Canine Behavior/Boxer mix misbehaving
I have a two year old Boxer/Pit mix who is causing problems on the street during walks. I also have a Black Lab and I walk them together. This is a small town and most of the time we don't come across another dog and owner but, when we do, my Boxer mix (Pesto) reacts this way:
He becomes very excited, his hackles go up, he begins to attempt to lunge, then he bites at the leash (my husband usually walks him and he created this leash made of heavy duty mariner rope so the dog can't bite through it) and "fights" with me (or my husband) for a few minutes. Can you help me figure out how to stop this?
Thank you for your question. It sounds like Pesto becomes over aroused when he sees strange dogs (at least when he's on a leash). This is actually one of the most common behavioral issues with our furry friends. There are many theories as to why this is such a common issue, and in all likelihood there are several different motivations for the behavior as each dog is unique. Some dogs may be super excited and eager to go greet the strange dog, some may feel vulnerable and "trapped" because they're tethered to their person. Some may really dislike strange dogs and so do their best to get the other dog to move away rather than have their personal space invaded. And many dogs with this behavior escalate because of a dynamic with the person handling the leash: The dog saw a strange dog and reacted by growling and barking. The owner reacted by tightening the leash and perhaps scolding the dog or yanking on the leash (or punishing the dog in some other way). The dog who was already uncomfortable with the strange dog (that's why he reacted), now associates strange dogs with his own getting in trouble. So the next time he sees a dog he begins to tell them to back off while there's more distance. This of course gets the owner tightening the leash, etc. It also gets the owner into an anticipatory mode where the owner may start to tighten the leash or even yank on it BEFORE the dog has even reacted to the strange dog. And thus a cycle is born that escalates and escalates until the human is at their wits' end.
The common thread, though, in any of the above possibilities is that the leash prevents the dogs from engaging with each other in a natural way.
But. . . there are things we can do to help Pesto feel better about his walks and seeing strange dogs while out.
The first order of business is that the two dogs in your home will need to be walked separately while the retraining is going on. You need to be able to give all your focus and attention to Pesto so you can praise his good choices and help him if he gets in over his head (reactive). If the other dog is there, then your attention is split.
Also, during the retraining, the walk is about the work and not about the physical exercise. The brain exercise is actually more tiring than physical exercise. You can play with him at home fetching up and down a hall or playing tug or other physical games that he enjoys. But the walks are all about his education.
Whenever you have him out you want to do your best to keep him below his threshold for reacting. This means keeping him at a distance that is sufficiently far for him that he can look at the trigger (the strange dog), but not feel compelled to bark, lunge, growl, bite his leash, etc. How far Pesto needs to be is entirely up to Pesto. It may be 10 feet or it may be 1/2 a mile. And it may change depending on other circumstances. If he's nervous or startled by something else (e.g. a car backfires near him), then his tolerance for another dog being near him may go down and suddenly where he was able to be 15 feet from strange dogs, for the next hour he may need them to be 50 feet away.
CLASSICAL COUNTER CONDITIONING
This is the process of changing his emotional response from "Oh NO!" to "Oh YES!!" Set yourself up where you can sit or walk in a relaxed manner and where you know you'll see other dogs at a distance. The moment Pesto notices another dog, start raining awesome treats down on him. Dropping them just in front of his nose and around your feet until the strange dog is gone. Then as soon as the strange dog is gone, the food disappears.
During this kind of exercise, you don't worry about whether he is barking or lunging or looking at you. It really doesn't matter what his behavior is. You are just making an association for him that the presence of a strange dog reliably predicts manna from heaven. So no matter what his behavior is, you start raining his very favorite treat while the strange dog is in sight and stop the food presentation as soon as the strange dog is gone. After a bunch of repetitions, you'll start to see that Pesto doesn't react immediately. Instead, he may look at you or around on the ground or up at the sky to see if the food is going to appear. This is a MAJOR milestone in that he's telling us that he's making that connection - strange dogs = steak (or string cheese or chicken breast or french fries...).
Once he demonstrates he's made the connection, you can switch to Operant Conditioning
. This is where Pesto needs to operate on his environment in order to make the manna from heaven appear. At this stage, he should already be doing an alternative behavior to the barking/lunging because he's anticipating the food. So now, you wait for that alternative behavior and then reward that with the food.
Alternative behaviors may be looking at you, Sitting or lying down, sniffing the ground, etc. Really any behavior that is NOT reacting to the strange dog. At this point we are moving into a protocol called
This protocol is a process by which you mark his calm choices and then reward them. The best way to do this consistently is with a clicker (available at all pet stores for less than $3). First you have to teach him that the sound of the click reliably predicts food. We do this by clicking the clicker and then handing him a treat - repeatedly. I usually do 6-10 repetitions and then set the clicker down and do something else for anywhere from 10 minutes to 5 hours. Then I'll repeat the exercise. I vary the time between clicks from back-to-back all the way up to 2 or 3 minutes between clicks. What the dog is doing when you click is irrelevant at this point. We just want to make sure that the click is followed by food immediately.
Note: The order is important. If you have the food in your hand where he can see it and then click, then we don't make the connection that the click predicts the food. Ditto if the food comes out simultaneous to the click. So keep the food on a counter or table near you. Click and then promptly reach for a treat and deliver it to Pesto. If the order and timing is right, it shouldn't take more than a day to see him respond to the clicker. You test him by clicking the clicker while he's looking away from you or otherwise occupied. If he knows that Click = Food, then he should promptly turn his attention to you when he hears it. If he doesn't, then you still have some training to do.
Now, with the clicker "charged", you essentially do the same thing as in the counter conditioning in that you set yourself up at a distance from the triggers and either sit still or walk around. When a dog appears, wait until he makes a behavior choice you like (e.g. looking from the dog to you, sniffing the ground, choosing to sit or lie down instead of lunge, etc). and then mark the behavior by Clicking the Clicker and then promptly pay him with a bite of his favorite treats.
In the classical conditioning we are simply making a paired association: strange dogs equal food falling from the sky. In Click-to-Calm, we are paying Pesto for actively making a behavioral choice. Whenever he sees a strange dog he has two choices: bark/lunge/growl/bite or NOT. When he chooses NOT, which may be any other behavior from quietly watching the dog to choosing to disengage from the dog by turning his head or body away, looking at you, sniffing the ground, etc, then we mark that behavior choice and pay him for making it. By marking and rewarding those softer choices, we increase the likelihood that he'll make that choice again in the future.
Another alternative is BEHAVIOR ADJUSTMENT TRAINING (BAT)
This protocol doesn't rely as heavily on food. Instead, it relies on empowering the dog by giving him the freedom to decide where he'd like to go and when. We use a longer leash (10-15 feet). We are there simply to make sure he doesn't get in over his head. If he is heading directly toward the trigger (strange dog), we want to slow him and stop him so he doesn't charge up to the trigger. We also use the leash to help him disengage if he gets stuck staring at the trigger. We do this with super gentle leash contact. You can slide one hand along the leash and then the other just to create a subtle movement. I often tap my fingers on the leash to create a gentle vibration. You can also move into Pesto's peripheral view to get him to look at you, or make kissy noises or sigh heavily or say his name. When he looks at you, you'll ask him "Read??" and then with happy energy, you'll trot off away from the trigger, encouraging Pesto to move with you. **Away from the trigger doesn't necessarily mean directly away. it may just be off to the side but at the same distance or at a diagonal, essentially anywhere Pesto wants to go that is not directly at the trigger.
The BAT protocol has a nice analogy that uses a beach.
When the dog is entirely on the beach (no part of him in the water), then we allow him to make all the decisions. We just follow him around. He's likely to do a lot of sniffing. he may stop to look at the trigger and then turn away and go about his business. We love that and tell him so. He may move closer to the trigger in a meandering/wandering way. This is fine. If you feel like he's getting closer than his current comfort level, then slow him to a stop and give him a moment to decide how he wants to proceed.
If his toes are in the water, then he may need our help. If he's looking/staring at the trigger and neither reacting nor disengaging, then after about 3 seconds, we want to help him out. This is where those gentle leash movements, heavy sigh, kissy noises or moving into his peripheral view becomes necessary. We want to be subtle in our assistance so that Pesto feels like he made the decision to move on.
If he's up to his elbows in the water, then he is really stuck. He's about to react and cannot break away on his own. Help him. Don't hesitate. Just get his attention and move him off far enough that he can think clearly again. Give him plenty of time to process the situation (a few minutes at least).
If he's over his head/drowning - this is when he explodes. He was too close and is now over threshold. At this point, just save him. Tell him "let's go!" and move him away. You'll probably need to drag him a bit until he's able to gain his focus and you'll probably need to move much further away than on other trials. And he'll need distraction once he's at a distance. This may be with a game of Tug or dropping treats and telling him to "Find It" as you scatter treats around, giving him access to grass ti sniff, getting him fully out of sight (behind a barrier or around a corner) and several minutes (5-30) to calm down enough to try again.
The goal is to never allow him to get past his toes-in-the-water. When you're doing this exercise correctly, it's about as exciting as watching paint dry. It just looks like a dog wandering around and occasionally noticing another dog. No explosions.
Grisha Stewart has a book on BAT available on Amazon:
She's also just revised the protocol to include the beach analogy. You can access that here:
This is a 4-page PDF handout that provides an overview of how to do BAT and page 3 has imagery for the beach analogy.
You can also see video that Grisha has made available to demonstrate what BAT setups might look like: http://empoweredanimals.com/
and also here:
You can also do Stealth BAT outside of formal set-ups just by taking advantage of seeing random dogs at a distance.
Note in all of the protocols described above, as Pesto gets more comfortable, you'll be able to move closer. Always work slowly and if you find you got too close, escape and make sure that you don't go as close next time. Pay attention to Pesto's body language and he'll let you know when he's ready to go closer. He may never be a social butterfly. But with patience and practice, you should reach a stage where he can at least go for his walk without reacting every time he sees a dog.
Note, also, that even if he achieves a level of success where he's able to greet some strange dogs politely, he may not always want to greet strange dogs. There may be individuals he just doesn't wish to engage with, and there may be days when he's had other stresses (from being tired or sore/stiff from play or other things have upset him in the previous 72 hours) and his tolerance is just lower (very much like humans when we have a bad day or week).
No matter the protocol you decide to try, I encourage you to read Turid Rugaas' book, On Talking Terms with Dogs - Calming Signals
. It will walk you through a host of very subtle behaviors that dogs exhibit when they're feeling stressed, anxious, nervous or scared. She describes the behaviors, circumstances where you might see such behaviors, how other dogs may respond to them, etc. By recognizing the earliest warning signals of stress, you will be in a much better position to help redirect Pesto before he feels compelled to escalate to overt distance-increasing behaviors (barking, lunging, snapping, growling).
There's a companion DVD if you or your husband are a visual learner. I encourage reading the book first, but the DVD is available here:
There's also a book called Click to Calm: Healing the Aggressive Dog
which may prove helpful if you choose that protocol.
As always, if you feel insecure about implementing any of these protocols, please seek out the help of a local behavior professional who is versed in these and other force-free behavior modification protocols. Do not work with anyone who wishes to use a choke chain, prong/pinch collar or electronic collar of any kind, or anyone who advocates physical punishment in the form of poking, kicking, hitting, leash jerks, alpha-rolls, etc. These aversive tools and techniques will surely escalate his behavior issue and undermine the process of helping him feel better in those situations.
Good luck, Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Los Angeles Behaviorist