Ask The Trainer: “Pack Attack”

Does your dog act differently when walking with another dog? This submission to Ask The Trainer addresses an unusual example of a common problem:

The Dog:
Sadie: A four-year old Australian Cattle Dog, adopted as a rescue when she was 1. Very loyal, intelligent, full of energy, and personality.

The Human:
Claire: 26 year old gal trying her best to use positive reinforcement and tons of exercise to work with Sadie on issues of separation anxiety and reactivity.

The Situation:
Sadie is really good with other dogs, on leash, off leash, she likes to say hi and then walk by! BUT when she is paired up with another dog she knows (our friends’ dogs, other dogs we’ve lived with) she gets very aggressive with other stranger’s dogs, barking at them from across the street, and instigating fights, both on and off leash.

The Question:
What to do? She is not interested in food in the slightest (even super-high value treats such as sausage or cheese) when she’s in this state. What do I call this behavior? How can I train her out of it when I don’t have access to our friends dogs who are key to the behavior starting up in the first place?

Ah, pack mentality. We often meet dogs who seem fine when walking on their own, but turn into Cujo when their doggy sibling comes along. Sadie doesn’t have a doggy sibling, but it sounds like the same process is at work. Having a “pack” to back you up can make insecure dogs bolder and they go from friendly, submissive dogs to barking bullies.

This phenomenon, by the way, is one of the big reasons why your vet will take a snappy dog out of the room to examine it. Removed from the “back up” of the owner, the dog becomes less sure of itself and doesn’t dare aggress. You will also sometimes see this happen when the owner walks the dog – but a stranger can walk the dog with no problems!

Whatever the situation, the ingredients are usually the same: an ounce of perceived support and a pound of insecurity.

So, what to do?

1. Remember that there is a difference between hidden fears and non-existent fears.

Many people think that their anxious/reactive dog is “fine” if the dog is not manifesting negative behaviours such as barking. But the dog is not necessarily fine. The dog just appears fine because it isn’t pushed far enough or feeling brave enough to show how it really feels. Haven’t you ever hidden your feelings to appear “fine”? Dogs do the same. So whether or not your dog seems okay, work on making strange dog encounters positive, and build appropriate behaviours. You want to teach your dog to look at you when a strange dog approaches in return for treats, so that strange dog = look at owner = treats in your dog’s brain, and so that your dog learns to turn and make eye contact with you when another dog approaches.

2.  Work in increments.

If your dog is so worked up that she won’t accept the treats she normally loves, that means that she is too worked up to focus or learn anything. You need to find a distance from the strange dog that you can work with, even if that means the strange dog remains a tiny speck on the horizon. Visit sparsely populated areas, or areas that have views of dogs from a distance – like a field overlooking a dog park – or arrange a set up with a neighbour or coworker’s dog when you have a friend’s dog around as a “back up”.

Work on the same strange dog = look at me for treats behaviour that your dog has already mastered on walks alone. If a strange dog approaches too closely, try to get away – turn and create distance between you and the strange dog until Sadie can focus and enjoy her treats again. If you can’t find ANY distance that works for you, then that means you need to work on the focusing for treats behaviour with no dogs around at all, first! Keep making the situation easier until Sadie begins to have success and then try the next step up.

3. Beware accidental reward for the wrong behaviour.

Situations like this tend to be self-rewarding because, from your dog’s point of view, it seems to work great. Your dog sees a strange dog, barks like crazy, and the strange dog moves on. Barking worked to scare that scary stranger away! And unfortunately, anything else that happens will further convince Sadie that she’s doing the right thing – if the other dog fights back, it will just confirm in her mind that strange dogs are dangerous, especially if you have your friends along with you!

That’s why it’s important to do whatever you need to avoid putting Sadie into a situation that she isn’t ready to handle yet. If she keeps meeting situations that she can manage, and looking at you gets treats and ALSO makes the other dog go away, she’ll start to develop confidence in your strategy and will be willing to try it more and more. But if thrown in too deep, she’ll go back to her tried-and-true plan of bark-bark-grrrrrr.