive reinforcement dog training and behavior question and answer column. If you have a question that you would like to ask Professor Boo, please feel free to contact him.
Q: I have a 4 year old miniature schnauzer named Ozzie who has lived with me since last June. He is a rescue dog and he’s practically PERFECT in every way. However…..he almost always freaks out (barking, pulling, snapping) when we see another dog on-leash. I can never tell which dogs Ozzie will react to, and it’s only when on-leash. It’s much worse in the apartment complex where we live but it happens elsewhere too. We went to a trainer and she gave suggestions but they don’t work. When Ozzie is that upset, he couldn’t care less about treats! Nothing will distract him. When I tried to get between Ozzie and the offending dog, he actually bit me once! I try to avoid other dogs as much as possible, but I *want* to go on long walks with my dog! What can we do, Boo?????
Marian and Ozzie
A: This is a very common issue for a lot of dogs. I personally get a little pushy when I meet a cute lady dog and they often snip at me for getting a little randy if you know what I mean, but I digress…
Leash aggression can have several components:
- Fear is probably the most common one and it usually builds over time. This can be a result of a lack of early socialization and/or have a personality component. It can also have grown out of generalized fear after bad encounters with other dogs.
- Frustration is second in terms of creating ongoing arousal at the end of the leash. This can actually come from a great desire to go see that other dog for fun and games or be a combination of fear and excitement. Then, when the arousal is unfulfilled and hampered by a tight leash on a neck or head collar, it makes the frustration go from “I wanna, I wanna,” to “Aarrggg!” resulting in high levels of aroused behaviors.
The great news is that the fix is the same no matter what the underlying cause is so we don’t have to get Ozzie on a couch and ask him how he feels about his mother, etc.
What we do need to do however, is have a real good understanding of how desensitization and counter-conditioning (DS/CC) work.
But first, a word on equipment: Dogs have what is called an oppositional reflex – so when you pull tightly on a neck collar they will actually crank up more. This is used by K-9 officers to crank up their dogs before letting them go after a bad-guy and it’s also used in dog fighting to increase the “game-ness” and arousal of a dog – nasty business that dog fighting! So, your job is to completely take that out of the mix so the humans are not adding anything to Ozzie’s excitement – only removing levels of arousal.
Front-clip harnesses are lovely for this: The Easy Walk Harness, the Sensation, or even the Locatis (which is more available out West by you guys) will all work well. This takes the oppositional reflex out of the equation and if you absolutely have to move Ozzie by putting pressure on the leash it will be a more easy pressure on him via the harness. Head-halters can add to a dog’s frustration and are not good for physically moving a dog out of Dodge if we get stuck, so we prefer the harness. I wear a front-clip harness whenever I’m out walking ‘cause it’s just easier on me overall – and I do tend to get stuck on smells – again I digress…
Desensitization and counter-conditioning (DS/CC) in short (and I do mean very short – this is the life’s work of many behaviorists and others and I am condensing their hard labors into a couple paragraphs): we need to change how Ozzie feels about the approach of another dog and change the default (conditioned) behavior he has adopted when they approach. This means that we take a primary reinforcer (treats) and we pair them up with the appearance of the other dog – in the world of neurology the phrase is “neurons that fire together wire together.” It has to be a primary reinforcer of Super High Value (SHV) because when we are trying to organize neurons to fire together for one thing – i.e. the behavior we want – the thing that is greater in value (either for good or evil) will win the firing supremacy. In other words the primary reinforcer needs to more valuable than the trigger is scary.
For example: if you have a dog who is afraid of cars and you just keep putting them into the car thinking they will just get over it, they may if they are going somewhere that is bigger in the positive sense than their fear of the car is in the negative sense. However, if the place they are going or the treat they get for the ride is not bigger than their fear of the car the dog will simply learn to hide from you when they know you are going to put them into the car because you have not changed how they feel about the car for the better but you have increased their fear to include you picking them up to put them into the car.
Here’s what may have been missed in previous attempts.
- Desensitize/counter-condition for every dog. DS/CC needs to be done for each and every dog you guys see because we don’t know which one will set him off and if we aren’t proactively working our DS/CC program on each and every dog Ozzie could have an outburst which would be self-reinforcing and the reactivity would continue. Another reason this needs to be done for each and every dog is because although Ozzie may not be having an outburst he may still be cranking himself up inside. This is not unlike my human when she drives over a bridge: she doesn’t scream anymore, but her knuckles are white on the steering wheel so I know she’s not in a good state of mind and over-threshold.
- Stay sub-threshold. Another thing that may have gone wrong with the other DS/CC attempts is that your timing has to catch him where he is what we call sub-threshold. This means that he is not over-the-top reacting and can actually focus on the treats and a simple command to do nothing when approached by other dogs. My human uses either “look at that,” “who’s that” or “oh boy,” for her simple “do nothing” command since these are non-offensive to anyone passing by and are pretty easy things for most humans to say in a bit of a panic. Remember: all Ozzie has to do here is NOTHING and eat his treat in the presence of his trigger. So how do you stay sub-threshold?
- Distance is critical. You may not think Ozzie has spotted the other dog because he is not over-the-top, but canine senses are so acute that if you see the dog you can be certain that Ozzie knows full well there is another dog nearby. So always work at a greater distance where Ozzie is sub-threshold then slowly close up the distance over time.
- Timing is crucial. With a good enough distance for Ozzie to be able to focus on the treats you would say “who’s that” or “look at that” and IMMEDIATELY give Ozzie that piece of cheese or hot dog. (Oh yeah that’s the other thing – explore the world of SHVT [super high value treats] to see what will make Ozzie vibrate with joy and begin with that. Later you can work your way down to something less HV as he gets better and better around other dogs. Remember as the trigger gets less scary you can either close the distance or lower the value of the reinforcer.
- Repetition – this is what breaks most humans down. Remember, we dogs don’t generalize the same way humans do. And although we are working on a neurological level when we are changing the way Ozzie’s neurons fire together, i.e. meaning that SHVT = Dog, it does take a while for new pathways to be really well-formed in the brain. Also, please remember that we are also asking him to learn a new behavior in the face of his old trigger – the other dog – so this can take a lot of repetitions.
- Avoidance – As you are practicing your timing you will need to walk Ozzie in areas where you know you can control all potential doggie encounters so you can keep him sub-threshold. My human often tells people to plop their dog in the car (if they like cars) then drive to an empty parking lot or a strip mall where they know there won’t be too many other dogs and practice there. Then, when you are feeling good about your timing and awareness, you would start to shadow other dogs in a controlled environment. This is usually across the street from a vet’s office, or a down time at the local dog park where dogs will be going in and out, also pet stores can be a good location for this – so long as there are not too many other dogs and there is enough distance for Ozzie to be sub-threshold.
- Set your dog up to succeed. Once you and Ozzie have a good working understanding of your new command – your “look at that” or the “who’s that” command - and he is responding to you reliably on whichever of these you use when you see other dogs and you have decreased the distance on the shadowing adventures to equal the same distance you would encounter in your apartment complex then you are finally ready to “try this at home.” Remember to bring those SHVT out again in a heartbeat and be ready to retreat (get out of Dodge) if it goes badly and return to shadowing at a distance until he is ready to try again.
- Have an escape plan. This means that if Ozzie is reacting you would move him a bit away from the other dog using some tension on the leash, then take a handful of those SHVT, rest them for a moment right on his nose so he can smell them, and then gently toss the snacks from his nose into the opposite direction of the trigger dog. He will follow the snacks if he is not too far over threshold and you can then relax tension on the leash and follow Ozzie in that direction and, if need be, keep the go-sniff treat-tossing up as you “Hansel and Gretel” him out of Dodge. (We place the snacks right on his nose provided he wouldn’t redirect onto you – which it sounds like he might given that he once redirected to bite you. In which case you would move him farther away just using the leash before attempting the “go-sniff.” Once he gets better at all of it – you will be able to just “go-sniff” him away when disaster strikes. Remember, you will have to practice the “go-sniff” when there are no distractions – so he knows it when you ask him for it in times of trouble.) Keep in mind that it is not ideal to muscle a dog around using the leash, but it things go badly – you got to get out.
As you can see, there are way more components here than just having treats in the presence of another dog. There is still way more than I was able to put into this response before my poor paws got tired from the typing. Just try typing by paw-pecking.
There are a number of books out there that may help and you can find the best ones my human has found in the Boo-tique:
Feisty Fido by Patricia McConnell, PhD and Bringing Shadow to Light, How to Right a Dog Gone Wrong by Pam Dennison, CBDC will offer you guys some great training tips.
Calming Signals, on Talking Terms with Dogs by Turid Rugaas will offer you a primer on canine body language.
For the Love of a Dog: Understanding the Emotion in You and Your Best Friend by Patricia McConnell, Ph.D will offer your human insight into the dog’s emotional world.
Hope this helps Ozzie and you, too!