I had such a good start when I first made my blog and my writing has just fallen off. I have been a major slacker and it is high time to fix that with what I think is an important piece. I recently finally posted on Facebook that although I post a lot of pictures of Sue and Ozzy in their ridiculous snuggle poses, it hasn’t been like that all along. I’d like to share what I went through in more detail. Some may not agree with how I handled the situation and that’s ok: I am content with my choices as they were extremely successful. I am in no way claiming these are the only methods to handle issues in a multi-dog household but rather sharing what I went through for others who might be going through the same thing and looking for ways to cope.
Hindsight is 20/20, and I have learned my lesson since, but I should have intervened long before I actually did. A few months ago, in the heart of winter, the grumblings that had started between my two intact males, father and son came to an ugly head. The body language I have since come to take much more seriously was the start—stiff legs, under the breath grumbling, looking sideways at each other. Then it just erupted into an explosion. I was alone with them, and let me tell you, trying to get them apart nearly gave me a heart attack. My first reaction was to scream to try to divert their attention and couldn’t successfully get a hold of either one so I just started kicking. I finally managed to drive them apart and got ahold of Sue by the scruff when Ozzy came back after him, which turned into a second fight. During both fights Sue was on top and had Ozzy on the ground. When I later examined him he had a few punctures and abrasions on him where Sue had nothing. I was quite lucky I was not bitten myself. I finally got them apart and got one inside the building. I was at work at my prior job—UKC—and one of my co-workers and close friends Beth took Sue to keep them separate for the day. She is also a no-nonsense trainer who enforces strict rules on misbehaving dogs which is exactly what Sue needed for the afternoon.
Later that day we took them outside together and they couldn’t even look at each other without wanting to kill each other. It was very very bad. Of course the one time I really needed one I didn’t have a crate in my car and there was no way they could get into a car together loose. Beth came to the rescue once again and took Sue in her car and we worked them in my house again—same thing. They couldn’t even look at each other or be near each other.
Luckily I had some x-pens and I created a barrier that basically divided my house in half. Keeping them separated in my tiny house and juggling them in and out separately into my yard was a damn circus. It was a total pain in the ass. This became my life for the next couple of months.
Like I have stated in my past blog entries, I like a lot of positive reinforcement training and it’s what I use to introduce and teach a new behavior. This was not one of those situations. This was a time for enforcement of serious rules and boundaries. I first contacted a few different trainers that I trust and that I know have some tough dogs. I also consulted Patricia McConnell’s booklet “Feeling Outnumbered?” on tips to deal with this. One of the main things all had in common was how serious I needed to take any body language between the two dogs that indicated any kind of tension and to intervene BEFORE it escalated into a fight. I feel I have since become basically an expert in closely monitoring their body language; if there are any weird sideways glances or stiffness at all between the two I am all over it.
Here’s the part that many of my purely positive friends will not like: the first thing I did was bring home a dressage whip from the barn. These whips are long and made so a rider can reach to their ankles as an additional aid. I chose it for several reasons: it would make a loud, startling, whistling noise when whipped through the air, would sting when hit, and was long so it gave me decent reach should they escalate into a fight again and should distract them out of it. Someone suggested using shock collars. I would NEVER use shock collars for this kind of behavior adjustment. I think it’s the worst thing you could use in this instance. The dogs are already overstimulated and over threshold, therefore causing pain that they do not know the origin of could cause them to become even more elevated, could put them into panic aggression, and to redirect to each other or even to the owner. All the trainers I have spoken too vehemently agree with not using shock collars. I wanted them to be clear where the correction was coming from, and wanted it to be startling enough to distract them immediately from any thoughts of fighting. It’s all about timing in both corrections and rewards, and the timing had to be exactly right so they would know what they were being corrected for. I’m not saying this is the tool to use for every situation and every dog, but it was what worked for my situation and my dogs. I do not, however, think there is an aggression or fighting situation where shock collars would be appropriate or work.
I was keeping the boys separated with the x pen—if they even looked sideways at each other through the fence they got smacked. I slowly started reintroducing them, first with short sessions with muzzles on. Any kind of reaction got a smack with the whip. They HATE the whip so they learned fast. It was just a slow process from there. After many sessions with muzzles, I started carefully doing short sessions with no muzzles, starting with having them sit about 10 feet apart. I rewarded quiet sitting with no reaction with cookies, and any inappropriate reaction—sideways eyes, stiff lip, grumbles—got the whip. It slowly became clear to them that this behavior was absolutely unacceptable. I don’t see it as a dominance/ “pack leader” issue—I think that dominance in dogs is much more fluid and complex than Cesar would like us to believe. Dominance in wolves is not static and is also much more fluid and complex and more of a family structure than a simple”alpha” wolf structure. Our dogs are not wolves, they are much more evolved. Nor are people dogs! Every dog owner should read Patricia McConnell’s “The Other End of The Leash” for further information about the complexities of interspecies communication between humans and dogs. But for further information on the misunderstanding of dominance in wolves and dogs and newer theories: http://www.pawsoflife.org/Library/Behavior/Bradshaw_2009.pdf
I do think Ozzy was more damaged mentally from the fight than Sue. Like I said, he was actually wounded and was on the bottom the whole time. Ozzy has always been what I would label an “alpha wannabe.” He is not a fully confident dog and more like a bully. He will push and test other dogs but usually gives in when pushed back too hard. Sue, on the other hand is a very confident, strong male that will NOT back down. I think after the fight Sue was more confident and Ozzy became more insecure and fearful and was being more reactive to Sue with fear aggression. As I was reintroducing them to each other, Ozzy was typically the more reactive dog of the two and needed more work and confidence building.Ozzy also took less and less enforcement. A reaction from him and all I had to do was put pressure on him by simply walking into his space.
I slowly increased the amount of time they were allowed together every time we had a session with no reactions. It was a simple but slow process. The communication was clear—any type of inappropriate reaction got them highly distasteful consequences. Working from home and being able to work on this for several sessions daily was also a big contributing factor to being successful in what I think was a short amount of time—just a few short months. I have heard other horror stories where people have had to keep dogs separate for years, or even for the remainder of their lives. I started running them canicross style early on and made them work together—in harness and connected with a neckline. I truly feel making them work together was one of the most helpful factors. I now have them to the point they were before the explosion—they are even amazingly back to being snuggly weird derps. But I am a firm believer in not making things harder than they need to be or unnecessarily testing them—they should not be set up to fail. Increase your criteria in small steps. I still keep the whip around, there are occasional flare-ups where they forget their lessons and need reminded. It has never gone beyond a growl because I have been vigilant and will remain so. I still do not feed them together. While I let them in the yard together, I would not leave them together unsupervised in close quarters.
My methods may not have been perfect, but they were successful enough to have brought my derps back to derpy bliss like this: