Updated: Jul 18, 2020
I met a friend in Santa Monica today. Since the beginning of Covid, our "meetings" have been over Zoom or chat, so it was fun to meet in person. It's the 4th of July, the main boulevards were fairly empty, so we took a nice walk and picked up lunch, and had a "sidewalk" picnic. As we enjoyed the sunshine and Margherita pizza, we had the pleasure of several animal encounters: many dogs, an adorable puppy named Franklin who was so excited to say hello he did a somersault, and a Scarlet Macaw named Kramer (who kept the name even after laying eggs).
Looking over my friend's shoulder, I saw a woman approaching with her German Shepherd Dog. As they approached Franklin, the puppy, I saw the woman increase pressure on the GSD's choke collar to the point the dog was gasping. When they got closer, I could see a head halter, cinched so tight it was indented in the dog's snout. As the passed us, I said to my friend, "that's a bite about to happen." Seconds later, there was an explosion of barking. The woman was barely holding onto the leash as the GSD was lunging and barking at a man holding a shopping bag in his hands. The man was clearly shaken and when he could get away he said to us, "If you have a Shepherd like that, you have got to get that animal under control."
So, let's talk about "control." What does that look like? I turned to Google for help:
Dog is by the humans side
The dog recalls to owner 100% of the time
No chasing wildlife
No investigating people/places/things without permission
Dog ignores everything in the environment other than the owner
Wow. That leaves very little wiggle room for mistakes and to just be a dog. But my main argument is here is that "control" doesn't need to include aversives. In my opinion, the choke collar and cinched head collar contributed to the GSD's aggressive behavior. At the very least, they certainly didn't "control" the dog's behavior.
So where does a pet owner begin when working with a dog like this?
Prevent the Rehearsal of the Undesired Behavior
Remove as many triggers in the dog's environment as possible. If the dog barks out the front window, cover them with privacy film and/or keep the dog away from the windows. If your dog is sound sensitive, leave a TV on, or use white noise or electric fan to muffle outdoor sounds.
Walk the dog at less busy times of day - early morning, late evening. Walk in areas where there will be less encounters with humans. In fact, avoid them in the beginning until the training plan is in place.
Change the Equipment
Ditch the choke chain and head collar. Train the dog to wear a front or back clip harness. In the beginning, it may be necessary to use a double leash system until the owner has better mechanics. If the dog has separate issues with loose leash walking, a properly fitting head collar may be used later. Instead, train loose leash walking on a harness.
Train the dog to wear a muzzle. Use a basket-type muzzle that permits the dog to pant, eat treats, drink water, etc. while wearing. Use this handy Muzzle Training Plan.
Classically condition each piece of new equipment so the dog LOVES wearing them.
Address the Stress
Dogs need mental and physical enrichment. We often attend the dog's physical needs in terms of walking, but not their mental enrichment. Do things to make your dog happy and get their brains working. Puzzle toys, simple enrichment ideas, tug/chase games with the humans. This is an entire blog post topic, but I can highly recommend the book Canine Enrichment for the Real World if you need suggestions, as well as the Canine Enrichment page on Facebook, and AniEd 100 Days of Enrichment.
Allow your dog to sniff. Dogs process a lot of their world through their noses. It's also a behavior that promotes calm. There are several books on canine's incredible sniffing abilities: What the Dog Knows and The Canine Kingdom of Scent.
In addition to puzzle toys, snufflemats, and a solid exercise program, start reinforcing calm behaviors. This can be as simple as holding back 50 kibbles from your dog's diet and using them throughout the day to show the dog what you want it to do: chewing calmly on a bone while the humans watch tv? Boom, reinforce it. Teach your dog to slow down and take a breath. Use Relaxation Protocols to teach the dog how to be chill when the human is doing all sorts of crazy things.
Some other ideas I put in the "can't hurt, might as well try it" category are: iCalm Pet Music, Thundershirts, white noise machines (to filter outside sounds for sound sensitive dogs). If you have Amazon Echo, you can download white noise as a skill. You can also ask Alexa to play calming pet music. There is some science on the calming effects of lavender, and several products on the market that are dog specific. In addition, you can talk to your vet about using Adaptil spray or diffuser.
Speak to Your Veterinarian
Pharmaceuticals should never be a final option after everything else has failed. In many cases, medication has given the dog the relief they need in order to be able to process training. Even a mathematician would have difficulty trying to do long division on an airplane as it's crashing. Please see this an emergency situation and speak to your veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist as soon as possible (be sure to read AVSAB's Position Statements on Punishment and Dominance).
Find a Qualified Positive Reinforcement Trainer and Construct a Training Plan
This is going to have a lot of moving parts. The dog is going to need properly executed desensitization and counter-conditioning to triggers. In addition, the dog may need training where there are gaps. In the case of the GSD: loose leash walking, as well as retraining the owner on leash pressure, management, etc. The owner will need to learn to read her dog's body language and see the small changes in behavior that lead to triggers stacking up and eventual outbursts. Hint: the situation had predictable outcomes and could have been avoided.
Can the German Shepherd be rehabilitated? I don't know, and it would be unethical to predict anything, as I've not assessed the dog. But I do know that aggression, once part of the behavioral repertoire, may always be an option for a fearful/aggressive dog. From what I saw of the handler's abilities, the tools and how they are being used, and the owner's lack of awareness of her dog's body language, the current outcome is not positive.
As I watched the woman dragging her dog away by the choke collar, I was filled with compassion for her. She's doing the best she can with the bad information she's been given. As someone who lives with, trains, and loves a dog who has shown human reactivity in the past, I understand her fear and embarrassment. I wish I had run after her and told her there's hope, things can be much better, it doesn't have to be this way.
She ran away too fast and I wasn't able to go after her. For solace, I went home and gave my dogs some extra attention, and told them (again) how proud I am to be their guardian.
Seek help, humans. Help is out there. There's a huge community of trainers that are there for you. If you need help finding someone in your area, please reach out and I will put you in touch with resources.
Please know...you are not alone.
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