Wednesday, August 18, 2010

My new dog is aggressive to my other dogs; what do I do?

A reader e-mailed me a tough question today:
She rescued a 13-month-old female American Bulldog from a living situation where the dog was kept mostly in a cage throughout her vital socialization stage. The problem is, the new female is behaving aggressively toward her other two male dogs, one of which is also a bulldog. She’s having to keep the dogs separated, meaning the female bulldog is back to spending a lot of time in a cage.
“We want it to work so bad,” she writes. “Do you have any suggestions?”

Indeed I do. I’m posting what I wrote back to her and I hope it’ll help others dealing with similar situations too:

One thing you've got working in your favor is that she is a girl and the other two are boys. I do highly recommend seeing a behaviorist or a trainer who is experienced in canine behavior. This should help you determine if the aggression she is displaying is dog-on-dog aggression, or if it's motivated by fear because of her limited experiences with the world due to her previous living situation. Either way, it's a dangerous situation. But if it's fear that's motivating her behaviors, it might be easier to get her to overcome it. Keep in mind, though, that her extremely limited socialization during her first year may always be a handicap for her in a variety of ways. Just think of it this way: anything she was not exposed to in her previous living situation may cause her to react badly, even aggressively (generally motivated by fear). It's another reason to get her working with a professional now, while she is still young, so you can really get to work on turning her around.

One thing you can do on your own is make sure you have the right equipment to handle the dogs physically. Once you have all that in order, then you can start working on them with walks. This can make a huge improvement, but having the right equipment is absolutely necessary considering the breeds you are working with.

If any of the three dogs pull on the leash, I recommend investing in gentle leaders. I'd get a Halti for the female because it has an extra strap that tightens around the mouth when the dog pulls, acting as a muzzle. My pit never goes on a leash without his Halti, though I use it more for its natural anti-pull effect than the muzzle. If I'm introducing him to a new dog and I'm not sure how well it's going to go, I put a mesh muzzle on him first and then put the Halti over top. You can never have too much insurance that those teeth won't get out! I'd recommend using both on her to start.

Gentle leaders work exactly the same way as the muzzle, except without the extra mouth strap. Depending on your level of comfort with the male bulldog (if she lunged at him, might he bite back in his defense? Not that it'd be wrong for him to do so, but it'd definitely make a bad situation a million times worse) I'd go with either the Halti or the regular gentle leader.

The next step is for you and your boyfriend to start walking all three dogs daily. One of you walks with the boys — keep both boys at your side. These walks are not for sniffing around and peeing on bushes! The other walks with the girl behind the boys; keep the girl at your side too. If you have to start out with a lot of distance between the two groups, then that's just what you have to do. But you want to gradually decrease the distance. The goal is to have her get many good whiffs of their butt scent. You want to see her nose start working. In fact, I'd take treats with you and if you're walking her 4 to 2 feet behind the boys and you see her nose start sniffing without any aggressive body posturing, reward her for the sniff. Dogs sniff eachother; aggressive dogs generally don't. So you want to start reminding her that she is a dog and they are dogs too. At some point, give the boys a little time behind her so they can smell too, but you'll otherwise want to keep her behind them.

Whenever I introduce my pit to a dog I'm not sure how he'll react to, the walk comes first. I have a lot of control of my dog with the Halti and can feel comfortable about the situation with the muzzle on him, so I'll take him in one hand and the other dog in another and we'll walk until they're tired. Then I keep the muzzle on him and let them have some off-leash time so neither feels cornered. The goal for you would be to eventually be able to have just one person capable of walking all three dogs; with their gear on, of course.

The hope is that a walk will show her that all of you are a family, a pack, make her feel like she is part of it and hopefully, make her want to become more involved with the other dogs and show her that the other dogs are not a threat. It’s a bonding thing. Like I said before, if her aggression is motivated by fear, it will be much easier than if it's dog-dog aggression.

Walks alone will not be enough to make your living situation a happy one, so here's my recommendations for trainers:

1) Theresa DePorter, animal behaviorist at Oakland Veterinary Referral Services in Bloomfield Hills. DePorter is an educated, degreed professional and those can be rare to find.

2) Herr Pet Training, Nicole and Brian Herr. The married couple focuses on solving behavioral problems and have the same philosophy about training as DePorter. They've dealt with a lot of harry situations and are very capable, experienced trainers. They do individual sessions focused on solving your dog's behavior problem.

Lastly, I recommend reading Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson. I call it my canine behavior bible. It's very easy to read, even fun, and will give you an insight into dog behavior that is beyond invaluable.

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