Although the problem dog makes up only a small percentage of the dogs attending class, they can be on our minds constantly. We may not like to see them in class and often hope they don’t show up for the second week, but these are the dogs whose owners most need the benefits of an instructor’s knowledge and experience.
We faced an interesting situation with an adult male Saint Bernard named Dutch. When the owner first called to inquire about our classes, he wanted his 12 year old daughter to bring the family pet. Since we do not accept children this young in our regular program, we suggested that the owner bring the dog to class and work with the daughter during the week. This proved to be a wise decision.
The first night of class showed that Dutch did not like the company of other dogs; he was snapping, growling and lunging at any dog that came near him. Fortunately the owner was strong enough to restrain the dog, but he really had no idea of how to handle the problem. The other members of the class were very much concerned about the safety of their own dogs, and it was obvious that nothing would be accomplished until something was done about Dutch.
That night Dutch and his owner were brought to the center of the Advanced Class where the other owners had some experience and more control over their own dogs. Dutch’s owner was shown how to correct the dog and what to look for that would signal the need for the correction. At the end of class the owner was told to work on what had been taught in the lesson, and we would see him next week.
After class, the other instructors and I discussed whether Dutch should remain in the classes because of the concern of the other students and the total lack of dog attention. It was decided that we could not simply drop Dutch, but he would be worked with on an individual basis outside of class for two weeks.
The procedure used to attempt to correct Dutch’s behavior involved (1) the owner establishing himself as pack leader by gaining response to obedience commands, (2) using food to modify the dog’s behavior, and (3) using a firm correction for unwanted behavior.
The private lessons covered the same obedience exercises that were being covered in class’, and Dutch responded beautifully, actually progressing faster than the dogs in class. The problem of his reaction to other dogs was handled as follows.
Dutch’s owner was given a pocket full of tidbits with the instruction to insert one in Dutch’s mouth as soon as he noticed the dog I would bring out on lead. If Dutch lunged for the dog, he was to be sharply corrected. In each of the two sessions with Dutch about 10 to 12 passes were made with a second male. Initially the second dog would not get closer than about 10 feet before Dutch would charge. By the end of the second lesson Dutch was doing a sit-stay and down-stay with the second male no more than two feet away.
Dutch was brought back to class, and by the end of the eight-week session was voted “Most Improved Dog” by the other handlers in the class.
Food was used to modify the dog’s behavior from disliking the sight of a second dog to actually looking forward to it because of the pleasant experience (food) when the other dog appeared. The food reward was accompanied by praise so that later only the praise was used. This approach was successful because of the willingness of the owner to follow instructions and his desire to correct his dog’s behavior.
Many of the corrective measures we now use with problem dogs are based on the solutions suggested in William E. Campbell’s book Problem Behavior in Dogs which we have modified as needed to adapt them to class situations.
©1982 W. Herbert Morrison, III