Dogs who are reactive display aggressive symptoms for 1 of 2 reasons: fear or frustration. Sometimes, it's a combination of both. Usually, the issue is primarily on-leash, not off-leash. Why? Because the dog's fight or flight response is inhibited by being on-leash. They cannot go after what they're excited to see, nor can they run away from what they're afraid of.
When we meet to address your reactive dog's behavior issues, my solution will be customized to you and your dog, based on my observations in the first session. However, these are my go-to behaviors to train for reactive dogs:
If your dog is frustrated, please consider investing in a flirt pole, or at least playing tug frequently with your dog. This is the best way I have found for most dogs to vent their frustration. If your dog tends to redirect onto the leash by biting it when triggered, consider using a braided fleece tug leash. Muzzling the dog and preventing their biting does nothing to vent the built up frustration. I only recommend muzzling if the dog is a threat to themselves, their owner, or other animals.
I like to give dogs a detox period prior to starting work. For at least 1 week, avoid all scenarios that may trigger your dog. One major incident can release the stress enzyme, cortisol, into your dog's system that will stay in their bloodstream for up to 7 days. So if your dog got really upset on Thursday and our session is on Friday, we'll be attempting to combat that day's stresses and Thursday's as well.
Please avoid trigger stacking as much as possible. Never try to tackle a dog's fear of the vacuum, frustration around other dogs, and wariness of strange people in hats all in the same session. Focus on one trigger per session.
This is a touchy subject, and for good reason. There is a lot of stigma around behavioral medication for people and dogs. Medication is seen as a band-aid and overused. As someone who suffers from PTSD, I had a period of about a year where I personally took prescription medication (Ativan as needed for anxiety, and Lexapro for depression) after a car accident. I've also had a dog who warranted being on medication for fear and aggression. It took me 3 years to come around to the idea, and those 3 years were VERY difficult, even with me as a professional trainer. I finally sought the opinion of a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, who immediately said my dog should be on medication. I finally acquiesced, and that medication gave us 2 more years together, and they were the best years.
How do they work? Prozac (or the generic Fluoxetine) is an anti-depressant in people, and can also help dogs suffering with fear and anxiety. The aggressive symptoms they display become less intense or go away entirely. The disadvantage is this medication has a loading period of a few weeks to get into the dog's system, and playing with the dose is necessary to find the magic. Dogs on the right dose do not act like zombies or seem in any way "drugged up." They are simply benefitting from the medication and doing better. Prozac requires a weaning off period to avoid withdrawal. Trazadone helps with fear and anxiety as well, and has a mild calming effect at the right dose. The advantage is it is fast acting and there is no withdrawal to consider. The disadvantage is the calming effect and that it is situational, you must keep giving the dog the medication for the effects to be seen, it does not build up in their system like Prozac does.
I'm never trying to "load your dog up with drugs." If a dog warrants being on such medication as Prozac or Trazadone, the goal is ALWAYS to wean them off after the medication has had time to provide its service. That period can be between 6 months and a year or so. Sometimes, it's purely a chemical imbalance causing the behavioral symptoms, and during the weaning off process, it is determined that the dog should remain on the medication indefinitely. However, that is not the goal, my intention, or what usually happens. The medication is a tool, just like a training harness. The goal is always to wean off tools as the dog's training progresses and improves.
Generally speaking, these dogs don't have a particular traumatic event causing their fear and aggression. I usually try to tackle just that trauma without medication. These dogs were bred by irresponsible breeders who didn't consider temperament enough before having a litter of adorable puppies and selling them to unsuspecting owners or surrendering them for adoption. However, even responsible breeders who do everything right can have an off puppy in a litter of otherwise happy-go-lucky, normal puppies. When I take a history and determine the owner has owned the dog their entire life, from puppyhood, and done everything "right" but the dog is still extremely upset, no amount of training the world can fix genetics and brain chemistry. Besides genetics, prolonged stress can also alter brain chemistry, creating neural pathways that prohibit stress management and increase anxiety and/or aggression. If your dog is 2 years old or older, has always "been like this," and is constantly in distress, that's a huge red flag for poor brain chemistry. It takes a very severe case for me to recommend medication for dogs under 2 years old. Puppies are developing physically and emotionally, going through various phases -- so I prefer to wait.
Medication as part of a Behavior Modification Plan will help the adjust chemicals in the dog's brain that control stress and make everything easier. The dog's quality of life improves because they're not so upset by their triggers, and training will progress exponentially faster because the dog has a better frame of mind from which to learn. I will be an advocate for the dog and recommend medication if I deem it advantageous to our plan.
Having just been informed someone thought I was "a piece of sh*t trainer" for recommending their dog try behavioral medication (Fluoxetine, the generic for Prozac), I wanted to outline my personal criteria for recommending a prescription for medication from your vet in case it can help someone else in future:
I will ALWAYS respect the wishes of the owner. There is no judgment either way the owner decides. If you decline medication, that is your right. If I believe it possible to do safely, we may continue on with training as best we can. If I feel very strongly the dog should be on medication for safety reasons, I will terminate the training relationship. I don't report owners as neglectful to animal control for declining behavioral medications. This is a very personal decision, but my priority is 100% the quality of life for the dog.
When I recommend medication, you can get that medication from your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist. I am not a doctor, so I cannot prescribe medication. It is then the responsibility of the veterinarian to also determine the dog warrants medication. I have yet to have a veterinarian turn down a client after I make the recommendation. Note: this means that 100% of clients who followed my recommendation to seek medication for their dog have been approved by their veterinarian. However, there are veterinarians who don't like to prescribe these medications and refuse to even entertain the idea -- you can go to another vet and ask for a second opinion.
Separation anxiety (sep-anx) is very common in dogs in mild forms, especially during times of transition: when the dog or puppy first comes home, if they're staying somewhere away from home, or if you move to a new home, etc. Sep-anx can be from more than just home, it extends to other human and animal family members with whom the dog has bonded. Addressing the potential for this from day 1 with your new dog will help tremendously, but the protocol I'm going to outline is for any dog with mild to moderate separation anxiety.
Note: if your dog is an escape artist, digs out of an outdoor enclosure, destroys crates, and/or eliminates or injures themselves when left alone for any prolonged period of time, this protocol is NOT SUFFICIENT for you. I highly recommend we do a consult, you start with Malena DeMartini's work, and/or consult with your veterinarian or a qualified veterinary behaviorist about medication.
The main issue is a lack of object permanence, which is a core understanding that even though the dog cannot sense the presence of someone or something, that thing still exists. For dogs, if they can no longer see, smell, taste, touch, or hear you, you have disappeared from the face of the earth forever. This leads to all sorts of common behavior problems, such as over-exuberance when you return home, excitement urination when greeting people, and of course, separation anxiety. The most important thing is to teach the dog that what they value comes back. In order to do this, we must practice leaving and returning so many times, the dogs lose interest and can begin to trust we'll return. This is when repetition, not duration, is most important.
All of my dogs, when they first come home, experience me leaving the house for no particular reason every 15 - 30 minutes, depending on the severity of their sep-anx. I walk out the door and close it, then immediately return. I repeat this whenever I'm home until the dog has no reaction to me leaving or returning. It's boring and part of the norm. I can add duration for while I'm outside, such as counting to 10 or walking farther away, or stretch out the time for the interval to an hour or more. The more frequent, the more normal -- the less frequent, the more exciting. I would also do a lot of dummy leaves where I got ready to leave, but didn't leave. Dogs catch on to patterns very quickly, and putting on shoes, getting keys, putting on a coat, and grabbing a bag are tell-tale signs that you're leaving. This is my go-to starting point for all my mild sep-anx cases.
Of course, we want to keep the dog safe when we do have to be away for a long period of time. I highly recommend confinement in a crate that is sturdy (solid metal or plastic with air holes is usually most resistant to escaping/avoids self-injury). You can do Susan Garrett's crate games to get them to willingly participate in crating, as well as feed them all their meals in their crate. I made the crate the starting point for all play interactions as well, both inside and outside (from the car). I also practiced a lot of going in and out when I didn't need to leave them in their crate for very long, adding it to part of my dummy leave routine.
If a crate is not what you prefer, a bathroom or laundry room, ex-pen, or another small space may be a viable alternative. However, it is likely that the dog will chew, paw at, and scratch near the door. If so, be prepared to repair your home, and please do not get mad at your dog for doing it. Ensure the room is escape-proof, do not leave windows open where the dog could launch through a screen and venture out trying to find you.
Some dogs do very well having another canine or feline companion. If your dog is your only pet and they have mild to moderate separation anxiety, consider getting them a friend if they have a high social drive. For many dogs, however, they have no need for a companion other than their human family, or they simply are too intensely codependent on their people, and another dog or cat will not suffice to soothe their sep-anx.
While you're away, give your dog something to enjoy that will take the sting out of your absence and departure. A frozen Kong, bully stick, or marrow bone can be a wonderful chew to soothe their anxiety. There are even multiple Kong recipes to try for variety.
When you do return home from being away for an extended period, it is likely your dog will be tremendously relieved that you've arrived and will be jumping out of their skin to see you. For many of us, this greeting is part of the reason we got a dog; however, I urge you not to reward this state of mind with affection and reassurance. You will be reinforcing how valuable your return is, and contributing to their sep-anx. Please be "boring" when you return until your dog calms down. This allows them to come back into their mind and body in a healthy way. Once calm, or at least calmer, then you can resume your normal greeting routine. Once the sep-anx is resolved, you do not need to continue this part of the treatment.
Some dogs have severe separation anxiety that cannot be helped with the above outlin alone. When to draw the line:
If you have any tips I haven't mentioned or wish to get more specific, please comment below!
Congratulations! You're about to welcome a new puppy into your household. I'm so excited for you, I wanted to write a post about my common recommendations for new puppy owners.
If your puppy came from a breeder or a foster home, they likely already have a head-start on socialization, separation anxiety, crate training, and house training. If your puppy is from a shelter kennel, then you'll have to be extra diligent to avoid accidents and destruction in the house, as well as ramp up your socialization efforts with items they couldn't be exposed to in a shelter environment. Whether you did or didn't rescue isn't the point -- I don't judge! This is just information you need to set yourself and your new puppy up for success.
First off, your new puppy is disoriented being in their new home. Please be patient, and the first order of business is to teach your puppy their name and come so that they will come back to you if they get away for any reason. After that, house proof your home. Remove excessive hazards from puppy reach: cables, laundry, remotes, shoes, decor that is purely decorative, etc. This protects your home, belongings, and the puppy! If you are unable to remove or hide cables, consider blocking off that area of your home so your puppy doesn't electrocute themselves chewing on what looks like a fun chew stick that turns out to be extra chewy and bendy. Oh so satisfying! Decide if you want your puppy to be allowed on the furniture, and stick to it unanimously throughout the household. All my dogs are allowed on my furniture, and all my dogs sleep with me if they want to.
Next, house training. My regimen looks something like this:
Once house training is squared away, it's time to plan some activities to fulfill your puppy's drives! Many dogs and puppies are food motivated, so scent games where they have to find a treat in a box and use their nose to tell where the box is and which box has a treat is a must. After that, is your dog a terrier? They'll love to chase a toy, catch it, and "kill" it! If your dog is a retriever, fetch is the obvious game. If your dog is a sighthound, have them practice stay, walk away as far as you're able, then have them launch to chase a flirt pole. If your dog is a scenthound, the above nose work game is a good start, but tracking a trail (hot dog juice?) outside in the yard would be way more fun, especially if they found a prize at the end! If your dog is a herder, I find a flirt pole and/or the sport of treibball are excellent substitutes for sheep or cattle in urban environments. If your dog is a brainiac in need of constant stimulation, trick training can be a wonderful outlet. If your dog loves the water, consider getting them a kiddie pool if you don't have a full-size pool for them to use. If your dog loves to dig, build or purchase them their very own sandbox to save your yard and give them an outlet for that drive. Never consider a "naughty" behavior something "bad" about your dog, it's just a drive waiting to be given an appropriate purpose!
If you're having any trouble with your new dog or puppy, I'd be happy to do what I can to help! Some things I can answer with a quick email, other things we'll need to schedule a consultation for. I do remote consults via Skype for those out of my service area.
Separation anxiety will be addressed in a separate post soon. I'll link it here when I've written it. Stay tuned!
I wanted to explain, briefly, what each tool in the dog training toolkit is used for. I'm going to start with the tools I use and recommend, and then move on to the ones I don't. However, I'm not going to start a debate, or vilify other trainers who do use them.
Tools I use and recommend:
Now I wanted to get into the tools that I have used before, and don't recommend:
In short, all tools are bandaids, and don't replace proper training. Focus on doing the work, not on what tool is used. Watch the behavior of the dog: is the dog happy, eager to work with this person, and performing well? Is the owner pleased with the dog's wellbeing and training? Then I have no complaints. However, I feel it is my duty to introduce methods and tools that are less aversive, and still accomplish the training goals for the dog efficiently and effectively.