Training a Dalmatian Mix’s Guardians to Be His Leader

By: David Codr

Published Date: May 1, 2016

Maverick

Maverick is a two-year-old Dalmatian mix that I met a few months ago on Abbot Kinney in Venice. He has been getting reactive and a little aggressive with people who knock on the door, pass the house or try to pet him without permission. But when his guardians are not around, he is fine hanging around other dogs or people.

Living in Venice, Maverick’s guardians like to leave the inside door open to enjoy the beautiful weather. But when Maverick spots someone moving outside of the screen door, he reacts with an avalanche of barking while jumping up on the door. This was the exact reaction that I received when I knocked on their door for the session.

Although he was quite alarming in his initial reaction, Maverick moved away from the door on his own power and didn’t protest when his guardians asked him to sit and stay several feet away.

Once I entered and it was clear that Maverick’s demeanor had return to a normal, balanced state, I invited him over to give me a good sniff. He showed good curiosity and very polite ear positioning when he approached. Really, once I came inside of the home, Maverick’s interaction, behavior and demeanor were fine.

I sat down with Maverick’s guardians to get a little bit more information on his daily routine, the issues his guardians wanted to work on and observe how they interacted with one another.

Because Maverick is able to be around other dogs and people without any reactions when his guardians are not present, I knew the primary work that we need to put in was going to be adjusting how the humans interact with and lead their dog.

In the course of our discussion I learned that Maverick really didn’t have very many rules to follow which means that his guardians did not really have much practice correcting him. Of course they corrected him anytime he had outbursts, but in order for a dog to respond consistently you need to practice whatever the action or behavior is in a very calm quiet environment first.

When a dog does not have very many rules in place, it’s quite common for them to get the impression that they have the same status or rank as the humans that they live with. When a dog considers him / her self to be on equal status with the human, then listening to the human’s commands and corrections becomes entirely optional in the dog’s mind.

I suggested a number of simple rules that the guardians can incorporate that will help their dog start to see and identify himself as being in a follower position. Regular enforcement of these rules and boundaries with impeccable timing will be extraordinarily important for the guardians.

Because dogs learn through association, it’s incredibly important that we disagree within two or three seconds of a dog engaging in an unwanted action or behavior in order for the dog to understand what we are disagreeing with in the first place.

As we were wrapping up the discussion of the rules, I noticed that Maverick was nudging or pawing at his guardians anytime he wanted attention or affection from them. This is basically the dog’s way of asking for attention which is fine in most situations. But if the guardian always responds to this request and doesn’t have many rules – after a while it gives the dog the impression that they have the authority or power to tell the humans what to do.

This combination of few rules and the ability to tell the humans what to do is likely the culprit for Maverick’s possessive or protective behaviors. In his mind he has to ward off or protect him humans less some other dog makes off with them.

One of the simplest changes that a dog guardian can make to redefine the leader follower dynamic is something that I like to call Petting with a purpose.

I suggested that the guardians use the watchword “paycheck” anytime they observe the other guardian petting Maverick without first asking him to do something. It’s going to take a week or so for the guardians to get into a habit of automatically asking the dog to sit or lie down before petting him, but once they do, every pet or scratch will be training their dog to adopt the followers mindset that they will need in order to stop his reactivity.

Because dogs can only focus on one thing at a time, I wanted to go over an exercise that will help train Maverick to look away when a dog comes into view.

The idea is to start training the dog to sit down and look at the face of his handler on command. We start out by simply sitting in front of the dog with treats in our hands but waiting for the dog to look up at us in the face. The instant the dog makes eye contact, the human immediately pops a high-value treat into the dog’s mouth while simultaneously saying the word “Watch.”

At first, we wait for the dog to look at us before we give it the treat, but as the training continues, the dog will start responding to the command word of “watch” as well.

It will be very important for the guardians to practice the “watch” exercise inside in very calm conditions then gradually start increasing distractions. The common mistake that many people make is they practice this technique a handful of times in the house with no distractions, then expect that the dog can re-create it when outside amongst other dogs. That is just simply too large of a step for the dog to take.

But by practicing the exercise a number of times throughout the day while gradually increasing the distractions and settings, then progressing into more challenging scenarios, we prepare the dog to engage in this avoidance technique without even thinking. Practice makes perfect. This will enable Maverick’s guardians to be able to head off many of his outbursts before they get out of hand.

Because people passing by or knocking on the door was such a strong trigger for Maverick, I had one of the guardian step outside to play the part of a guest so I could demonstrate how they can take control of the door answering ritual.

I suggested that the guardians start parking their car half a block away and texting each other on the way home so that they can practice playing the part of an arriving guest.

Maverick picked up on the door boundary pretty quickly so I don’t imagine it will take more than 6 to 12 practice repetitions with each other before the dog starts immediately moving away from the door any time he hears a knock.

I wanted to make sure that Maverick’s dog reactivity was a result of the presence of his guardians so I took him out for a walk without them.

Fortunately Venice has a tremendously high concentration of dogs and it didn’t take us long to run across a couple that allowed me to observe Maverick’s reaction around their dogs.

While Maverick did adopt a little bit of a stiffness and practiced some avoidance, he didn’t give any real signs of stress or anxiety. Even when the dog jumped up on him, Maverick either looked away or did not react. This was a great encounter to observe as it confirmed to me that the solution to Maverick’s reactivity is to recondition his humans.

It’s going to be of paramount importance for Maverick’s guardians to start acting like a leader in a way that he needs to see them. This means enforcing rules consistently and with good timing. Petting him with a purpose rather than simply for looking cute and most of all correcting or distracting him the second he starts to show signs of reactivity.

In Maverick’s case, his first sign was almost always a stare. Because dogs who are reactive have a chemical reaction happening in their bloodstream, it is very importance that we disagree and stop a dog before this chemical reaction has a chance to build up. If a dog is having an extended outburst, his body is releasing Cortizone into his blood is well as Adrenaline. Just like humans who get into a fight or car accident, it takes time to work these chemicals out of your bloodstream.

But if Maverick’s guardians are able to distract or stop the dog from getting worked up immediately, they will be able to prevent this chemical reaction from occurring in the first place. That will make it much easier for them to calm Maverick down.

By the end of the session Maverick was pooped. We probably made him use his brain more in the last couple hours than he had in the last week. Still, he picked up on the new rules and boundaries pretty quickly. I never doubted he would, as a long time Dalmatian guardian I have always found them to be intelligent.

The good news is how responsive Maverick was. I’m quite sure that Maverick feeling that he was the personal protector of his humans and resulted in him feeling an abundance of stress. If his guardians can take over the leadership role and help him transition into a follower’s mindset, it should be much easier for him to stop being so reactive when encountering unknown dogs and humans with his guardians present.

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