By Valerie Barry, KPA-CTP
In Partnership With Dogs
In my last article I promised an update on our progress with my puppy Jack’s new behaviour of barking and lunging at any dog or person he sees while out on walks.
Jack’s alert barking started shortly after the end of his 12-week imprinting period. Previously, on our walks he was happy and eagerly anticipating a visit with whatever and whomever was approaching. Seemingly overnight, he suddenly felt the need to vigorously announce the appearance of every person and dog he spotted in the distance. He was clearly showing signs of being concerned about what was coming – “Save yourselves, they’re all coming to kill us!” (my interpretation).
Thankfully, at heart he is very friendly and has some good social skills, so any chance or surprise encounters ended with Jack appropriately playing with or greeting the dog or person in question. However, anything off in the distance or passing by was becoming a problem.
My Goals and My Plan.
First, I came up with some goals to work towards:
– Helping Jack feel more comfortable around stuff happening in his environment.
– Building better impulse control.
– Developing Jack’s ability to take his attention off the environment and to focus on me both at my request and also as a voluntary “check-in” behaviour.
– Being able to walk Jack, without concern, around people and dogs – on and off leash.
Then, I came up with 4 different steps to work on to achieve my goals:
Change the context of “being on a walk”.
Being on a walk, on leash, with dogs and people at a distance.
Being on a walk, on leash, among people and dogs.
Being on a walk on and off leash among people and dogs.
Step 1 – Changing the context.
I spent a lot of time on this step and did most of it in front of our house, on our street or in a field across from a park. I started during fairly quiet times of day and I changed the context by being “on a leash, but not walking”.
Ultimately, I want Jack to notice something and then dismiss it without concern. Dobies have a particular tendency to remain perfectly still and stare at something (sometimes also barking) until it’s close enough for them to decide whether it’s an issue or not. This isn’t great behaviour and can cause other dogs to be reactive and people to be uncomfortable.
My plan for this step was to find a reasonable distance away from things that cause Jack concern (people, dogs, stuff going on) and “pay” him for noticing things in his environment. This is something we call the “Look At That” game (by Leslie McDevitt, Control Unleashed). Every time Jack notices something, I Click or mark that and then offer a treat. If Jack doesn’t respond to the Click by turning to me for his treat, that’s a sign to me that our set up is too challenging – perhaps more distance is needed.
The point is NOT to ask him to look at me, but rather to keep my attention on him and to reward him for observing things around him. His willingness to remove his attention temporarily from something in order to get his treat tells me that he’s still mentally with me and that he’s capable of working and learning. Consuming really good treats in these circumstances will begin to form a positive association for him. Additionally, the game will ultimately lead to a kind of “check in” behaviour – Jack will begin to notice things and look to me even before I have a chance to Click it. When he starts to do this, that’s feedback for me that he is starting to feel more comfortable. Previously he may have simply stared and/or started barking and lunging.
This was my set-up on the front porch:
– I used a body harness and 10 foot line and tethered Jack to a sturdy post on our front porch about 50 feet from the street.
– Keeping my attention on Jack, I Clicked and treated him any time his attention left me and was caught by something passing by.
– My goal was to keep him at a threshold where he could work with me and not launch into a fit of barking/lunging. I’m limited by the distance from the street we have available, so this was tricky at times.
– If I timed my Click very well – as he was finishing chewing his treat and making only the smallest movement to lift or turn his head – we did well and barking/lunging didn’t happen.
– The Clicking and treating was often happening very rapidly and I had to work pretty hard when there was a lot going on – kids directly across the street skateboarding, playing or yelling, or more than one person and dog walking by.
– If at times the outdoor activity became too much for Jack, we simply retreated into the house.
Step 2 – Being on a walk with people/dogs at a distance.
The training for this was identical to the training steps I used during the stationary sessions. The difference, of course, is that he’s tethered to me and that we’re moving.
I chose my areas carefully as I needed the ability to get distance when I needed it if dogs or people were getting too close.
I enlisted the help of a friend as my helper for most of these sessions. I wanted to be able to use a Clicker to help speed things up and this can be hard to manage when you’re working with a strong dog. I also wanted someone to video a few sessions so I could monitor our progress. Reviewing video can be invaluable. It’s really helpful to watch the whole session so you can see what you’re doing, what your dog is doing and make some changes or see some progress – something that’s hard to do when you’re “in the moment”.
My helper also came in handy to keep an eye out and let me know what was coming and if we were likely to encounter a problem. I didn’t want to put Jack more on guard if he realized I was scanning for problems.
Once again, I kept all my attention on Jack and marked and reinforced him for noticing any person or dog in the distance or passing by while we kept moving through the area.
Notes for Steps 1 and 2:
At times I introduced play as reinforcement – some low key Tug or some nose or paw targeting.
I’m also started to introduce Recall practice during these sessions as Jack’s Recall is very strong and he loves doing it. (Yes – you can practice Recalls even though your dog is on leash.)
My goal was to keep reinforcing the message that good things happen in the presence of stuff going on – especially if he can remove his attention from the environment and focus on me.
It’s important to keep all sessions short. I started with 5 minutes and periodically did some 15 minute sessions but no longer than that. This work is very tiring for your dog and, ideally, no reaction takes place from start to finish – so shorter is better.
In the walking sessions, I also occasionally got my helper to bring along a friendly dog that Jack knows and can walk and play with. (Much gratitude to Denise and some of “her” dogs for her invaluable assistance and support!)
Step 3 – Being on a walk among people and dogs – on leash.
Once I started to see some positive changes in Jack’s behaviour (he seemed to be handling things better and the energy behind the alerting behaviour had lessened), I took a deep breath and started to work on leash in parks among people and dogs.
Even though I know Jack is very friendly with people and dogs, it’s still hard to take a barking and lunging dog right into the middle of people and dogs walking by. It feels like your dog is the only one acting up and everyone is watching!
In reality I found that most people and dogs were really pretty good about just carrying on about their business or stopping and helping out by letting Jack greet their dogs if I asked them.
Again, I chose my areas carefully. I wanted places where some dogs were off leash but everyone was moving along a trail vs. lingering and playing in a dog park. It was easier for Jack to be in a busier vs. a quieter trail where someone appears infrequently off in the distance. (This will be different for every dog.)
Working on leash is important!
I got a lot of “helpful” suggestions to simply let my dog off leash! However, it’s extremely important to do this kind of work with your dog on leash at first.
Why keep him on leash? Well, it’s safer for one thing. If I encounter what I think might be an iffy dog, I can simply move along and take my dog with me. Also, I wasn’t entirely sure yet what Jack would do with joggers moving quickly by or strollers appearing – would he ignore them or follow them or, worse, bark at them? If he had a great play with a fun dog, would he carry on with them or remember that I was there, too? I had no great need to test (and possibly damage) my Recall in those situations in the early stages.
Very importantly to me, keeping him on leash initially allows me to reinforce the idea that he’s with me and that we are working together – he’s not suddenly on his own and free to make his own choices. He’s only 8 months old – very much an adolescent dog with much more mental and emotional development to take place. I’m also very conscious of controlling, to the extent that I can, any likelihood of his having a negative encounter with a scary person or dog. Being as young as he is, he’s still going through the occasional fear period and traumatic events can have a lasting impact on his behaviour.
No question keeping him on leash was challenging! He’s strong and working on leash skills in that environment is impossible – so there was lots of bouncing around and pulling going on. Thankfully, despite his size and occasional barky behaviour, he looks very much like a happy, bouncy puppy and no one was terribly worried about him. However, I did do most of this work with a friend along for moral support – that was very helpful for me. My friend was also kind enough to explain what we were doing to anyone that seemed a bit concerned and coaxed lots of people into stopping to say Hi, which was great! She also brought along her slightly older puppy to help out. He has some great social skills and acted like a deflector for any dogs coming in too fast or too intensely for Jack in the early sessions. (My extreme gratitude to Pamela Murray of Canine Spirit dog training and her dog Dreki for their help and support!)
After several sessions of this, Jack was clearly ready to spend some time off leash. He had all but quit the alert barking – even in the parking areas when we were arriving. He could remove his attention from dogs or people when I asked him to; he had numerous fun play sessions as well as a few appropriate dog corrections for being too bouncy or nosey and responded well. Thanks to our numerous “Look At That” sessions, he was choosing to do occasional voluntary check-ins with me and wasn’t showing signs of getting locked into any staring behaviour. Most importantly, he had become largely unconcerned about the people we encountered – joggers, people dressed strangely or moving strangely with canes or walking sticks, strollers and young children – we seemed to have passed it all without issue.
Step 4 – Working off leash!
It was time to take an even deeper breath and let my baby off leash! We have already done lots and lots of work on his Recall and off leash skills in many low distraction areas like our yard, our house, outside and inside with dogs he knows, and in the forest with no one else around. The new factor here was the distraction of other people and other dogs.
Again, I had the help of a couple of friends and their friendly, well-trained dogs. Jack did great! He responded well to his Recall, was able to check in with me on his own from time to time, didn’t stray too far when we passed by joggers or someone going the opposite way and was happy to greet a wide range of dogs and people. We had a few glitches here and there – chased a dog chasing a ball for a big run before remembering his Recall, and got worried about a few dogs who were really stiff and staring at him before remembering that I was there to help him. Overall, though, it truly couldn’t have gone better the first time and only got better each and every time after.
I have to remember to keep our walks reasonably short at this point, as it’s just all so exciting for him. If he gets too tired, he does get over stimulated and his behaviour will start to deteriorate. I also have to make a lot of dedicated time to continue practicing his Recall. I notice that as he gets more confident off leash, he is a little slower at times to respond as well as I’ve come to expect. We need to keep that high on the list of items to keep working on!
It’s important to note, too, that I still spend some of our walk time with Jack on leash even though other dogs may be off leash. I often hear people say about their dogs “he’s way better off leash” – I don’t want that dog. He can be equally as well behaved on or off leash with some dedicated effort regardless of the circumstances. Again, I want to continue to reinforce our connection and also to work on his leash skills in distracting circumstances. If we can spend very small moments working on leash skills – what a huge reinforcement opportunity I have available to be able to let him off leash to play and run free!
I’m also continuing to work on the first 2 steps we started with. Jack still frequently alerts to things approaching in the distance to some degree. I suspect we will be doing this type of work for another year or so until he matures some more.
It’s important to say that Jack’s behaviour was and is not extreme behaviour. He is a young, overall friendly dog of a guarding breed type and was (and is) displaying fairly typical behaviour for his age, his gender and his breed. It was, however, something that needed to be addressed, as it would not have simply gone away on its own as he matured. If you have a dog with more extreme and concerning behaviour, please take the step of hiring a professional trainer who uses only positive methods, and who has had success solving these types of behavioural issues.
An experienced professional has the training to recognize behaviour for what it is, can read dog body language skillfully and help you work at the correct pace with the proper tools and training plan options.
Dogs are not mentally and emotionally mature until they are close to 3 years of age. Even if you have no issues whatsoever, you should still continue to work with and train your dog for at least this long. Remember to keep it positive and fun – for both of you!