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Canine Behavior/Unexpected dog aggression


QUESTION: We have a 5 and a half year old German Shepherd, Sydney, who we have had since she was 6 weeks old.   For the first 4 years of her life, we lived in a remote area with no other people or dogs around.  During those years we would occasionally take Sydney out to socialize her to walking trails and pet stores and she was always well-behaved.  She was (is) very people-friendly, but she was shy & hesitant with dogs.  She would greet them and allow them to greet her, but after a short period of time, she would move away wanting no further interaction.  Hoping to raise her comfort level around other dogs, I took her to several doggie socials hosted by a shelter that I used to volunteer at, but while there she spend most of her time visiting with the other people there, and seemed unsure as to what to do with the other dogs.  Though she never seemed to warm up to other dogs, it seemed to be mostly indifference...she wasn't concerned with them and showed no signs of aggression.

About a year ago we moved to a suburban area with lots of people and dogs in the neighborhood.  To help prepare her for the move, I brought her out to our "new" neighborhood for walks several days a week for a couple of months.  During those initial walks she was quite nervous and seemed a bit overwhelmed by all the smells.  Because she seemed so nervous I was very careful not to introduce her to too many people or dogs along our journey  (when she is nervous she foams at the mouth and drools, so very few people approached us).  I was hoping to slowly acclimate her to the environment.   After several weeks, there was a noticeable decline in her foaming & drooling, and by our second week living in the new neighborhood she seemed right at home.  I was worried about her overall adjustment to the move, but she proved to adapt quite nicely.

During the year that we've lived here, we have gone on long walks through the neighborhood twice a day, and she has been very well-behaved in greeting other dogs on our walks and has become more friendly with some select neighborhood dogs.  I think the best way to describe it may be to say that she has been polite in her interactions, but likes to limit them to brief stints.  The dogs that she is more friendly with are lower energy dogs, and she will contentedly lay beside them while I chat with their owners.  

About a month ago I took her to a doggie day care for a day to see how she would do.  We've never boarded her, but our built-in dog-sitter has left home, so if we want to go anywhere we'll need to board her, so I choose a doggie day care that does boarding.  She spent 6 hours at doggie day care and passed their evaluation with flying colors.  They remarked that she was still a little shy with the other dogs but was very sweet.

A week after going to doggie day care (she was only there one time), while on a walk we encountered a high-energy labradoodle who she was acquainted with, but not particularly fond of.  While passing during the walk, Sydney lunged at the other dog.  The lunge was so sudden and unexpected (never had she shown any aggression) that I dropped the leash to avoid falling.  Sydney growled and barked, but when I yelled "stop" she did and I was able to grab her leash and move on.  I was shaken up and tried to reconstruct to figure out what happened, but I couldn't.  I didn't see any warning signs or unusual behavior leading up to the lunge.   She did not make physical contact with the dog when she easily could have.  It was enough to cause concern and make me more alert, especially when we see this dog, but since it was one no-contact incident with a dog she wasn't particularly fond of, I looked at it as a one-off.  Until today.

This afternoon, my husband was taking the dog out through the garage, and as the garage door lifted, Sydney charged out and went after a dog (unknown) that was walking by on-leash.  By the time my husband got out there, the woman walking the dog was kicking at Sydney, while Sydney continued to try to get to her dog.  My husband grabbed the dog & threw her in the house, but when he went back outside to check on the woman / dog, they were long gone.  He doesn't know if Sydney actually made contact with either one of them -- I'm thinking that if she did, the woman would have come back for health / safety reasons, but we just don't know.

I'm not sure what to do.  I don't know what prompted the behavior, and if she has given off any signs we haven't picked up on them.  She's recently been to the vets and was fine, so we're not aware of any medical issues.  I don't know whether it is significant that she was recently at doggie day care or not.  The only other change over the past 2 months is we have switched her food over to a higher protein, lesser fat food.  The behavior is obviously quite unacceptable, but not knowing what has prompted it, I've no idea how to prevent / correct it in the future.  It really is very much so out of character for her -- until now she has been a neighborhood favorite.  People regularly compliment me on what a nice, well-behaved dog she is.  I'm hoping that you can help guide me so that there are no more incidents.  Though she checked out fine at the vets, I can't help wonder if something isn't wrong, as for over 5 years there was no problem at all.

Any help or insight you could provide would be greatly appreciated.

ANSWER: You have a GOOD dog (my favorite breed, btw) with a NORMAL (for the breed) dog aggression issue that you carefully and responsibly and lovingly attended to before your move.

That doggie day care is responsible for this problem.  Stop immediately.

Doggie day care facilities lie: they want your money.  What they do to your dog when you are not present, you do not know.  If they punish or confine; if they force her (ignoring her body language) to interact in their stupid "play groups" you do not know.  They are no haven, and in this case your perfectly well adjusted GSD (even with inherited fear factors) is now failing.

Something about that dog when the garage door lifted got her attention: she went into fight/flight mode.  It may have been the unexpected appearance of another dog or the body language of the dog's handler: can't see anything from here.  Had she done actual damage, the cops would have been at your door.  THIS IS GOOD.  She is not inflicting serious bodily injury.

At this point YOU ABSOLUTELY REQUIRE THE EXPERTISE of a Certified Applied Animal behaviorist (CAAB) (NOT a dog trainer).  Such professional will have credentials (educational, exepriential), veterinary reference (at least two) and personal references AND YOU MUST CHECK THEM.  Your dog must be observed on leash outdoors and during common advance of other dogs in the area (also on leash) in order to determine what is going on.  Her fight/flight response is high: there is no cognition (thought) involved.  This CAN be changed, slowly, by careful counter conditioning.  To find a CAAB:

VERIFY their educational and national credentials NO DOG TRAINERS.

Meanwhile: carry chunks of baked liver in a zip-loc baggie in your pocket (simply bake a piece of liver in the oven, chop it into bite pieces, refrigerate).  When on walks with your dog, observe VERY CLOSELY her body language.  When hackles raise, or head lowers with ears back, or any hesitation appears: STOP WALKING FORWARD.  Circle your dog (as if following a very large hoola hoop) left, then right, observing her body language.  This circling changes her brain waves (AND yours, relieves your tension).  Before circling, pop a tic tac into your mouth (to mask the flow of adrenaline your normal response will cause).  As SOON AS your dog is LOOKING AT YOU and not the oncoming dog, stop, ask for sit, pop a piece of liver into her mouth, say "forward" and keep going.  Do this EVERY TIME you perceive a problem MAY DEVELOP.  This is counter conditioning.

I think with the help of a CAAB you can totally rehabilitate this problem but don't try it alone.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Thank you very much for your thoughtful and detailed response.  I had spent much of the day after the incident concerned with what I felt had to be my missing her cues and thinking that I might have become a bit too complacent when walking her because she is such an easy girl to walk.  On our walk last night I paid close attention to her at all times...she generally carries herself in a neutral, relaxed manner, and alerts at the usual things.  Most times when she would get to an alert state, a slight tug on the leash or a quick tap on her side would get her attention and take her back to a relaxed state, but when she spotted a dog across the street, she alerted and remained fixated on it.  Though she didn't appear fearful or aggressive, she was definitely fixated and not easily brought out of it.  I put her into a sit and stood in her line of sight, while she tried mightily to look around me.  It took some time, but once she relaxed we moved on.  When we got home I read your response, which really helped ease my mind.  I look forward to working with her on counter conditioning and will find a CAAB to work with.  My girl has been a wonderful ambassador for her breed and I am determined to keep her that way.

I do have a couple of follow-up questions for you if you don't mind.  Up until the last month, in fight / flight situations she always chose flight.  Could it have just been her overall experience at doggie day care that flipped a switch?  The one thing that I really didn't like about the day care was that they put the dogs into groups based solely on size.  That seemed off to me, because I'd think they'd take energy levels into account as well.  It doesn't really matter since she won't be going back, but I am curious.

My second question would be about boarding her.  I'm concerned because we never have and I'm not sure she'll handle it well. She very much likes being with us and the solitude of a kennel seems cruel to me.  (Why I was hoping the doggie day care would work out.)  Unfortunately we have nobody who could take her in for us, or stay at the house.  Would you have any recommendations on how to find a good facility for her and how to prepare her for it?

Thanks again, so much, for your assistance!

You have a great dog and you have incredible instincts and intuitive knowledge.  The "alert" posture at the sight of another dog is normal in any dog but ... big "but"....what happens next, we don't know or trust right now.  This is NORMAL FOR THIS BREED, there is a fear factor in the GSD and unless heavily socialized (puppy kindergarten, basic obedience with positive reinforcement in group, continuing training in group) to other dogs, the GSD can be a problem.  You just can't always "read" the "intention".  Circling her (instead of standing in front of her) will change her brain wave activity and eventually cause her to LOOK AT YOU which you then cue for "sit" and reward (liver), then go on.  In this way, she learns YOU are not stressed by the appearance of another dog, her fight/flight is eventually disengaged (and this will happen much more frequently once you begin the counter conditioning) and her attention to YOU is rewarded.  Your stress goes down that leash.  Pop a tic tac into your mouth and circle: it changes your brain wave patterns, too.  

Doggie day care is almost always a huge error.  You are not there to see what is being done.  They are all about money.  Just like an "only child" may not be totally comfortable with other children right away (even when heavily socialized to them in play groups and mommy and me groups), the dog is just so on a simpler level.  Your dog does not NEED PLAY MATES.  She is not comfortable at this point (due to doggy day care).  You caught this in time and a CAAB will be able to go out on the street with you and assist in rehabilitation of this problem (which I think can be done quite successfully).

In terms of boarding:  very, very careful.  As careful as I am, in the past year I have been to Europe three times and just returned from a cruise.  The first two times, I left my rescue Toy Poodle with (first) a woman who had a great reputation (wow, don't even ask) and a "kennel" that was supposedly "luxury".  When I picked this 7 pound dog up from that luxury kennel, she was so dehydrated I could literally pull her flesh from her skeleton and had dropped about five ounces in weight.  This "luxury kennel" (which cost me a lot of money) had a veterinarian in charge.  No one put my dog on IV to replace her dehydration (which can result in sudden death in such a small dog).  Last two times, I chose neighbors whom she knows and loves and she did fine.

Shop around and do it carefully.  Walk in on any self proclaimed "luxury kennel" unexpectedly now and then and INSIST on entry to see what these dogs are REALLY doing and how they are REALLY being treated.  If they won't let you in...well, 'nuff said.  Look for a house sitter (again: references, many) or pet sitter (again: references, many, and bonded) and pay a lot of $ for your dog to be cared for properly.  Ask the CAAB, s/he may know someone.

Unfortunately, the responsibility of dog ownership is similar (somewhat) to the responsibility of parenting.  You must absolutely make a commitment to the well being, safety, emotional, physical and psychological health of your dog.  This makes travel difficult.  I know it has for me and will continue to do so unless my loving neighbor is willing or I find a truly GOOD "luxury kennel" (which will cost me at LEAST $25 a day, probably more like $40.)

If you have family members with no pets and no young children who are willing to take your dog when you travel, bring the dog over there and leave her for a few hours at a time a couple of days a week, then one overnight, then another overnight with a full day.  See how it goes.  Your dog will habituate to the new surroundings slowly (over the course of 2 to 3 weeks) and "learn" you ARE coming back.  Dogs don't tell time the way we do: one week is the same as one hour.

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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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