Brandy is my “crossover” dog. I got her at 4 months old, but didn’t do much socialization with her (and she’d had practically none before I got her, spending most of her time in a crate). That was mostly due to our older dog, Barney, who had been “slowing down.” We thought it was due to old age (a large dog, 9 years old) but a couple of months after Brandy came home Barney was diagnosed with blood cancer (multiple myeloma). With most of my time, attention, and energy focused on Barney for much of 2001 (we lost him in October of that year), Brandy got short shrift. She got along fine with the other dogs and staff at Rover Come Over doggie daycare, and I thought that would be enough.
After we lost Barney, I began clicker-training Brandy. The traditional correction-based methods I’d been taught and had used successfully before - Barney was a registered therapy dog with Therapy Dogs International - just weren’t working with Brandy. She’d either shut down entirely when I corrected her with even so much as a sharp shout, or she’d race about wildly with an “if I’m a bad dog let’s see how bad I can be!” look in her eyes.
With what I know now about dog behavior and body language, hindsight has me recognizing Brandy's reaction as panic rather than an "evil gleam" as I'd originally thought. Clicker training gave me the tool I needed to effectively communicate with Brandy without inducing the panic or fear or avoidance traditional "corrections"caused.
Brandy loved clicker training so much I fell in love with it, too, and started on a quest to learn more about positive reinforcement methods, learning theory, operant conditioning, clicker training, and so on.
Shortly after I started clicker-training with Brandy, we adopted another dog, Nico, who turned out to be fear-aggressive toward people. The worst he’s done since we’ve had him was to snap and lunge, he never connected, but the potential was obviously there. Fortunately I already knew that clicker training was the way to go with him. But more about Nico his own training blog.
Brandy’s lack of socialization didn’t really start showing up as a problem until I decided to start doing agility with her. (We tried some agility with Nico, too, but he just wasn’t ready for it.) She’d bark at some people - especially people with “big hair” or wearing hats or carrying large, bulky items. And her dog greeting manners were attrocious. She’d get in the face of any dog she wanted to meet and play with, and if they told her off for that she’d be more than happy to have them “bring it on!”
There were three dogs in particular in our agility classes that I just couldn’t let her near without the dogs “going at it.”
One was a male schnauzer who’d race over to Brandy, snarling and barking, any time he got away from his owner (which was a not uncommon occurence!). Brandy and I actually got pretty good at ignoring him until he could be retrieved by his owner.
One was a female shepherd mix who’d get into fights with Brandy any time her owner and I weren’t paying attention to where we were and let the dogs get too close. These were very loud fights with impressive showing of teeth, and I suspect that if we’d just let them have at it the very first time they would have sorted it out without injury to either and been fine after that. But such “scrapping” looks ferocious and we always pulled the dogs apart before anyone could get hurt.
(We went to the MSPCA in Brockton for our agility - a small enclosure with a lot of dogs and people and agility equipment in it!)
The third dog Brandy reacted badly to was another female shepherd mix who’s fearful of a number of things, and whose owner is a savvy dog owner who’s been working with her to desensitize her. We actually did some training together outside of the agility class and got the two dogs to the point where they could be right next to each other and ignore each other. We’d have to re-introduce them with each new run of class sessions (especially after the summer or winter break) but it was good practice.
After we’d been playing around with agility for a couple of years (and Brandy was getting really good, we almost conquered the weave poles!) Brandy started telling me she wasn’t having any fun any more. I think she may have been stung by a bee while in the agility enclosure, because she started looking up and around all the time and really wanting to be anywhere but in that enclosure. Her behavior puzzled me, especially when she started some similar behavior in our own back yard! (not wanting to leave so much as freezing and staring at a spot in the middle distance, looking stressed, when there wasn’t anything I could see that could be attracting her attention.) We stopped going to agility but she continued to have moments of “freezing” now and then in our own back yard. That behavior’s mostly gone now, she’s much more relaxed and happy in the yard. I still don’t know what that was all about!
I had been taking Brandy to various places - my vet’s office, Petco, a park with my sister-in-law and her two shelties, etc. - to work on her reactions to people and other dogs, but my life got really busy for a while and I stopped formally working with her in public situations. So I really shouldn’t have been so surprised when she was reactive at a recent visit to Petco (after more than a year since I’d last taken her there!), especially since we were both surprised by a big bag being snapped by the wind as the people carrying it came out of Petco.
Brandy actually has her Canine Good Citizen certificate, but needs more counterconditioning, desensitization, and manners training around people and especially other dogs, with “proofing” under a lot more circumstances than we’ve done so far.
And I need to train myself to be more aware of our surroundings so I can get Brandy to focus on me whenever there’s a potential for trouble, before she starts reacting.
Through my work with Brandy and Nico, I’ve developed a passion and fascination for dog training, and especially with aggression. I became a real seminar junkie, attending seminars with great trainers such as Emma Parsons, Kay Laurence, Suzanne Clothier, Pia Silvani, Karen B. London, and others. And I spend way too much time in dog forums such as the Association of Pet Dog Trainers email list, agbeh (Aggressive Behaviors yahoo group), the Pos-4-ReactiveDogs group, and similar discussion forums.
I’ve decided to become a professional dog trainer, and am in the process of winding down one business while I ramp up my dog training business. I’ve been an associate member of APDT for three years (renewed as a professional member this year), and attended the APDT conference in San Jose last September.
I’ll be going for my CPDT (Certified Pet Dog Trainer) as soon as I get the required 300 hours of professional training under my belt.
Brandy and I are currently attending Emma Parson’s “Reactive Dogs” class at MasterPeace Dog Training in Franklin, MA. I’m in the class as much as a student of Emma’s methods (for teaching the people as well as the dogs!) as I am for getting some good work in with Brandy under controlled circumstances.
Yes, indeed, that’s the short version of our story.