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Canine Behavior/Please help me rebuild my dog's confidence with other dogs


Hi Jill, thank you for taking the time to read my question.  I have an 8 years old female Tervuren (Belgian Shepherd) called Kilim.  She is my first dog. Since I got her at 12 weeks, I spent lots of time training her and taking her on various activities, including long bike rides.  She now understand more than 30 words. The initial training was under the supervision of certified trainer.  Kilim is an intelligent dog and learn very quickly despite her strong character. Since she turned two years old, she calmed down and obeyed every instruction.  She loved meeting new dogs and played well with them.  She never aggressed another dog but she was able to intimidate any dog even larger breed.  With people, she shows a lot of interest in them when we walk past and she accepts a large majority of the people.  People adore her and give lots of comments on her beauty and behavior. My daily walk with her has never been on a leach.  She used to walk next to me or in front of me, but when I call her or instruct her, she responded very quickly.  Most of time, she used to understand my directions without even giving her instructions!

Two years ago, I was compelled to travel on regular basis for my work and I had to ask my wife to do the daily walk with her and take care of her needs.  Despite my wife, accompanied me on almost the walks I made with Kilim, she probably did not grasp the way she should deal with the dog and I have to admit it was my mistake not teach my wife how to handle a dog.  

My wife was scarred that Kilim approaches any dog; thinking that she is going to have a fight with other dogs instead of playing! Also my wife was afraid that Kilim might bother the owner of the other dogs.  Unfortunately, she never put Kilim on leach when she walked with her.  She wanted to give Kilim instructions as I used to do when I walked with her; but Kilim either did not understand my wife instructions or refused to obey immediately.  At the end my wife started yelling at Kilim who ended being introverted does not want to play with any dog.  Besides, she started giving signs to other dogs that she scared of them and the other dogs aggresses her.

As a result, Kilim refuses today to go to kennel and if she goes she does not eat. The last time, we took her to kennel she ran away!   Fortunately, we were able to find her upon our return from travelling. Kilim is not afraid of people but rather has a blockage against other dogs.

Thank you for reading all this way.  I hope I was able to describe properly the situation.  I guess my questions to you is how to rebuild Kilim's confidence when she is with other dogs, as she used to be previously?  I'd be really grateful for any advice you could give me.

Again, many thanks.

The extremely complex and real Post Traumatic Stress Disorder exists in many species.  In the Human: because of the more complex brain structure, PTSD can (and does) produce fight/flight response resulting in high anxiety (fight/flight) to any stimulus that provokes it (unknown or unrecognized, at first, to the subject); during such response, adrenaline rises considerably and all Human hormonal functions respond to "this is a life and death situation".  We, Humans, even in the face of COMPLEX post traumatic stress disorder, can (with medical and cognitive behavioral therapy) ATTEMPT to overcome the strongly conditioned fight/flight response.  WE do it knowingly, we volunteer for it after acknowledging that we have a problem.  The dog cannot acknowledge that it has an acquired conditioned fear response nor can it volunteer to attempt to correct it.

"Desensitization", therefor, in dogs is almost impossible.  What is required is counter conditioning.  Your wife was "scared" ..."thinking she is going to have a fight with other dog instead of playing'.  First: your wife's fear produces adrenaline on the breath to which this particular breed of dog (among many others) is highly attuned.  Therefore, your wife's fear immediately communicates itself to the dog (who due to her perception of social hierarchy, may not perceive your wife as "higher" or even "equal" to her).  The dog then begins to see every oncoming dog as a "threat".  She is not restrained (the leash is not only physical restraint, but psychological).  She acts on the body language of your wife and the adrenaline she can clearly smell and, suddenly, approaching dogs (rather than being things of interest) become threats.  Dogs to NOT "play".  ALL apparent "play" between/among dogs is a test of social hierarchy.  A well socialized dog will interact in such "play" without aggression but will prevail in the interaction.  This can all take several seconds in body language, most of which Humans cannot "read" because they have not "studied".

Kilim cannot go to kennel, for any reason.  If you wish to attempt to COUNTER CONDITION her experience with other dogs on walks, you can use followup feature (so I can see original question/answer) but this dog has a STRONGLY ACQUIRED CONDITIONED FEAR RESPONSE to other dogs.  Given her breed (one of my all time favorites), she is true to type: this means, once a well bred dog of this breed acquires a strong and consistent signal, that dog will consistently react as it should: with alert preparation to act in defense.  At age eight, your dog can be subject to response perseverance: what she has learned has converted to long term memory and may not be subject to counter conditioning.

Every time this dog is subjected to a situation where she is confined with strangers in a place with many other dogs, her fight/flight mechanism will increase.  At age eight, she is close to the end of her life (average age 12 to 14 years).  It is HIGHLY unlikely that, even with THE most sophisticated counter conditioning, the experience of Kilim can be extinguished.  This is a "one person" breed.  She lost total confidence in herself as a result of what occurred with your wife (the yelling didn't help either).  She is, I consider, permanently handicapped.  You have to make careful allowances for this if you travel.  She must be in a home where there is a VERY SECURE fence perimeter with a very experienced dog sitter.  Sorry to say, without very sophisticated and expensive certified applied animal behaviorist and veterinary medication, this situation is most likely permanent.

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Jill Connor, Ph.D.


I have spent my entire professional life rehabilitating the behavior of the domestic dog and I can answer any question regarding any behavior problem in any breed dog. I have answered more than 5,000 QUESTIONS on this site in the past (almost) eight years. If you are a caring, committed owner and need advice, I'm here for you. I am personally acquainted with my colleagues (Turid Rugaas, Ian Dunbar, etc.) who were members of an elite group in EGroups that I founded: K9Shrinks. THERE ARE NO QUICK FIXES for serious behavioral issues; not only is it unprofessional to offer same, it is also unethical. IF I ASK YOU SUBSEQUENT QUESTIONS, I NEED YOU TO INTERACT WITH ME. More information equals more credible answers and a more successful outcome. If you want ANSWERS THAT WORK, participate in any way I request. I'm quite committed to working on this site for YOUR benefit and the benefit of YOUR DOG. Help me in any way you can.


30 years of solving serious behavior problems in domestic dogs; expert in dog to human aggression; Internet columnist for for 5 years; former radio talk show host, WHPC.FM, Garden City, NY "Bite Back" (1995 through 2000). List owner, international animal behavior experts, Seminar leader: "Operant Conditioning and Learning"; "Aggression in The Domestic Dog"; "Solving Problem Behaviors" -- conducted for various training facilities on Long Island from 1993 through 2000. Former clinical director of "Behavioral Abnormalities" in conjunction with Mark Beckerman, DVM, Hempstead, New York.

Member, APDT (UK); Psychologists in Ethical Treatment with Animals

Harcourt Brace Learning Direct: "The Business of Dog Training" "The Fail Safe Dog: Brain Training, not Pain Training"

Ph.D., UC Berkeley

Past/Present Clients
Board of Directors: Northeast Dog Rescue Connection; The Dog Project; Sav-A-Dog Foundation; etc. Pro Bono counselor: Little Shelter Humane Society My practice is presently limited to forensics. I diagnose cause of dog bite, based upon testimony before the Court, for attorneys and insurance companies litigating dog bites, including fatal injuries. I also do pro bono work for bona fide rescue organizations, humane societies, et al, regarding such analysis in an effort to obtain release for dogs being held for death in municipal shelters in the US.

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