TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — Dear Carla,
Our English bulldog, Lucy, is 2-years-old and is extremely dog aggressive. This behavior started when she was a puppy and has steadily gotten worse. She had a bad dog encounter when she was about 5 months old. Also, we attended a puppy class with her where they used punishment-based training methods and I know it made her worse.
She is a very strong dog and I constantly worry about her pulling away from me and hurting a dog. We need advice and don’t want to make any more mistakes!
Pam and Rich
Dear Pam and Rich,
Lucy’s behavior is fear based. Her survival instinct tells her the best offense is a good defense, so you need to help her build confidence and learn new skills.
I highly recommend engaging the help of an experienced positive reinforcement trainer. This is a difficult process and you will need assistance and coaching throughout.
A clicker is a tool called a reward marker. The sound a clicker makes communicates to the dog when they have done something right and will be rewarded for it. When working with highly reactive dogs like Lucy, a clicker is an invaluable tool. It allows you to mark and reward any behavior you want to encourage. I can click when a dog remains calm in a stressful situation or click when they choose to look at me instead of staring hard at a passing dog.
Whenever I’m working with a reactive dog, I use a front clip Sens-ation harness or a Halti head collar.
For most dogs, the Sens-ation harness works fine, but if I’m working with a very large dog, I use the Halti for more control. Front clip harnesses are designed to be a steering device that moves the dog’s body in the direction you want to go. It eliminates the extreme pulling that results from the opposition reflex a dog experiences when there is tension on their neck.
At a very high level, the process of rehabilitating a reactive dog like Lucy looks something like this:
1. Start by changing the emotional reaction Lucy has when she sees another dog. Begin working at enough of a distance that you can break her focus with a treat when she sees another dog. Initially, this could be a few hundred feet away! Generously click and treat when she looks at you or doesn’t react to the other dog.
2. Position treats so she has to look away from the other dog and toward you. Eventually teach her to purposely look away from the other dog and toward you. When she does, click and give her a treat. I call this the “Look at That” cue. Over time, I can ask a dog to willingly look at another dog and look back at me, thus teaching them to break focus away from something that triggers their aggression.
3. Very gradually work at closer distances to other dogs. At some point start parallel walking exercises with Lucy and another dog separated by 10-20 feet. This will teach her to be calm in the presence of another dog. It’s important to start using mellow, well leash-trained dogs for these exercises. If Lucy starts to gaze intensely at the other dog, break her eye contact using a treat and a cue like “Watch Me.” Don’t forget to generously click and treat when she does it. You can also toss a treat over the other dog’s head to break eye contact.
4. With each new set-up, the rate of clicking and treating needs to be very fast. Gradually space the clicks out as she becomes less reactive.
Carla Brown, CPDT is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and owner of The Savvy Dog 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.