My dogs are a priority and a big responsibility… but the payoffs are well worth it.
– Will Estes
I recently had a training session with a tiny, spunky little Chihuahua mix named Bird. Bird’s owner was concerned about the level of energy her dog was exhibiting, as well as some other issues. Bird’s owner, Kim, was impressive to watch as she basically went from being her dog’s doormat to a true Pilot: a calm, benevolent leader. I received this email from her a few days later:
Hi Kerry! I wanted to thank you and to let you know how well Bird is doing since our session! My mom even commented on how much calmer and more respectful she is now that she knows I’m the pilot (or at least getting there). I’m so grateful for what you have taught me.Today, though, I had a very frightening experience with Bird. I was at Lakewood park with a friend and we were reading on blankets on the grass. Bird was laying next to me on a leash. I noticed she was growling a little bit at every dog that passed by so I tried the fake “bite” with my hand which don’t seem to stop her from growling. Then before I could stop it, another little dog (off leash) ran up to sniff her. Bird freaked out, snarled and almost attacked the other dog. When I grabbed her to pull her away she snarled again and almost bit ME. She has NEVER done anything like this before. I was so embarrassed and sad. I felt like such a bad dog-mom.So, for future notice, I’m wondering what I should do when Bird growls/barks at other dogs. I tried the pretend “bite” with my hand which didn’t seem to work. I tried standing between her and the other dog, which seemed to distract her a little bit, but nothing really stopped it. Like I said, this is the very first time this has ever happened. She has never shown aggression toward another dog beyond growling at them.Thank you again for all your help. I think you are wonderful at what you do and I’m so happy to have you as a resource. – Kim
So it looks as if Kim is doing just about everything right, so what happened?! Read on for my response:
Hi Kim – let me rephrase what happened from Bird’s point of view: She gave an alert about potential danger while you were lying prone on the grass. While she was still trying to get handle on the situation, a predator ran right up to your prone form, forcing her to protect you. While she was busy trying to defend you against the unanswered question, another hand came out of nowhere, whereupon her adrenalin (which was already kicked up to begin with) forced her to react to this new danger, whereupon she realized right before contact that it was only your hand.
That’s exactly what you stated above, but only from her perspective. At no point did she do anything wrong, nor is she a bad dog. However, as I mentioned before, you can give a negative to her if you happen not to like what she is currently doing.
So, playing this scenario out again, with what you can do next time.
1) Use as much “no” as is necessary. You “bit” her using your fingertips, but she wasn’t able to accept the answer to her question. It’s okay to add layers. Remember, the fingertip-bite is only there to get her attention so she can see what you’re “saying”. Dogs are based on body language, remember. The moment she looked at you, use your negative body language. If that didn’t work, stand up and do it. Remember, that tiny little girl was trying to protect your prone form from passing predators.
2) Sometimes you need to walk it off. Your Piloting was tested when she wouldn’t stop the growling after you answered her question the first time, thereby refusing to accept your answer to her question. Meaning she took some money out of your bank… Take it back! The best way to add Piloting to your piggy bank is to go for a very short walk, answering her questions as you go along. Maybe even as little as 800 feet. When you feel you’ve got your money back, add a little more than she took, and then you’re done. Try the scenario again. Remember, whomever has the most money in their Piloting Piggy Bank gets to be Pilot. Be stingy in giving money back to her.
3) Position matters. What was the positioning? Was she hanging out in front of you, otherwise known as the “Sentinel Position”, wherein she has inadvertently been asked to keep a lookout? If so, change her position. Things you are supposed to protect belong behind you. Things that are protecting you are in front of you. If she’s having problems, try positioning her so you are between her and the perceived threat.
Lastly, always keep in mind the steps to working with a dog:
- Control yourself. No anger. No excitement. Acting calmly bored is best, no matter how your dog is reacting.
- Control the situation. This includes proper positioning, if necessary, as well as layering on the negatives as necessary. Some questions are bigger than others, and may require more layers of “no”. “May I have a piece of your pizza?’ takes only one or two layers of “no”. “Is that dog going to kill us?”, obviously is a harder question requiring more layers.
- Answer the question. Layer on the “no”. Gentle tap with your fingertips on the ribs, confident body language directed at her, standing up, moving into her, gentle tap on the leash, moving into her. These are all layers of “no” that can be used.
Your situation at the park was a perfect example of how you can have everything under control, and then suddenly lose it. Dogs live in the here and now. Shake it off and move on. Don’t carry any of that last experience in the park with you on your next experience. In other words, set yourself up for success next time, paying attention to body positioning, etc., but don’t go into the situation expecting a battle. You’ll get one if you do.
Add some positives to the situation next time. If she sees a dog and she growls, answer the question first (always answer the question!), but once the accepts the answer, give her a gentle pet, a calm word, and/or a treat. Touch Talk Treat. You working to establish that Being Calm = Good Things.
Judging by what I saw Kim do during our training session, I have full confidence that she will soon have Bird feeling safe and protected, no matter what the circumstances may be.