I'm trying not to blog too much about Sparky. One day his future owners might Google him, and discover what a bad dog he was.
Actually, he's not a bad dog at all. He has some issues with other dogs, but that's not his fault. Likely, his previous owner was too ill or too lacking in knowledge to socialize him properly around other dogs during the crucial phase of development, when dogs learn how to act around other dogs. Or perhaps he was traumatized by other unsocialized dogs—so called "friendly" dogs whose owners don't realize that their dogs' behaviour is inappropriate. For more on that, read Suzanne Clothier's excellent article "He just wants to say "Hi!" If your dog insists on improper greetings, eventually they'll get told off.
Like the dog we saw near the pond yesterday. I've been taking Sparky to the Common, knowing we may run into other dogs off lead, since he's generally able to stay under threshold—he sits calmly while I feed him treats, i.e. cheese. He looks at the other dog, looks at me, then gets a treat. As long as the other dog doesn't approach, this works like a charm. When the dog comes toward us, I usually reverse course, if possible. If we see a dog coming down the sidewalk toward us, I calmly walk across the street (I've learned the hard way to avoid busy streets where I can't cross) and commence treating from a safe distance.
But yesterday I elected not to head back down the muddy path we'd come down when I saw the off-lead boxer coming toward us. Not wanting to give Sparky the message that we needed to run away from every dog we saw, I instead ducked into a gravel drive, a good 10 or 12 feet away from the path. Sparky behaved beautifully, sitting quietly while I fed him treats. But then the boxer came close, heading down the drive. I called to the owner "Please call your dog away". She replied, in a coy voice "But he's not a Rottweiler!"
"But this one IS!" I called out, as the boxer approached. "Oh, he's friendly," she insisted, but just as I was retorting "But this one's NOT!" Sparky decided he'd had enough.
He went rogue on Ms Smart Ass's boxer. Ignoring the cheese, he lunged after the boxer just as he got near his face. I don't think the boxer was injured—Sparky doesn't bite to hurt, just to threaten. Ms Smart Ass walked off, mumbling something about how her dog was behaving.
How much you want to bet she didn't call her dog in the first place because she knew darn well he wouldn't have come? "It's called Recall, Bitch."
(No, I didn't say that. But I wish I had.)
That was a dog walk FAIL. Through no fault of our own, Sparky's careful conditioning suffered a setback.
Today, however, I felt vindicated. We came across another dog, a white Alsation or husky. We first passed on opposite sides of the street, after both of us attempted to cross to avoid the other, us humans remarking how our respective dogs weren't to be trusted around other dogs. I've gotten used to saying this, so it was refreshing to hear it from another dog walker.
Later, in the woods, we came across the same group. As our paths intersected, the woman rushed ahead: "Which way are you going?" she asked, frantic to avoid us. I pointed ahead, and she and the Alsation held back as we crossed. The dog was wearing a head halter, but still she lunged and barked. Her owners, though, weren't treating her—they yelled, jerked back on the lead (ouch!) and were no doubt as embarrassed by her behaviour as I once was with Sparky's.
I wanted to call out, "Try the book Feisty Fido!"
No, I didn't say that either, but I wish I had. The booklet Feisty Fido, by Patricia McConnell, has become my Bible. McConnell knows all about dog reactive dogs, having had one or two herself, and having dealt with many, many aggressive dogs. She's an animal behaviorist and PhD at the University of Wisconsin - Madison (my old stomping grounds) and in Feisty Fido, she outlines, in laymen's language, a simple treatment for conditioning your dog to associate other dogs with good things, not bad. It's not a quick fix. You'll have to be patient, and trust the process of positive, reward-based training. But the alternative to positive methods of training—choke collars, scary noises, or aversive treatments—can make the behavior worse, not better.
I'm pleased by how much Sparky seems to want to behave now. He eagerly looks to me when we see a dog. It's only when a dog gets too close, either due to my mismanagement or another owner's cluelessness, that we have problems. And I feel sure the threshold for reaction will become shorter and shorter. I'm seeing progress already—just the other day we passed a barky dog behind a fence, who in the past always spurred Sparky past his threshold very quickly, so that I had no recourse except to drag a lunging dog past the house as quickly as possible. Yet this time, Sparky only looked at me, kept a wary eye on the dog, and hustled down the street with me.
Yes! Good boy, Sparky.
Note: In addition to Feisty Fido, I've read many, many articles online, watched dozens of training videos, and also read Fight: A Practical Guide to the Treatment of Dog-dog Aggression by Jean Donaldson, and the wonderful book by Patricia McConnell, The Other End of the Leash. But Feisty Fido is geared to novices like me, who don't have access to other non-reactive dogs to use as controls.