Project Trail Dog: the Going Gets Ruff

trail dog project

Like a grenade at the end of a short leash

When I decided to take on the project of a new dog, I thought I knew what I was getting into. I had previously taken Mr. Moose on a “test drive” and satisfied myself that he was an intelligent dog, willing to learn, eager to please and able to settle down. He met my sketchy criteria for a decent trail dog: short hair. We previously had an Australian shepherd and it was a full-time job picking burrs and ticks out of her coat.

Things haven’t gone as smoothly as I’d hoped. Mr. Moose is starting to mix it up more often with our resident cocker spaniel. It’s not always clear what sets the dogs against each other but it’s starting to get exhausting trying to keep them apart.

Our twice-daily walks aren’t getting any easier, either. In three weeks I’ve gotten him to the point where he doesn’t tug on the leash and he will automatically sit when I stop at corners. Using a combination of rewards via clicker and pockets full of dog cookies, he’s a pretty willing learner.

Unless…and this is a big unless…he catches sight of another dog. Mr. Moose explodes in a furry of growls, flashing teeth, deep-throated barking and ungodly yodeling. He lunges, twists and stands on two legs…pretty well freaking out everyone nearby.

The problem is that I haven’t yet found a way to deal with this behavior without reinforcing it. He won’t calm down as long as he can see another dog. So I drag him around a corner until he does settle. Then I try to gradually re-introduce him to the spot where he last saw the other dog (the owner and dog having long since skedaddled.) Two things seem to be happening, however. Every time I drag him away from another dog it seems to simply reinforce his doggie notion that other dogs are dangerous, and (presumably) Must Be Destroyed! On top of this he is recording all the corners, paths and alleys where we have encountered other dogs and anticipating future encounters. These days were are at Threat Level Orange before we even get out the door.

So. What next? Dog trainer Lee Charles Kelley has an interesting approach for building up a dog’s confidence using pushing and pulling resistance training. Interestingly, Kelley is a big advocate of playing tug-of-war with your dog…and letting the dog win. I’ve always heard that letting the dog win is a big “Bozo no-no”…because it encourages the dog to challenge your position as pack leader. Kelley, however, links to Neil Sattin’s page that explains that the object of playing tug-of-war is to focus your dog’s predator drive on you – not that you’re the prey, but it makes you the main object of your dog’s desire, attention and fulfillment.

At least I have some ideas to work on for a while. If these confidence-building activities really seem to reduce the explosive-aggressive behavior, I’m probably going to have to do them with both dogs.

I’ll keep you posted.

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Latest Comments

  1. Phil Houtz January 30, 2010
  2. Neil Sattin January 30, 2010