Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Why is my dog snarling in the window?: A Breakdown of Barrier Reactivity

My Aussie Marco is a really friendly and well adjusted dog. He came to me with a great temperament at 8 weeks old and through mountains of socialization he has continued to be my most trustworthy dog around other dogs, small animals, babies and of course new people. Marco however has a secret... he use to be extremely barrier reactive. What does this mean? 

Barrier reactivity is when you put a dog behind a fence, kennel door, window, leash, etc. and they see a person or another dog or small animal. An over reaction follows that might include lunging, growling, showing of teeth, barking, snarling, etc. Marco literally went from wiggling, happy puppy to full on vampire face. Even my trainer friends thought he was aggressive until of course I opened the kennel door and poof it vanished and my happy boy was back. 

Marco had a very specific form of barrier reactivity that occurred only when he was in his kennel and saw another dog. It also had to be a dog he didn't know well (the other dogs in my house didn't elicit any sort of reaction from him). I deduced that for Marco it occurred because he was extremely frustrated that he couldn't go meet the other dogs and he would blow up like a toddler having a temper tantrum until he got his way and was allowed to play. This behaviour first appeared at 6 months (right around when adolescence kicks in) and I had solved the problem before he reached 8 months. It did take some work though. 

So now that you have a good idea of what barrier reactivity is you're probably wondering how you can solve it? Well it depends on WHY your dog is reacting. A good trainer can help you figure this one out. A dog that is overly excited is different than a dog that is fearful. Both dogs can demonstrate barrier reactivity. I would address the issues quite differently though. An over excited dog needs to learn impulse control (Marco had to wait to be quiet before I would let him out of the kennel to play so he learned quiet, calm behaviour got him what he wanted instead of growling). A scared dog (like Heidi) needed a confidence boosting program to help her learn to trust not only me but understand that people passing by aren't going to hurt her. 

The good news is that barrier reactivity is one of those issues that can be resolved within a fairly reasonable amount of time and improve the dog's (and owner's) quality of life fairly significantly. 

Where's Your Sit? offers 2 fun group classes that can help both hyper, excited dogs as well as fearful dogs. Check out our Hyper Dog Program or our Confidence Booster Program to help your pup today. We also offer private, in home training that can address this issue. 

Monday, December 26, 2011

Dog Aggression & Common Sense

The more time I spend working with people and their dogs the more apparent it becomes that sometimes common sense takes a back seat. 

Here's an example: "My dog sometimes snaps at other dogs and seems uncomfortable". I advise the client to keep their dog away from other dogs while we work on the issues (in a controlled setting). This means not visiting off leash dog parks or allowing dogs to approach yours while on leash. 

Within generally 1-7 days of the first meeting I get an email that goes something like this: "So we were at the dog park the other day and Rover bit another dog". 

So why does this happen? I've come to a few conclusions here. I believe that dog owners inherently want their dog to be social and comfortable. They also believe that exposing their dog to other dogs will alleviate the anxiety and fear their dog feels. 

Unfortunately that doesn't work very well when you aren't also working on counter conditioning to the fear and using dogs that are fairly neutral in their interactions with other dogs. 

Dogs who have anxiety, aggression or even a high arousal around other dogs should not be meeting them in dog parks or on leash as this is likely to make the situation worse. Obviously keeping your dog completely separate isn't going to make things better either so here's what I suggest:

1. Contact a positive reinforcement trainer who has experience working with dog to dog aggression. The CPDT-KA trainers would be a great place to start but many cities have positive trainers who can help you out. Ask for references and watch them teach before you sign up. 

2. Join a group class that keeps the dogs separate. Agility is NOT a good idea in this class because it increases arousal. I suggest an obedience class or rally obedience class. 

3. Take your dog for walks where he/she can see other dogs at a distance and teach him/her to check back in with you rather than fixating on them. 

4. If your dog is currently comfortable with a select dog (or dogs) then continue to let them interact in a fenced area where other stranger dogs can't join in. Do NOT introduce new dogs on your own but instead work closely with your trainer. 

5. Pick up a book on dog behaviour. A few suggestions include "Help for your Fearful Dog" by Nicole Wilde or "Fight" by Jean Donaldson. 

6. Do take your dog in for a vet check up especially if this issue is new. There are A LOT of medical reasons including pain, hypo-thyroidism and vaccine sensitivity that can create dog aggression. You'll often need to work with both a vet and a trainer to resolve it.

Please avoid taking your dog to areas where lots of dogs frequent because it can be overwhelming for your dog. This type of issue doesn't go away on it's own. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Dogs Behaving Badly...

What should you do when your best friend is just not listening? 

Well here's a few tips that can help you solve your problems or at least get you on the right path. Many dogs "act up" because they get something out of it. 

Here's an example:
You come home from a long day at work and your best buddy is overwhelmed with excitement when you come in the door. He boundless jumps all over you. For some owners this is a real problem where they can actually be injured and knocked over. 

So how would you go about teaching your beloved (and happy) pet to relax when you come home? 

A great place to start is by asking yourself "What would I want him to do instead?". Dogs can not just stop and do nothing. We have to take all that energy and excitement and direct it at another source. This is a great time to teach a good solid sit stay or even a "drop/down stay". One of my clients opted to teach her dog to go get a toy and bring it to her. This gave the dog a very specific job and a way to burn his energy. Another one of my clients decided to teach her dog to go to bed and wait for a few minutes so she could get her shoes and coat off. Once she was ready she would release the dog and he'd be allowed to offer a "hug". The choices are plentiful and can be as creative as you like. 

The key to stopping "bad" behaviour is replacing it with something more desirable. Many owners need help with this and it sure pays to have a trainer you can consult with. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Buying a Puppy or Dog from a Breeder: Some Considerations

This is my follow up to the adopting a dog post from November 14. As I mentioned in that post not all dogs need to come from adoption or rescue groups. I am not arguing that there isn't a need for homes but it's not the best choice for every family.

That being said getting a dog from a breeder does not guarantee health or temperment (or even the right personality fit). Here's some must have's that breeders should adhere to before you buy a puppy or adult dog from them.

- All breeding dogs should be health screened for common issues in the breed. Most commonly this means OFA xrays done of elbows and hips, yearly eye exams (often referred to as CERF test), hearing exams (BAER), drug sensitivites, and of course a history of cancer, diabetes, epilesy and other diseases in the lines. Health screening will vary from breed to breed so do your research and find out what tests are recommended.

- Breeding dogs should be over the age of 2 years old (both males and females) and not bred every heat cycle (females). 

- Breeders should practice socialization with their puppies from the first day. Puppies living in the home will generally be exposed to more stimuli but this does not guarantee anything. When asking questions about socialization please be considerate that the breeder is also balancing their life, keeping the puppies safe/healthy as well as exposing them to new things. This is however extremely important. 

- Parent dogs should have good temperments with no exceptions. If you are looking for a family pet then I highly recommend being able to meet both parent dogs. 

Sometimes breeders will have adult dogs looking for homes. This can happen for a variety of reasons but most commonly it is because the dog they kept isn't going to be a good addition to their breeding program (either the conformation is quite what they wanted or the dog doesn't have a certain attribute that they want). This can mean a well trained and well adjusted adult dog for a family. I highly recommend this for families with young children who want a mostly ready made dog (please still attend at least 1 obedience group class though... it's great for bonding).  

Don't be afraid to ask your breeder questions but also be polite. Remember many good breeders aren't making a living by breeding dogs. They are doing it because they love the breed and want to enhance it.