As regular readers will be aware, I rarely visit homes in a professional capacity that have done any kind of formal training or in fact invested very much time in understanding dogs or their needs. My very recent clients, Mr & Mrs Melkonian, however are the exception to the rule.
I received an email enquiry in regard to a White German Shepherd Dog / Golden retriever mix who was aggressive to people and dogs. Nothing unusual there at all (apart from the breed combination involved!) As always, I sat and read through the pre-consultation forms and I was expecting to meet a monster on my home consult the following day. I like to consider myself a realist, rather than a cynicisist, but owners often feed you mistruths. Sometimes intentionally, but most often unwittingly through loyalty and love for their dog, they paint a rosier picture than is the reality.
I always enter homes, based on my experience (despite the prior owner information) to expect the worst. When myself and a colleague arrived to meet Casper, it was no different. I held my briefcase in my left hand so that I could fend off a possible attack and still able to politely shake the hands of my clients. Behind me stood my colleague, Vicky armed with a folder to act as a barrier between her and any teeth that may get past me.
As we entered the house, I could hear barking from another room. Once in the lounge, Casper was released. A volley of barks was followed by a greeting from the sweetest, cutest dog that I had seen for quite some time! As we sat on the sofa to enjoy our coffee and gather information regarding the problem, Casper endeared himself to Vicky and I. We both enjoyed a cuddle with the silky coated Casper. I must admit, I was still in a little puzzlement of what the aggression problems were and why I had been called in.
I asked whether Casper had received any training or been to a training class. He had not attended a training class. At this point, my usual exasperated question of ‘will he sit or lay down on command’ – usually answered by blank faces and subsequent shaking of heads, was answered with “of course, and he will close the lounge door on command and things like that” Well, I have to say, that for me was a first – a behaviour case where people have trained the dog sensibly and taught additional and advanced actions. Of course, I asked for a demonstration of the dog closing the door. As described, on command, Casper went off and merrily closed the lounge door.
After carrying on with the consultation and being briefed on the problems of aggression towards people and dogs in the street, we set off to test Casper. Vicky and I left the house and arranged to meet in five minutes in the local fields. The main problem described was that Casper would charge at people barking aggressively and had nipped a rambler recently. Over the past few months, the aggression was increasing rapidly and the Melkonian’s were at a loss of how they could stop him. Like many owners, they were very worried that he would cause injury to a person and be subject to a legal case.
As is common place in my line of work, I had to giggle when I found myself and Vicky kneeling down in the corner of an empty field hiding, hoping that no one would notice us and wonder what on earth we were doing! After a few minutes, the Melkonians and Casper were in the field and so, Vicky and I made our way towards them, doing our very best to act as ramblers. Casper noticed us and carried on playing. I feared that we would not get to see his usual reactions, but as we neared the family, Casper came charging towards me roaring and barking. A most aggressive and unexpected display. I was pleased that we had opportunity to see the behaviour in action. This would cause a great deal of fear to people walking through the countryside and could land Casper and the Melkonian family in a good deal of strife. We then tested him with a bitch and a neutered male dog who had accompanied us in the jeep and Casper behaved perfectly normally with them although a little overzealous, his intentions were friendly.
Considering his gentle and relaxed demeanour in the home, his aggression off lead towards people was at a fairly intense level. We set off back to the house and I began to impart my advice and retraining methods.
All of the other issues that the Melkonian family were experiencing were all due to a common problem that a great many experience. To me it is the essential and final component of obedience training – teaching the dog that the rules always apply and commands are not given as a choice.
This is an area where so many people fail. So much hard work, patience and time is applied when training the dog initially and through missing the final stage and failing to have the correct balance in a human – canine relationship does not quite give the owners the trained dog that they should have for the effort applied.
Casper was a sensibly trained dog, but there are times that he did not respond to the commands and as is common, the times that he did not respond is when it really was critical for all concerned that he did. Funnily enough, when I ask people whether their dog comes when they call him, they usually answer ‘yes!’, but when you continue to question them, you find out that actually, the dogs only recall when there is nothing else to do – which to me is next to useless. What is the point of having a dog that only does what is required when it doesn’t actually need to? In general, we only need dogs to respond to our commands when they want to do something else. Dogs very quickly work out how consistent or more accurately inconsistent we are. Casper had learnt that all of the training that his caring owners had taught him simply did not apply when he was otherwise engaged.
His aggression was a nervous and defensive type of aggression that many of the guarding breeds develop, although he looks very confident in his actions. This had simply got a little out of hand through practice.
I spent some time with Mr & Mrs Melkonian discussing leadership and the three tents consisTENT, insisTENT, persisTENT. All of their training that they had taught Casper to date was now simply going to be applied in all circumstances. He needed to know that commands and rules are to be responded to at all times, not just when he wanted. For example, Casper would go to bed on command, but would not go to bed on command when visitors arrived. He came back when called, but not when he wanted to investigate another dog, or chase a person. He would lay down on command, but not when he didn’t want to and this was all about to change.
Casper, was like a sponge for training, when showed something new, he picked it up and happily complied. I taught the family to teach him to go down on command when out walking and to respond to the command of ‘no’ to stop negative actions. Casper also needed to get out more – be around more people and dogs, trips to the pub, the café and busier places – all of which will aid his confidence and habituate him to more people and other dogs.
People are always pleased when I give them ‘Permission’ to go to the pub, all in the name of dog training and the Melkonian’s were no different! They got straight on with that advice.
After some more role-plays of walking in the fields with bizarre hats to trigger Casper’s aggression and the family addressing his behaviour, I left them to get on with the hard work.
Casper is a most gentle and gregarious dog who with just a little more direction will be one of the nicest dogs one could wish for.