Getting Gusto

When a friend decided to breed her Australian Shepherd, I jumped at the chance to have one of his puppies. A pup from a sire with similar lineage to my first aussie with the same bomb proof personality was a fantastic opportunity. Gus came home with me at about 10 weeks of age. The breeder couldn't decide which male she was keeping and so she hung on to Gus for a few extra weeks.

I had the opportunity to watch the bitch interact with the puppies and in hind sight, she may have been a little too "heavy handed" with her brood. I've seen good mamas before and this mama seemed to me to be a little too corrective, perhaps, it wasn't her nature as much as the fact that the pups were 10 weeks old and she needed them to be gone. But I'm not a dog, or an experienced breeder, perhaps this kind of behaviour is normal...

He had been temperment tested by a third party and was this individual's "pick of the litter".

When I brought Gus home I don't recall any alarm bells going off about his behaviour. He was harder to crate train than I remember with my first aussie, whimpering and crying in the kennel unless my fingers dangled inside, but this only lasted a few days.

Aside from this, I have no memory of anything sticking out.

Gusto's Progression from Reactive to Aggressive

We began puppy kindergarten when he was about 16 weeks old. Unfortunately the only training place in town at the time didn't allow the dogs to socialize with each other, and worked solely on obedience. He reacted very strongly to an energetic golden retriever puppy. The puppy's owner and I arranged to meet early the following week at a park across the street where we allowed the puppies to meet and greet and play off leash. He got along with the golden better that night. But continued to be uptight in class. I don't recall if we met early again. I don't think so. I didn't know her, and it was hard to be the owner of the obnoxious puppy.

At 5 months of age he put his teeth on someone's hand who was pretending to judge him for conformation. (No damage - thank you bite inhibition training)

He bit his first dog in Clicker class at 6 months of age. A black lab type dog walked by him while he was working and he turned quickly and bit the dog in the hindquarters (No damage - thank you dog friends who he could play with).

At a year of age he could still play off leash with other dogs, but he was becoming increasingly reactive to new dogs, noises and people. Sometimes he would charge dogs and give them the same "cheap shot" he gave his first lab described above.

At two years of age he damaged a friend's dog's ear. I continued to walk him off leash around other dogs muzzled. I convinced the breeder that he wasn't a breeding prospect and she agreed to let me neuter him.

By two and a half years of age he had given minor injuries to the ears or face of all of his dog friends as well as his two canine housemates. He had exhausted the tollerance of even my closest "doggy friends." He was no longer allowed to socialize with dogs outside of the two aussies I lived with.

I started to tell people he was dog aggressive.

Working a Reactive/Aggressive Dog

Lots of people, including his breeder had a variety of ideas on how to "fix" Gusto. Most involved pain corrections or fear/intimidation corrections when he lunged and barked at other dogs. By now I had done a lot of reading on the subject and although I was sure correction could supress the outbursts, I was convinced that it would not really get at the root of the problem. I was sure classical conditioning and desensitization training was the way to go.

I continued to work with him in training classes where he had to work around other dogs. He was uncomfortable, but was able to focus. He wore a gentle leader head collar so that I could easily control his head. I worked on presenting treats around other dogs in an open bar/closed bar fashion. I attended training classes that were flexible enough to allow me to work on his issues with other dogs. He was able to work around other dogs and take treats. I knew I could control him, but I lived with the constant stress of wondering if someone else's dog might wander into his comfort zone.

When Gusto was three, we moved to Southern Ontario. Now he only lived with one other dog and I didn't have access to the flexible training classes with the instructor who knew and understood us. We continued to work in the parks when the opportunity presented itself. We prayed we wouldn't meet loose dogs, and informed people with dogs we met that he was dog aggressive. I started a new job and he didn't get much work.

At four I started him in Agility training with a local trainer. Over the next two years he learned all the equipment and he learned to play tug, though it is definately a stretch for him to tug around other dogs. He competed at fenced venues a few times and didn't loose focus on course except once when a dog squabble broke out just outside the ring. He charged the fence, but called off and finished the course.

Gusto is now nine years old. I'm working for a vet clinic teaching obedience classes and we have begun teaching classes for reactive dogs. FINALLY Gus will get the work he really needs. This blog will journal our progress in classes. Will we ever really get to compete in agility? Only time will tell. Follow our journey, if you choose.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Reactive Class - May 1, 2010

First of all today is Gusto's Birthday! He is now a decade old. If I want to trial again in agility with this dog before he is too old I really have to push his progress.

Today was an exceptionally good reactive class. We were fortunate with the weather and Gus and I were also fortunate with the dogs. Because there were a couple of smaller dogs who were doing really well in class we were able to really push them by trying out some new exercises today which was great for everyone I think. We were fortunate enough to have 3 working sessions today which further pushed Gus.

I brought really great treats (leftover cheese burgers) and Gusto was VERY motivated to tune in to me.

In the first working session I worked opposite a Shih Tzu X Lhasa who has a bit of an off gait due to a crooked front. He also wears tags, which as I wrote last time is a particularly difficult trigger for Gus. We did some T-greetings with S.E.S. (Sudden Environmental Change) where we kind of popped out in front of the other dog without much notice. We also did some jogging pass-bys and face to face greetings. Gus took a couple of longer looks at the dog, but other than that he didn't show any OUTWARD signs of reactivity. He was quite sharky though with his teeth which of course indicates tension in the jaw.

In our second session I worked opposite a Jack Russell. We'd worked with him last time and so we were really looking to push these two dogs. We decided to use our 3 ring gates (like a long straight free standing baby gate) to make a divider between the dogs while we worked parallel recalls. The dogs were held or on a sit stay beside each other, but 15 feet apart with the gate making a barrier up the middle. Then we would call the dogs at the same time so that they were running parallel to one another. Both dogs were on flexible leashes. Gusto was great he took a few glances at the dog, but never charged the gate. In fact he took steps away from the gate showing avoidance behaviour. Yeah Gus! We decreased the lateral distance until the dogs were about 6 feet away, still with the gate between the dogs. Next we progressed to recalls from opposite ends so the dogs were running in a face to face situation. We increased the lateral distance to 15 feet again to start, but ended with them 5 feet apart. The dogs did so well at this that we progressed to the removal of the middle section of gate so that there was a 8 ft. window of open space between the dogs. To make it easier we backed up to the first exercise of the parallel recalls at a distance of about 10 feet. Again both dogs did exceptionally well. We decreased the lateral distance to 7 feet. We then did a couple of trials of the opposite ends recalls with the open section of gate at 10 feet of lateral distance. Again both dogs did really well. If anything, Gusto tried to create more lateral distance on his recall showing a definite effort to avoid the other dog. I thought he was fantastic.

In our third session we worked opposite the Shih Tzu X Lhasa we had worked opposite in session 1. We did the same progression I just described in session 2, but we progressed faster with this dog as neither dog was finding it difficult. Gusto really took it in stride. I'm not sure he really cared that we'd changed dogs. He did equally well with this dog as he did with the Jack Russell.

Gus did really well today. I hope that we can continue to challenge him so that he continues to progress. In future weeks I hope to work opposite larger dogs as he finds them more challenging.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Reactive Class - Sat. April 17

Well, we had a reactive dog class this Saturday and Gusto did pretty well. I wanted to push things a bit with him, so I've decided to work him on his regular buckle collar and not on gentle leader. I kept it in my pocket and figured if he had an outburst, I'd put it on him. Doing so would undoubtedly be a negative punisher as despite years of classical conditioning with the head collar, it is still a slight aversive for him. Anyway I didn't have to put it on him because he managed to hold himself together.

In our first session we worked opposite a Jack Russell. We had worked with this dog before, but the quickness of these little energetic dogs often puts Gusto on edge. We started with U-Turns at 5 steps from 80 ft. and progressed to 12 steps. Then the trainer had us progress to an approach and turn on her cue. I find this the hardest exercise because I don't know when the turn is going to happen and I'm not in control of the exercise. I might be a bit of a control freak... Anyway it does help me stretch my personal comfort zones a lot. Out in the real world, I'm definitely not in control of the other dog or the owner so this helps prepare me for this lack of control. We progressed to following and then to parallel walking. I'm hoping that next time we will do some more difficult and challenging exercises with this dog. I'd like to do some "incoming" or parallel recalls. If I want to be able to compete in agility I really have to start amping up the difficulty. He has to be able to make the right choices in much more difficult situations.

Our second session was MUCH more challenging for Gus. The dog we were working opposite was a lab. The energy of the labs has always been a challenge for Gus. The added size is also more challenging, but perhaps the single largest trigger he has is a jingling collar and panting. This dog had both of these in spades. She had a wad of tags and was a heavy panter. As I predicted Gus found her challenging, but we did push him from U-turns, to following, to parallel walking, to pass-bys and he managed to keep himself under control. We had a lot of looking and one little growl, other than that he attended to me very well. I attribute some of this success to our work on the "look at that" game from Leslie McDevitt's book Control Unleashed - Creating a Focused and Confident Dog. During the U-Turns we had one lunge, but I managed to plant my fist to my gut so that any leash correction he received was self inflicted and not due to a jerk from me. I was happy with this as it is something I've been trying to work on. Planting my hands to keep them still so that I don't jerk or chock up on the leash.

Overall it was a very positive session with many challenges for both Gus and me.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Running with Gusto

Just a brief post to say that our runs are going really well. Too bad we usually only get out once a week. It is great to get out and moving with him. The spring makes it easier to really push him with other dogs as I can really adjust the amount of latteral distance I need to give him to the dog and situation that is approaching or overtaking us. If I need to give hime 10 feet I can, but if I only need to give him 3 then that works too. The biggest part is to judge how much distance each situation needs. One thing that seems to be a great improvement is his relaxed mouth. Even when going by dogs, I can't say that I feel his teeth. He is really learning how to maintain a realaxed jaw, for which my fingers are VERY thankful. Perhaps this difference is also due to the DAP collar mentioned in the previous entry. It is difficult to say.

On my last run I was overtaken by a small group of six joggers running with three dogs and a stroller. I pushed my pace as much as I could to maximize on the opportunity to follow the dogs. Gusto did really well. I was both surprised and impressed. I find myself equally working on MY ability to relax and breath through each encounter and HIS abiity to remain calm and focused as we pass by dogs on the path.

Running around the local lake has really pushed our comfort zone in encountering strange dogs.

I'm supposed to attend classes on Saturdays for three of the next four weeks so I'm looking forward to doing some new and more challenging work with him.


About 3 weeks ago I purchased Dog Appeasing Pheromone, also called D.A.P. from the local vet hospital. I opted to go with both the collar format and the room diffuser as that was the recommendation from the behaviour specialist who works there.

I haven't read any research on the product myself, but it is actually more well researched than all but one of the pharmaceuticals perscibed to help with generalized anxiety. I figure that pretty much anything non-intrusive is at least worth a shot.

For anyone not familiar with the product, it apparently it gives off the smell (to a dog - it just smells a little sweet to me) of a lactating female, a.k.a. "MOM". This smell is supposed to have a calming effect on the dogs. I must say that it does seem to be helping with his overall hyper-vigilance. He doesn't seem to react to random sounds outside as much he has in the past. Also he is usually particularly "alertful" when my husband is away at night. My husband was out two nights this week and I didn't hear a peep out of him. I should mention that it does NOT appear to help when people come over to the house at all. He alarms very loudly at this, but the fact that he can have a quiet day, evening and night is quite an improvement.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

First Reactive Session of 2010 - April 20, 2010

Last weekend Gusto attended his first reactive session of the season. We worked opposite a worried little Jack Russell. To begin with we worked stationary while the other dog walked and worked around us. Gus did really well with this, though I did return him to his crate for a small explosion off the start. I'm sure it helped that the other dog didn't want to make eye contact with us.

Next we did some following exercises. The other dog followed us first. Usually Gusto has a harder time with this set-up than when we follow another dog, but today, he had a harder time following the Jack than when the Jack followed us. I'm not sure why, but it took a while before he settled into the following. After following we progressed to parallel walking. Gusto did well with this. I felt myself feeling a little uneasy. I find that I have trouble trusting that other people will keep control of their dogs. People see that I'm a trainer and they wrongly assume that Gusto is a friendly dog that we are using for the lessons. They don't know his history, and he looks like he is doing so well... I tried to take deep breaths and react only to what was actually happening instead of getting uptight as I was thinking about what MIGHT happen.

Winter 2009/2010

Well, it has been a long, long time since my last post... The fall and winter has been full of changes without a lot of structured work. Due to evening light issues, the reactive classes were moved from week nights to occasional Saturdays and by coincidence they fell on days I couldn't attend.

In the month of November we moved from our country home into the city. Anyone who really understands a reactive dog will understand why I was very worried this move might cause Gusto to be very stressed. Instead of a quiet country life, his sensitive hearing will pick up a lot of traffic noise, people walking by and of course the neighbourhood dogs. It isn't that we hadn't lived in the city before, but it had litter ally been five years since we lived in an urban setting.

Well, Gusto adjusted surprisingly well. I attribute some of this success to our recent structured reactive work. Since the timing of the reactive classes was few and far between over the winter months, and they always presented a conflict for me, Gus and I worked on our own when we were out for walks.

Spring has sprung early this year and this year I am really trying to push the boundaries. He will be 10 years old this spring, if we are going to get better, I have to push him a little harder. I've learned over the winter that some of our lack of progress can be attributed to the fact that I'm NOT a pushy trainer. In the past I have always tried to keep him below threshold, which I still think is the best way to go, but there is too far below threshold to push improvement and then there is just below threshold where they are stressed, but able to contain their stress. For example, if I was out walking and I saw a dog walking toward us on the sidewalk, I would have crossed the street and walked on the other side until we passed the dog and then returned to the other side of the street. Now I will give some lateral distance as we pass by the dog, but how much depends on how much Gusto needs to remain just below threshold. In our case if I don't feel teeth when he takes the treat, we probably aren't close enough to the other dog. I know enough about the types of dogs that Gus will find difficult to know in advance how much girth to give. Last week I discovered that size and temperament of the dog may have less to do with Gus' comfort than with orientation. We passed by a dog on a flexi who oriented and took a few steps toward us just as we passed by. I heard him growl, but he didn't explode like he might have in the past.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Week 6

We arrived early enough tonight to get a short warm-up in before we started. Gus could definitely use a longer warm-up, but it is really hard to get home organized for me to leave any earlier. He was very keen on the food which can be good, but it can also be a bad thing as part of his issue is guarding. At home this week he had a couple of fights with my parents aussie over food crumbs in the kitchen, or just the hint that he was going to get food. He isn't doing damage in these fights anymore as Data is too old to fight back now.

Anyway back to tonight he was definitely a little more on edge than usual. Perhaps it was from residual stress from his day at home (he ware a citronella collar out in the pen today so he didn't wake the baby from her nap). We worked opposite Winter today. Gus finds her a little hard because she is such a bouncy young puppy. We did 3 u-turns with 5, 10 and then 15 steps and then we progressed to following. Following is Gus' hardest exercise especially when he is in front. He was quite concerned about Winter following him (distance varied from 10-20 feet). He doesn't seem to have much difficulty when he followed Winter. His mouth was definitely hard tonight, not that that is unusual. It is constant work to keep him focused on relaxing his mouth. I consistently tell him "gentle" when taking treats and I try not to release treats until I feel tongue.

The second round of work, again with Winter, we started down at the road, we did following and our leap frog passing I've described before. Gus had a hard time with this, lunging a few times to the end of the leash. He only barked once, though, the other times he got to the end of the leash and came back into heel for treats. We upped the speed a little bit and Gus and I did some running passes which seemed to increase his likelihood to lunge. I worked really hard at keeping my leash hand planted to my belly button each time to give Gus the opportunity to make a choice and not tence up or jerk him on the leash. This was really hard, and I'm proud of how I did tonight in this regard. We ended the session after some difficult passes with a stationary dog cutting into a following position.