Thursday, December 31, 2009

The evidence mounts

Steve came over to work on his drums and Gustav wag wag wagged his tail. Then Dottie barked a few times and all of Gustav's hackles went up and he got a little tense. Further proof that Dottie affects Gustav's read of a situation. It also made me reconsider whether Dottie really does love all people, or if she is sometimes a little frightened of them. I always thought she barked out of excitement, but now I think there's a little anxiety in it too. Gustav is probably better at interpreting a fellow dog's signals than I am. Might not be a bad idea to throw her a few treats when approaching strangers as well, while I'm at it.

I brought Dottie to the dog park for her counterconditioning session. I brought her in the new band van, to test it out. I don't think she liked the van at all. By the time we got to the park, it was dark and she was acting so tense I decided to not go in at all, but just play frisbee on the outside of the park. Both dogs are more fearful in the dark. On top of that, sometimes people bring their dogs in the dark because they have bad dogs and think there will be fewer dogs. I just had a bad feeling over all, and I'm really glad I decided to take it easy. We played frisbee and walked around, but she could still see the dogs in the park. One dog took to barking at her from the fence, giving us a beautifully controlled counter conditioning opportunity. Dottie's attention is perfect, so instead I've taught her "Where's the dog?" so she can get treats for actually looking at the dog. I use a clicker since her glance is about half a second long, she would much rather look at me. I was really proud of her, we walked really close to the huge barking dog on the other side of the fence and she never barked once. I'm sure the owner of that dog was less than thrilled on our use of his dog for training, since he couldn't get him away from the fence. Oh well.

I was feeling a little down on them yesterday, due to a weird pervasive anxiety I couldn't quite shake all afternoon. It made me wonder if I spread it to Dottie, leading to the avoidance of the dog park, or if I picked it up from her. Sometimes anxiety just takes over for a little bit, I feel better today.

Dottie and I are starting Feisty Fido a week from Sunday. This is a class for leash reactive dogs. When I signed up we weren't nearly as far along as we are now, so I feel pretty confident she'll do well. Just the practice itself will do wonders, I'm sure. It was great for Gustav when we took Reactive Rover with him, I wish I had the gumption to recreate it once a week (an hour of uninterrupted practice of attention around dogs and people, all perfectly controlled not to go over his threshold, with both me and Justin and no Dottie!) I will definitely sign him up for the next one after Dottie finished Feisty Fido, it was really helpful. I heart Dog's Best Friend, they are just amazing.

No results to report on the diet change, I can't tell a difference. If anyone has ideas for a test, I'd love to hear it.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Good day

Great day today walking. Gustav was three for three on coming when called, and with gusto to boot. One time he had sprinted off away from us, which is unusual for him with his muzzle on. I took the opportunity to take Dottie and me and hide behind a tree, then called him. Seconds later he came sprinting back, looking confused. He found us and was jackpotted, with about 10 pieces of chicken. Good boy.

Also, there was a dog tied up barking the whole time we walked down the street, across the street. Both dogs had hackles up, and Dottie let out a little growl but no barking. Both responded great to their names and took treats. Hooray! Same story with a greyhound down the street with his owner.

Finally, along the bike path we passed a few people and Gustav did some perfect watches and there was no growling/barking/etc, but some small hackles and definite tension.

In other news, the boys in my band are definitely on Gustav's love list. I've been having them enter through the garage, and until recently Justin would have him on leash. Now he's free and they throw treats for him and pet him and all his body language seems relaxed and happy. He wags his tail from the butt and puts his chin on them to get petted. There were bones and kongs around and there was no resource guarding. I'm considering letting them in the front door next, to work on counterconditioning knocking. Justin and I do this with each other and we've gotten to no or next to no barking. I also got my friend Shane, who is in the band, to do the same. He knocked on the door and came in with no barking while I threw treats on the ground. Then he threw treats for them. They love him. It sure helps Gustav to be calm when Dottie can keep from barking, so I'm really focusing on that in terms of visitors coming over.

It's nice to have successful days to remember on the days that don't go so well.

The much-anticipated diet post!

I recently picked up Dr. Dodman's book "The Well-Adjusted Dog." Mostly pretty basic, but well-written (well, except for his obsession with references to Joan Rivers-I guess she used to say grow up a lot?). He talked about a study on protein content in aggressive dogs. He found that a low protein diet (17%) lowered fear aggression, but not other types of aggression, in a lot of dogs. Conversely, dogs fed a high protein diet experienced the opposite effect. The nice thing about the study is that it showed up pretty immediately in dogs where it worked, and the effects were rather dramatic. So I think a month or so should be a fair trial.

I picked up some weight-control dog food (protein is 17%) and, now that Gustav is better in the stomach department, I'm giving it a try. I have three concerns: one, what objective test can I use to see if it's working? I can't always predict what Gustav will react to, and even when I can it's probably a situation where something like food change wouldn't make a difference because we're so far in the deep end. I guess this part will have to be a little intuitive and not as scientific as I'd like. Two, since all his treats are protein-heavy, will the food make a difference? I had heard once that protein actually increases some happy-making chemical in a dog's brain, hence its usefulness in counter conditioning. Dr. Dodman's study, however, says that carbohydrates are the ones that help in serotonin levels, while protein tends to block this process.

Curious to see what happens, we are on day two of low-protein.

In other news, great attention work last night when there was a dog across the street. To be honest, I'm not sure Dottie even saw it. But Gustav definitely did, and he was able to refocus on me with smooches and his name without barking or even raising his hackles, although he was definitely focused on the dog and tense. I can definitely remember the day when a dog across the street was too much for Dottie, so I'm feeling pretty happy about progress on that front.

Off to the wooded lot where we're not really supposed to go, but is such a great spot for off-leash and muzzle work. Sad to see Gustav desperately try to fetch tennis balls with a muzzle on, I tried to buy a big ball he can push with his paws/nose but he didn't show much interest in it.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Today I took the dogs on a brief walk before work. Dottie had some great autowatches when she heard dogs barking, and Gustav responded beautifully to his name when he saw a pack of shovelers across the street. I think part of the variability of his consistency on this cue must be the level of threat. He had his hackles up, but no growling. Hooray!

Dottie, my 6-year-old terrier mutt, is leash reactive with other dogs. She hasn't had the best luck in the dog world. I've had her since puppyhood and tried really hard to socialize her, but she was my first dog and I think I took too much of a "throw her in the deep end" approach. Combined with a few dog attacks (one when she was a puppy-a lab guarding his tennis ball bit her all the way through her cheek, she had to get a few stitches, one this past spring, she got attacked at the dog park and had a puncture w0und in her back) and a reactive temperament, she is not all that great with dogs. Her "watch me" cue is pretty great, unless she's so far in over her head she can't manage it. She also is not a huge fan of strangers in certain circumstances. However, she is totally trustworthy with all people, including children. I think this is partly due to her submissive nature, and also because she grew up in an apartment with about a million roomates as a puppy. Justin and I think that her general hysteria puts Gustav on edge, so part of our plan for him is working on her leash reactivity. She starts Feisty Fido in a few weeks, and I try to bring her to the dog park once a week to clicker train some counter conditioning to approaching dogs. We have come so far in this respect, I'm really proud of her. The only time she snaps at dogs now at the dog park is if they are being really rude, i.e. charging her head on. I have to admit I'm not too worried about this, as her correction is pretty appropriate and quick. She used to rush dogs preemptively and snap at them. I taught her "Where's the dog?" to counter condition her fear of dogs.

Yesterday we saw the hated Husky who lives across the street in the apartment complex. (I don't hate it :), but my dogs hate almost every dog who lives close by and therefore invades our territory on a regular basis). I sprinkled chicken on the ground and asked for Gustav's attention, and the Husky was able to go home right across the street with no barking from mine! I was really proud and happy. This is in part due to tons of snow blocking their view, but they knew it was there and I'll take what I can get.

Gustav's um, stomach problems, are nearly resolved (*knock on wood*) so we'll be starting the low protein diet, which I'll explain in a later post. I've been trying to think of some scientific comparison situation, where he can be counted on to be reactive. Knowing my optimistic self, I'll swear up and down the food is helping regardless of actual objective efficacy. Maybe the neighbor? Has to be something he's fear aggressive of, so I'm not sure other dogs would work. In terms of dogs, I'm not convinced he's frightened of them, I think he's just an insecure alpha who has to bully dogs and wrestle them to the ground. If he wins this contest, he's usually fine with the dog, although he thinks it's necessary to periodically reaffirm his status by repeating this test. Sigh. Dogs are far down on his priority list, I'm much more concerned about the people aggression.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

I took the dogs on an hour long walk today. They got pretty wet and slow, but at least they'll take a nice long nap. Gustav had two barking incidences: one, a man came running toward us across the street at full tilt. We went off to the side, because this was obviously a threat in Gustav's eyes. He still barked and put his hackles up. Oh well, can't win 'em all. We saw a bunch of other people and I got some nice autowatches out of him. Autowatch is when he looks at something threatening to him, then automatically looks up at me. Then I give him chicken. He only seems to do this when the threat is at an acceptably low level, like if the person is across the street. When he first learned it he did it only with people on bikes, for reasons that are totally mysterious to me.

He definitely thinks that some people are more scary than others, but I've been unable to find a clear pattern. He doesn't like bags, umbrellas, kids, or big burly dudes, but sometimes I am totally mystified as to why he barks and lunges as some people but not others. Could be something I'm not picking up on, like scent, my own reaction communicated without my knowledge, or maybe the amount of eye contact the person is giving him, which is confrontational to dogs. Who knows.

I worked a little on his "watch me" cue, which is his name. He's only about fifty-fifty on this one, and usually there's a significant lag while he finishes looking at whatever has caught his attention. I still treat him when he finally looks at me, but I'm not sure how to speed up his response. Dottie, on the other hand, has a great "watch me" that is immediate and automatic. I assume Gustav's problem with this is his inability to look away from things that threaten him and still feel safe, and just plain old lack of practice and reliability. Dottie used to suck at it, too. Dottie, however, seems much more willing to put herself in my hands in terms of protection and safety. She is a pretty submissive dog, especially with people, but has a streak of hysteria and anxiety. She's also super barky.

Which leads me to Gustav's other barkfest, which was funny. We came across maybe the ugliest lawn display of horrible blow-up snowglobe Christmas decorations I've ever seen, and Dottie started barking hysterically. Gustav took up the cause too, and I tried having them sit and quiet and give treats. Dottie could only quit barking long enough to eat the chicken off the sidewalk, and I got worried she was being reinforced for barking instead of conditioned against the snow globe, so I just laughed and dragged them past it. I had them sit and watch me a bit past the lawn, so they wouldn't completely get the message that barking and acting foolish would result in increased distance from the scary thing, but I'm not super hopeful that it worked. Anyway, with reactive dogs like mine, sometimes you just have to laugh it off and hope those snowglobes don't become super popular lawn ornaments.

Coming soon: Gustav's exciting change to low protein food, shown in a study to reduce fear aggression in some dogs, after he recovers from a disgusting encounter with bad meat!!

I told you this blog would be totally uninteresting to anyone except myself and dog behavior nuts.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

This blog is about my dog, Gustav, and working on his aggression issues. Anyone who has an aggressive dog knows that a support network is an important part of the process. Watching friendly dogs walk through the park, getting pet by kids and meeting other dogs all without incidence always brings a little sadness and enviousness to those of us who have "dogs with issues." I always wanted to talk to someone who had an aggressive dog and successfully treated it. This blog is meant to be a record of our process and (hopefully!) progress.

Gustav is a German Shepherd/Boxer mix who is about three or four. We (me and my boyfriend Justin) adopted him from a woman who couldn't keep him anymore in the fall of 2008. She mentioned that he didn't like big crowds, but was otherwise totally fine. I believe that this was the case, since I've learned that "older is bolder" and "caution at one is aggression at three." Apparently, with new-found confidence as dogs grow older, issues can become worse.

I first noticed a few strange habits, like sometimes he would mouth the hand of someone who had just pet him. He also barked and danced around a little girl at the dog park, and barked and lunged at a neighbor of mine. Me and Justin weren't sure what to make of these incidents. He is more of an alpha-wannabe than our other dog, Dottie, and we thought maybe he was just being pushy or rude.

We tried the tough approach, applying tugs on the leash when he fixated on people on walks. This worked in the short term, but in the end seemed to exacerbate his anxiety about strangers.

Finally, in May, we had a rock bottom of sorts. Justin and I were at work all day, and were supposed to meet his mom Lynne at a restaurant right after work. I felt bad for the dogs, and ran home first to give them new butcher bones, full of meat and marrow, and let them outside. We went out for dinner, then came home. We warned Lynne that Gustav had been acting a little weird and we weren't sure about him. He took his bone out, greeted everyone with a wagging tail, then settled down with his bone. Lynne began leaning over him and petting him behind the ears. Gustav stiffened, stared up at her coldly, and snarled and leapt at her face. He had hit her nose hard enough to make it bleed. Justin brought him to his crate, and we made sure Lynne was okay. He hadn't bitten her, just muzzle punched her really hard. We were really upset and worried.

After that, I brought him to a behaviorist for help. I first went in and talked to her, then we came out and got him from the car. She held some treats in her hand, and he went right up and ate them. Then he lunged and snarled at her from behind. She confirmed that he had fear aggression towards people and that we needed to do something about it. We talked about counter conditioning and desensitization.

Since then, Gustav has been in Reactive Rover class once, in November. We worked on teaching him to watch us when we said his name and other attention exercises. I think the class helped a lot.

"Fear aggression" is not really how I would characterize his problems. He has a forward commissure when growling/lunging. I would call him "suspicious." His attitude is that people make him suspicious, but he's not really afraid, since he's confident that he can just growl and lunge or bite if needed to neutralize the threat. However, the same principles to training apply.

I'm hoping to use this blog as something of a training log, in case anyone is interested, but mostly for myself. He really is a great dog, very loving and affectionate at home and a total sweetheart.