We have a 3-year-old female husky named Sierra. She is a sweet, sensitive girl and other dogs always seem to try and bully her. When she was about 1-years-old, a dog attacked her and ever since that event she has gets really aggressive whenever she sees a dog she doesn't know. She's fine with dogs she knew before the attack. It is so stressful to walk her, especially around here where so many dogs are off leash! Is there anything we can do to help her?
- A Husky Lover
Dear Husky Lover,
Sierra's main goal is to avoid another attack and her aggressive displays are the only way she knows how to accomplish this. Most dogs will back off when another dog lunges, growls and shows teeth. Each time she does this and a dog does back off, she is rewarded because she has averted an attack.
There is no quick fix for this type of complex behavior problem, but a comprehensive training and behavior modification program can help her (and you) re-gain confidence when she meets a strange dog. In the meantime, here are some ways to better manage the situation before she explodes.
1. Stay calm. Sierra senses your energy. Her anxiety level will only increase more if you are nervous. Practice deep breathing during your daily dog walks starting when everything is calm. If you see a dog ahead, start breathing before the situation erupts.
2. Plan ahead. Think through the various scenarios where you have had problems in the past. Is there one dog in your neighborhood that is always loose? If so, find another route. Visual barriers can be extremely helpful for many dogs. Carry a pop-up umbrella to use as a shield in situations where a dog runs up to you.
3. Create distance. If you see a dog ahead of you, turn and go the other way. Dogs have a threshold distance where they can tolerate seeing another dog. Try to determine if Sierra's threshold is 20, 50 or 100 feet. By determining her threshold you will know when to calmly react.
4. Teach an "exit" cue. You'll need to teach this in an environment without other dogs around. Say a cue like "this way" in a loud, happy voice then make a quick turn and run away with your dog for at least 20-30 feet. When you stop, give her lots of wonderful treats or play a favorite game. Once she gets used to playing this game, you can use the "this way" cue before she reacts to an oncoming dog.
What should you do if an accident happens and she explodes? Leave as quickly as possible. At this point she is unable to process any cues you give. The emotional reaction trumps any rational thought process.
When you are ready to start working to truly modify her behavior, find a qualified positive reinforcement trainer to help you. This process will take commitment, but the pay-off is well worth it.
- Carla Brown, CPDT is a certified professional dog trainer and owner of The Savvy Dog Training and Education Center in Truckee. If you have a pet topic/issue you would like to see covered in the Ask the Trainer column, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org