Dog Gone Problems is a weekly advice column by David Codr, a dog behaviorist in Omaha. David answers dog behavior questions sent in by our readers. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Dog Gone Problems,
I’m currently living in Yangon, Myanmar, and my boyfriend and I adopted a street dog from the shelter where she was living with 500 other dogs free of any problems. The dogs weren’t in cages and were free to roam.
Phyu Phyu (pronounced "Pew Pew") is 3 years old and we’ve had her for almost six months. Though she has a lot of training needs, her biggest issue right now is dog aggression. Any time she sees a dog, she cries and pulls on the leash. If a dog comes remotely near her, she snarls, shows her teeth and snaps. She especially hates another dog at our apartment compound after getting in a little scuffle with it early on. She goes crazy when she sees this dog — to the point where I have to pick her up because I’m afraid she’ll slip out of the harness and attack it. She has never bitten another dog. She has also only shown this behavior; I’ve never seen her accept another dog since we’ve had her.
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She is overall very timid and afraid. She likes people but really needs some time to warm up. She doesn’t like people coming in our house and has snapped at a few people who have tried to pet her in our apartment. Given her age, background and breed (street dog is essentially its own breed now in Myanmar), I understand that she has some confidence issues. We’re really struggling with what to do with her. There are no trainers here to help us and we’ve tried to socialize her with some of our friends' dogs but she just reacts so negatively every time. Please help! Any advice would be great. Thank you.
Well first of all, good job on rescuing a dog in need and sticking with her when things got tough. We need more people like you in the world.
Whenever I deal with dogs who are reactive, I always want to make sure the dog is confident in the leadership of their guardians. Many people think when you have a rescue dog, the best form of support is to remove all rules and structure. In most cases, this backfires. I have seen hundreds, if not thousands, of cases where the dog felt a lack of rules meant the need to be protective or possessive of his or her human. Even when you have a fearfully reactive dog, rules and structure can help her feel more confident that you will handle things so she doesn't need to. This video explains the importance of rules and how to introduce and enforce them.
You mentioned that your dog was not aggressive around the other dogs in the shelter, but started displaying this behavior after she left. Many times this is because dogs in shelters are in a state of shock while there. It takes a few days after leaving before you see their real personality.
Since your dog is reactive around unknown people and dogs, I'd limit her access to both while you work on building up her confidence. Teaching her new tricks and commands is a great way to build up her self-esteem. I'd also recommend using passive training to recognize and reward desired behaviors.
I'd also recommend you start petting her with a purpose, as this is a great way to boost a dog’s self-esteem as they start doing things to earn affection.
Teaching your dog a focus command is a nice way to redirect your dog’s attention away from other dogs. The key is to do so and get your dog out of the proximity to the other dog before they react.
If she slips out of a collar, I'd recommend getting her a Martingale or no-slip collar. Once fitted properly, she will not be able to wiggle out of it. This video shows how to use one.
All of these suggestions can help with your dog’s fearful aggression. While you are utilizing them, try to avoid taking your dog to stressful situations or around anything she may react to. The more a dog does something, the more likely they are to continue. So stopping opportunities to practice acting aggressive is important.
If, after two months of practicing, the techniques and exercises I detailed here aren't working, I'd recommend picking up the book "Behavior Adjustment Training 2.0" by Grisha Stewart. It's a great book that outlines how to set your dog up for success and practice not being aggressive around other dogs. I use this approach a lot.
Good luck and remember — everything you do trains your dog. Only sometimes you mean it.