Ask the Dogfather

Edgy in Edgartown

Pancho gets a little too protective of his family. — Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Tom Shelby, who has trained dogs and their owners on Martha’s Vineyard and in New York City, answers readers’ questions about their problematic pooches. This week, the dogfather counsels the owners of  Pancho, who is too overprotective of his family.

Dear Dogfather,

My dog Pancho is very protective of his family. He is normally well behaved around strangers, but if he feels that his family is in danger, he gets aggressive. Once, when my oldest son (whom Pancho is not used to) was home from college, he started play-wrestling with his younger brother. Pancho got scared my youngest son was actually being hurt, and came up and nipped my oldest son. It wasn’t a serious bite, but it did draw blood — and it scared us all. I think it’s great that Pancho wants to protect us, but I’m worried he can’t tell the difference between real danger and play. How can I break him of this habit before someone gets seriously hurt?

Dear Edgy in Edgartown,

Boy! Have I seen a lot of “edgy” dog owners in the last several decades. I remember how edgy the film star was about his two pugs possibly urinating on his $30,000 white dining room carpet. Or the Park Ave patron very edgy about his Lab puppy chewing on his expensive antique chair legs. But when it comes to aggression, edgy easily blossoms into fear.

There are about seven different types of aggression, depending on how you define it. Your dog who wouldn’t dream of biting you breaks a leg and bites you when you pick it up to take it to the vet. That’s pain aggression. Or the same dog get attacked by another dog and bites you severely when you try to break up the fight. That’s redirected, or displacement aggression. Lots of dogs being trained for police work “wash out” because of displacement aggression presented during training. They bite the handler in frustration if they can’t get the “acting bad” guy. When a dog bites the couch next to him because he can’t get the deer or rabbit he sees through the bay window, he’s a displacement biter.

All dogs contain aggression within. It’s a matter of thresholds and intensity. Push the right button, and how quickly does the dog aggress, what’s it’s threshold? And just as important, what’s the intensity and endurance of the presented aggression. The Lab who chases a ball is actually presenting predatory aggression. It’s why the puppy chases the blowing leaf: the leaf represents prey and the dog gives chase. That’s why the last thing you want to do if a dog is threatening you is run!

Edgy, it would help to know in this case the size and age of Pancho. Is he the size of a four-year-old, 80-pound shepherd or an 8-month-old chihuahua? Precisely what I would suggest depends on your answers to several questions I’d ask, if I could.

Many dogs get easily excitable — call it a low threshold for getting unstrung. These are dogs you don’t want to play wrestle with because they escalate the play too fast and too hard. My Doberman Michelle played like a soft teddy bear and my Doberman Mikey got too rough way too fast, so we didn’t play rough with him.

Put simply, Pancho needs to be trained and desensitized. Desensitized to loud noises and kids at play and rough-housing. This is done with success building on success. If your dog is afraid of the sound of sirens and you live in Manhattan you have one of three choices. Move to the top of a mountain in rural Georgia where you’ll probably never hear a siren, or ignore the dog’s panic and ensuing behavior, or, desensitize him to the sound of sirens. Buy a noise CD that has the sound of sirens and play it softly( loud enough so that the dog registers the sound but softly enough so that the dog can handle it) and give him small pieces of meat as he listens to the sirens. With success building on success slowly ratchet up the sound level to the point where Bowser not only tolerates wailing sirens, but actually likes it because it’s the only time he get people food.

Pancho first needs to be taught to come reliably, to stay and to “leave it,” it being whatever you want him to leave alone — in this case kids rough-housing. He then needs to be desensitized to kids play acting rough-housing, with success building on success. A tip on getting dogs to come reliably — 15 to 20 times a day, when Pancho doesn’t expect it, call him to come using the same command. The first four times he gets a treat after he arrives. After that he gets the treat intermittently. Intermittency is the strongest way to condition an animal. His attitude will become, maybe there’s a treat, I better go check it out.

As for the “stay” and “leave it”, you’ll probably need some help from a pro.

Good luck,

The Dogfather