If you found this post because you have a dog that is guarding their food or is doing any type of resource guarding or other form of aggression, I strongly encourage you to seek professional help from a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant ( click to find a CDBC near you ), a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, CAAB ( click to find a CAAB near you), or a Veterinarian that is Board Certified in Veterinary Behavior, DACVB ( click to find a DACVB near you ). Resource guarding or any type of aggression by a dog has the potential to result in a dog bite. If you are concerned that your dog has a high probability of biting you need to address this immediately. A dog that bites can be very dangerous < click to read about dangerous dogs >. As you will see in the following video provoking the dog or threatening them or trying to be “dominant” is only likely to make matters worse.
There is a segment in the documentary film Dogs, Cats and Scapegoats < click to view > that shows the Dog Whisperer, Cesar Milan, punching a yellow Labrador Retriever in the neck, allegedly to teach her not to guard her food. I am sharing this blog post and video because it is an excellent tool for learning more about canine body language when a dog is feeling threatened.
In a November 2014 blog post from the dodo, Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and a Fellow of the Animal Behavior Society, discusses this episode, Showdown with Holly, and a slow-motion version of the show entitled Show Down with Holly in Slow Motion – A dissection of canine body language. The latter adds commentary that points out the body language used by Holly to indicate that she was feeling threatened. It also illustrates the additional visual signals Holly uses in an attempt to de-escalate the confrontation. Milan was either unaware of these signals and their importance (I didn’t see that coming!) or simply chose to ignore them. Milan is bitten when he moves the same hand he used to punch Holly near her face. < click to view > NOTE: You will need to click on “Uncover Video.”
Bekoff has this to say about the video Show Down with Holly in Slow Motion – A dissection of canine body language:
“This short video is a wonderful example of dog body language. I think of it as a crash course in canid ethology — dog behavior 101. I highly recommend those people who want to see what happened to study this video very closely. I’ve watched countless hours of video of a wide variety of social encounters in various canids — members of the dog family — and I still learned a lot from this encounter. I watched it more than a dozen times and I’m sure I’ll go back to it.”
“There are many lessons in this video about how dogs communicate what they’re feeling using all parts of their body and various vocalizations. There also are valuable lessons for the need to respect what a dog is telling us, what they want and what they need. Holly was very clear about her state of mind, what she was feeling, and what she needed.”
I encourage you to read Marc Bekoff’s entire blog post < click here >
At the conclusion of Show Down with Holly in Slow Motion – A dissection of canine body language you will find two links to more information. The first is an excellent article on resource guarding by Dr. Patricia McConnell, a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and author < click to read >. The second is a blog post by Jim Crosby < click to read > which provides a written description with time codes of the Showdown with Holly as it originally appeared on TV < click to view >. It is also very educational for those wishing to learn more about canine body language.
It is important to note that training your dog will NOT typically resolve resource guarding issues — a dog that is behaving aggressively, whether due to fear or anger, is responding emotionally. Teaching your dog to sit, leave it, or any other behavior is all about teaching them to offer a specific behavior when given a particular cue. Training is unlikely to change a negative emotion and may make it worse. Emotional responses can be altered through behavior modification, and that is where a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant, a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, or a Veterinarian that is Board Certified in Veterinary Behavior, DACVB can help you.
As a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant, CDBC I offer behavior consultations for clients with dogs with problem behaviors. You can learn more about those services at our website < click to read > and about my approach to these types of problems in this article from my blog; Help! My Dog is Aggressive, Reactive, Fearful, Anxious, etc. – What do I do? < click to read>.
Dog parks can be an excellent place for your dog to run, romp, and socialize.
They can provide an outlet for much needed mental stimulation and physical exercise, especially if you do not have a fenced yard where your dog can do this at home. However, as I will explain in this article, dog parks can also be the site of great tragedy. I cannot emphasize enough, the need for caution before you take your dog to the dog park.
What Do the Experts Say About Dog Parks?
In a March 14, 2018 blog post by Nancy Kerns, the editor of The Whole Dog Journal, Dog Parks Are Dangerous! , Kerns describes what she calls “…a completely avoidable dog park fatality.” The news report by KCRA-3 in Sacramento shows video of Honey at the dog park the day before she was killed and describes what happened. The dogs who killed Honey in this incident are dangerous dogs and should never have been allowed off-leash outside of a fenced yard at their home again, much less be allowed at a dog park, yet what will prevent that from happening?
Kerns is not alone in her cautious approach to dog parks. In April of 2013, Dr. Karen London’s article Culture of Dog Parks appeared in The Bark, where she wrote: “It’s hard to deny the cliché that dog parks create both the best of times and the worst of times.“
In the January 2018 issue of The Whole Dog Journal, professional dog trainer and author, Pat Miller, outlined the pros and cons of dog parks in an article of the same name. Miller notes “As dog parks have become more common (and, indeed, as dog ownership has been on the rise in the past decade) they have somehow morphed from being something that local dog owners band together and fight to build, to places where few really knowledgeable owners care to take their dogs. It seems everyone has a horror story to tell about “that day at the dog park,” featuring overstimulated dogs running amok, dogs practicing bully behaviors, dog fights, and even dog deaths.” [Emphasis added]
I love dogs and like nothing better than helping people and their dogs have the best life possible. I do not believe anyone intentionally puts their dog in harm’s way. However, in today’s fast-paced life where we often seem to jump from one task to the next with little forethought, we can put our dogs at risk. There are many things to consider before you take your dog to the dog park. As I discuss the pros and cons of dog parks, I will provide you with suggestions on what you can do to make sure that if you choose to take your dog to a dog park, it is a pleasurable experience for all.
Questions to Ask Yourself Before the 1st Trip to A Dog Park
Assessing Your Dog
How long have you had your dog? If you have just rescued a dog, congratulations and thank you for providing a home to a dog in need! However, you need to understand that going through the rescue process can be pretty traumatic, and as a result, you may not know your dog’s true nature for several days or even weeks. To ensure your dogs transition from rescue to companion goes as smoothly as possible, take some time to get to know your new friend. Build an incredible bond before you tackle an adventure, with significant risks, like the dog park. The same holds true for starting a training class, and yes you should complete a training class with EVERY dog in your family; however, not all rescues will be ready to start a class immediately, as I learned with my rescue dog Muppy.
However, if you have a puppy, you need to recognize that a critical learning period for a puppy starts at eight weeks of age and ends by sixteen weeks of age. You will want to start them in a class during this timeframe or at least be working with a reward-based, fear-free trainer at this time.
How old is your dog?
Puppies – For health reasons alone I would NEVER bring a puppy to a dog park until they are fully vaccinated. Remember, unlike a reputable puppy headstart class or daycare, no one is verifying that dogs visiting the dog park are current on all recommended vaccinations and are free of worms fleas, and other parasites.
Puppies first learn about interacting with other dogs and how and how not to play from littermates, mom, and hopefully from other appropriate older dogs. A singleton puppy, or puppies that are removed from mom too soon, may miss out on many essential learning opportunities and may not be appropriate for the dog park. If you adopt a puppy that falls into this category, I recommend working with a reward-based, force-free trainer without delay.
While it is essential for a puppy to have opportunities to play and interact with other dogs, especially during the 8 to 16 week socialization period, it is vital that you plan and control those playtimes to ensure a positive outcome. That means you need to know the people and the other puppy that will be playing with your pup.
The best playmates for a puppy are those of the same approximate age and size that also enjoy the same type of play. Some puppies like to chase while others like to be chased. Some want to body slam, while others prefer to wrestle. Puppies with mismatched play styles may not have a good time.
I also advise my puppy headstart students to avoid letting their pup play with “teenage” dogs between 12 months and 36 months of age unless they know those dogs very well. Doing so is not all that different from sending a five-year-old child out with a group of teenagers. Yes, a young puppy may happily interact by playing with canine teenagers, but they may also learn to play too rough and in a manner that will not be appreciated by pups in their age group.
Lastly, the best play opportunities for a new puppy is with one other puppy at a time. By limiting a playgroup to two puppies, you avoid the possibility of a group of pups bullying one puppy. Two dogs are also much easier to supervise than several puppies. Yes, daycare’s will have more dogs playing at once; however, any reputable daycare staff will have several hours of training on behavior and group play before being asked to supervise a group of dogs. Even then a trustworthy daycare will limit the size of playgroups to no more than five to eight dogs per supervising pet care technician.
Senior Dogs – An older dogs view of enjoyable play may be very different from the type of play preferred by puppies or adolescent dogs. Many older dogs prefer just wandering, sniffing, and exploring their surroundings. They avoid interactions with younger, overly enthused dogs that often play too rough. If your senior dog is in this category, the dog park may not be a good choice. An older dog can wander and enjoy themselves on a long line many places where they do not need to concern themselves with rowdy dogs.
Has your new puppy or dog been examined by your veterinarian? – Before taking a dog to the dog park, you need to take them to your veterinarian for their first wellness exam, even if the shelter or breeder just had the dog at their veterinarian. Your veterinarian will make sure that your dog gets all of the necessary vaccines or titer tests before they are exposed to the world. Your veterinarian will also discuss flea and parasite preventatives. This is important because no one is verifying that other dogs at the dog park have been vaccinated and are free of parasites. You do not want to take your dog to the dog park and have them bring home any unwanted and potentially harmful parasites, bacteria or viruses.
If your new friend has not been spayed or neutered yet, this is also when your veterinarian will discuss the pros and cons of neutering and the appropriate time for doing so. Spaying and neutering is not a black and white topic as it once was. You may want to get more than one opinion about whether you should spay or neuter, and when you should do so. Do not let a breeder or veterinarian dictate what you decide. When it comes to dog parks, understand that an unspayed female should not be at a dog park or daycare at any point during her heat cycle, and unneutered males may not always play appropriately. Many boarding and daycare facilities will require that dogs be spayed/neutered by six months of age if they participate in group play.
How well was your dog socialized between three and sixteen weeks of age? Puppies have a critical socialization period between three and sixteen weeks of age. If you have a rescue dog, it is unlikely you will know how your dog was socialized, and it is a pretty safe bet that they had little or no socialization. That means that it is very likely that they will be cautious and possibly fearful of anything or anyone that they have not experienced previously. I would NOT recommend taking a dog to the dog park as a way of making up for a lack of socialization during the critical period. Also, recognize that socialization is about much more than introducing your dog to a couple of other dogs. Dogs vary widely in appearance and behavior, so it is essential that your dog have positive experiences with dogs of a wide variety of shapes, sizes, ages, colors and play styles. While remedial socialization is possible, it must be planned and controlled, and one must proceed slowly. Under socialized or inappropriately socialized dogs are not a good candidate to go to the dog park until they are no longer anxious in novel situations. Habituating your dog to novel stimuli may take several weeks of effort on your part. A reward-based, force-free trainer can help you plan a socialization program for your dog and can help make sure that you minimize any mistakes.
Is your dog anxious, fearful, reactive, or aggressive towards dogs or people? If, yes, do NOT take your dog to the dog park. There are many reasons your dog may behave in this manner. Taking them to the dog park is unlikely to change your dog’s behavior and in fact, has a high probability of making this behavior worse because the dog park will be filled with the things that cause your dog to react; people and other dogs. It also puts other people and dogs at risk of a severe
How well trained is your dog? To keep your dog, yourself, and others at the dog park safe, you have a responsibility to maintain control over your dog at all times and in all situations. Minimally, your dog should have a reliable sit, recall, an attention/look behavior, and a leave-it Your dog should reliably respond to these cues in your home and in the presence of other dogs and people in novel environments. If you and your dog have not become proficient at these behaviors, or if your dog is distracted by other dogs, enroll yourself and your dog in a reward-based training program that does not use aversives. You will be ready for the dog park once your dog responds reliably to behavioral cues in the presence of other dogs and people.
The sit behavior is useful for getting your dog under control, helping the
dog to learn to control their impulses and a way you can prevent them from jumping on other people and dogs at the dog park.
A reliable recall behavior will allow you to get your dog to return to you instead of joining a dogfight or may prevent them from mobbing the new dog entering the park.
A well-trained leave-it can work in much the same fashion.
After you have accomplished teaching these behaviors, then take your dog to the dog park.
Why are you taking your dog to the dog park? Not every dog needs to go to
the dog park or for that matter doggie daycare. One of the new myths being perpetuated by some is the idea that you are a bad dog parent unless you take your dog to daycare or the dog park several days per week. The fact is, not all dogs will benefit from or enjoy dog parks or doggie daycare. We rescued our Cairn Terrier Dulcie when she was about five years old. We let her settle in our home, and a few weeks later I sent her to daycare. I owned the daycare, it was easy, and I thought she would enjoy socializing with other dogs. Within a couple of days, my staff was telling me “Dulcie hates daycare. She has no interest in the other dogs and wants them to stay far away.” That ended Dulcie’s daycare adventure and also let me know that Dulcie would have hated a dog park.
If your dog loves a rousing game of fetch, it is entirely possible that they will not enjoy other dogs chasing after their “ball.” There are many places to play fetch other than the dog park.
If your dog only needs a place to sniff or roll in the grass, fence in your yard or if that is not an option, put your dog on a long line (a 15 to 20-foot leash) and let them explore your yard or non-dog parks where dogs are allowed.
Daycare and dog parks are for well-socialized dogs that already enjoy the company of other dogs and people.
Neither the dog park nor daycare is an appropriate venue for the remedial socialization of a dog that is anxious or reactive to other dogs or people.
Do you have a basic understanding of dog behavior? Many of the myths about dogs, such as; dominance and being “alpha,” and the need to use aversives to exert dominance are not only false but are counterproductive to the training, management, and care of a dog. They can easily cause a dog to become unsuitable for interactions at the dog park. If you need help in understanding what is fact and what is myth about canine behavior, seek out a professional rewarded-based, fear-free dog trainer. Do NOT rely on the internet which is where many of the erroneous information about dog behavior is routinely circulated.
Do you understand the subtlety of body language used by dogs? Dog’s use their body to communicate with other dogs as well as us. A dog may give many signals before they react, giving us an opportunity to help them before things get out of hand. You need to be able to recognize your dog’s calls for help. A professional force-free and pain-free dog trainer can teach you how to interpret what your dog is trying to tell you.
How well do you understand dog play behavior? Most dogs love to play, and it is an essential part of their ongoing development. However, no dog will play if they are thirsty, hungry, tired, in pain or fearful. Dogs need to feel both physically and emotionally safe before they will play. A dog that is new to you, especially a rescue, is unlikely to feel safe in your home immediately, much less at a dog park filled with strangers. Until you have established a bond of trust with your dog, you are better off avoiding the dog park. When you do decide to visit the dog park, be ready to leave if your dog is not having a good time.
Play has no other aim but itself, it is all about fun. Normal dog play includes bits and pieces of aggressive, predatory, and sexual behavior in a non-threatening context. Once a dog is playing it usually is all about play. Keep the dog park for play and other places for training. A visit to the dog park can be a high-value reward after a brief training session.
Play is ALWAYS voluntary. First of all, it is NOT play if any of the participants are not interested in playing. When a dog initiates play, it is normal to respect others dog when they tell them “not now.” Not all dogs do well at this. When my dog Tikken was a puppy, she was not good at listening to older dogs who asked that she back off.
Play is self-rewarding. Just like some people get a “runners high” and others get addicted to gambling, chocolate, nicotine, and narcotics some dogs can get addicted to playing, which is not a good thing. The same thing that happens in the brain of a runner or drug addict can happen in the brain of a dog. Fetch, which is predatory behavior, is self-rewarding, and with some dogs can become a compulsive behavior. Our dog Dulcie was a ball addict. When people did not “give Dulcie “a tennis ball fix,” she became cranky and chronically stressed. Chronic stress can cause numerous emotional, mental and physical health issues. Dogs can also get addicted to the dog park, so remember, visit in moderation. I discourage daily visits to the dog park.
Play is not the same as reality. While play is very real, it is a variation on normal behaviors such as aggression, predation, and sex. That is why dogs will typically signal play via a play bow. The play bow means that what the dog does following the play bow and is NOT aggression or predation. Be aware that the play bow can also be used as a calming signal to increase distance. A play bow requesting play will be very dynamic with fluid and quick lateral motions. A play bow in slow motion is a way of saying “take it down a notch.”
Play is flexible and variable. Dogs will find a variety of ways to play. If it is with an object, play might constitute mouthing it, tossing it around, or pushing it with their nose. If it is play with another dog they might wrestle, chase, lie down and chew next to each other, then do some more chasing. Play is variable to keep it fun.
Play includes role reversals; there are no winners. Appropriate play between two dogs should be balanced. Dog A chases Dog B; then Dog B. chases Dog A, etc.. Dog B is on top when wrestling than Dog A gets their turn on top. If play is one-sided, it is no longer play.
Play includes self-handicapping. Older and larger dogs will often self-handicap when playing with smaller and younger dogs. We used to have an English Mastiff daycare with us, and she was one of the best dogs at getting puppies to play because she was so gentle and good at self-handicapping.
How reliable are your dogs sit, leave it, and recall behaviors? You have a
responsibility to be able to control your dog when they are out in public. Lack of training becomes even more critical at a dog park. If your dog cannot reliably perform a; SIT, LEAVE IT, or RECALL in the presence of other dogs, they are not a good candidate to take to the dog park. A professional, reward-based, force-free trainer can help you teach your dog these behaviors.
Do you know how to break-up a dogfight? If you are at all worried about your dog getting into a fight, do not go to the dog park. If you scout out the dog park before you bring your dog there, you should minimize the chances of a fight if the dog park passes my recommended tests. Dr. Sophia Yin has written an excellent article on breaking up a dog fight which you can access by clicking the link found above.
For Your First Visit – Leave Your Dog At Home
I recommend that you visit the dog park without your dog until you can first assess the physical facility and the parks culture. Visit the dog park without your dog on a day and at a time when you are likely to visit, looking for the following:
Assessing the Dog Park
Does the park have a double-gated entrance? – A double-gated entrance is a basic safety feature for a dog park. By opening only one gate at a time, it is possible to limit the possibility of dogs escaping. If there is no double gate, find another dog park
Is there a separate area for smaller dogs? – There is a huge difference in mass between a 4lb Yorkie and a 250lb English Mastiff. Even with no malicious intent, a larger dog can seriously injure a small dog during play. If you have a small dog, 30lb and less, you need a separate area at the dog park. Moreover, just because your little dog thinks they are a big dog, is no reason to allow them to play in the big dog area.
How large is the dog park and where is it located? – Ideally, a dog park will be several acres in size. Sadly, dog parks are often low priorities for many municipalities and are typically too small. Ten dogs in some dog parks at the same time may be too many. Dog parks are often located on the outskirts of town or in a less than desirable neighborhood, so think about your safety as well. My favorite dog park is Bruce Pit in Ottawa, Ontario. I had the opportunity to tour Bruce Pitt with my friend Carolyn Clark and Turid Rugaas, the author of Calming Signals. The park is enormous with varied terrain for the dogs to explore. It is possible to for your dog and a canine buddy to interact there without encountering a horde of frenetic fur balls.
Is the fencing in good repair so that a dog cannot hurt themselves or escape? – I own a kennel with lots of fencing and can tell you unequivocally it requires constant maintenance, especially after a Maine winter. Sadly, the dog park is often the last on the priority list for many municipal park departments. If the fencing is in disrepair, find another dog park.
Is the grass mowed on a regular basis and are the weeds under control? Like it or not, ticks are now part of our lives in Maine. Ticks love long grass. Recognize that if the grass at the dog park, both inside the fence and along the outside border of the fence, is not mowed on a regular basis, you may be exposing your dog and yourself to ticks and the many diseases they carry.
Is the park equipped to handle dog feces? – Any dog park needs to have; a dispenser for bags you can use to dispose of your dog’s poop and a closed container to be used for the disposal of filled poop bags and other trash. If the trash can is full, it is not getting emptied often enough. Dog feces will attract rodents, which in turn can spread parasites throughout the park. Walk around the park and observe if it is clear of feces. If not, this sadly suggests those using the park are not being good stewards and that you will want to find another dog park.
Assessing the Dog Park’s Culture
Are people focused and monitoring their dogs? Dogs at play need to be supervised, and you cannot be wrapped up in conversations with other people or engrossed in a cell phone and still be responsibly monitoring your dog. The best dog parks will not have places for people to sit. If people are not supervising their dogs, you want to pick a different time, day, or dog park.
How many dogs are present and is there one person for each dog? Dog Walkers and Pet Sitters sometimes bring groups of dogs that they are caring for to dog parks because they do not have their own People with multiple dogs may also bring more than one dog to the dog park. I believe that there should be one responsible adult human per every dog at the dog park.
How do the dogs in the park greet newcomers? Are they under control? When entering a dog park, a person and their dog are often swarmed by other dogs at the park. While the dogs charging to greet your dog may not have any malicious intent, your dog may not see it that way. If other people at the dog park are acting responsibly, they will call their dog to them and keep it under control so that you and your dog can enter the dog park in peace.
Are any of the dogs at the park bullying other dogs? If another dog is behaving pushy towards your dog, your dog will probably find the dog park a less than enjoyable experience. The dog that is being the bully is learning that type of behavior is okay, which means they are more likely to practice it more often. The dog park needs to be a bully-free zone.
Are any of the dogs wearing shock, choke, or prong collars?Aversives (choke collars, prong collars, shock collars, and more) have no place in the training or management of any dog and are likely to cause fear and aggression; neither trait makes for a good dog park dog. Both the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) and the Pet Professional Guild (PPG) recommend that aversives should never be used.
So Let’s Go to the Park!
If you believe you and your dog are ready for the dog park and have found a park that meets your criteria for safety, then by all means go. Listed below are items I suggest you take with you whenever you visit a dog park with your dog.
Things to Bring When You Go to the Dog Park
An extra leash
Water and a bowl
A first aid kit
A cell phone pre-programmed with the number of the closest vet, but keep it in the car
Your insurance information and a pen and paper to record information
Things to Leave at Home or in the Car When You go to the Dog Park
Your cell phone
Your iPad or any type of electronic tablet
Anything that will distract you from supervising your dog
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Don Hanson is the co-owner of the Green Acres Kennel Shop ( greenacreskennel.com ) in Bangor. He is a Bach Foundation Registered Animal Practitioner (BFRAP), Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC), Associate Certified Cat Behavior Consultant (ACCBC) and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA). He produces and co-hosts a weekly radio show and podcast, The Woof Meow Show heard on The Pulse AM620 WZON and streamed at http://www.wzonradio.com/ every Saturday at 9 AM. A list of upcoming shows and podcasts of past shows can be found at www.woofmeowshow.com. Don also writes about pets at his blog: www.words-woofs-meows.com. He is committed to pet care and pet training that is free of pain, force, and fear. The opinions in this post are those of Don Hanson.
Step one – Know that you are not alone. I receive several calls per week from people that are concerned about how their dog is behaving towards them, other people, other dogs, other animals, or maybe some combination of things. Aggression, reactivity, fear, and anxiety are all on a continuum of behaviors and the primary reason I see dogs for behavior consultations. Fear is almost always a direct cause or a major factor in aggression and reactivity. Previously in this column, I have discussed the 2015 American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) Canine and Feline Behavior Management Guidelines which reported that “Behavioral problems affect more dogs and cats than any other medical condition and are one of the most common causes of euthanasia, relinquishment, or abandonment of pets.” You are not alone.
Step two– Understand that your dog is not a “Bad Dog” nor are they giving you a hard time. A dog that is reacting is scared, in pain, or anxious. They are asking for your understanding and help. Getting mad at your dog and punishing them in any way will only increase their distress. < FMI – Reactivity Misunderstood – https://bit.ly/ReactivityMisunderstood >
Step three– Act Now!! Accept that behavioral issues will not go away on their own nor will your dog outgrow them. Commit to act NOW! Understand that these matters are every bit as traumatic to your dog as they are to you. You are both suffering. Delaying action is only likely to make the resolution of these issues harder and in all probability take longer.
Step four – Learn to recognize the signs of fear in your dog and act to remove them from fearful situations. Most dogs communicate when they become nervous and afraid through their body language long before they vocalize or act. If you know these signs, you can get your dog out of a situation that will cause them to become more anxious. < FMI – How Can I Tell When My Dog Is Anxious or Fearful? – http://bit.ly/DogsSignsofFear > Dog Trainer Angelica Steinker Addresses why this is so important in her article Why Counterconditioning “Doesn’t Work. She explains that counterconditioning protocols typically fail due to user error. Due to ignorance and/or impatience, the people implementing the protocol often neglect to consider the keys to a successful counterconditioning protocol that Steinker outlines in her article. Her core message is the dog being counter conditioned MUST feel safe and relaxed. <FMI – https://barksfromtheguild.com/2021/11/11/why-counterconditioning-doesnt-work/? >
Step five– Stop the use of force, fear, and pain. Immediately stop the use of any and all aversives for the management and training of your dog. Common aversives include but are not limited to; prong, pinch, choke, or shock collars, alpha rolls, squirt bottles, and the entire dominance/alpha construct. Aversives impair our dog’s ability to learn, damage the human-dog bond and trust, and often result in an emotional outburst resulting in the same behavior problems you wish to resolve. For these reasons, the AAHA guidelines, The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB), and the Pet Professional Guild (PPG) categorically oppose the use of aversive techniques for the training and husbandry of a dog. < FMI – Dog Training – Reward Based Training versus Aversives – http://bit.ly/RewardVSAversive >
Step six – Manage Your Dog and Their Environment to Prevent the Behavior – If you have a dog that could potentially injure any other living thing, you have a moral and legal responsibility to prevent that from happening. It is also essential to understand that a dog that continues to behave aggressively does so because they are being rewarded for that behavior. While you may not be intentionally rewarding reactivity and aggression, the environment or the dogs own internal reward mechanisms can act as a reinforcer. Every time this behavior is rewarded it becomes stronger and more likely. < FMI – Management of An Aggressive, Fearful or Reactive Dog – http://bit.ly/BhxManagement >
Step seven –Talk to your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist. If you have not already done so, make an appointment with your veterinarian to have a detailed discussion about your dog’s behavioral issues. Aggression can be caused by many medical problems. Pain, neurological disorders, tumors, thyroid disease, and other hormone-related problems, and even an adverse reaction to a vaccine can cause aggression. Any medical issues related to your dog’s behavior need to be identified and resolved if you wish the behavior to change.
A Veterinary Behaviorist is a veterinarian who has completed additional education and a residency specializing in animal behavior. These specialists have a comprehensive understanding of your animal. They are uniquely qualified to diagnose and treat all aspects of your pets, physical and mental health. Dr. Christine Calder is the only Veterinary Behaviorist practicing in Maine. I have included her contact information below as well as a link to an interview with her on my radio show/podcast, The Woof Meow Show.
Step eight –Seek help from a behavior professional. If your veterinarian determines that your dog’s behavioral issues are not the result of a medical problem, seek the advice of a professional animal behavior specialist, someone who understands canine behavior, ethology and behavior modification. Do not try to resolve this issue on your own or based on what someone tells you on Facebook. It is unlikely that you will be successful and you may make the problem worse and more difficult to resolve.
Behavior modification is not the same as dog training. Dog training is about teaching your dog to offer a particular action when given a cue. Behavior modification is about changing your dog’s emotional response to a stimulus. Aggression and reactivity are emotional responses typically based on fear or anger. Making your dog sit when a stranger approaches you and your dog is unlikely to make your dog less afraid or angry, but in fact, may make your dog feel more threatened. Behavior modification is about helping your dog develop a positive emotional response instead of barking, growling, lunging, or cowering.
The term “behaviorist” is often misused today. The only individuals that should be identifying themselves as a behaviorist are veterinarians who have been credentialed by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (DACVB) and applied animal behaviorists credentialed by the Animal Behavior Society (ABS). Beware of rescue and shelter workers and dog trainers that claim to be a “behaviorist” as it is unlikely that they are credentialed by the DACVB or the ABS. Below I discuss the types of qualifications that I recommend you look for when seeking behavioral help for you and your dog, and the organizations that grant those credentials.
There are three levels of professionals that specialize in assisting pets with behavioral problems. At the first level, you will find Certified Dog Behavior Consultants (CDBC) and Associate Certified Dog Behavior Consultants (ACDBC) credentialed by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) and Professional Canine Behavior Consultants (PCBC) accredited by Pet Professional Accreditation Board (PPAB). These individuals are typically dog trainers who have completed additional education specific to behavioral disorders, have passed an exam, and maintain continuing education regularly. They are qualified to work with most behavior problems. These individuals are the ones that you will most likely find in your community.
At the next level are Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (CAAB) and Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (ACAAB) accredited by the Animal Behavior Society (ABS). These behaviorists can work with more difficult behavior problems than the behavior consultants identified above.
At the top level are Diplomats of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (DACVB). These behaviorists are veterinarians with advanced training in behavior. They are skilled in dealing with the most dangerous behavior problems using both behavior modification therapy and medications.
Another place you may find help is from a veterinarian that is a member of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB). This organization is made up of veterinarians and persons holding a Ph.D. in animal behavior or a related field. However, unlike the DACVB, ABS, IAABC, and PAAB, the AVSAB does NOT “…confer upon its members any qualifications or presuppose a level of expertise in the field of animal behavior.” The four other organizations listed above due requiring credentialed members to pass an exam and to maintain continuing education in their field. You can find links to all four of these organizations below.
Step nine – Be patient. While an undesirable behavior such as reactivity towards strangers can be created in a single event, it will likely take a significant amount of time and effort to change your dog’s behavior. Our brains and our dog’s brains work much the same. If we are exposed to something we perceive as dangerous or frightening, we are genetically pre-programmed to remember that for life. It is all about our instinctual motivation to survive. To successfully reprogram the brain can take weeks and even months of carefully planned desensitization and counterconditioning. It is human nature, especially in today’s culture to be impatient and to want instant results. That is not how behavior modification works. Be patient.
It can be very frustrating when our dog behaves anxiously or aggressively, or anywhere between these two emotional responses. Dog trainer Nancy Tanner posted an article on her blog entitled the misunderstanding of time. I encourage you to read it, and then place it somewhere you can find it quickly so that you can reread it anytime you are feeling frustrated or become impatient with your dog. < FMI – Shared Blog Post – the misunderstanding of time by Nancy Tanner – http://www.greenacreskennel.com/blog/2016/11/16/shared-blog-post-the-misunderstanding-of-time-by-nancy-tanner/ >
Step ten – Take care of yourself. Living with a reactive or aggressive dog is not easy and can be emotionally draining. The blog post The emotional toll of a reactive dog by Jay Gurden at Dogs Today offers some insight on taking care of yourself as you care for your dog. < FMI – Shared Article – The emotional toll of a reactive dog by Jay Gurden-Dogs Today – http://bit.ly/SharedGurenEmotional. >
I also recommend that you consider reading the book The Official Guide To Living With DINOS by Jessica Dolce. The acronym DINOS refers to Dogs In Need Of Space, which is precisely what you have when you share your life with an aggressive, reactive or fearful dog. The book is not a replacement for working with a canine behavior professional but offers constructive advice on how to live with a reactive dog. < FMI – Dogs In Need of Space – https://dogsinneedofspace.com/ >
How Can ForceFreePets Help?
I am not currently offering the seminar noted below due to COVID-19 restrictions.
ForceFreePets offers a Help! My Dog is Aggressive, Reactive, Fearful, Anxious, etc. seminar every 4 to 8 weeks. You can learn more about the next scheduled seminar at Upcoming Events page on Blog – http://bit.ly/Blog-UpcomingEvents.
Don Hanson is the co-owner of the Green Acres Kennel Shop ( greenacreskennel.com ) in Bangor, Maine, where he has been helping people with their pets since 1995. He is also the founder of ForceFreePets.com, an online educational resource for people with dogs and cats. Don is a Bach Foundation Registered Animal Practitioner (BFRAP), Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC), Associate Certified Cat Behavior Consultant (ACCBC), and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA). He is a member of the Pet Professional Guild (PPG), where he serves on the Board of Directors and Steering Committee and chairs the Advocacy Committee and The Shock-Free Coalition ( shockfree.org ). Don produces and co-hosts a weekly radio show and podcast, The Woof Meow Show, that airs on Z62 Retro Radio WZON (AM620) and WKIT 103.3-HD3 and is streamed at http://bit.ly/AM620-WZON every Saturday at 9 AM. Podcasts of the show are available at http://bit.ly/WfMwPodcasts/, the Apple Podcast app, and Don’s blog: www.words-woofs-meows.com. The opinions in this post are those of Don Hanson.
Dogs are den animals and often find security and comfort in a den-like space such as a crate, under a table, or in some other small, confining area. For a crate to offer your dog security, it must be “den-like.” Crates often work best when they are not a wire cage, but are one of the airline-style crates that are plastic or fiberglass. These crates are usually enclosed on all sides except for a door at the front, making them more like a natural den, which in the wild would typically be a hole in the ground.
If you have a wire crate, you can convert it into a den by placing a board on top of it to make it more den-like. Make sure the board extends a couple of inches beyond both sides of the crate so you can hang a blanket over the board to close in the sides. You do not want the dog to be able to pull the blanket into the crate. Many wire crates have a pan at the bottom, which can make noise and move around unexpectedly, which some dogs may find unsettling. You may wish to remove the pan or place an old towel or blanket over the tray, but make sure that your dog will not rip it apart and ingest it.
A crate should be large enough for your dog to sit up, lie down, and turn around comfortably. However, if still housetraining, the dog should NOT have enough room to sleep in one corner and eliminate in another part of the crate.
Some beds are made explicitly for dog crates. Still, I do not recommend them for dogs with anxiety issues, as they will often chew and possibly ingest items like this when left in the crate. Until you know your dog will do well in the crate and is housetrained, I would recommend you do NOT use any bedding material.
Place the crate in a quiet area, but where your dog can still see and hear you. Remember, dogs are social animals and want to be with the rest of the family. They do not like feeling isolated. Putting the crate in your bedroom at night will help to strengthen the bond between you and your dog by allowing him to sleep near you.
Do not abuse the use of the crate. We want the dog to like the crate, so NEVER use it for punishment. If your dog spends a significant amount of time in a crate, it will also need a substantial amount of time to exercise and play.
Many dogs will find a den-like space such as under a desk or an end table like shown above.
If Your Dog Is Already Acting Negatively Towards the Crate
Some dogs have already had a bad experience in a crate and will panic if you try to put them in a crate. In this case, we need to go slower and start with something crate-like, but different. What I am going to suggest will NOT confine the dog; thus, active management is mandatory, but will hopefully allow them to acclimate gradually to a crate-like environment.
Find a small table; a card table can work nicely for most size dogs, and start practicing the following exercises:
Toss a treat or a favorite toy under the table, so your dog goes underneath to investigate. Do this a couple of times a day for several days.
Start feeding your dog his meals under the table. Place the dish near the front of the table, so the dog barely has to put his head in, to Over several meals, as the dog becomes more comfortable, start putting the dish further back under the table.
Once the dog is happily eating and spending time under the table, get an old blanket or some pieces of cardboard and cover two sides of the table so that it is now semi-enclosed. The front and back should still be open. Continue the exercises above with this newly configured table, recognizing that you may need to start slowly to get your dog comfortable.
When the dog is happily spending time under the table with two sides enclosed, enclose the back of the table and continue the exercises you started above. After the dog is comfortable in this setting, try introducing a crate, as noted below.
Introducing the dog to the crate
Remove the door to the crate and let your dog explore it. Toss in a treat or a favorite toy, so that he goes in to investigate. Do this a couple of times a day for several days.
Start feeding your dog his meals in the crate. Place the dish right up near the front of the crate, so the dog barely has to put his head in, to Over several meals, as the dog becomes more comfortable, start putting the dish further back in the crate.
At the same time, you start feeding your dog his meals in the crate; you can also begin some other crate exercises to practice during the day. Have your dog go into the crate and feed him a high-value reward (cheese, a piece of chicken, something delicious) through the door of the crate. While doing this, he is learning he gets the best rewards while in his crate. To keep these rewards high value, he should only get this treat for this particular exercise.
When your dog is comfortable going all the way into the crate to eat his meal, put the door back on and quietly close the door behind them, but do NOT latch Let him come out when he wishes.
Pick a word such as “kennel” and use it immediately before you put the dog in its crate for eating. When the dog is comfortable with the door closed, start latching it, but stay close.
When the dog is comfortable staying in the crate eating with the door latched, start leaving them in the crate for more extended periods after they finish eating.
When you can keep the door latched for 5 minutes after the dog has stopped eating, start leaving the room. Be out of sight but close by so you can hear your dog if they become anxious. Return after 5 minutes as long as the dog has not become anxious, and let the dog out of the crate. Do not make a big deal out of letting him out. Continue this until you can stay out of sight, with the dog in the crate for at least 15 minutes. What we hope will happen is that the dog will eventually lie down and settle in the crate.
Start using the word “kennel” to put your dog in the crate for short periods other than at mealtime. Give them a sturdy toy like a stuffed Kong or Benebone to interact with while in their crate. The first time you do this, just step out of sight for 5 minutes or less. If the dog does not panic or become anxious, continue to gradually, in baby steps, increase their amount of time in the crate with you out of sight.
When you can leave the dog in the crate for at least 30 minutes, with you just out of sight, try placing the dog in the crate, and leaving the house. Come back to the house after a couple of minutes, listen, and see if the dog is still calm. If so, just stay out of sight and continue to work on increasing the amount of time your dog is left in the crate. Gradually, increase the time you are outside until you can leave the dog for 30 minutes with you outside.
When you can leave the dog in the crate for at least 30 minutes, with you outside, leave the dog in the crate, leave the house, get in the car, start it and drive at least 100 feet away. Turn off the car, walk back to the house and see if the dog is still relaxed. Gradually, increase the time you can leave the dog for in the crate with you driving away until the dog can be left for 3 to 4 hours. Remember, if you want to be successful, you need to go in baby steps. For some dogs, this might mean increasing the amount of time you leave them by just 1 or 2 minutes per session.