If your dog is reactive to other dogs but you are thinking about getting another dog anyway, read the following for both a sober warning as well as cautious encouragement. It’s a wonderful case of a seriously dog-reactive dog improving enough to be able to live with another dog – but it took tons of the kinds of work described by Pat Miller in the previous article to get there, and the dog’s training and mangement is ongoing.
In the July 2005 issue of WDJ, we published an article (“Helping Hera Help Herself”) about a committed dog owner’s long journey to improve the behavior of her reactive Bulldog, Hera. Caryl-Rose Pofcher and her husband, Billy, adopted Hera as a puppy, and had immediately enrolled in a puppy training class, where Hera was quickly labeled as skittish, timid, and stubborn. As she matured, and continued in training classes, Hera developed the frightening habit of lunging at other dogs when she was on-leash. Her owners were strongly encouraged to use strong corrections with a choke chain, and later, a pinch collar, although they seemed to have little effect on the muscular Bulldog.
Hera’s off-leash behavior around other dogs grew increasingly reactive as she entered adolescence, as well. She became infamous for spontaneously focusing on some hapless play partner at the dog park, tackling it to the ground, and looking and sounding like she was tearing its throat out – although she had good bite inhibition, and never punctured another dog. Caryl-Rose stopped taking the young Bulldog to the dog park the day she heard someone say “Hera’s here!” as she entered the dog park gate, and someone else responded, “Oh well, I was just about ready to leave anyway.”
Unlike many owners, Caryl-Rose and Billy were cognizant that they had a “problem dog,” and they were absolutely committed to working through the problems. For the first four years of her life, they enrolled in class after class, hired a professional behaviorist for a consultation and private lessons, and dutifully practiced all the exercises that were recommended to them. But Hera’s behavior outside their home got worse and worse.
When Hera was four, her owners were fortunate to find an experienced positive trainer, who gave them the first truly effective tools for dealing with Hera’s scary behavior around other dogs on leash. Each daily walk was viewed as a training opportunity, and planned and executed thoughtfully. Caryl-Rose and Billy learned to identify and maintain Hera’s “launch point,” the distance she needed to be from other dogs to keep calm. Armed with a clicker and mountains of high-value treats, they slooowwlly decreased that distance until Hera could pass within a few feet of other dogs on leash without “going off.”
They also learned how to approach other dogs at an oblique angle, which seemed to help Hera refrain from feeling challenged by the other dog, and how to cue Hera to look away from – break her gaze and engagement with – another dog.
Another positive trainer took the family even further down the road of improved behavior, and as Hera improved, slowly, Caryl-Rose grew more and more interested in dog behavior and training. She volunteered as an assistant to a positive trainer, got a part-time job at a doggie daycare, read the “classic” books of the positive training genre (including titles by Jean Donaldson, Pat Miller, Dr. Patricia McConnell, and Karen Pryor), joined a number of e-mail discussion lists for both positive training and specifically, positive training for aggressive dogs, and attended the annual conference of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. And when Hera was seven years old, Caryl-Rose hung out her own shingle as a positive dog trainer.
Recently, we received exciting news from Caryl-Rose. Hera, former dog bully and aggressor, now 10½ years old, recently became a “big sister.” Three months ago, Caryl-Rose adopted a French Bulldog puppy, ’Pelli. As she has done with everything else she accomplished with Hera, Caryl-Rose diligently researched what she would need to do to make having a second dog work for everyone in the household, and she prepared her home and, most importantly, Hera for what was to come.
Update from Caryl-Rose
The following is a recent letter we received from Caryl-Rose, updating Hera’s story:
“Right now, the girls are lying on the rug behind me as I type. Their ‘Bully’ butts are touching (one a miniature reflection of the other). Their bodies are curved so their heads are facing in opposite directions – their ‘I’ve got your back’ position. “We’ve gone from them being on opposite sides of the room under close supervision, or on separate floors of the house, or ’Pelli crated if not supervised or even sometimes when supervised, to now, they sleep on the bed with me at night and cuddle with each other as well as with me.
“The first time ’Pelli touched Hera, Hera gave her an intense snarl, small lunge, and hard stare. I intervened immediately. We’ve come a long way. But it still takes constant vigilance and management.
“I was away recently from Friday through Sunday. ’Pelli was with me and Hera stayed home with a live-in-dog-sitter. When ’Pelli and I returned, there was great excitement and good spirits and Hera didn’t get overexcited and reactive. She stayed in control.
“Two hours later when we all started to go upstairs to bed, Hera, for the first time ever, guarded the stairs and blocked ’Pelli’s way. Hera bounded upstairs, glancing warnings back at ’Pelli who remained at the bottom. I intervened by asking Hera for a “sit” at the top of the stairs and giving a steady stream of low level treats for this. As I did this, I called ’Pelli upstairs to us. Hera glanced at her and then back at me and got a high level treat and a mix of high and lower level treats while ’Pelli made her way up the stairs.
“At the top of the stairs, I cued ’Pelli to sit near us. Both got great (but tiny) treats at a fairly high rate. I stepped back, called them to me and repeated. And did this in the bedroom, at the water bowl, and on the bed. I picked up all of ’Pelli’s puppy chew toys and put them out of reach.
“Later, when they were drowsily settled for sleep, I brought out only one puppy teething chew toy, reverting to our earlier routine of offering it to Hera, allowing her to refuse it as she always has, giving it to ’Pelli briefly, trading a low level treat for the chew from ’Pelli, offering it again to Hera, she refuses, gets a low level treat. We go back and forth half a dozen times and then it stays with the puppy. Gee, we haven’t had to do that in a long time! I’m reminded so forcefully how essential it is to always watch the dogs and respond to what they need, when they need it.
“Yes, I have containers of mixed quality treats scattered all over the house. I am rarely more than two steps away from one. And often I have them in my pocket as well. They are mostly dried meat or fish or good quality kibble. I factor this into their daily food ration and whether it is for training (sit/come/down) or behavior (counter-conditioning, desensitizing), they earn this part of their daily ration.
“I hope this gives others realistic hope. It wasn’t immediate and adolescence will bring its own challenges. I was prepared for the possibility that I might end up with two dogs, each living on different floors of my house. I had lots of plans and physical set-ups in place before bringing ’Pelli home. “Still, Hera has exceeded what I thought she could achieve. She’s relaxed with the puppy and sometimes they play appropriately. Heck, for a normal 10½ year old English Bulldog playing at all is an achievement in itself!!
“I love these girls! And what wonderful teachers they are, especially Hera-the-Wonder-Dog.”