Manners Around Other Dogs

“I’m Gonna Getcha!!” Most of us, after much research and consideration, chose the Havanese because of their cheerful, biddable temperaments. As a result, we are particularly appalled when Ruff morphs into a raving lunatic when he glimpses another dog. We breathe a silent sigh of relief when we are informed by experts that Ruff is engaging in perfectly normal canine behavior. Normal, but not desirable. Ruff postures and growls: “I see you, you big … o.k. HUGE, lumbering, goofy looking black Lab!!” “I may be little but I’m perfectly capable of protecting my two-legged family member … uh, at least until you get too close!” “Now that you’re back at a safe distance, I can warn you that if you dare to take another step closer, I’m gonna getcha!” Ruff is barking voraciously at the perceived threat and is feeling quite full of himself. He is barking with such exuberance that his little body is swinging back and forth as he expounds “take this” and “take that”. While he is pulling on the leash with all of his might, what are we doing? Often we are pleading frantically for Ruff to stop making a scene. We are horrified that Ruff is aggressive and nasty. We are embarrassed that the other dog owner thinks that Ruff is vicious. In today’s world of lawsuits, we are also worried about impending legal and financial problems if Ruff knocks the elderly person down who is valiantly hanging onto the end of her dog’s leash. Most of the time, we’ve warned Ruff well in advance that we’ve noticed a potential problem. Oh, we didn’t mean to, but we did nevertheless. At the first sight of another dog, we suck our breath in, mutter an expletive and, worst of all, tighten that leash. Or we pick little, teensy, tiny Ruff up into our arms to protect our little teensy, tiny dog, all the while moaning “did the big, bad ugly dog try to hurt my little teensy tiny Ruff”!! Our body language and behaviour have signaled to Ruff that THERE IS A PROBLEM. If Ruff is a puppy, often just singing in a happy, matter of fact voice “oh, there’s another puppy” and then giving a treat while we walk on cheerily, is the solution. If Ruff has entered puberty, which is often when this problem emerges in full force, the solution requires a bit more work. There are two approaches which can help improve the problem of lunging dogs. The two approaches combined provide the best solution. Desensitization involves exposing your dog to the stimulus which causes him to react in very, very gradual doses. You begin at the furthest point away from the other dog, far enough away that it is easy to distract Ruff so that he does not react. If you end up close enough that Ruff becomes a lunging beast then you have moved too close and need to begin again. Desensitization works by moving in tiny increments until the dog no longer reacts when face to face with another canine. The main problem with desensitization is that it is very difficult to control all stimuli in the environment … often we are beset by roaming dogs who race toward us and set our progress back. Counter-conditioning is a method of teaching our dogs that other dogs are absolutely great!! For most dogs, the ever popular “watch me” command, followed by a yummy treat and praise does the trick. Here is how this works. Every time your dog notices a dog off in the distance, you say in a happy, perky voice “watch me” and when Ruff looks up toward your face, he is rewarded with a treat. My English Cocker male became so talented at this exercise that when he caught a glimpse of another dog on the horizon, after a few weeks of work, he automatically turned to me to receive his reward. Rather than concentrating on deterring the oncoming canine, he would look up to me enthusiastically for his treat. Bingo … that’s exactly what I wanted. When Ruff is pulling in agitation on the leash, another suggestion is to offer an alternative behaviour for the behaviour which is inappropriate. Once Ruff understands the command “sit” and the command “stay”, he can be asked to sit and stay when a dog is approaching and then be rewarded for obeying. I also have to state here that, although I believe in positive reinforcement whenever possible, there is also a time and a place for a firmer hand. If Ruff is foaming at the mouth perhaps a sterner approach is required. When I ask Ruff to “stop”, I do mean stop and I am not averse to a quick correction with a training collar such as a choke collar or maringale collar. A choke collar used properly is not harsh. A choke collar is a training tool and should only be used when you are positive that your dog fully and completely understands what “stop” means and refuses to obey the command. Used correctly, it is the clink of the rings on the collar which offer the correction. If you are yanking so hard that Ruff is knocked off balance, then you are not using the collar correctly and could actually cause spinal damage … at the very least, Ruff’s coat will be ripped and torn. If you experience difficulty in giving proper corrections, contact an obedience trainer or enroll Ruff in obedience classes for some help. A training collar should always be removed once the training session is complete. Once the negative behaviour is halted, even for a second, a happy “watch me” and a delicious treat as a reward will teach Ruff that the instant that he chooses to obey he is rewarded. Too many people correct the dog for a wrong choice without showing the dog by a reward what a better choice would be. This isn’t usually a big problem in the smaller breeds, where we tend to overcompensate for their smaller stature, but corrections of any form are to teach not harm our beloved friends. The best weapon in your arsenal against canine to canine negativity is prevention. Exposing Ruff to many friendly dogs early on and continuing that socialization throughout his life is the key to ensuring that Ruff recognizes fellow canines as a very good thing. Obedience school is important for all dogs, not only for Ruff’s owner to learn how to properly correct misbehaviour, but also as a means of introducing Ruff to a variety of dogs of different breeds. If the situation has escalated to the point that you fear that Ruff may harm you, another person or the other dog, seek professional help or contact your obedience instructor.

Noel Hynds