I work with a dog-aggressive Goldendoodle (yes, you read that right) named Zoe. She’s unpredictably tough on new dogs, especially those who look like her, or on those who just seem easy to pick on. It’s not an easy case; she’s covetous of possessions, and will fire up over food issues as well. But sometimes she’s unpredictable, and will simply tear into a dog, because it’s showing fear, or because it’s behaving erratically. If she is off-leash at the beach, she will often run a dog down and just go at it, until someone breaks it up.
Zoe has questionable breeding, and multiple triggers for her aggression, making management difficult, and ever dynamic. This is one of the reasons why you shouldn’t accept a pet behaviorist’s hasty diagnosis, and “easy” fix. Deciding on why a dog is misbehaving, and what to do about it, takes longer than the mere twenty-two minutes most pet fix shows on television use to work their editorial miracles. Realize that, much like humans, psychological problems that take years to develop can take years to eliminate. It takes a reasoned, attentive diagnosis, and often some trial-and-error to get to the root or roots, and to come up with a manageable solution.
Sometimes Zoe will meet a dog and get along with it right off. This was the case with my Rico, a seven year-old pit/shepherd mix with a swashbuckling attitude, and plenty of confident energy when with other dogs. Zoe instantly fawned all over him the first day I put them together in my yard, untethered. She cavorted, flirted, submitted, leapt for joy, and chased him everywhere, without an iota of aggression. Rico tossed her about, ran her down, wrestled her, boxed, played “catch me if you can,” and eventually became bored of her admirations. He showed not a lick of fear, and had no problems letting her know what toys were his. Zoe ran, pounced, played, and had a great time, right from the start.
Part of Rico’s success with Zoe has to do with his gender; she generally prefers the company of confident, older males who take no guff. He can defend himself, compete athletically, and tell her what’s what if she gets out of line. Zoe gets this; she’s part Klingon, I think, and respects a dog who won’t back down.
Getting Zoe together with as many dogs as possible who reflect Rico’s attitude is one of her “therapies.” I call it “one dog at a time.” By building up her repertoire of confident, capable dogs, we slowly begin to lessen the pressure on her aggression trigger, and show her that it’s okay to just have fun, and not slip into attack mode. It doesn’t work for some dogs, but it does for her, and many others.
Zoe’s owner had a new tenant move in recently. They brought with them their young rat terrier/Australian Shepherd mix named Wally. A nice, high energy, smallish dog, without the horsepower of a Rico. As they would be living together and sharing the same yard, Zoe’s people were understandably worried that she would tear him to shreds.
I decided to use the “directed walk” technique to introduce them. Both dogs are on leash, walking nicely, without nosing up to each other at all. Two humans, two dogs, going for a purposeful walk, as if they were all on a mission, and that the “mission” held higher importance than any doubts, aggressions, or prejudices either dog might possess. Combined with some basic obedience work along the way (heeling, and down/stays fairly close to each other), the session never included any nosing up at all. After an hour, both dogs were comfortable and easy, without any concern. Without knowing it, Zoe was being taught that Wally was a walking buddy who shared a common mission purpose. In a dog’s mind, this “tribal” camaraderie takes precedent over the needs of the self.
I’d planned another directed walk session with them, but Zoe’s people decided that evening to just let both dogs loose in the yard to see what would happen. What resulted was a half hour of unbridled play, with no aggression at all. One directed walk session was enough to convince Zoe that Wally was more fun to play with than to annihilate.
It was an easy fix. But it rarely happens this fast; often it takes numerous directed walks, with more and more close-up interaction, before any semblance of safety can be guaranteed. But, this time, one round was all it took.
I’m often surprised with “quick fixes” every now and then. An incessant barker, for instance, can sometimes be “cured” simply by a change in venue. Moving her from the front yard to the back, or from a front room to a back room can often solve the problem. Or, a dog who steals food from an older or weaker dog in the home can be “cured” simply by feeding the dogs separately, or by feeding in crates. Incessant chewing of furniture or shoes can be lessened or eliminated by providing the right chew toys, or by adding one extra walk each day, at unpredictable times. Incessant digging in the yard can often be stopped with a combination of changes to the venue (creating a dedicated, fenced dog run with pavers or concrete flooring), and the addition of boredom-reducing activities. It often depends on how we set up our dogs’ environments, and how much mental and physical activity we provide.
Nevertheless there’s usually no such thing as a quick fix, unless you can easily identify what in the dog’s environment is causing the misbehavior. Deep-seated aggression of any type usually takes a long time to treat, and often needs to be managed and worked around. But, every now and then, when I’m surprised by a quick, easy fix, I just take it and run.