Dog trains man

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Viva's long road to rehabilitation: reactive behavior

that is close enough, please!
When we adopted Viva, the local shelter warned us for her aggressive behavior. As we soon were to find out, she would lung and growl at any dog in sight.

How it was possible her first meeting with Kenzo went well remained a mystery for us in a long time. But more about that later in this story.

As you might remember, Behavioral Adjustment Training (BAT) was brought to our attention by dog trainer Irith Bloom and blogger/author Edie Jarolim and we started making some progress. So where do we stand now?

I'm cool when you are cool

Training different BAT setups enhanced Viva's vocabulary of calming signals. She also feels confident enough to use them in a lot of situations. We can pass any other calm dog on a distance of around 5 meters (15 feet) and her normal response would be to look away and ignore the other dog. She has no wish to come up and greet. But that is also not necessary. Just that she chooses to tackle the situation with these calming signals instead of agression, is wonderful.

One of the good things with BAT in Viva's case was that it took the edge off of things. Which allows us to use other techniques like counter conditioning and desensitizing - see Debbie Jacob's explanation of this training jargon. Something that had no effect on Viva at all before BAT.

Some of the calm and well-socialized dogs she has gotten to know in the neighborhood are allowed to come and greet. In Viva's world that means the exchange of a sniff. That will do for Viva. Thereafter it is all turning away and ignoring. Again a good display of Viva using her newly adopted social skills.

Unusual setups

We still have a lot of progress to make trying to approach a more "excited" dog. From a distance Viva will try some lip licking as calming signals, but she still will not feel comfortable to approach closer than a distance of 10 meters (30 feet). Although she will not lung or bark at them anymore if we come closer, she is clearly outside her comfort-zone. I always make sure never to go over her threshold, praise her for the lip licking, and turn around.

To help Viva further we found a great BAT setup with Kenzo's friend the Yorkshire terrier "watchdog". Because he knows me from all the walks me and Kenzo did past his property, he barks excited, and runs up to the fence, ready to meet us and receive his treats. I watch this with Viva on a safe distance and we have made it into our 5 meter barrier where we even were able to do "look at me". I throw some treats at the Yorkie too.

Play bow

Our biggest concern are off-leash dogs. We have become quite savvy in avoiding other dogs, also when they are off-leash. But unevitably some come up and meet. The good thing is that she doesn't lung at them anymore head-on. When the other dog ignores her after the sniff she allows them to leave in the best of health.

Amazingly, the best the other dog could do is to make a play-bow. That calms her down tremendously and she will fully accept the dog. I had to rub my eyes the first couple of times that happened. She will do some tail wags and grins to the other dog. Suddenly we realized, it was also the key Kenzo used in their first meeting together, and explained why she accepted him from day one. Just luck? or another display of Kenzo outsmarting me once again on the social dog front?

Too much

Anything else than ignoring after the sniff or play-bows clearly sends her in distress and she will start focusing on trying to convince the other dog to leave. She will take a more confrontational stand, and will snap them in the neck or back if they keep on coming back. Those meetings send her stress levels sky-rocketing. She is clearly very unhappy the rest of the day, and can start with a heavy panting that goes on for hours, like some kind of constant state of hyperventilation. After such an encounter we usually take it calm for the next couple of days. Make some short walks and ensure there is not even another dog in sight.

Our biggest challenge is of course other reactive or aggressive dogs. I think I am now able to spot them from a great distance and the tactic is simple: get the hell out of Dodge! We are absolutely not ready for a meeting, on any distance, with one of her equals.


"Viva's long road to rehabilitation" is a series of updates how Viva is doing almost one year after her adoption:


  1. Working with a reactive dog takes such a high level of management. Your commitment to helping Viva feel comfortable with other dogs is amazing. And it's great to hear that you're having good results.

    As for Kenzo--some dogs have such good communication skills. My friends' dog Tashi is like that. He just knows the right thing to say, even with a nervous dog. You and Viva are lucky to have him in your lives.

  2. Your description of Viva reminds me a little of Georgia. She gets along with 95% of dogs. Then there are the others.

    We used to think it was a size thing, but it's not. She plays well with many small dogs and even allows them to climb on her and roll her over. These days, we think it's specific breeds. Strange eh? She seems to be wary of boxers, pugs and staffy types. She adores labs, ridgebacks and danes. Are dogs known to differentiate between breeds in some way? My Other Half seems to think it's the way pugs/boxers look and breathe that affect her. She could be interpreting their jowled faces and heavy breathing as aggression.

    Georgia also hates being on a leash when we meet other dogs. Like you, we've learnt to avoid and block. With friends, no problems whatsoever. If a dog even thinks of hackling, snarling or lunging at her...regardless of size...the whole neighbourhood will hear her frenzy.

    Since her fight with her friend Sammy, and being attacked by Roy [over NYE], she seems more wary of strange dogs now. A bit sad really.

    I know how hard it is to have a reactive dog. I used to feel awful about it, especially when I see gentle sweet natured dogs. Now I realise there are many dogs out there that are badly behaved and the owners don't even care. In many ways, I think - while MY dog may be reactive, YOUR dog is the one who initiated the bad behaviour by running towards my dog/lunging/yapping. So whose dog is really "more in the wrong"? So frustrating. But as owners of big dogs, you and I both know the buck stops with us :(

    p.s. How did the guy and dog in the last post go? Have you sorted him out?

  3. @Pamela
    Thanks for your nice words. There is still so much to learn and do. Viva has definitely openend my eyes and added so much to my understanding of dogs. I can only thank her for that. As for Kenzo, like Edie said in the "fearful dog therapist" post: is seems to be nature, and not so much nurture. He is teaching me valuable lessons too, although it is hard for me to keep up with him and realize he just teached me something like the play bow meeting with Viva.

  4. @georgia
    I hear what you are saying. Georgia might be affected more after these bad experiences then we realize. I do hope you are not standing before the start of a downwards spiral. Maybe you should also try some BAT to get her back on her feet again before it can get worse.

    On the breeds, they all have big eyes, maybe she misunderstands it as staring and finds them rude. Are there still some you are meeting with no problems? Then you could praise her for every polite meet. And with the new ones do a "look at me" game on a distance and give her treats, until you can see she can relax around them again.

    There is also help to get for her leash reactivity, although that is a whole subject in itself that wouldn't fit in a comment or one post. Patricia McConnell wrote a great booklet about it "Feisty Fido, help for the leash-reactive dog" that helped me a lot when Kenzo started giving these signs after meeting the "Kurts". And I think BAT training will also be a great help here.

    Sorry that I maybe got a little carried away with all that advice (hate it myself when people do that), it is well-meant :)

    Talking about the "Kurts" :) I had an interesting convo with "Big Kurt". He agreed we should do some setups with Kenzo and "Little Kurt". I am still preping these meetings and try to be prepared for everything! I will update my blog soon with all that happened in the convo and the coming meetings.

  5. Kenzo is obviously very dog savvy. The kind of dog that immediately reads another dog's bod language and knows exactly what is needed. He's pretty special, I'd say.

    I have been working for the past two years with Shiva's reactivity. It comes and goes in spurts. For the most part, I find she really feeds off another dog's energy. If they are cool with her, she is cool with them. But if they show any sign of stress, she will also respond in kind. It's not a good thing but comes from her never being properly socialized. She just doesn't know what to do with herself until another dog shows her the way. Shiva and Viva should only ever meet from a distance, methinks. ;-)

    Good on you for working so patiently with Viva. Her progress is all thanks to your understanding of her needs. It's just too bad we can't control every interaction as much as we would like. You have inspired me to not give up.

  6. I commend you for your patience. Our Best Friend was pretty reactive when we got him, and we weren't going to keep him because we didn't think we could fix it... Luckily, it did fix fairly quickly, but he's still nervous around dogs that jump on him. His is a fearful aggression, though; if the other dog backs off, so will he.

    I find it really interesting that Viva responds to a play bow. When Our Best Friend met his now-best friend Blackie for the first time, she instantly made a play bow, and he went nuts! Fortunately, he got over it! :)

  7. I like advice, especially from people who've had the experience. Why not? We learn from everywhere! I do read Patricia M. I've read some other posts, I think it might have been Eric G.

    Georgia is much improved. I used to try desensitizing but found the avoidance and block better. "Look at me" is such a miracle phrase. We work on that every day. As for your meeting with the Kurts - I can't wait to read about it. Better than an episode on Wisteria Lane! :)

  8. Have you ever heard of breed recognition? It's nothing fancy or proven, so far as I know, but it's an idea that some of us have based on anecdotal evidence.
    Deal is, a lot of the aggressive type dogs we deal with are not aggressive toward members of their own breed. Shepherds don't bark and lunge and shepherds, dobermans are okay with dobermans, and so on and so forth.
    of course, this might be something that is exclusive to us, but worth noting. (And is not true in all cases, but we've seen so much of that that it's astounding.)
    Maybe Kenzo saw Viva and said, "Oh! A Hovie!" *bow* and Viva thought, Well, that must be all right, he is bowing AND, after all, he is a hovawart, obviously the smartest breed. Ever.

    Anyway, I'm so glad Viva is getting better, one step at a time. And I'm glad she found such a good home; she truly is in the best hands.

  9. @Kristine
    Inspiring you not to give up is a huge compliment, they don't come better than that! Thank you!

    @Life Student
    Thanks for pointing that out. Behavior is complex, we should never take for granted that what works with one dog, also works for another.

    Glad to hear! We found a title then for the next story about the Kurts: "Desperate dog parents" :)

    Very interesting, I did not know they could do that. We have not met other Hovies with Viva yet, we did with Kenzo though. Interesting to see if that would work for Viva.

  10. I am glad to read that Viva is making progress - she's lucky to have a patient person like you who can help her with all of this. You really do a wonderful job describing the process - I find it so incredibly informative and helpful. Thank you!

  11. Wow! Viva is making great progress. We're also making good progress with Buster and have created a new game called, "Where's the doggy." When I spot a dog from a distance, I say "Where's the doggy?" As soon as Buster spots the dog, I say "YES" (in my happiest voice) and give him a treat. We then move away to make sure Buster stays below threshold. I'm hoping with time we can turn seeing a dog into a good thing, and that when he sees one he'll automatically look at me for his treat.

    The BAT training seems to have helped Viva so much! Since we've started traveling full-time, I have not been able to organize the encounters the dogs need to learn using that method. It does sound wonderful, though.

  12. @Amy
    Sounds like you are doing great. What I liked is that you let him "find" the dog himself. The "where's the doggy" game will most definitely help Buster a lot.

    Finding ways to do setups in daily life is one of the hurdles with BAT. I would go so much faster if we could do it by the book, and with a real trainer ... your busy travelling life even complicates it more.

    Our ever first BAT setup we also did "on the road". Maybe an idea to do this from the RV when you are on a camping ground? Here is a copy from the text I wrote in Viva into BAT:
    "Just along our summer rental, only a few feet away, there was a path that lead to a small center inside the park/resort. A lot of people and dogs came by on this path. Every time a dog emerged, I marked it, took Viva inside, and gave her a treat. We closed some curtains so she could not see the dogs at all anymore. I repeated this for two days. On day two she was clearly more relaxed and even lied down (although her facial expression was still slightly tensed when looking at the path, see photo below). From the second day I even noticed her making some lip licking calming signals when she saw a dog approaching on the path."

  13. I have used B.A.T. techniques and approaches in my classes with a lot of success. The biggest problem seems to be setting up real-life situations for some people. For example, I have 2 students who live way out in the country and don't have the time to make the trip to town to practice. There are others who are sooooo desperate/motivated that they make it happen despite ANY obstacles.
    The L.A.T. (look at that) works great as it is handy to use in conjunction with Watch Me, in the same way that teaching Speak and Zip It works well together.

  14. @elizabeth
    When you think about it, there are a lot of "real-life" BAT opportunities. Yet, it is trial and error. We also did setups on the beach as you can see dogs approaching from far away and we could combine it with the work-out Viva needs (climbing sand dunes). That turned out not so clever, as many dogs were off-leash, and we dropped it. Kim Halligan on Twitter does setups by taking her dog Stanley on walks around (not in) the dog park. Stanley is doing so good no, she can walk passed other dogs on leash.

    Thanks for the tip to use those cues in conjunction. We dont do that a lot, but we should. It also sounds like fun to train with.

  15. The magic of a play bow, that's so great. I love seeing dog doing play bows. I can see how that could make Viva more comfortable. So cool.

    Wow, when she gets upset she remains upset for such a long time?

  16. @Jana
    It worries me she remains so upset for a long time. Longest was after a walk we had around 3 pm and met an off-leash dog, she continued panting until 9 pm and with episodes into 4 am in the morning. I am looking into some medicin/treatment (like Xanax) but you know I am weary of medication and have avoided it so far.


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