Heeling Hounds has helped lots of dog owners, and from time-to-time, I see such amazing progress that I have to share it. These stories are real and based upon actual clients and their wonderful dogs.
Kelly and Banjo
My first encounter with Banjo, an Australian Cattle Dog, and his owner Kelly was at the Mornington Obedience Dog Club. At the time, Banjo was just two years old and showed signs of extreme anxiousness and fear aggression towards other dogs at the club – barking, growling and lunging excitedly towards them. Banjo was a dog with very little confidence and this behaviour caused Kelly to be very disheartened and upset. It also meant that walking and exercise sessions had to be carefully planned to avoid situations that would set Banjo off. For the sake of both Kelly and Banjo’s well-being, this was a situation that needed changing.
Anxiety and Fear Aggression
When dogs are afraid of something, they prefer to get away from the scene – this is called the flight response. But if escaping isn’t an option, such as when the dog is on a lead, most dogs will switch to a fight response. They try to defend themselves from the scary thing. So, a dog can be afraid of a person or another animal but still attack if he thinks this is their only recourse. A fearful dog will usually adopt fearful postures and retreat, but they may become aggressive if cornered or trapped. Sometimes the aggression doesn’t begin with apparent threats. A fearful dog might not show their teeth or growl to warn the victim off. In this kind of situation, the only warning is the dog’s fearful posture and their attempts to retreat. Male and female dogs are equally prone to fear aggression, and this type of behaviour is common in both puppies and adults. Hence the name of the article – Banjo is conflicted in what he should do – run or attack. This internal duel causes him to act aggressively towards other dogs because he wants them to go away and stop frightening him.
So for Banjo, he was not comfortable in the presence of other dogs. Kelly recalls an incident at a local dog park when another dog acted aggressively towards Banjo. He didn’t cause any harm, but it was enough of a bad experience for Banjo to make him feel unsure towards other dogs from that moment. Off-leash parks made Banjo feel very anxious, and he began to react negatively to all dogs, big and small. As time went on, Banjo started lunging at other dogs as they got too close and frantically tugging on his lead to alarm Kelly of his fears. This unchecked behaviour often is self-rewarding for a dog. When they bark, growl or lunge at another dog, the other dog will go away, usually because of the owner walks away. To Banjo, this was a victory, and to his mind, a strategy that works – if I lunge or pull frantically on the lead, the threat goes away. Over time, this behaviour escalated into a vocal and physical display every time he saw another dog. Kelly organised her walks at a time when fewer people were out and choose routes where there was less chance of coming across other dogs. Interestingly, when other dogs were not present, Banjo seemed very relaxed with this tail lowered only to raise it again in the presence of perceived danger. Banjo was always on alert and was quite stressed.
Time for a solution
During the summer break, Kelly and Banjo took advantage of the free socialisation sessions held at the MODC grounds. I could see that Banjo was suffering and that his anxiety and hyper-vigilance was causing him to lose focus with Kelly. During our sessions, I taught Banjo and Kelly ways to build focus and leash walking techniques that helped with reactivity. This behaviour adjustment training (BAT) uses a gradual decrease in distance to the stimulus that the dog is reacting to. Kelly also found that Banjo responded very positively to a headcollar. When this was put on, Banjo knew that a training session was commencing and his focus improved.
Training sessions also included exposing Banjo to another dog and rewarding Banjo for not reacting. During our time together Banjo was able to walk calmly beside Kelly with my dog Sidney in the large MODC pen without Banjo reacting. Having personalised and tailor-made training solutions developed for your dog ensures that handlers focus their energy towards an end goal. Every improvement, no matter how small, is rewarded, leading to greater trust from your dog.
Time and patience
Over the past five months, Kelly has persisted with her training sessions and given Banjo many hours of her time to help him become a calmer and more confident dog. The COVID-19 lockdown period also provided extra time to help develop their newfound bond and build upon the initial training.
A few weeks ago, Kelly invited me to observe the change in Banjo’s behaviour, especially while going for a walk around her local neighbourhood. Banjo’s attitude has completely changed. He walks more confidently and checks in with Kelly during the journey. Kelly now tends to be on the lookout for potential situations so she can direct Banjo to either sit and focus on her or give Banjo some added distance from things that may upset him. Banjo is by no means ‘cured’, but he has learnt to make new choices when confronted with dogs that would have otherwise frightened him. Kelly can walk Banjo without having her arm ripped from its socket and Banjo can return home with a wagging tail and smile on his face.
With my help and Kelly’s time and patience, Banjo and Kelly have a happier relationship, and walks are once again a calm event.
You’ve heard about the 'fight or flight response,' right? Generally, when something scary confronts your dog, it’s first response will be to run away from the threat – flight. If the dog is unable to run away, they may resort to submissive behaviour in the hope that the threat goes away, or they may decide they need to fight. So fear aggression is when a dog feels the need to intimidate someone or something that they fear.
It's the job of the dog trainer and their owner to give the dog suffering this condition greater confidence in themselves and their handler.