What About the Other Dog?
If your dog has a behavior problem, and you're not handling it properly, think about what it's like for other dogs around you. The Dog Trainer has the key to successful behavior changes.
The key to successful training is to set your learner up for successful learning. We don’t start out teaching a stay by telling Zippy to stay while a marching band walks past! We start with a well-exercised, relaxed Zippy in a quiet spot, and we gradually, gradually, gradually introduce sound and movement and bouncing balls and, oh yeah, those high-stepping drum majorettes. Any time Zippy breaks his stay, we know we’ve outpaced his learning. We go back to an easier level and practice some more.
For some reason, though, many people – including many not-quite-professionally-up-to-speed trainers – approach behavior problems by throwing the dog into situations he can’t handle and then punishing him when he screws up. Got a dog who barks and lunges at other dogs on the street? March him right past other dogs and give him an almighty yank if he lunges.
As I’ve explained in more than one context, that’s not effective. To stick with my example, if your dog barks and lunges at other dogs, the best approach is to gradually desensitize him to their presence. You might start by hanging out with him and feeding him treats or playing with him, while another dog stands quietly 100 feet away. Gradually, gradually, gradually you’d work up to having calm dogs, bouncy dogs, and even very bouncy dogs walk past at decreasing distances, with your trainee keeping his cool the whole time. This approach is much more helpful your trainee.
But recently, I discovered that it’s also a lot nicer to other dogs. I was working with a client in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park when up from behind me came a man I’ve seen around with his lunging Chocolate Lab. He cuts that dog no slack whatever, walking him within a few feet of other dogs and then jerking him off his feet when he reacts. So you know what happened – the Lab lunged at my client’s dog and the Lab’s handler delivered the usual savage “correction.”
Now, here’s the thing. My client’s dog, a Pit Bull, has phenomenal canine social skills and has never so much as curled his lip at another dog. But Champ does have a ton of other problems. He was found on the street with one eye gouged out. He suffers from terrible separation anxiety. And he is (what a surprise, given that eye) wary and defensive around unfamiliar people. He didn’t seem shaken by the Chocolate Lab’s close-up lunge – but for all the Lab’s handler knew, he might have been. Many or most dogs would have been. And the last thing Champ needs is to learn that yet another feature of the world is dangerous.
It was cruel and unethical of the Lab’s handler to knowingly subject another dog to his dog’s aggressive display.
If you’re ever tempted to take advice to force your dog into problem situations and then “take control” by punishing him, please remember Champ. Think about how it might feel to be the other dog – the one your dog is lunging and snarling at. Help both dogs. Keep your distance.
Jolanta Benal is the author of The Dog Trainer’s Complete Guide to a Happy, Well-Behaved Pet.
Barking dog image from Shutterstock.