My two mostly Lab rescue dogs, Gus and Gracie, have a great affinity to porcupines. They have been quilled a number of times — most recently a severe quilling. Yet they never seem to get the point to stay away. This is no laughing matter, since it represents a very real health and safety threat to them. Any suggestions as to how to both maximize and balance their freedom to explore and protection against this danger?
Gus and Gracie’s Mom
Dear Gus and Gracie’s Mom,
This is not an easy one, because in my experience predatory aggression is mostly genetic. My search and rescue Doberman, Michelle, from Day 1 was not interested in chasing animals. She would lie under the parakeet cage and whine for us to let the birds out, and she loved it when they climbed all over her. My SAR Doberman Mike would have killed them in an instant. Very often, movement elicits the prey drive. That’s why the 9-week puppy chases the blowing leaf — the movement of the leaf elicits the prey drive. And interestingly, from my own experience, the dog that gets severely quilled by a porcupine doesn’t “learn the lesson.” Years ago, on a Sunday afternoon 100 miles from the nearest veterinarian in Nova Scotia, my friend’s German shorthaired pointer and Afghan attacked a porcupine. And after two hours of us pulling out the quills with pliers, both dogs immediately went after the porcupine again. They were both reasonably intelligent and well-trained dogs, and to me this was a case of genetic prey drive overriding the training.
G and G’s Mom, you need to get this training job done properly, and expeditiously. In my long career, I know of two dogs that lost an eye to a porcupine quill. So here’s where I’m going to go politically incorrect, not for the first time. I suggest that you get an electronic collar that’s set up to handle two dogs. Teach them to love the collars. Day 1, let them smell the collar and get a treat as you put it on, and then take them outside, keeping them under control with a leash or fenced yard. The collar is not even turned on at this point, and a treat accompanies the collar every time it’s put on for a month.
After a few days, when it’s clear they’re happy to have the collars on, it’s “showtime.” Working one dog at a time, you need, depending on the dog’s sensitivity, to discern whether the dog has an adequate response to the collar’s tone, vibration, or electric stim. Since we’re talking about an off-leash dog’s serious predation, and the danger involved, I’d suggest electric stim, starting at a very low level. Put a piece of meat in a Tupperware container with lots of holes in it. When Gus goes to smell it, tell him “Leave it!” and hit the remote so he feels the stim and jumps back. You don’t want the stim so strong that he screams or overreacts. You just want it strong enough to get the job done, and it’s crucial that Gus has no idea that the collar has anything to do with the startlement, nor the remote, so the remote is in a pocket or behind your back, and subtly buzzed. Gus just needs to relate to the words “Leave it” and what he’s sniffing. When it’s clear that he knows to ignore that container when he hears “leave it,” it’s time to graduate to a piece of meat on a plate on the floor, which he has to pass ignoring the meat.
Next comes what I call the “Dog God” principle. You want him to leave the meat on the coffee table alone even if you’re not around to tell him to leave it. Set up a mirror that shows you the perforated container with meat on the coffee table from another room. Or just cookies on a plate on the low table, if you think he’s ready. The moment he shows interest or goes to grab the goodies, hit the stim without saying anything. From Gus’ point of view, the Dog God sees all, all the time, and doesn’t like it when he takes your cookies. He needs to relate the negativity of it to his behavior, trying to take the cookies.
Once that’s established, you can use the remote from in the house while looking out the window. If he’s chewing on the fence because he wants to get out, you can buzz him from in the house, and he’ll stop the destruction because from his perception, the fence bites back. Again, it’s very important that he relates the stim to his behavior, it has nothing to do with you, unless you tell him “Leave it!” If he’s outside off-leash with you, you may want to raise the stim a notch to override the predatory response. Once they’re truly responsive to the stim, you can lower and lower it till you’re just using the vibration or tone.
As complex as this may sound, from experience I can tell you that with good timing, G and G will “get it” much quicker than you think, thereby improving both the two- and four-legged’s quality of life.