After one of the very first articles on my blog, a few people have asked me how I work with Gunia. In this post I want to take a deeper look into our management strategies and what do I do when she is presenting some of her aggressive behaviors. This article is not supposed to be any form of behavioral, psychological therapy. I will not give you quick answer nor any magical solution what to do with an aggressive dog. I will just sum up in a few points how I deal with it.
1. Transferring aggression
It used to be a very big problem. During the worst period, Gunia was mechanically reacting on a trigger. In other ways, if she was unable to attack, she bit what was closest to her, usually me. I have to say, it was unpleasant and dangerous. Muzzle was a temporary solution but it did not deal with the underplaying roots of the problem. What is more, sometimes the trigger appears when you least expect it. Gunia’s issue with transferring aggression was an effect of her disability to deal with emotions, it simply was an uncontrolled outburst of rage. She would have reacted the same way if she was tided to a tree.
Mayor improvement came when I have started to use simple tug toy! I simply placed the toy in front of her face, on the exact moment when she saw the trigger. So when she felt the need to bit something she had a toy. I have also encouraged her to play, I have provoked her to just let it go and to get rid of bad emotions. Very quickly it has changed into a great play and the time she needed for going from anger to play started to shrink rapidly. Gunia has not bitten me for over a year now, but I still have a tug toy with me, when we go for a walk. When the trigger is close enough to us I offer her a play.
2. Walking on a leash
Leash is a safe zone for Gunia. A sacred place. She has to be certain that she is safe and sound when on a leash. It is crucial to make her feel confident and relaxed, she knows I am in charge and she does not need to control anything. So I do not allow dog or human contact her when she is leashed. I have also spent a lot of time teaching Gunia how to walk when leashed. To avoid nervousness when a trigger appears, I had to practice, in a neutral place, adjusting our walking abilities; quick side changes, turns, eye contact, walking backwards. These are extremely important mechanical abilities, that should be learned to deal with a difficult situation in a presence of a trigger.
3. Hand touches
Very useful as a reward, if I do not have treats with me. They were so strongly reinforced that now they are a reward in itself for Gunia. I often use them as a substitute for food when we play “chase a hand”. They can come handy when I need to pass an dog or a horse, they help Gunia focus on a play not a trigger.
Must have for every dog. Not only the reactive one. Personally I have a few cues.
“Gunia” – very laid back, informal
“Do mnie” – it used to be an emergency recall but due inconsistency and overuse it became our usual and everyday recall.
“Wracaj” – the emergency recall. Used only when needed.
When you have a reactive, aggressive dog (or any dog, to tell the truth) you have an obligation to control him. You are responsible for your dog and you can not allow your dog to be a threat to anyone or any other dog. If you are not sure whether your dog comes when called back, simply do NOT let him off the leash.
5. Do not go over the threshold
I do not put Gunia in a situation she may not handle. If I want to work on a certain trigger, I try to make it a success. I know her, I know when she is frighten, when something is too tough for her. I try to avoid situations when she will cross her threshold and starts to lunge or bark excessively. I try to make it bearable for her, to get the best out of a difficult situation. If she becomes over aroused, she will not learn anything. Being able to control emotions in a presence of a trigger is a abilities you have to teach your dog. You will not do that if your dog is over threshold.
6. Play with strangers
I ask my friends to play with Gunia. Playing with unfamiliar person blurs the line between strangers and friends. It gives an opportunity to mellow out during an interaction with unknown person. It makes Gunia see people as a play-buddies not a threat. Feeding treats can not replace it. Play makes positive emotions flow.
With Gunia I prefer a long line, furry tug toy. Long line is giving her a sufficient distance to feel secure at the very first moments. Playing tug is not about mechanical tearing toy apart from Gunia, it is about mutual fun when sometimes she wins. I really like when people run together with her, and a toy is just a part of play.
The magical activity. I can only write good things about this sport and its impact on reactive dogs. It builds self-confidence, overcome fears, cements our relationship and what is the most important; it shows her that people she finds are the synonym of reward.
She treats them as a different specie, she can give kisses to a total stranger who is hiding, she is simply happy to find someone. She truly enjoys her time when working.
Dogs are social animals and they need to meet other dogs. But it does not mean they should meet every other dog. Certainly it does not mean they should run like a madman in a dog park, being bully to other dogs.
Gunia has issues with other dogs. But because I know her so well, I can pick out a proper company for her. A proper company means to choose wisely, to avoid a situation when one dog can feel insecure or in danger. Long time ago I understood Gunia does not have to like everything and everyone. That is why choosing a good buddies is important. Now Gunia can run with her friends and I do not have to worry that something can go wrong. Such interactions show her that dogs are great play companies and she has more and more positive experiences. If I have not carefully chosen her friends she might have gotten into a fight and all the work we have done to avoid it could have been jeopardized.
What dogs do I pick out for her? Strong, self-confident but not reactive, dogs that can handle her threatening behaviors at the beginning of the first interaction. Definitely males, it is better if they are intact (but this is not a rule).
9. Be consistent
When I deal with an aggressive dog, who is a cross of a very stubborn breeds I have to assertive. Assertive not aggressive. Gunia is stubborn as hell. If something is not forbidden it is allowed. If she can not do something she will try… a hundred times more. Sometimes I think that she says: “okay, so I am not allowed… but now? No…okay… but what about now??”. If I say yes, it means “yes forever”. That is why she needs to understand a meaning of a cue “no” (or any other word, to show you do not like the behavior). My cue is “over“, it means “I want you to stop what you are doing right now”. I use it when she is too active when playing with Gacek and I want to stop it. When she is not responding I simply come closer and interrupt the behavior by showing her other things to do. When she is digging holes on a walk and we need to keep moving I say “over”. If she does not respond I just take her. “Over” is not a negative word, it is a neutral cue to stop the behavior.
10. Chill out exercises
Kong, crate, mat training, patting. I guess these are the basic relaxation techniques we use. Crate is a place to rest, where no one can interrupt. Kong is handling stressful days as a kick back solution. Mat training allows to move a safe and calm place out of the house. Patting is the primary solution to sooth emotions. Often on walks we just sit on the grass and enjoy the surrounding nature.
We do not live in a perfect world, and from time to time Gunia crosses her threshold. She starts jumping, barking, snarling. It such case, I simply walk away from the trigger and try to have a short reflection on what has gone wrong. It is not a world’s end, but a lesson.
All the things we have done together with Gunia have created a very strong bond between us. Everyday I can see how we are improving. Yes – WE, because dog training is a team work. “Taming” Gunia has actually become taming (A)Gunia (in Polish Agunia is a short version of my name, Agnieszka). As much as it is about working with a dog, it is also a huge work on my emotion‚s control and being patient. We both are teacher and learner for each other. Roles that compliment.