Case Study: Barks Aggressively at Dogs, Counterconditioning, Changing Emotions

On walks, Daniel the Deerhound Lurcher barks aggressively at other dogs. At home, he is a well-behaved, quite self-contained but friendly boy, four years of age. The owner has had him for two years.

He lived on a narrow boat
barks aggressively at other dogs
© Theo Stewart

For the first two years of his life, Daniel lived on a narrow boat, so he has had several years to rehearse barking at other dogs in order to make them go away.  When he barks aggressively, it works!  The dogs carry on walking.

Living on a boat, I’m sure this has been the case. I have been seen several dogs living in marinas that are very reactive to people and particularly dogs passing along the bank or walking down their pontoon. Now in a house with his owner, Daniel continues to rehearse this territorial and protective behaviour. From the front windows he barks aggressively at people passing with their dogs. He barks aggressively at any animal that dares to come into his garden. Even the dogs he hears further away “shouldn’t be there.”

This behaviour is understandable really when a dog feels in some way restricted, whether out on a lead, in a house, or trapped in a narrow boat.

If free, he would increase distance

If Daniel were roaming free, he would simply increase distance and stay out of the way. Videos of dogs in countries where they wander freely show that dogs seldom stand barking at other dogs to make them go away. They remove themselves.

Up until now, nothing has been done to make Daniel feel more confident around other dogs when he is trapped on lead. On the contrary. When he barks aggressively he is held even more tightly and not allowed to increase distance as the dog gets nearer.

It’s exactly the opposite needing to happen. Seeing another dog should become good news or at the very least something non-threatening to ignore.

Homework

Daniel seems to be a beautifully calm dog at home, but this can disguise things going on inside him. His basic state of mind plays a big part. For this reason there are various things to do at home as well like working on getting instant eye contact and attention. At home, too, he will now be unable to rehearse barking at windows. They will pull blinds and shut doors. At home in his garden, Daniel will begin to associate dogs he hears barking in the distance with something good (counter-conditioning).

Barks aggressively? Too close

To start with, on walks, the owner will now implement systematic desensitization. Daniel will be aware of other dogs but at an acceptable distance. Avoiding dogs altogether won’t help at all.

Then the owner can apply counter-conditioning. This basically helps to neutralize Daniel’s negative feelings towards dogs by associating them with something he loves. I suggest chicken. He won’t get chicken at any other time – only when he sees another dog  and from a comfortable distance.

The whole thing has to be systematic and planned.  Listen to this very short excerpt from my BBC 3 Counties Radio phone-in explaining the process. It’s only just over a minute long. https://youtu.be/7HNv-vsnn6E. Over time, Daniel will be encouraged to look away from the dog and to the owner – for chicken. But it’s a slow process.

Prey drive

Daniel barks aggressively at another dog to increase distance, but he may also react in another way. For example, he gets very excited when he sees a small dog, a cat or any animal small or fast enough to be considered prey. Then his prey-drive instinct kicks in.

The owner can redirect the dog’s instinct to chase if he catches it fast enough. Currently, the only way he can let Daniel off lead is when the dog is running after a ball, which he does multiple times. Repeated chasing after balls fires him up for more chasing. It’s not natural. Chasing by a Lurcher in real life would be after one animal. When he’s caught it, there would be a break from chasing. So there will be no more ball play on walks. There is plenty of sniffing to do and a world to explore instead. Starved of his ball, it will gain even more value to Daniel.

Using a long line, the owner can now work on redirecting Daniel’s prey drive onto something acceptable – that ball! As soon as the dog’s body language tells him that his chase instinct is kicking in, he will throw the ball in the opposite direction.

It is particularly important Daniel comes to feel better about other dogs. In a couple of months the owner is re-homing another Lurcher from a friend who is going overseas and can’t take him. We have discussed the best ways of introducing the two dogs when the time comes.

NB: For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’. If you listen to ‘other people’ or find instructions on the internet or TV that are inaccurate, outdated, aversive or not tailored to your own dog it can do more harm than good. Click here to find a force-free Pet Professional Guild trainer/behavior consultant in North America. Click here to find a force-free Pet Professional Guild trainer/behavior consultant in the British Isles and Europe.

About Theo Stewart

I work as a canine behaviour trainer - a sort of dog supernanny! I am a VSPDT (Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Trainer) and a member of the Institute of Modern Dog Trainers amongst many other things. I was originally involved in 'old-school' dog training and am a cross-over (I'm no spring chicken sadly). The advantages of having personally experienced both force and force-free methods is that I have proved over and over how much more effective and permanent positive methods are.

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