Teaching a Vizsla She isn’t The Boss to Stop Her Growling at the Family’s Daughter

By: David Codr

Published Date: October 5, 2015

Sophie

Sophie is a six-year-old Vizsla who has changed in personality since her guardian’s father moved out; showing occasional displays of aggression towards the family’s toddler.

It didn’t take long to see that a lack of rules and structure had caused Sophie to think that she was equal to all the humans in the house. While we like to think of our dogs as a part of the family, there can still be rules, boundaries and limits. I like to think of the dogs being similar to growing children in this regard. To protect them, we limit their access and privileges until they mature and show us that they can be trusted.

In the course of discussing some structural changes that can help change the dod’s perception of status, I noticed that any time the dog came near one of the guardians, they instinctively petted her. Additionally they immediately petted her any time she nudged them with her nose for attention.

When a dog nudges a human this way, they are essentially giving the human an order “pet me.” If we comply on a regular basis, it gives the dog the impression they can tell us what to do. Combined with no rules or boundaries, this can easily lead a dog to think its in charge of the humans.

Its possible that this perception, combined with the guardian’s father leaving, is why the dog has started growling at the child. If she sees herself as being in a position of authority over the humans, its probable that she sees the child as her responsibility. So when the child does something she doesn’t approve of or thinks is inappropriate (such as getting close when the dog has an object), its natural for her to growl to communicate this message.

To start to change how the dog sees itself in relation to the humans in the house, I showed the guardians how to set some boundaries.

Whenever I am changing the leader follower dynamic, I try to incorporate exercises and activities that involve dog and human working together; with the dog in a follower position. This interaction helps stimulate the dog and gives them something to do for their human rather than doing something in the same room.

One of the easiest exercises that meets this criteria is the fetch. The problem was Sophie didn’t like to drop the ball after retrieving it. This is often caused by the human trying to take away or snatch the ball instead of getting the dog to drop it voluntarily.

I showed the guardians how to use a small hand motion to get the dog’s attention and put the dog into a sitting position.

In the video you see the guardian raising her hand instead of lowering it. I only raise my hand to put the dog into a sitting position. Otherwise I start out with the treat in a flat palm facing the ceiling with a 45º bend of my elbow. This makes my forearm parallel to the floor.

I had asked the guardian to lower the treat as this motion usually makes the item more enticing to the dog. I use this trick when a dog doesn’t respond to the recall command word the firsts time. Instead of repeating he same command, I make a kissing sound then start lowering my hand when the dog looks my way.

Next I showed the guardians how to use positive reinforcement to get Sophie to drop the ball on command.

At first the client was pulling the treat away and or not starting with the treat right next to the dog’s nose. It should be literally less than an inch from the dog’s snout. The idea is to make it so accessible the dog wants to open its moth to get it.

In the video I was telling the dog to drop and the client thought I was speaking to her so she dropped the treat. But the best thing to do is pop that treat right into the dog’s mouth the instant it drops the ball while simultaneously repeating the “drop” command word. By ignoring the ball and focusing on rewarding the dog, we can alleviate any defense reaction the dog currently has. Only after rewarding the dog properly should you pick up the ball.

By practicing both the drop and recall, Sophie will feel less of a desire to protect the ball. Instead she will eagerly give it up to anyone who asks her to drop it so that they may play a little fetch with her.

To help the dog develop the proper respect for the guardian’s authority, I ran through a leadership exercise I developed a few years ago. After Sophie knew what I wanted from her, I coached the guardians through it.

Up first was the dad.

He starts the video out by using the hand motion to put the dog into a sit, but all I want to achieve is some distance between the human and dog so they can drop the treat on the floor.

The next step is to stand up straight with your hips and shoulders facing the dog. I wait for a moment in this position to communicate to the dog that the treat is mine. Because the guardian starts to move back immediately after dropping the treat, the dog lurches forward, then stops and barks in protest.

Now the guardian moved back a little fast as I had told him that he needed to move back as soon as the dog sits or lays down. But in this case, the action was more of a “spring into action” pose then a surrender lay down. This is why the dog got up to go get the treat as soon as the guardian’s shoulders turn away from the dog.

Because the guardian stopped short after moving at the dog to disagree with her attempt to get the treat, she didn’t get the correction as well as she would have if he continued marching at her until she got up and moved away. When he took the second step, you see the dog responding as we wanted.

Next I walked the mother through the exercise.

The mother waited too long to drop the treat and when she stepped forward to correct, also stopped too short. It will take time but with practice they will both learn to continue forward to take territory from the dog as a consequence for getting too close.

Another area Sophie asserted herself in was answering the door. But when dogs are in a pack, security is usually the leader’s job. Additionally when the dog is in front of the human when we open the door they see themselves as in charge.

I had the dad go out to play the part of a knocking guest so I could show the guardian how to claim the area by the door. After doing so successfully, we repeated the exercise with the mother answering the door this time.

By the end of the session, the humans were leading the dog much more confidently and she was already moving into a follower position. The more that they practice these exercises and assume the leading position, the less the dog will think that these activities are her responsibility. This will have a positive impact on the dog’s interaction with the family’s toddler. In time, correcting or disagreeing with the child will seem inappropriate to the dog allowing it to remain in a follower position.

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