Monthly Archives: September 2012

Managing the Reactive "pit bull"

There are many resources out there about managing the reactive dog. Patricia McConnell’s book Feisty Fido comes to mind as does James O’Heare’s works. However, these resources are general dog behavior books. Patricia McConnell, for example, talks about Weimeraners and Golden Retrievers in her book. After approximately 30 years of working with Pit Bulls, dealing with dogs in shelters, participating in obedience clubs with German Shepherds, Bordie Collies, Australian Shephers, and a variety of breeds, there’s one little secret I’ve discovered that really isn’t much of a secret to a certain group of dog owners.

Terriers are a little different. No, not all terriers, but terriers, as a group, tend to run a little hot toward other dogs, and they tend to focus a bit more intensely (in fact, terrier owners have a word for that intense “I’m oblivious to everything else but that” mentality — “spark”).

The American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and Bull Terrier are terriers. It’s amazing how many people who own or handle “pit bulls” fail to realize this (for those who notice, yes, I’m using the breed phrase in lowercase, with quotes, to refer to the general grouping of bull and terrier dogs). They think of them more as bulldogs. In fact, these are bull and terrier breeds, meaning their ancestry includes bulldog and terrier in roughly a 50-50 ratio.

Before you cry out to me that I’ve just labelled Pit Bulls as vastly different than other dogs, more aggressive, or otherwise inherently dangerous — stop. Let’s realize something. All dogs, of all breeds, have the capacity to be dog aggressive (hence Patricia McConnell’s book, along with books by many other dog behaviorists who don’t specialize in “pit bulls”). And many of these general techniques are fully applicable to the bull and terrier breeds. However, for those of you have dogs that are just a bit more terrier than bulldog in their temperament, you may realize one startling fact.

Your dog doesn’t give a damn about treats or praise, and no matter how far distance wise you start, and try to slowly decrease distance, you find that your dog will probably die of old age before you’re ever able to get within 30 feet of another dog without your dog reacting. That will make walking your dog and vet visits problematic. And, practically, you need to find a way to speed up the process of making your dog not act like a butthead around other dogs.

If this is you, keep reading. If treats and praise and starting at a looong distance, while gradually decreasing the distance and keeping your dog under threshold works for you, you can stop reading. You’re doing great. Keep with what works.

So for those of you still with me, let me first tell you, I sympathize. Been there, done that (a lot!). I’m going to make the bold step of telling you what works for me, and not all of it is popular. (And, no, it doesn’t involve  hitting your dog or jerking your dog around like a maniac).

Your little terrier is stubborn, driven, and very smart. Terriers were bred to chase small animals, and to do so pretty independently of their handlers. If they kept checking back with their humans, they’d lose the prey. That’s not particularly effective for a dog that was bred to chase and kill small animals to keep pests off the homestead. Foxes and rats (hence Fox Terriers and Rat Terriers) are kind of hard to catch. They’re fast, small, and easy to lose sight of. (By the way, sighthound folks, you can probably sympathize a bit, also).

So, the terriers were bred to spot vermin, focus on it intensely, and seek to destroy it at the exclusion of all else. I know, I’m making these dogs out to be some kind of horrific monster. Actually, they aren’t monsters. They’re very useful animals, even today! On the farms or in your yard, they’re making sure those pesky rats don’t bring disease into your home (and, yes, they also keep the neighborhood cats out of your yard).

But, they’re animals, and like all animals, they have drives and instincts that you need to understand in order to effectively manage them.

So if your dog is one of those types, how do you deal with dog reactivity? I’ll give you a few pointers, but really, it’s hard to discuss this in detail, properly in a blog. That why Chako offers dog reactivity workshops.

First things first. Before you work your dog around other dogs (and, yes, you need to set up training sessions on a frequent and regular basis), make sure your dog is properly tired via exercise, hungry from having skipped one or two meals, and understands all the basic commands such as “sit,” and “watch me.”

If your dog doesn’t know “watch me” (also known as a focus command) just do a search on how to teach your dog a “watch me” on youtube (or, alternatively, how to teach your dog to focus) .

Once your dog has these basics down solid, and you’ve tired out your dog, and he or she is hungry, put your dog on secure equipment. Whatever equipment works best for you and your dog is fine. It can be a martingale collar backed up with a harness or slip collar. A head halter backed up with a martingale or flat collar. Whatever you use, your dog should have two different pieces of equipment on him. I also recommend getting a European Training Leash (also known as a six-way leash) so that you have two separate snaps on your leash–one for each piece of equipment on your dog. See our FB note on equipment.

The reason you want to back up your dog’s equipment is because if your dog does decide to lunch, spin around, or put up any kind of a fuss, it’s easy enough for him to slip out of certain collars or harnesses. Even if he doesn’t, often the snap on the leash may come open, inadvertently releasing your dog. Incidentally, if you choose to use a prong collar, head halter, or flat collar, backing up your dog’s equipment is doubly important. Prong collars, for example, pop open often. Head halters and most flat collars are easy for dogs to back out of.

Start walking in your neighborhood or an area where you know the places most of the dogs are (and where there aren’t a lot of loose or stray dogs). Carry a safety deterrent like spray shield just in case you encounter a loose dog. Spray shield is a citronella and water spray that smells bad to most dogs but is otherwise completely harmless. If a loose dog approaches you and your dog reactive dog, spray the oncoming dog (the range on this spray is up to 10 feet away when the canister is full). Spray shield won’t deter really determined, aggressive dogs, but it will deter 95% of loose dogs that try to approach, and it won’t harm the dog or, if there’s a backwind, you or your dog.

Also carry really awesome treats on you — not kibble or dog biscuits. Go buy steak or chicken, bake it, and cut it up into dime-sized pieces. Bring about six handfuls on your first outing, which should last about 15 to 20 minutes.

On this outting, you will work the first five minutes on warming up your dog by practicing “watch me” and the basic obedience commands such as “sit” and “down.” After this warm up, you’re off. If you know there’s always a dog behind the tall chain link fence at the corner, go across the street from that house and walk your dog passed the fence. You will be using the treats as bait to keep your dog focused on you.

If, by the way, your dog is way more toy motivated than food motivated, you can use your dog’s toy instead of food. If you use a toy, make it an extra special toy that you only bring out once in a great while. Play with your dog and the toy for about two minutes right before you leave on the walk, so your dog is super excited about the toy.

The idea is that your dog is getting the toy or the food for focusing on you instead of the other dog. Check out some segments from Chako’s dog reactivity workshops for what this might look like.

By giving your dog really good things when your dog is behaving around other dogs, you teach your dog that the presence of other dogs isn’t so bad, and good things happen. If you are constantly correcting your dog, yelling at your dog, or jerking your dog when there are other dogs around, your dog learns to be even more reactive to other dogs because bad things always happen when other dogs are around.

But remember, you have to start these sessions with a tired and hungry dog! And keep your leash loose (you should have worked on loose leash walking as part of the basic obedience your dog knows before you start this training). A tight leash leads to increased reactivity.

Let me repeat that — a tight leash leads to increased reactivity. Keep your leash loose!

As soon as you have some decent success here — meaning your dog has focused on you for about ten seconds without being concerned about the other dog, walk on and be super happy! Praise your dog, play with the ball or toy, give lots of treats. Make it seem like you both just won the lottery. Act like an idiot. Yes, your neighbors will lock their doors and close their drapes, but that’s okay because you’ll eventually have a dog that can behave him or herself around other dogs.

Don’t go home right away after your success (and always end on success!). Continue your walk, make it a fun one. If you can find a second encounter, go far it. Same guidelines apply. Start at a distance, get your dog focused on you, etc.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, this sounds an awful lot like that whole “working under threshhold stuff” that I promised I’d give you an alternative to if it’s not working for you and your dog. You are absolutely right. It does sound a lot like that (except that you may not have been told to start with a very tired dog). A tired dog has all that pent up energy released and is less likely and willing to put up a fuss. Of course, that’s no guarantee. A tired dog may often get her “second wind” back as soon as she sees another dog, but at least you’re not starting with a dog that is bouncing off the walls because she hasn’t been exercised properly.

So what do you do if you just can’t get your dog to focus at all, your dog is lunging, barking on sight when another dog is visible, even in the distance, and there is no “under threshold” to work with?

This is where you are going to need to break through that terrier brain of your dog’s. You might consider using a head halter backed up for these dogs just because you have more control over your dog’s head. You can also try a prong collar (and, if you do, get one with smaller links — just buy more of them — and rounded, bevelled tips), backed up, of course. Be aware, though, that prong collars can rile up certain dogs even more. Another piece of equipment you can try is a “dominant dog collar.” The name is unfortunate, but really all it is is a slip lead that snaps around your dog’s neck and is fitted to your dog’s neck size, right behind his or her ears. It doesn’t slip over your dog’s head because slip collars that go over your dog’s head are automatically too big to be effective. Just don’t let your dog pull on a slip collar. You will choke your dog, and that’s not the point of these collars. These collars are used to give you control by riding up high on your dog’s head instead of down low by their chest –which happens to be the source of your dog’s pulling strength and doesn’t give you great control.

If, and only if, you cannot get your dog’s attention any other way, this is where you use correction. Start with a very solid, quick, one-time leash jerk and say, in a very, very low, firm, and intimidating voice, “NO!” or “Eh-eh!” The very second your dog stops acting like a butthead and looks at you, perhaps a bit surprised, praise and treat up the wazzu! Or bring out the toy! Hey, dude! You stopped acting like a butthead for half a second, you just won the lottery!

Here, you are trying to get your dog out of “the zone” and find opportunities to reward your dog. When you use corrections to deal with dog reactivity, it is important that you find opportunities to praise or reward at least twice as often as you correct.

Let me say that again — praise or reward your dog at least twice as often as you correct.

Only when you are correcting should your leash really tighten up (and if it was tight to begin with, you can’t give that correction — so a loose leash also allows you to give this single, fast correction). One note of caution: do not jerk a dog on a head halter at all. Use the flat collar or martingale side of your leash for this. You can damage your dog’s neck by any jerk on a head halter.

What if that correction does nothing and your dog is still barking, growling, focused on the other dog to the exclusion of all else and the only way to stop him is to get out of sight of the other dog — and this is how it is all the time? The second your dog sees another dog, even from 70 feet away, he goes ballistic and you can’t get through to him?

Now it’s time to try something else. Take your spray shield, or even a water bottle filled with something that has a strong smell like vinegar or lemon, and qive one quick shot to your dog’s nose. Just one quick shot. Don’t drench your dog in it. Ninety-percent of the time, that will break your dog out of that zone just because, all of a sudden, something squirted them in the nose and it smells pretty strong. Use your voice the second you do squirt and say “NO!” or “Eh-eh” in that low, intimidating and firm voice.

For those who object to squirting your dog, remember a few things — this is for dogs that don’t really have an “under threshold” setting, that are in a zone that makes them oblivious to treats, praise, toys or anything other than the dog 75 feet away, and who, because they are in that little zone that I call “sparking” need a way to be able to get to a point where they see another dog and don’t act like a butthead. That actually requires, that, at some point, they see another dog.

The very second your dog is out of the zone, get him focused on you with the treat or the toy and be very happy! You won the lottery, dude! You won the lottery! This is awesome! You’re such a good boy! Here’s some chicken! Here’s your toy!

Then keep moving immediately and keep up the treats one right after the other while the other dog is still visible. End on success.