Canine Behavior/fear-based aggression
Hi, My dog Mimi is a miniature schnauzer. She has always been very friendly around other dogs and people. From the time she was a puppy she was well socialized. Then about 3 years ago she was attacked by a German shepherd and was all most killed. After that she became very timid around other dogs, but over time her behavior has gotten much more aggressive. It is very hard to even walk on a leash with other dogs around,she wants to go after them to fight.Please help,I love having my dog out in public with me and we always, when possible take her with us on vacation, but this new behavior is totally ruining our ability to take her anywhere.
Thank you Michele
Thank you for your question. It can be very traumatizing for a dog if they get attacked - especially from a larger dog. Your dog was nearly killed when she was attacked, so it's not surprising that she is highly traumatized.
The aftermath of that trauma can be a form of post traumatic stress (PTSD). And if she then became reactive - telling other dogs to back the heck off by growling, snarling, lunging - and then you tightened her leash or corrected her verbally or physically, then we inadvertently increase that trauma rather than reducing it.
Worry not, though, there are some methods to help her feel better. She may never be a social butterfly nor want to meet every dog she sees, but with work and patience, you should be able to help her feel secure enough to go for walks without her feeling constantly on the defense.
Classical Conditioning and Desensitization is simply pairing the scary thing (the trigger - in this case, dogs) with something wonderful (usually the dog's very favorite food). This protocol changes her behavior by changing her emotional reaction. We literally change her response from "Oh NO! a Dog!!!" to "Oh YEA!!!! A DOG!!!!"
The process is simple enough.
1. Be sure to keep her far enough away from the other dogs that she does not feel compelled to react with growling, snarling, barking, lunging, etc. When she's this far away she is below what we call her "threshold" for reacting.
2. While at that distance, you wait until a dog appears.
3. The moment the dog (trigger) appears, you begin raining down tiny bites of her very favorite dog-safe food.
4. The moment the trigger disappears, the food stops.
After a few sessions in different locations, but always with enough distance that she remains below her threshold to react, she will begin to make the association that the sight of strange dogs reliably predicts the appearance of her very favorite food.
NOTE: during this training process, she will only ever get that favorite treat when she sees a strange dog and never for any other training or just because.
Once she is telling you that she understands that the sight of the trigger predicts food (she looks at you immediately after seeing the trigger), you can move her a bit closer. Don't move too close too quickly or you may push her over threshold. But if you take it slow, you should be able to help her feel better at closer distances.
CLICK-TO-CALM - this is the next step in the process of classical conditioning. This uses something called Operant Conditioning - the dog must operate on her environment in some way in order to earn reward.
The difference here is that now she must do something when she sees the trigger before you begin raining treats on her. What she does here is to check in with you - look up at you. She could also choose to sit down or sniff the ground or turn away from the trigger or walk away. Any of these are totally fine. I usually allow the dog to make this decision, and it doesn't have to be the same response each and every time. She'll do what she feels most comfortable with in that moment. The point is that she's making a choice to disengage from the trigger, rather than react to its presence and we want to reward that.
So in this protocol, you first need to teach her that the sound of a clicker reliably predicts food. This is super easy. Clickers are available at all pet stores and are usually less than $3. To "load the clicker" simply click and then present her a treat. She doesn't have to do any specific behavior for this process. You can use her kibble (meal ration) to avoid over feeding.
The important thing here is that the Click MUST happen BEFORE the food appears. So keep the food on a counter or table.. Click the clicker and then immediately reach for a treat and give it to her. Repeat. Vary how long you wait between click/treat trials. You may do 3 or 4 in quick succession, and then wait a minute (or 10...) and repeat. You'll know she knows what the click means when you click it while she's not looking at you and the sound of the click prompts her to look at you for her treat.
Then, beginning at a distance far enough to keep her below threshold, you'll set her up to see a trigger. When she does, you'll wait for her to do one of those calmer behavior choices as described above and then CLICK when she does one of those behaviors and give her a treat for such a good choice.
There's a book called Click to Calm: Healing the Aggressive Dog
, by Karen Pryor that will walk you through the protocol step-by-step.
Finally, another popular protocol that is not quite so reliant on food, but is very reliant on giving the dog the choice to engage or not engage is called Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT). Grisha Stewart created this protocol. I love this protocol and it works really well for a lot of dogs. This protocol keeps the dog below threshold (great enough distance) and allows the dog to decide if she wants to move a bit closer or further. You're there just to help ensure that she doesn't get in over her head and to help her escape if she accidentally gets closer than she was ready for.
She has a book that walks through the whole concept and various set-ups that you can do.
She's since revised the protocol just a bit. You can read about the newest version and watch a webinar for it at her website
Using any of these protocols, or a combination of them, I believe you will be able to help your girl feel more secure when out in the world. There may still be times when she doesn't want to meet a strange dog, and we must always respect her on that - never forcing her to engage with a dog or person (or anything) that she doesn't wish to engage with. But you should see significant improvement from where she currently is.
If you are concerned about implementing any of these protocols, please seek out the assistance of a local force free trainer or behavior specialist. They should be familiar with these protocols and should only use non-aversive techniques and equipment. They should be working on a body harness or face collar and never using a choke chain, prong/pinch collar or electronic/shock/vibration collar. They should never be using physical corrections such as leash pops/yanks/jerks, stringing her up/hanging her by her leash/collar, alpha rolls, poking her in the neck or kicking her in the ribs or kidneys. All of these protocols are designed to build her confidence and trust both in herself and in you. Any aversive techniuqes will undermine that process.
Good luck! Please feel free to followup if I can be of any further assistance.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Los Angeles Behaviorist