Helping A Lucky LA Street Dog Learn to Relax and Stop Being Aggressive

By: David Codr

Published Date: April 24, 2015

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For this session I worked with a dog named Lucky in North Hollywood, and boy does he have a very well earned name.

Lucky was spotted drowning in the LA River in February of last year by an observant and persistent woman who refused to give up. She started making calls getting in touch with the fire department and, its still mind blowing to know she did this, was able to arrange a friggin helicopter to swoop in and literally rescue the dog!

Lucky’s story was covered by media services from coast to coast. You can watch some of the footage here http://www.nbclosangeles.com/news/local/Lucky-dog-river-rescue-adopted-290903111.html

Im happy to report that Lucky’s story had a happy ending. After a health check up, etc, Lucky’s Guardian Angel decided she had to adopt him!

While Lucky was able to escape the clutches of death from the river, he was an LA street dog before this ordeal and as most street dogs do, he has some issues. It took a few days after settling in before his guardian noticed he had some quirks; he became reactive to dogs, people on skateboards and bicycles.

As a first time dog guardian, Rachel didn’t know how to address these issues so she sought the help of a local dog trainer. But after a few sessions, his new guardian felt that the trainer was using techniques that she wasn’t comfortable with and frankly were not working. She kept exposing Lucky to dogs in different situations and tried some physical techniques to try to snap the dog out of it.

But when you have a reactive dog, or one who shows aggression to specific situations or stimuli, the last thing you want to do is repeatedly expose the dog to things that trigger a reaction. After a few of these unproductive sessions, Lucky’s guardian decided to go another way which led her to me.

We booked the session about a month before my trip to the West Coast. Although I have a bit of a reputation for solving most dog problems with a single visit, Lucky’s owner was certain that she needed more than one, so we set up a session to start my trip and one at the end.

When we finished scheduling the session, Lucky’s guardian asked me for a few tips and suggestions that she could get started with. I suggested a few things including teaching the dog to wait for permission to eat his food and to only give him this permission after his guardian ate first.

Eating is a very primally important activity to dogs in the wild as its a means for survival. When in a group, the leader dogs eat first. By asking a dog to sit and wait while watching his guardian eat first, we can help the dog start to see and identify as being in a follower position.

But without knowing the layout of Lucky’s new home, I wasn’t able to suggest how to orchestrate the feeding ritual. His guardian set a towel under the kitchen table on the wood floor of her kitchen. This location was about 4 feet away from Lucky’s water and food bowl which is too close for a dog to sit and wait, especially when its more of a wild / street dog than your typical domesticated dog.

Making the situation more advanced, Lucky’s guardian hosted houseguests for a few days. On the last day of their visit, his guardian put Lucky’s food down and then asked him to wait as she had been doing. When she turned around to cook up some food for her friends, one of them got up and walked towards the kitchen table, passing in-between Lucky and his food. Lucky misinterpreted the friend’s presence as a challenge for his food which prompted him to bite her.

It wasn’t an attack, more of a reactive bite. However it did draw blood and obviously concerned his guardian as up until that point, his reactions were directed to dogs, skateboarders and bicyclists. Our session was scheduled for the next day so we decided to keep the dog separate from them during feeding time until then.

When I arrived for the session, Lucky’s guardian had him behind the door in a sort of enclave that prevented him from seeing who was at the door. As humans do, a dog’s imagination can draw a far worse picture than reality so I slowly pulled the door back while moving my leg forward to afford Lucky the ability to sniff me.

I wanted to make sure we got back to the basics to start things off the right way. Scent is a dog’s dominant sense. They are born with an open nose, but closed eyes and ears. This is why dogs greet each other by sniffing them from a distance, then move to the dog’s rear end or crotch. I wasn’t going to go that far, but I did want to engage his nose before anything else.

I observed him as he drew in my scent. I found Lucky to be curious, with a nice semi excited energy but much better manners than I expected from a dog with his background. He spent a good two minutes sniffing me before he moved away. I was waiting for him to move away first before I came inside.

After Lucky got his sniff on, his guardian led me out back so that we could sit down and discuss his situation. His guardian started off with a ton of questions; both about Lucky and the techniques that the trainer had used. It became pretty obvious that the trainer she initially engaged wasn’t very experienced and clearly was not equipped to deal with a dog that has the psychological issues that Lucky does.

Because Lucky has been on his own, I wanted to make sure that we build up a relationship or love, trust and respect between dog and guardian. I went over some games she could play with him to stimulate his use of the nose and some healthy interaction between them.

As a first time dog owner, I wanted to be sure that Lucky’s guardian knew the body language signs to start looking for when he is under stress. While it can seem like a dog aggression episode can come without warning, that is almost never the case. Dog body language can be difficult to read, and can be delivered extremely fast. To the untrained eye, its often missed entirely so I went over signs of stress and signs that the dog may be close to striking.

I recommended that his guardian avoid any situations or environments where Lucky would be exposed to the triggers he reacted to (dogs, skateboarders and bicyclists). Repeat exposure to stimulus that the dog reacts to when the dog is unable to avoid can lead to a permanent change in the brain. Additionally the more practice a dog gets at being aggressive, the better at being aggressive the dog is.

Dogs can’t unlearn a learned behavior. But you can introduce other desired behaviors and practice at them until the dog uses them over an unwanted one. To start building up these new behaviors, I went over a leadership exercise and some methods to redirect Lucky’s attention. These exercises are best developed in a calm, stress free environment clear of distractions. The dog needs to master them in this setting before we can even think about starting some counter-conditioning work.

One of the exercises I went over is an “eyes” command. The handler holds a high value meat treat up between their eyes and gets the dog to look up at it. Once the dog locks eyes with the handler, they start repeating the “eyes” command word over and over while slowly moving the treat towards the dog’s mouth. Its important to hold the treat in-between your eyes and the dog’s when doing this.

The goal is to teach the dog to immediately look up at its handler anytime the command word is given. This gives the handler the ability to redirect the dog’s attention away from a stimulus they are prone to react to.

Lucky’s guardian had been taking diligent notes throughout the session so we wrapped it up by going over them so that she knows what to practice between now and our appointment on Tuesday of next week.

Lucky isn’t a red zone case. He is simply a dog who has had to take care of himself on the streets of LA for so long that he had become very self sufficient and independent. He is not a feral dog, but certainly needs work to learn how to become a part of his guardians’s world.

While he no longer needs to defend his turf, food, etc, Lucky hasn’t made that realization himself yet. His guardian will need to work with him daily on the new exercises to start the transformation. He picked up most of the new exercises we introduced pretty quickly which shows he has a high level of intelligence. But because of his background, he still has a ways to go. Fortunately for Lucky, he “lucked out” in finding a guardian who is determined to provide him with the life he should have had all along.

You can read about our next session, next week.

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