Part 3: Training the “Untrainable” Dog

woman dog trainer with blue and white hat on wearing a blue sweatshirt and blue jeans with a green tennis ball in hand and looking at a black dog sitting on a red mat on green turf in the backyard

Travel Plans and Pet Sitting for an Anxious Dog

Frodo was starting to make some progress with his foundations in behavior training when we were due to fly to Cleveland for a week to visit with my husband’s family. We use a company called Doggie Joggie for pet sitting, I’ve always been impressed with how well they’ve cared for Beatrix and Fritz. I was even more impressed with the manner in which they persisted through a tough week with our new little family member, Frodo.

Sam and Lisa are the owners of Doggie Joggie, they’re also family friends. They came over a week or so before we were due to travel so that we could set up a friendly meeting with them and Frodo. Just like I would recommend to clients, I cut training food up in advance and met Sam and Lisa in front of the house with Frodo on harness and leash.

Frodo was not barking or lunging but he also wasn’t taking food, which was a red flag that he was not as comfortable having visitors as he might have seemed on the surface. Our dog’s ability to engage or respond to well established training exercises is one of the most helpful ways of determining their level of comfort, or conversely, their level of stress or anxiety. In this way we can view basic training as a means of two way communication, versus seeing a slow or reluctant response as a form of “disobedience.”

We went for a short walk up and down our street, before returning to the house to talk about the do’s and don’ts of taking care of our anxious terrier. Doorways had always been a major “hot spot” for Frodo’s most concerning behavior so we talked about ways to promote calm, relaxed behavior when walking in or out of the house.

I have to believe that it was hard for Sam and Lisa to understand the significance of the training and management protocol I was outlining, since there weren’t any incidents of barking or lunging during their visit. Soon they would have a better understanding of Frodo’s guarding tendencies.

Territorial Aggression in Dogs, and What to Do About It

The following week we boarded our flight and when we landed in Cleveland I saw an email from Sam outlining the initial challenges. It turned out that Frodo was a formidable security system in our absence.

I half expected that they would ask me to find another place for Frodo to stay while we were away, but to my surprise, they were ready to brainstorm for a better solution when walking into the house. Sam set up dog pen by the front door. It worked brilliantly. The second barrier seemed to give them the time and space they needed to calm Frodo down before walking inside. Here are the top 10 tips that I offer to clients that have dogs that exhibit aggressive or reactive behavior.

Behavior Modification Strategies, Upping Our Game

The next phone call came the following afternoon. Lisa had spent time relaxing with Frodo in the backyard. She recalled how he actually seemed to be warming up to her and described behaviors that I had become familiar with: crawling into her lap and pawing at her hand wanting “to be pet.” This type of nervous “social” behavior is always a red flag to me. A socially nervous dog might solicit interaction when a person is sitting or standing still, but become reactive again the moment that the person moves or makes a loud noise. Sometimes the petting can exacerbate the subsequent reaction. In this case, Frodo was triggered the moment Lisa walked back into the house.

When I spoke to Lisa over the phone, she was open and curious about how this could be helped with training protocol. We discussed keeping a harness and drag leash on Frodo. I was greatful for the time I had put into his foundation training because it was going to pay off in spades to help me, help Frodo work through this situation despite the fact that I was on the other side of the country. Lisa placed training mats on either side of the back sliding door, along with a jar of dry dog treats. Since doorways leading into and out of the house were “hot spots” for reactive behavior, I had her pause and deliver 3 treats before and after walking through these emotionally charged thresholds. This was protocol that I had implemented in similar situations with my clients’ dogs with great success.

Preemptively engaging the dog, and offering high value food can help to reframe a challenging situation, lower stress, and thereby stop reactive or aggressive behavior before it starts. Sam and Lisa reported that by the end of the week Frodo was allowing them to enter the house, and walk through doorways without any further incidents. They continued with the protocol throughout the week, for good measure, but by the end of the week Frodo seemed comfortable with them regardless of time, location or context.

Breaking it Down, Building it Up

I came back from Cleveland feeling pretty optimistic, and excited to continue training. Frodo seemed to be all on board. He was even practicing training on his own time. For example, laying on the mat when he heard the neighbors outside instead of barking at the window. This was huge progress. You could tell his level of confidence was slowly and steadily growing. Unfortunately, not everyone in the house was feeling so rosey.

Stress can stew beneath the surface and then boil over when you least expect it. Having a newborn and working on Frodo’s reactivity took all my focus, so much so that I disregarded the fact that there was clearly tension between Frodo and my Lab/Basset Hound mix, Fritz.

Frodo would bark, charge and nip at Fritz whenever Fritz played, scratched his back or ran around outside. Because Fritz was fairly tolerant of this, and because my mental bandwidth was already at capacity, I didn’t do very much to manage these incidents. In fact, I was quietly hoping that this tension would resolve on its own. By the end of November the underlying tension rose to the surface. Fritz was no longer tolerating Frodo and it took very little for tense moments to boil over into a fight.

Life with Frodo was becoming easier in some ways, and more stressful in others. I continued to focus on our next step in training and came up with a strong management plan to prevent altercations. If you have issues with fighting between dogs living in the same house, you might want to check out this blog.

Stay tuned for Part 4 of Frodo’s story where I talk about the use of medication in behavior modification and how we are assessing its efficacy. I also want to know if YOU have a dog that others might have felt was “untrainable” – beyond hope, or beyond help. Share your stories in the comment section below.

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