I just wanted to spend a little time discussing the main behavior issue we've been working on with Bug - dog-dog aggression. Before I start, I just wanted to clarify that "aggression" here is just a word. I'm not really exactly sure how to define the behavior. Reactivity? Hyperactiveness? The behaviorist we worked with suggested the term "arousal." I'll just call it aggression for the purpose of this blog.
The best way I can explain what I'm talking about is to provide an example of a typical scenario where the problem behavior arises: Bug and I are walking down the road and we see another dog walking towards us. As Bug sees the dog approaching from a distance, she becomes alert, her tail starts wagging, and she starts pulling to the end of her leash. As the dog approaches even closer, Bug becomes even more riled up, pulling harder. Usually by now her hackles are raised and she's starting to growl and bark more. Her tail is quickly switching between wagging furiously and being raised stiffly in the air. It seems as if she's struggling at this point between happy excitement and aggressive impatience.
By the time we actually get close enough to the dog she's behaving as if she wants to attack it - lunging, snapping, growling. In many situations, the other dog is displaying all the "right" behaviors. Calming behaviors, like sniffing the ground, turning it's head away, or licking its lips. Bug seems to have issues either seeing or understanding what these signals mean, or just not caring about them.
Obviously this is frustrating to us as her owners, not only because of the tension and embarrassment that arises but because it's obvious that this is affecting her in some negative way. My desire is for her to be able to greet other dogs politely. Even if she shows complete disinterest, I'd be completely happy. She doesn't have to love or even like every (or any) dog she meets - I just want her to behave appropriately (i.e. calmly and politely). I have no interest in ever taking her to a dog park, but it would be great to be able to take her to the pet store without having to deal with these little bouts of "aggression."
There are a few things, just for the sake of discussion, that I believe contribute to these issues; the primary item is the fact that she was taken away from her litter at far too young an age (it was estimated that she was three weeks old when she was removed from her litter). She never had a chance to learn all the polite doggie behaviors that most dogs learn from their littermates - like bite inhibition, initiating play, and backing off when a dog requests it. (She learned a lot of her bite inhibition through playbiting sessions with us. I'm surprised I don't have the scars to prove it!)
Also, when she was a very young puppy and first entered her foster home, she was attacked by the other dog living in the house (a dog she still, not surprisingly, has issues with today). These early life events had to have had an effect on her development and her current behavior. Again, this doesn't really change how we're trying to help her make changes, but I just wanted to bring up these points for the purpose of discussion.
Last year things started to get worse as she got really snappy with her two doggie friends (my parents' German Shepherd/husky mix, Echo, and my sister's Basenji mix, Kody) and fights started to spring up more frequently. I finally got in contact with an animal behaviorist in the Milwaukee area (unfortunately, she recently moved to California, but we were able to get a lot of help from her before she left). She helped us identify Bug's triggers and find ways to manage her behavior. We used her "touch" cue (touching her nose to our hand - a targeting behavior) whenever she saw another dog in the distance, but was still below her threshold and able to respond to us. Through this, we were able to get her to focus more on us as the dog approached her. After two training sessions, we were able to walk side-by-side with another (strange) dog only a few feet apart with no issues.
What I primarily do now with clicker-training is to click and treat her whenever we're near other dogs that she notices. For example, we were on a walk the other day when two large and loud dogs charged a fence we were walking past, clearly wanted to play with Bug. Bug started to react by raising her hackles and snarling but before she got too riled up, I was able to get her to refocus on me. We walked a few feet down the sidewalk - still well within the view of the strange dogs - and I started to click and treat her every time she looked at the dogs without reacting. Eventually, her body relaxed and she would look at the dogs with her tail loosely wagging. After about a minute of this (by this point, the other dogs had lost interest and were wandering around their yard), Bug turned away on her own and decided to continue our walk.
Hopefully as we continue this training, we'll be able to work more on managing her behavior near other dogs to the point where she can quietly greet another dog and move on, without ever getting worked up over it. I've also been consulting the book Click to Calm by Emma Parsons, which I highly recommend to anyone with an aggressive, highly reactive, and/or fearful dog.
We start agility again next week, and I'm hoping that this year will start off much better than last year (more on this later).
Also, we started some preliminary loose-leash walking training the other day - I'll write more on this later, as well.