Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Duke's lunging, howling, on-leash aggression (but not to beagles)

I recently found this discussion on MetaFilter while doing some searching and I wanted to share it with everyone:

"We adopted our beagle mix, Harvey, from the city shelter about a year ago. He's about 4-5 years old now. He's a great dog, great around strangers, have to watch him a bit around little kids, very easygoing. He is our only pet. We take him on walks in the morning and in the evening, and when we do, we have to always keep an eye out for other dogs because he simply FREAKS OUT when he sees them. Barks, lunges towards them, whines, etc. Most of the time, the other dogs don't respond. We've tried to ignore it, tried to correct him by saying "no," simply try avoiding other dogs by crossing the street or lingering behind cars so he doesn't see them walking. "

Duke has this same problem too. It appeared about 2 months after we adopted him and it REALLY, REALLY started getting silly about 6 months of having him in our family. There were times where at the mere sight of a dog - any dog - even a block away - that Duke would lunge, pull, jump, flip, and howl at the top of his lungs and even pull so hard that it sounded like he was gagging himself.

Our first mistake was not consulting a professional behavioralist sooner. We should have gotten professional, hands-on assistance well before the 6 month mark but instead we surfed web sites, read discussion forums, bought books from (some were good, many we tried and had no results).

We ended up working with Joan Weston who is Who's Walking Who's resident behavioralist ( Here's a summary of the type behavior modification we've been working on since May...

Conditioning Duke to look at us when he sees a dog.

We started using some very high value treats. The first type of food we used was boiled chicken thighs, shredded into manageable chunks for feeding.

Joan took us to a small park across the street full of dogs. We kept our distance from the dogs and we were instructed to feed and praise Duke lavishly every single time Duke looked at us. We also called Duke's name and if he spun around to look at us, we feed and praise. If he does it when a dog is nearby or if he manages to break his gaze from a dog to look at us, he gets TONS of food and praise.

There were times where Duke would not turn to look at us and was just too focused on a distraction (ie. a dog). We can pinch his bum or grab his tail (gently), just to get him to turn around and see what I'm doing. Then he gets praise for doing the turnaround.

Duke is VERY food motivated and this was easy and fun for him to get started with. It was amazing, even on day 1, because we were in a dog park that had upwards of 2 or 3 dogs walking through at any time and Duke was absolutely fixated on chicken and was quick to "check in" with us.

Towards the end of our session as we were leaving the park to return home, we ran into an extremely aggressive/reactive and poorly trained german sheppard in our building which caused both dogs to start barking/lunging uncontrollably. In this sort of situation where Duke's already gone ballistic, we simply turn around and walk away. There's no learning that can happen once he's gone past the point of no return.

Short-Term Results

Just one day of training made our previously frustrating/worrisome task of walking Duke into one that was manageable and increasingly positive and happy!

There were ups and downs though. For what seemed like no reason or logic, there would be walks in the AM that were "happy and howl free", and walks that same evening where he howled at half the dogs we spotted.

Here are some of the things we learned as part of the process:

1) You must believe that your dog will do the right thing!

We noticed that if we saw a dog that was approaching and that we felt Duke would go crazy, sure enough he'd lose it. Perhaps it has to do with a change in breathing, pulse, body temperature, or maybe dogs are psychic - bottom line is you have to believe in your dog!

2) Don't push too hard

Although we had major progress from just the first day of training, it has been really important over the last 4 months to set reasonable expectations and be patient with Duke. He has ups and downs but the overall trend has been extremely positive. Just because he had a good week, doesn't mean it's time to take Duke to a dog parade!

3) Don't train for too long

Duke can only remain focus and check in for 40 minutes or so at a time (about the length of his walk). After that, it's time to let him relax and have a good game of tug or fetch just to relax.

4) Keep the treats interesting

Don't use the same treats every day, change the quantity/portion of treats you give each time - sometimes don't treat at all and just praise. If it becomes a predictable, 1 treat per reward, same treat each time, Duke gets bored.


I hope that this blog post helps you if you have the same problem... but if reading books and web sites is not the way to learn how to help your dog if he has leash aggression issues. Please find a behavioralist that uses positive training methods (treats, praise) and get some hands on help.

Longer Term Results (4 months later)

Every single time we walk Duke, we have a treat bag and clicker on hand. We've been walking Duke and praising him for every check in. Over 4 months that's around 360 walks.

Here's a video of Duke we just took...

As a benchmark, Duke now...

- Ignores a lot of dogs and doesn't even care about them.
- Will spot dogs that get him nervous/excited, but will turn around and look at us as the conditioned response.
- Has not gotten into any dog fights at the off leash dog park
- Is much easier to train and heels much better on walks now
- Does sometime still lose control on certain dogs (there are a few in the neighbourhood that we know cause him problems), especially un-neutered, intact dogs.


bianca said...

hyedie, i just found your duke blog! how cute! d and i love the videos :) a beagle is the only breed we can agree on so far.....! ANYWAY, there's a great program on u.k. channel 4 called "it's me or the dog", showing positive training techniques by a behaviourist called Victoria Seawell. She uses the same "distraction" technique quite often -- giving treats, compliments, or sometimes making weird noises (she yelps, or blows a whistle) to get the dog's attention. the episodes are pretty entertaining, regardless if you have a dog!

try to find the eps, if you can!

happyd said...

bianca! i didn't get this comment until now :)

i'm glad that victoria seawell uses positive reinforcement. there are 2 dog shows that air in canada (one is made in alberta!), and unfortunately the trainers use negative reinforcement, which could potentially alienate the dog from you!

Sang Koh said...

You're totally right about negative reinforcement alienating your dog from you.

Victoria Stilwell is a fantastic trainer. I watch her show on Animal Planet here in the States.

Based on what I've read on your blog about Duke, and then seeing your video of him on a walk, I have to compliment you on the fantastic job you guys have done.

I have a very reactive terrier mix who I'm working with now. She's reactive to both dogs and new people. I know, great combination.

I've been using Kevin Behan's techniques, and had a consultation with him by phone to get some advice. She has been slowly progressing, but as you know it's a long road that requires a lot of patience and commitment.

So I just wanted to tell you how happy it makes me to see how well you've done with your own dog. It's inspiring to see how well you've done with Duke.

Great job! :)

Unknown said...

we have the same exact issue as you. how are things now that it's been over a year? do you still need to give treats??

Andre said...

Julie, it's coming up to two years since we started and while we are thrilled with the progress Duke has made, mostly around Duke not reacting to dogs on the street, we still keep treats with us on our walks. It's a good insurance policy and we still reward him for good behavior. The next step in our program with Duke is to get him to actually meet a dog on leash and behave appropriately, which if you asked me whether we could do that when I first wrote this blog post, I would have been hesitant.

So basically Duke is way better today, and if we were content to have him plateau at the level we described in this blog, our reliance on treats would be slim to none. But we always want him improving!