Case file: Lexie, fear aggression

A few months back I had a dog with fairly severe fear aggression stay with me. I started out just taking videos for her mom, but decided they’d be good for the blog, too! Some of the narration starts out very quiet, as I was trying not to distract the dogs. Most of the time, I get louder. Sorry about that!

Lexie is a four-year-old yellow lab who was attacked by a jack Russel at about a year of age. Her fear aggression started after that, and got worse over time until her owner reached the point of crossing the street to avoid other dogs. Lexie would approach another dog submissively, and then when she got close, attack with panicked intent. While Lexie and her mom still have a lot of work to do, we’re making progress!

Lexie had stayed with me once before, last year, so she had some memory of Cash and Lily. However, I had Brady there as well, so she stayed in her crate the first night for about three hours. When she came out, I kept Brady on leash (to keep him away from Lexie), or kept Lexie on leash (to keep her near me). The first video picks up the next morning, after more leash and crate time to get used to each other.

If you just want to see a heart-warming change, watch the first and last videos. More dogs were added as the week went on; no dogs were harmed in the making of this film!

 

Credits:

Narrator: Jenna
Lexie: lab, “fearful pup”
Cash: king shepherd, “dad”
Lily: pit bull, “grandma”
Brady: golden retriever, “happy brother”
Frances: Australian shepherd, “timid sister”
Obi: pit bull x boxer, “fearless bff”

Advertisements

Case file: dog victim of dog attack

I recently received this email from a friend, in regards to her intact male Great Dane. The following is my response!

**

I know you normally deal with very aggressive dogs but I have a question about the victims. For the last 6 months, B has become the target of aggression by many dogs. It got really bad about a month ago when a dog slipped its collar at the school while he was playing with some other dogs and singled him out of the group from 30 feet away and made a beeline for him, attacked him  and tried to kill him. I had to pull the dog off of him. B was not fighting back and actually was trying to move away to avoid being bitten but he tripped over some smaller dogs and fell and the attacking dog saw an opening and just clamped down on his neck. After I finally got the dog to let go of B they took it away and B was completely fine with everything. He wasn’t afraid and we went to the other side of the field and kept playing.

About two weeks ago, I was at the field again and he was playing with two dogs that he has played with before. One of them is a golden retriever who is about a year old. Everything was going fine until the retriever was being pet by its owner and it laid on its back to have its belly rubbed. Just then, B went over to it and started sniffing at its belly and the retriever went nuts and started attacking B. Once again, he did not fight back and he did not act afraid but just moved out the way to avoid getting bitten. We had to physically restrain the retriever to make it stop.

Other times there is growling or hair up from the other dogs and once again, B is totally indifferent to them. He just stands there or he walks away from them. His posture to me does not look aggressive or challenging but apparently to the other dogs it is. Sometimes as he walks away, the other dog will follow him and try to get a reaction from him and he just ignores them and plays with his toys. It’s weird.

It seems to me that for some reason, B is failing to communicate to the other dog that he is not a threat and I am concerned that I have done something wrong to make him like this. Is there anything I can do to help him learn how to communicate with aggressive dogs better? Also, other than avoiding all other dogs completely or getting B fixed, do I have any other options?

My response:

From what you’re describing, B is communicating exactly as he should to tell other dogs he’s not a threat. He’s got three big things working against him: his size, his youth, and the fact that he’s intact.
Any smaller dog is going to go on the aggressive-defensive if it feels like B might be threatening. Not if the other dog feels B is aggressive, but if they feel like they might get stepped on, for instance. Because B is big, this is pretty much every dog at the park. So, the first thing to do is to call him off any dog that’s in a vulnerable position: lying down (belly up or back up; doesn’t matter), getting mobbed by several dogs, being chased by several dogs, and a dog that is playing hard and B goes to see what they’re up to. (If he trots up to two dogs playing hard with his head up, he’s saying, “Are you guys playing or fighting? Do you need help?” Those dogs may turn on him for trying to “help” or even join in, because playing hard gets the blood going and fighting hard is only a half step away. If he butts in where he’s not wanted, their frustration at that may easily turn to aggression.)
Now, his youth is an obvious thing: he’ll outgrow that in another year or two. In the meantime, young dogs are more exuberant and bouncy than older dogs; combined with his size, his bounciness may provoke defensiveness in another dog who is worried about getting bounced on. Young dogs are notorious for not realizing their size and strength, so older dogs will tell them to back off preemptively.
Finally, him being intact will make him a target. This isn’t a “get him neutered now!” problem, but more of a “be aware of dogs running at him” problem. A dog that has a tendency toward aggression will target him. The best thing you can do when you see a dog running toward him is call him to you, step between him and the other dog, and when the other dog is close enough charge it yourself and try to kick it in the abdomen. Don’t worry; despite my best attempts, it’s impossible to kick a dog in the abdomen. When you try, though, they tune in and leap out of the way. At worst, they’ll attempt to get around you and attack again, and at best they’ll hesitate and decide what to do, giving you or an owner a chance to grab the dog.
The good news: B is helping you out. Because he’s willing to run away from them, he’ll be far more willing for you to step between them and take care of the problem. If he ever does get the confidence to say, “I’ll help Mom get them!” chase him off (either then, or as soon as the danger is over) so he learns that’s not acceptable. It will only make the dog fight much, MUCH worse. After everything is over, praise him like crazy for running away or staying behind you. This does two things: reinforces that you don’t want him fighting, and bringing his mood up so the whole experience doesn’t become traumatic. He’ll walk away going, “Sure, there was a scary bit, but then we had fun!” That’s what you want.
Finally, if he gets snapped at or told to back off and he does, praise him again. A few seconds of praise and playing with his toys is perfect; we want bouncy, happy energy coming from you for a moment, so he knows for sure he did it right. (I often tell my dogs how proud of them I am, and scratch all along their sides to produce the wiggliness I’m looking for.)
I have all these same issues with Cash, but they’ve mellowed out as he’s mellowed out and learned to ignore dogs in vulnerable positions (or at least come away when I call). The target thing is still there, because he’s intact, but mostly dogs are okay with him. Hang in there, and start calling him away!
Jenna

Anxiety

Signs of stress and signs of anxiety are almost exactly the same. In both cases you’ll see at least one of these three signs:

1. Ears pinched back or down against skull

IMG_8116

This husky’s ears are very pinched!

2. Whites of the eyes showing (if a dog is looking sideways, this counts. Comfortable dogs turn their heads, not their eyes.)

IMG_7408

This shepherd is showing the whites of his eyes, as well as almost showing his back molars.

3. Back molars or pink corners of lips showing when and if they pant.

panting dog

This dog is showing his back molars, and his ears are pinched.

lily index

Lily’s ears are relaxed, and no molars or pink at the corners of her lips are showing.

(Note that these symptoms also occur when your dog is under physical stress, such as overheating. Stop playing if you see these signs!)

There’s a fourth sign that doesn’t always show up, but for me is the flaming red flag of an anxious dog: the base of the tail will be pressed against the butt, though the tip may be out and wagging.

If these signs are happening without anything stressful going on (if, for instance, your dog is just hanging out in your house), then your pup is probably suffering from anxiety, as opposed to stress. There are some basic steps you can take to relieve some anxiety in your dog’s life.

1. Start walking daily (or as close to it as possible). The goal here isn’t to make your dog tired right after the walk, but to bring his overall levels of energy down. This takes consistency. If you drain off the energy, then you drain off part of what’s fueling the anxiety. Note also that I said “walking,” not “fetch.” Things that are exciting bump up the energy levels, whereas calm exercise will help bring them down.

2. Stop soothing. We all love giving our dogs love and affection, and I believe we should do that whenever we want, just because. However, one of the times this becomes detrimental is doing it when your dog is stressed out. Now, I’m not saying ignore your dog. While that can work, it takes a VERY long time. When we soothe, though, we tend to bring our shoulders in and forward. Our body language is saying, “I have no confidence here. I can’t deal with this.” In reaction, your dog says, “If you can’t deal with it, either, we really are going to die!” What you can do is be a cheerleader. “Spot! That time, you only cowered and didn’t pee! What a fabulously brave dog, I’m so proud of you!” When we praise, our shoulders come back and our voices rise, giving off happy-confident body language. While your dog won’t entirely match it, their emotional state will rise a little bit to match it closer, and furthermore, they’ll see that you’re confident and happy about the situation — clearly, then, it’s nothing to fear.

3. Confidence building exercises. This sounds fancy, doesn’t it? It boils down to this: teach your dog tricks. Use positive reinforcement, do something where it doesn’t matter if he gets it wrong (and you won’t get annoyed; if you start getting annoyed, walk away and come back later). Your goal is to give him something he can succeed at and feel good about.

4. Don’t run away. If you have a dog with generalized anxiety, chances are there’s a lot of things that startle or frighten them, too. When that happens, move along until your dog is no longer panicking, and then STOP. Sit, look at the scary thing, offer a treat and praise. If you keep moving, often your dog will think, “Phew! We escaped the monster!” If you stop outside his range of panic, then he has a chance to see that it’s not a monster, and you didn’t have to escape it.

A couple of extra steps: if she’s not panicking too badly, you can go towards the monster. With inanimate objects, I like to go over to it myself and touch it, pat it, etc. If I can’t touch it, my dog has no reason to believe it’s safe. I want to lead by example. With living creatures, I’m just going to sit and check them out from a distance; I don’t want my dog to react by fear-biting.

5. Be a guardian. There’s a lot of things about the world our dogs can’t understand. Our job is to protect them so they can gain confidence and flourish. This means, don’t push them into situations they think are scary; protect them until they’re ready to try it themselves. (This, in fact, relates to the last post on building trust. When your dog is no longer panicking, and “It’s a bad thing” is less likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, start doing this.)

The other day I was working with a timid puppy. Rather than encourage the puppy forward to check out the human, we asked him to sit down while his brother got some pets. When he stood up, we asked him to sit down again. Finally, he lifted his tail and stood (up tail = ready to engage. Low tail = not ready to engage, but might try for your sake.). At that point, we let him go forward.

If at any point he stood up with his tail low and offered to engage, we said no. I want him to feel confident before he engages with people; I don’t want him to feel pressured. When he realizes I’ll protect him, he’ll feel more confident checking things out, knowing I have his back! (ie, he’ll trust me.)

If the person reached out for him before it was time, I physically intervened by gently pushing their hand away and explaining, or by pulling him behind me. I want him to know I will protect him. (Within meeting three people, he decided he liked people after all. When re-training adult dogs, it takes a lot longer!)

6. Give your dog a safe space where no one is going to bother her. A crate, a bedroom, a closet, a dog bed in the corner — it doesn’t matter where (though tucked-away spaces usually work best), she just needs some area where she knows she can hide. Lily uses her crate, and to this day that’s her escape. If I’m boarding dogs, especially young ones, and she needs a break she puts herself in her crate. The rule is no other dogs are allowed to bug her in there, and I enforce it!

Phew! Start there, and know that improvement from anxiety takes time — usually six months before you’re seeing real results. If your dog is severe, or you need faster results, I suggest Rescue Remedy or some type of doggie Prozac from your vet. RR is an over the counter herbal supplement that works on most dogs, and the anti-anxiety meds today that your vet might prescribe are much better than they used to be. Hooray!

Jenna

Walking: two case studies

One of the things I love best about my job is finding the methods that work best with specific dogs. I’ve blogged about walking before (a lot), and now I’m going to do it again.

I’m looking at two very different case studies: Darcy and Obi. Both dogs are highly leash reactive (which means aggressive toward other dogs when they’re on their leashes, but fine when they’re off leash).

1. Darcy

Darcy is a 40-pound mix, very leggy and energetic, around 2 years old. She was rescued around 1-1.5 years by her lovely family, who work very hard with her. To look at her, you’d guess she’s a border collie mix of some sort, with some shepherd or doberman or rottweiler, given the color on her legs.

After working with Darcy for nearly a year with improvement I would normally expect to see in a few months, we decided I should take her out on my own for a few days to see what I could find that would work for her. This is what worked.

First we used a slip lead. A martingale would have worked, too. A prong collar increased her anxiety and aggression, and a face harness — because of the leaping, flipping, and lunging she does — could be dangerous. Though Darcy knows a perfect heel, I quickly found that when she was already stressed out or feeling reactive, confining her that way made her worse in the long term. We did a lot of no-pull walking, but I didn’t focus on whether or not she was right beside me; just that she was on a loose leash and relaxed. If I saw a dog coming or we neared a stationary dog, I would do soft reversals (not reprimanding her, just turning away) and let her feet move. We did a lot of circling — in the horse world, it would be called lunging, when the animal circles around you at the end of their lead. Keeping in motion kept her calmer overall.

Now, I couldn’t have her at that length when another dog walked right past, because even though she stayed calmer overall, she was still aggressive. So as the dog neared I would ask her to sit and focus on me and my treat. We then did puppy push-ups: “Down! Good, here’s your treat. Sit! Good, treat. Down! Good, treat. Sit!” And so on. This worked short term to get a dog past successfully, but I found that if I tried it as the dog was approaching from a distance, over the long term the inability to burn off her energy by circling, and the intensity of following commands ramped up her anxiety, stress, and aggression levels.

As soon as the dog was past, we went back to circling to burn off the energy created by a passing dog. When she looked calmer, we would walk forward.

As I mentioned, I didn’t keep her to a perfect heel. I asked her to get no farther forward than hip-to-hip, and if she pulled farther than that I reversed or circled to bring her back. (Her mom’s verbal “whoops!” also worked to remind her.) I also didn’t worry too much about where her ears were. In most dogs, correcting for forward ears/wrinkles solves most of the problem. With Darcy, it didn’t solve the problem and only made her more stressed, inching up her levels of aggression. Instead, I focused on keeping her feet moving when we could, distracting with treats when we couldn’t, and reversals or circles to keep her nearby. There was virtually no correcting of any sort, just re-directing and distraction.

The closest we got to a correction was to force her into a circle or reversal with me when she leaped toward another dog, which was definitely a physical dragging her around with me if she was really intent! Even then, however, I wasn’t telling her she’d done something wrong, I was just telling her she had to come with me, silly puppy.

When passing other dogs, we would circle away, and as we came back around I would put a handful of treats in front of her nose, to catch her attention before she saw the other dog again. As she was working at getting the treats, we were able to walk closer before she fixated on the dog. When she did, we circled and started again with the treats. As she realized that lunging didn’t work — we just circled away — and we were able to burn off energy, she was able to stay focused on the treats and walk by.

In talking with her “mom” I learned that her walks after this were relaxed and easy, and her stool was normal. This tells me that she wasn’t too stressed out or becoming more aggressive. The current plan is to do “normal,” easy, non-dog walks 4-5 days a week to keep her calm, and work in heavy dog areas 2 days a week. This should give her time to practice without ramping up her energy/excitement/aggression, as she is easily ramped up.

2. Obi

Obi is a 80-90 pound pit bull/boxer mix who is about 2 years old. He was brought home as a puppy but not socialized on leash, and is now struggling with learning NOT to be leash reactive. Much like Darcy, he’s very nice off-leash.

We tried many things with Obi before we found what works.

Obi does best if we can get him to remain calm and contained. When we first started he couldn’t walk on a leash at all. We put him on a prong collar (which he ignored). Then I started. Every time he drew ahead of me (which was every step), we stopped and he had to sit. He got a treat, and we moved on. One more step, stop, and sit. Treat. Walk on. This creates a very SLOW walk, but after a week he knew to walk beside me with only occasional sit reminders, and because the prong collar was always loose, it now became a deterrent: he realized pulling was uncomfortable.

We also stopped and sat any time he wrinkled his forehead (focused on something to the exclusion of me). Like I said. Very. Slow. Walk.

First off, this creates an automatic sit. What that means is that your dog’s cue to sit is that your feet stopped moving. It’s really handy. It also means that if Obi is seated, he’s not lunging. (Note that he CAN lunge simply by getting up, but repeating this pattern starts to teach him to sit, remain seated, and stay calm.)

Once Obi got to a point where he was walking automatically by my side (head to hip), I would correct if he wasn’t. His correction was five quick steps backwards by me (not turning around; just walking backwards) with 3-5 hard, sharp yanks on his prong collar. Obi is expected to remain in a perfect heel, because it keeps him calm. Running like Darcy does makes him much more aggressive. (Note that this is a heavy duty correction.)

Next, we started practicing focusing on me and treats, stopping to sit as we neared a dog until, finally, we were able to walk past the dog. If I knew that Obi would lose focus no matter what and get aggressive at fifteen feet, then we started walking past at sixteen feet. He was probably wrinkling, maybe whining, but he wasn’t lunging. When he was behaving (not wrinkling) there, we got closer. We worked with a lot of stationary dogs behind fences or tied to things. (We walked outside the dog park A LOT.)

If the dog was coming toward us, we worked on sitting and focusing on the treat. If Obi lunged, I picked him straight up as high as I could (I want his weight on his back legs, not hanging off his neck/the collar), waited until I felt him try to sit down, then let him go down and sit again. We finished sitting, calmed, got a treat, and moved on. Bit by bit, he’s been able to stay seated when a dog walks by.

As he got better walking past dogs as well, I would allow him to first focus on a treat as we went past. (When he refused them, I stopped offering; he was too interested in the other dog.) Then he started getting his treat only after we got past. We were also able to add the same five-steps-backward correction as he improved around other dogs, which initially only increased his aggression when he was fixating on dogs. Now he knows it’s us (not the dog), that he’s doing something wrong, and he needs to tune in.

Obi is still a work in progress, but he’s significantly better. He does best with a walk daily around other dogs. He gets obsessive and backslides fairly easily, so the more often we can work around other dogs, the better. In addition, instead of getting worked up he gets exhausted and sleeps the rest of the day. That’s a bonus!

Jenna

Dog Body Language: putting it all together

In the last weeks we’ve gone, in detail, over the major aspects of body language: tail, spine, and facial expression. Today we’re going to look at a few photos in detail and examine all three, putting them together to figure out what that dog is saying in detail.

Note that if you’re on the street and have to make a quick judgement, I look for the following:

1. Is the tail high and stiff? If so, that’s aggression and I need to act accordingly. If not, it doesn’t matter.

2. Is the dog hard staring? Nose down, ears forward, wrinkles in forehead, no panting. Dog looks “locked onto target.” If so, that’s aggression, and I need to act accordingly.

Anything else I can take my time and decide what the dog is doing, and whether or not I should approach.

Got it? Okay! Here are the photos. Make your own guesses, then hover over them to see what I said!

Tail: low. Dog does not want to engage. Spine: In this photo, it's hard to tell. But she's definitely not up and down bouncy (which would indicate play), and it looks like her tail is probably pinched against her butt at the base, which is definite tension and always indicates anxiety. Facial expression: whites of the eyes are visible, ears are pinched against head. This dog's tail indicates she doesn't want to engage, and both spine and facial expression indicate anxiety. Even though she doesn't have the final sign of anxiety -- back molars showing -- I would say she's very stressed, likely fearful of something going on, because there are so many hallmarks of anxiety throughout her body. I'd also say that with that many markers, the fact that she's not panting probably means she's ready to bite.

Like the last dog, this is a small, floppy eared dog on the move. But look at the difference in body language! Tail: High, ready to engage. Spine: I can't say it's relaxed, but there is up and down movement: his butt is slightly higher than his shoulders, even on the run. Up and down movement indicates playfulness. Facial expression: while his ears are back, like the other dog, they're back and relaxed, not pinched. No whites of the eyes showing. His mouth is open (maybe barking?) but no back molars are present. Overall? Tail indicates readiness to engage, spine indicates good emotional state, face is relaxed and happy. This dog is ready to play!

Husky: Tail up, ready to engage. Stance is also squared off, which tells me she's not retreating. Spine: There's no wiggle in that tail; I'd guess that spine is stiff (bad emotional state). She's certainly not in motion, bouncy or otherwise. Facial expression: ears pinched. I can't see her eyes from this angle. Mouth closed (either calm, or ready to snap), nose down (I don't want to be friends). Combine all three? Ready to act but in a bad mood. Ears are pinched and nose is down to say, "I'm nervous and I'm not friendly." This dog is stressed out, and she's ready to deal with her problems. Give this girl a wide berth. Dogs in this mood aren't likely to approach, but she's willing to stand her ground. The terrier: Tail high, so he's ready to enegage. His head is hiding most of his spine, but I can at least see that there isn't a nice C-curve, so at best he's only in an okay mood. Facial expression: ears pitched foward (focused on target, owner and other dogs tuned out), no signs of anxiety. Nose is low: not wanting to be friends. He's panting, so he's not about to bite (but that doesn't mean that'll be true in another second). One paw up: he's either in motion, or would like to be in motion. Combine them: not a great mood, ready to deal with it, ears up and nose down is aggressive "locked onto target" expression. He's not about to attack because he's panting... but I wouldn't trust him, either. These two dogs are in a stare down.

IMG_8292

IMG_7554

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Right about now you’re probably thinking, “Holy moly! This is subtle stuff!” Yup, and it’s only the tip of the iceberg of body language. Study the photos, study your own dogs, look at videos and see if you can spot it, check out the dogs in the dog park. We want to become experts at learning body language, so that you know what it is your dog is communicating!

This finishes up our series. I’ll keep posting dog body language things as I can (and have time; these are time intensive!), along with anything else I feel like posting! We’re back to our normal schedule next week!

Jenna

Dog Body Language: facial expressions!

First, your primer on what to look for:

When dogs are feeling anxious, the muscles on the back of the skull tighten, pulling the facial skin tight. This causes the ears to pinch against the skull, the whites at the corners of the eyes to show, and if the dog is panting the back molars to be seen.

Dogs might feel stress either because they’re physically stressed (stop playing fetch! Your dog is now overheated!) or mental/emotional stress. It’s this latter that we’re going to look at today.

The opposite would be a dog who isn’t under stress, but isn’t listening to his owner, and may be aggressive. When the ears pull forward, usually creating a wrinkle in the forehead, the dog is no longer tuned in to his owner. (He might just be excited about making new friends, or he might be preparing to attack.) When they’re friendly, the nose comes up and usually twitches, catching scent. When they’re not friendly, the nose drops down and they watch out of their eyes.

More details we’ll note as we go through the pictures! Hover over each image to get the notes for what’s going on in that dog’s face.

Callie Buna Bed

   Nose is way up, ears are swiveling back to acknowledge not just what he was focused on, but what's going on around him as well. Better! I would expect this dog to jump on me in greeting.

IMG_7420

IMG_7973

IMG_8116

IMG_8711

IMG_8755

IMG_9091

And with that last mixed-message picture, you can see how important it is to take into account not just body or tail or facial expression, but all of it at once.

Next week: we take all of it into account!

Jenna

 

Dog Body Language: Tails and spines

Continuing our body language series! Last week we had a quickie overview of body language. Today we’re breaking down tails and spines!

The rule of thumb: The height of the tail generally indicates the level of energy and the willingness to engage. (The willingness to engage may or may not be a good thing.) The higher the tail, the higher the energy and the more likely the dog is to engage. The lower the tail, the lower the energy/likelihood. It is not an indication of happiness.

Sometimes, you’ll hear people refer to a high tail as “high confidence.” I don’t. Some of the most confident dogs I know have low tails. They’re usually older dogs who are happy to engage if approached, but would rather be off doing their own thing, kthnks.

A high tail might mean, “I’m so happy to see you; I’m going to jump on you!” or it might mean, “I’m going to rip your face off!” Both are a willingness to engage.

A low tail might mean, “I’m so content right now, willing to hang out and nap,” or it might mean, “I’m terrified!” Both are not wanting to engage.

How do you tell the difference? The spine! The spine is the emotional state: the more pinched, stiff, tense, or still the spine, the more negative the emotional state. The more relaxed or wiggly the spine, the better the emotional state.

You take “willingness (or lack thereof) to engage” and “emotional state” and you combine them to create a rough estimate of a dog’s mood. You can kind of apply it to human moods, with a few alterations (such as anger; dogs don’t get angry, really. But they do get aggressive when we would be angry, so you can still match it up pretty well, knowing that ‘aggression’ is the substitute for ‘anger.’)

Ready? I’m going to post pictures. Hover over the picture to see the dog’s mood and a detailed explanation after you’ve made your guess!

IMG_8364

P1000112

Sheba and Dawn 3-2012

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

dog photo

All right, this was JUST a look at spines and tails. Adding in faces can give a great deal more information: we’ll start that next week!

Jenna