Ball driven, tug driven, game driven – getting better with age or not?

Dog Looking at and Listening to a Phonograph, ...
Dog Looking at and Listening to a Phonograph, “His Master’s Voice”, The Original RCA Music Puppy Dog Logo Symbol for Advertising (Photo credit: Beverly & Pack)

I got a phone call from a woman yesterday who has a small dog that is getting worse and worse about other dogs. Growling and barking more, rushing at them more, taking their toys and being very grouchy about it. This is unfortunately not that unusual. Instead of getting better socialized with age – getting worse, and small dogs especially seem prone to it because their owners pick them up to avoid the issue and don’t actually deal with socialization.

I asked her questions about whether something significant had changed or whether there was a possibility of physical pain. I asked her about how long this had happened; hmm, pretty much his whole life, but much, much worse recently and he quit coming when she called, too. I asked her about what her reaction to these things had been – yelling, slapping and kenneling up the naughty dog. I asked her if she rewarded him for going into his crate when she told him to after one of these events. She said she didn’t want her clients to think she was rewarding him for being aggressive towards their dogs because she grooms dogs and well….

I told her it might be good to teach them about dog training too and that timing was very important; what comes immediately before something else is usually considered the cause for the effect – so if the dog was asked to go to his crate and he did, he followed directions and should get rewarded. Just like if he finally comes and is then berated, why come? A reward would serve much better.

And, he loves to retrieve! And he loves toys and games!

Well then you have a great handle to use to help fix your ‘won’t come’ problem. Have whatever toy he likes to retrieve, call and when he looks whip out the toy to have a game. But keep the retrieve toy a secret until you get some reaction from him, then play! Do this in the house at first until its pretty good, then take it outside for a trial. You’ll need to play this daily for about 3 to 5 minutes for the next four months to get it to be amazing and you may want to use a whistle type call, because all the earlier anger may have poisoned your previous call cues.

What about the dog aggression? Punishment can make things worse as she had identified. And for punishment to be effective it has to be within one second of the behavior being punished, has to happen every time and it has to be bad enough to make doing ‘whatever’ not worth it. But when it is it can cause aggression, fear, anxiety, apathy and slow down learning or even injure the dog. I’d suggest a different approach because you’re wrecking your relationship with your dog by doing what you’ve done and he’s getting worse.

How about crating him before dogs get to your place, and rewarding for him going in his crate, then after the stranger dog is on the table let him out to sit in his usual spot. Then there isn’t a bunch of entry confusion. Calm can reign and he can learn a different set up and there will be no reason for yelling or slapping, and if he is quiet in his crate or gets to be quiet then rewards!

What about toy guarding. this one is a bit harder, because the other pieces need to be in place, so management first. Part of the training with the toys and retrieves needs to be on the stay/wait so that he is truly understanding and solid and knows how to stay in place for a significant while despite his toy getting thrown or the tasty food on the floor or somebody else playing with a great toy.  Once you have this along with the come much of the trouble will be over as he will trust you to say what’s what. FYI negative attention, is attention and can intensify the wish to do something – it becomes much more exciting.

The interesting part of this phone conversation was the new dog I’ve acquired is very ball, tug, toy driven and has a history as an ankle nipper and my female blue heeler is very ball, tug and toy driven and wants the toys so I’ll be dealing with some of this same issue.

I’ve started by playing tug with him making sure he doesn’t get to steal the tug (in other words he can’t just start tugging without me inviting it), then we tug for several back and forth, then I stop, say thank you, change body posture and if needed hold his collar so he can’t continue to tug and loosen all pressure on the tug. Once he releases, I invite him to another game. And yes, stealing is a problem, he thinks he can jump up and grab things or bark at me to make me play – positive doesn’t mean permissive, so the silent, firm answer is no way jack.

Note tug can increase mouth awareness (carefulness), increase confidence and increase control in exciting situations – or you can screw it up and just have a wild grabbing, stealing dog if you don’t set up any required parameters that you always follow. Always.

Phase two: ask for a sit or a down, move further away, count and then invite the start of tug again. It’s only day five and we’re up to some solid downs, but this is in the bedroom (low distraction). And his connection with me is ratcheting up, he’s looking at me more and paying much better attention to cues instead of pushing through on his own – he’s noticed that pushing through strategy didn’t work. Outside he’s more of a wild cannon.

Yesterday I was playing Frisbee with him outside, he decided he wanted it right then, leaped, grabbed and hung from it like a fish (he’s a Jack Russell so I was quite capable of hanging on despite his dangling body). That’s when I decided to limit the outside retrieves until the tug rules were clarified much more. No stealing!

Doorways are another place for sits and waits as is the inside of his crate (this he finds particularly difficult). The crate was an un-liked site so we’ve been playing games going in and out, and feeding inside it. What I want is to be able to send him to it and he will go in and wait for release with the door open.

I like tug better than retrieves for teaching controlled cues because with tug I keep up control of the desired item, where balls can become part of a catch me game. If the crate is large enough tug can be played in it, but toys tossed in and brought out is a good beginner game to increase willingness to enter it.

He’s done meet and greet in low-key situations with everybody – 3 dogs and cat and husband, but nothing exciting, no competitive situations and we’ll keep it that way for a while and then have a non-toy hike off-leash, tricks for treats in a line, then if all’s good a clearly his toy, her toy and play a game outside running different directions (probably balls because they are mouth filling but not easy for another dog to grab at).

What about the ankle biting? A slam, bam solution? Ah, discipline is the process of doing things in a way that is character building, knowledge building or physical wellness building. Punishment by definition suppresses a behavior but doesn’t build alternatives nor does it resolve the underlying cause, so it isn’t a primary answer. So, let the process of learning be most of the answer and manage the situation in the meantime and given several months time, calm control at liberty will reign or at least most ankles will be safe.


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