Canine Behaviourist and Trainer

Case Study

A German Shepherd bitch of about three years old, lived in a household consisting of two adults, two teenage children, another dog and a cat.  With all aggression cases I ask the owners to place the dog in another room before I arrive so that I can spend some time discussing the problems with them and getting as much of a feel as I can for what I about to deal with before meeting the dog.

In this case the problem was severe.  The dog was extremely aggressive towards strangers who visited, and even with people she had met before she could suddenly become aggressive without warning.  In one instance she had pinned a family member against the wall at a recent family gathering.  Oddly enough however the owner didn't seem to see to regard that particular incident as particularly important.  In addition outside the house she was even worse, being aggressive towards both people and other dogs.

She had already had a number of sessions with a private dog trainer, who had ultimately advised the owners that the dog should be euthenased.

I think the behavioural modification programme for the dog was the most complex I have ever written.  In addition to the fear aggression there were hierarchy issues with the other dog in the house and the confidence of the owners had obviously been reduced to an all time low.  They loved the dog, they had brought the dog up well and sensibly doing the right things, but still they had this enormous problem on their hands.

Whilst fear aggression itself is not an hereditary trait, the susceptibility to it certainly is.  I actually knew the bloodlines of the particular dog, as I had treated a number of her relatives in the past, and I knew what we were up against.

Not only did we need to systematically desensitise the dog towards other dogs, but also to people.  This required a number of friends and relatives to be co-opted into the plan to visit armed with treats.  The visitors were invited in seated and then the dog brought out on a lead, if she barked or showed any form of aggressive behaviour she would immediately be returned to the other room for a two minute time out before the process was repeated.  When she walked in calmly then the treat was offered.

In addition the programme completely changed the way the owners related to the dog on a very basic level.  When they came downstairs in the morning they would completely ignore her for a period of ten minutes, not physical or verbal contact whatsoever.  If the dog approached them they would turn their back on her and carry on.  The same treatment was carried out every time they returned home from work or whenever they returned to the house no matter how short their absence.

When it was feeding time they would prepare her food leave it on a bench and eat their own food in front of her.  Only then would they allow her to eat.  They also had to ensure that when they ate first the problem dog ate after them and the other dog of the family ate last of all as there were hierarchy issues to be dealt with downwards as well as up.

If the dog brought toys for them to play with or made any attention seeking moves at all she was completely ignored.  When she retired and lay quietly they called her to them made a fuss of her and instigated a session of play.

Basic training techniques were revisited in order to improve the owners level of control.

With regard to her behaviour outside the home I needed to bring the owners' level of confidence up to the point where they were comfortable handling the dog without any sign of anxiety.  This dog was a reluctant pack leader as she believed her owners were not capable of doing the job of pack leader adequately enough to protect her and it was now our job to change her mind.

It was obvious to them long before I had visited that the dog was nervous, and when she displayed this outside they would do their best to calm her by saying good dog and stroking her.  Sadly all the were saying to the dog in actuality was what a good dog to act that way and reinforcing the behaviour.  Subsequently I ensured that all inappropriate behaviour such as lunging and snapping was completely ignored when the dog was out.

We changed her from a check chain and lead to a "dog alter" and half check which gave them a much greater level of control whilst walking the dog.  The "dog alter" is a type of head collar which fits over the dog's nose and fastens behind the head.  The lead is then attached to a ring under the chin and to the half check chain.  These head collars are completely painless however allow the owner to have more control in averting the dogs head thereby breaking eye contact with oncoming dogs and people.  The dog is also less able to pull.

Both husband and wife were much more confident walking the dog this way and therefore much less likely to transfer stress to her.  It tends to become a cycle, the owner will see another dog coming anticipate a problem and tighten their grip on the lead thereby transferring their anxiety to the dog, that was what we needed to break.

Finally after a month I introduced her to my own therapy dog who worked with her in close proximity, walking along next to her exuding all the confidence that a dog should.

I worked with them for 3 sessions over a month period and in the final session we worked on play with other dogs off the lead.