How I solved my dog’s aggression issues

I’m taking a break from my usual parenting and homeschooling related posts to tell a story about my own learning journey with my dog, Rain.

We adopted her, an Australian Cattle Dog mix, from a rescue shelter in Washington State back in June of 2009. She was a very submissive and timid dog towards people, but not in a fearful-aggressive way, rather in a “please love me” way. I made the first mistake of dog ownership, having never owned a submissive dog before: I assumed the poor thing was afraid and nervous after her move, and I got myself into a frame of mind where that story coloured my judgement.

She was well behaved at home, obedient and quiet and sweet. But the first time we met a dog on our walks she emitted a low growl while they were getting to know each other. The other owner and I thought little of it, we even chuckled, but I should have corrected her right then and there. That was Big Mistake #1. I had no idea what I was in for, and I can’t tell you how many times I have relived that moment wishing I had sternly corrected her back then, before she bonded to me. But I had this idea that she was timid and nervous and I didn’t realize the significance of that growl. I should have read this website:

Australian Cattle Dog[s]… were originally bred to protect and work livestock…this trait often leads to aggressive behaviors and dominant tendencies towards…unfamiliar dogs. This strong protective nature makes them avid watch dogs due to their obedience and extreme loyalty to their owners. This breed is often found on many expert’s “most aggressive dogs” top 10 list…

Over the next couple of weeks the behaviour escalated while Rain formed a bond with me. I became “her human” and she was going to protect me at all costs. By the time I realized I had a problem, it was too far gone. The same dog who would do anything for me would, when confronted with another dog, completely ignore me. I had lost the power of “the non-bonded human”; I was familiar and she was making the decisions for both of us. If another dog passed us or got too close she would lunge, bare her teeth, growl and bark, and strain against the leash as if she wanted to rip the dog’s throat out. It was scary for me, and I knew what to expect. The reactions from others ranged from horror to chastisement. More than one person told me I should not be out on the trails, even with her on a leash, and another guy said she should be put down.

Our life together became the exact opposite of what I had envisioned based on my previous dog experience. Our story will perhaps be familiar to anyone finding this article by Google search.

Dog parks were simply not an option. No hanging out with fellow dog enthusiasts watching the dogs play and chase each other. No waves and friendly dog greeting while out hiking the trails. Instead we became the doggy social scene equivalent of a hermit, an outcast. I took her to remote mountain trails where we’d be least likely to run into anyone. I’d take her off-leash there (because her recall was excellent) so I could run freely (I was trail running in those days) but the whole time I’d be anxiously peering around each corner, ears strained for the sound of people, praying that I would see far enough ahead to call Rain back to me should anybody appear. It got to the point where Rain would just automatically turn around and come to me if she saw anybody heading down the trail. But even her obedience in this matter didn’t stop her from going insane (while back on the leash) if the person were accompanied by a dog and had to walk past us.

I tried a dog class for “reactive dogs” but Rain turned out not to be a food-motivated dog. Sure, she loves treats but when it comes to a choice between even the tastiest tidbit and going after another dog, she’d ignore the food completely. I tried obedience training and she lived up to her reputation as a highly intelligent dog, but it didn’t change anything. I did, however, discover that she can befriend dogs – she came to like one or two of her classmates and learned to ignore the rest (thanks to a few stern words from the instructor, in whose hands she was putty). I tried doggy daycare, hoping they could help her. But, as with the obedience class, she demonstrated that she could make doggy friends if given time and the right environment – it was the meet and greet that did her in.

When we moved to the Island I got her into training with wonderful woman whose philosophy largely resembles that of the Dog Whisperer, Cesar Milan. She had a way with dogs that I was in awe of, and when I was invited to come with her on hikes (she walks a pack of dogs every day for 2 hours!) I was full of questions and wonder. I learned a lot about dog behaviour from her, like how Rain has two choices in situations where she meets a dog – she can attack or ignore. I watched examples of this “ignoring” when the trainer worked with her. That was to be my goal – Rain would never be a friendly, greet-everybody dog, but if I could get her to ignore rather than attack it would solve most of my problems. I could live without doggy parks – by now we were living in the country! But first I had to get her attention.

My first clue as to how to do that was when I had occasion to walk her with my husband along. She is very submissive to him (read: a big suck) and responds strongly to any reprimand by him. So when we were about to pass a dog I handed the leash to him. One strong word from him and Rain assumed a submissive posture, acted as though the other dog didn’t even exist, and tried very hard to get herself back into his good graces. I realized then that I had to figure out how to get that response from her myself. I can tell you that pain doesn’t cut it – before seeking professional help I tried numerous types of “training collars” (which I resorted to out of desperation) and the problem did not go away. That was Big Mistake #2. In the heat of the moment Rain simply ignored the pinching collar, even if it was hurting her. I couldn’t stand to continue like that.

And so we were left back to our old habits of avoiding people (at least a bit easier to do out here in the country) until one day a couple of months ago when we went to our local swimming hole…the solution presented itself to me. Rain loves to fetch sticks in the water, and to swim, and she’ll sometimes become rather insistent that someone throw a stick. Yeah, she barks in a really annoying way! So one day while she was yapping away like that my daughter splashed her with water, out of frustration at Rain’s barking. Rain shrank back and assumed a submissive pose – something she rarely does with the kids. I witnessed this, and an idea was born.

I recalled one doggy daycare trainer who told me she kept a squirt bottle filled with water close by the main pen, so that if any dogs started getting scrappy with each other she would squirt at them and they would disperse. Seeing Rain’s reaction to getting splashed (even though she loves to swim) gave me the idea to try it. Why hadn’t I thought of it before? Really, I can’t tell you.

The next day I was so excited. For the first time in 2 years I actually *hoped* we would pass by someone with a dog. I carried a small squirt bottle of water, set to “mist”. As a human approached us with a dog, Rain got into her “predatory hunting pose” and I immediately sprayed near her and said “Leave It!”. She shrank back in surprise and displeasure, gave me a submissive posture, and stopped looking at the dog. As we got closer and she tried to bare her teeth I did it again. She walked past that dog with barely a low growl. And, being the smart dog that she is, it only took about three more encounters passing dogs for her to give up the jig completely. I had done it! Now I only have to say “Leave It” quietly as we’re approaching and she just slinks past the other dog(s), completely ignoring them.

I cannot tell you how much this has changed my life! Okay, perhaps it’s not that big a deal, but it is HUGE for me. I no longer have to fear passing people on the trails, I even stopped and had a conversation with a woman walking a large Labradoodle last week! I feel like a normal dog person again! I’m no longer afraid to run into people with dogs, no longer embarrassed or anxious about my dog’s obnoxious behaviour. I can hold my head high!

I’m going to end this tale with a “paying it forward” moment. Last week Rain and I were heading home from a nice walk when I spied a woman with two kids and a dog at the top of the hilly trail. Upon seeing me, her reaction was hauntingly familiar. She immediately tightened up her dog’s leash and walked off the side of the trail into the bush. As far off the trail as she could go. She began to announce that her dog was “not friendly with other dogs”, inserted with profuse apologies as her dog proceeded to do a perfect imitation of Rain’s past behaviours. I could immediately see her embarrassment, her frustration, and my heart went out to her. I reassured her as we approached that it was okay. This was a good challenge for Rain, because the dog’s reaction stirred her up. She tried to do it back, but the Squirt Bottle of Power convinced her otherwise. I told the woman I understood what she was going through, that I had been in her situation countless times. As I kept going she said “Wait! How did you fix it?” and I held up my squirt bottle. We then proceeded to talk, and I had one of her kids bring the bottle over to her while Rain and I walked back past them. Her dog didn’t have the same negative reaction as Rain did to the water, but he let Rain pass without much fuss. A ray of hope crossed the woman’s face. As we talked her story was so familiar, how she was using these trails in the hopes of not running into any dogs, her total panic when seeing a dog off-leash, her frustration, all the things she has tried, etc…I think telling her my story reassured her that she wasn’t alone, and gave her some hope. I left that conversation feeling like things had come around full circle. The student was now assisting others on the same journey. It felt good.


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