Helping a Rescued Dalmatian Get Over Her Dog Aggression

By: David Codr

Published Date: March 20, 2016

David w Paradise Dals 1

For this session I worked with a pack of rescued Dalmatians in Hidden Hills California; Nikki (left), Puppy Z (Not pictured above), Mimmi, Pippie and Cindy.

Nikki was the dog their guardian primarily wanted me to work with, but when I sat down to discuss the situation with her, I spotted (pun intended) a few things that the guardian can do to help the behavior of all the dogs.

One thing I should mention about the above video and my Petting with a purpose technique. In this situation I’m telling the guardian to pet the dogs with a purpose because the dogs have some issues in terms of respecting leadership. This is indicated by the dogs nudging or pawing at their guardian for attention.

That does not mean that you cannot pet a dog at other times. I just find that petting the dog for a reason goes a long ways towards helping the dog develop a healthy respect for the human as an authority figure. Instead of demanding attention by pawing, they ask for it by sitting.

It was great to see these Dalmatians pick things up so quickly. Shortly after we finished the above video the Dals were lining up in front of me in a sit to politely ask for another treat.

I offered a couple of other tips and suggestions to the guardian that will help the dogs more clearly identify her as the primary authority figure of the group. Once the dogs see and identify the human as being in charge, they are less apt to try to work out things amongst themselves. If there’s a conflict, they look to the human to handle it if they respect the human as an authority figure.

Because Nikki had shown some aggressive behaviors towards the other dogs, their guardian had kept her separated from them to keep everyone safe. I headed over to the pen that Nikki was in so that I could observe her and evaluate how I could best help.

While Nikki was not growling, lunging or showing animated signs of aggression or distress, you could tell that she was under stress by how she was watching the other dogs. It’s extremely important that you keep close observation of any dog that you are rehabilitating when it shows aggression towards other dogs.

Some of the signs that Nikki was warning with included; staring intently with a lowered head, dilated pupils, ears rotated forward, raised paw, lips pulled back, yawning and occasionally holding her breath. These are all communications; some of them referred to as “Calming signals.” If you would like more information on Calming Signals, I highly recommend Turid Rugaas book “On Talking Terms with Dogs; Calming Signals.”

It’s likely that Nikki did not progress past these warning signs because she was sequestered behind a fence. If these dogs would have approached her without some barrier between them, I am pretty sure that Nikki would have reacted with barking, lunging and potentially biting. When in doubt, be cautious and control the environment so you can always put your dog into a position to succeed.

While the other dog’s proximity generated some calming and warning signs from Nikki, it wasn’t until I saw a couple of the other dalmatians playing together nearby that I noticed that Nikki seemed to be reactive to that sort of interaction. Movement and animated play is a trigger for many unbalanced dogs as they just don’t understand or have problems relating to the activity (They can’t associate or don’t interpret it as play) so it can stress them out.

Many people watch the Dog Whisperer and think that the best way to get a dog over dog aggression is to correct it with a leash, poke or using other methods as soon as the dogs starts to show signs of aggression.

I never like to meet aggression with force. I find that it only makes matters worse. While an occasional leash correction or tap can be effective to snap a dog out of a minor behavioral issue, when you have dogs that are practicing aggression and have moved past warning into reacting, the best way to deal with it is counterconditioning.

I spent the next few moments explaining the basic principles of Counterconditioning before applying the technique with Nikki.

At first I kept Nikki inside of the pen so that I could see how well she responded to the technique and not be distracted by keeping an eye on multiple dogs.

Dog communication is very nuanced and subtle. It also happens really fast. It only takes your eyes to be in the wrong place for a second or two for something to happen. Thats why I always have a handler or barrier in place when I first start counterconditioning a dog who has canine aggression.

But because Nikki did so well I knew we could push things a little further. We reset the exercise so I could bring one of the other dogs into the enclosure.

Because of her medium energy and softer personality, I selected Mimmi to be the first dog to come into Nikki’s kennel enclosure.

Counterconditioning is an extremely effective technique when you are dealing with a dog that is aggressive or fearful. This technique takes time and does not make the best TV which is probably why you don’t see it much on that show.  Counterconditioning is a methodical process that has to be based on the dogs ability to deal with the situation, at their pace.

Many people fail when they try to use counterconditioning because they attempt to go to far, too fast. As I mentioned in the video, the key is to stop before the dog has an outburst. If it does, then you pushed too far and need to take the dog away from what its reacting to, wait for it to return to a calm state before trying again from a greater distance.

To make sure that the dog’s guardian was comfortable in using this technique, we switched positions so that she could work with Nikki inside the pen herself.

We took a little break after we finished the above video as it’s always important to give the dog a recovery period when you are attempting to modify behavior. A good rule of thumb is to keep it short, 5-10 minutes at most. If you or the dog start to feel frustrated or progress starts abating, take a break. And whenever possible, always end on a good repetition so the dog has a positive memory of the activity moving forward.

Now that Nikki was sufficiently warmed up, I wanted to bring her out of the pen so that I could see how she did without a barrier between her and the dogs. One of my goals for this session was to get her interacting with the dogs in some way and start to build a wanting or longing to be a part of the pack.

I made sure that the other dogs were away from the pen before I brought Nikki out so that she could feel comfortable. As you can see in the above video, I was pretty liberal in terms of handing out treats. When presented at the right time, treats are a great way to redirect your dog as well as to create a positive association with a stimulus that it is reacting to.

I also used the treats strategically to manipulate the dogs into various positions and social interactions. Dropping a treat in a spot you want the dog to explore, sniff or sample is a great little trick I picked up long ago. Dogs are scent animals, so if you can get their nose close to something, the smell can draw them the rest of the way in.

A few other notes regarding the counterconditioning exercise I outlined above. It’s extremely important that you do not keep any tension on the leash while you are working with a reactive dog. This tension can tell the dog that you are uncomfortable and put it on high alert. You need to be completely calm and confident; dogs can sense if you are or are not.

If you notice that the dog has its tail between the legs, this is a sign that is insecure with the situation. At this point you should take a break or increase the distance between whatever it is that the dog is reacting to to help it feel more secure and comfortable. Wait for it to return to a calm and confident state before returning to the exercise and be sure to increase the distance to help it feel more comfortable.

One of the tests that I use to ensure that a dog is feeling comfortable is to place it into a sit. I also give it a high-value treat while sitting. Typically a dog will not sit or take a treat if it is under stress or considers itself in a threatening situation. If your dog will not sit or take a treat, increase the distance between you and the stimulus or look for other ways to make it less intense for the dog so that it can relax.

Because dogs get over things by literally moving forward, I led Nikki and the other dogs on a short pack walk around the ranch.

I suggested that Nikki’s guardian practice walking her with the other dogs this way, or individually, as often as possible. It will be important that these walks are conducted in a structured way so there are no outburst from Nikki and the other dogs give her space and don’t play too intently or loudly near her. Essentially what you want to do is help the dog spend time being around whatever its normally reacting to, in a low level of stimulus or intensity so that it can practice hanging out without reacting. Combined with counterconditioning, this is an extremely effective method of rehabilitating a dog with dog aggression.

After we completed our walk, I placed Nikki back into the pen and then sat down with the other Dalmatians and their guardian at a table about 40 feet away. I was hoping that the interaction that Nicki participated in would lead to her wanting more. Fortunately, Nicki’s behavior immediately after I placed her in the pen confirmed that was the case.

After the session ended I stayed in touch with Nikki’s guardian through various text messages, phone calls and Facebook interactions. Happily there were more ups than downs, but the time and patience required to rehabilitate a dog like this can be quite draining.

Fortunately Nikki was rescued by a very determined woman with a big heart. She rolled with the punches and kept at it, gradually helping Nikki progress past her fears and reactivity.

While I was quite pleased to see various pictures of Nikki laying down or walking near the other dogs while on the leash, it was always in a controlled situation with a leash or barrier. Its been about three weeks since this session and yesterday I got this video from Nikki’s guardian.

I was so happy to see this video. Not only because Nikki was interacting with the other dogs, but because the guardians felt comfortable enough in her progress to do so without having her on the leash. This was the first time that she had socialized with the other dogs while completely free.

When I saw the video, I sent their guardian a text saying that she should post it on a couple of Dalmatian Facebook groups we are members of but she wanted me to do so. She felt that I was the one who was responsible for her progress.

While I can show someone the way, in this case Nikki’s guardian was the one who put in the work. It takes real patience, dedication and effort to stay the course when it gets rough and their guardian weathered the storm beautifully. All of these Dalmatians are extraordinarily fortunate to of been rescued by someone with such a huge heart.

Nikki’s rehabilitation will be an ongoing process for the next few weeks or possibly even months. But based on the progress that we were able to achieve during and especially after the session, I am confident that Nikki will be able to be fully rehabilitated. I look forward to the day that I learn that Nikki has been adopted into a forever home where she is safe, loved and comfortable.

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