Is It Fear or Aggression or Both or Neither?

I have an adolescent male Aussie who, when on the leash, gets extremely worked up when he senses (hears, sees) another dog. All his attention goes straight to “I gotta get to that dog! I gotta get to that dog!”.

There are a lot of dogs in the neighborhood and thankfully most of them are leashed when their moms and dads walk them. However, Remy (my aussie) has a meltdown even if the dog is several blocks away.

We’ve tried treats (the good, better, best theory), his favorite toys, asking him to work (sit, down, heel, etc.), going the other direction (avoidance), but nothing seems to calm him down or works to redirect focus on me.

Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks! Maggie in North Carolina

Hi Maggie,
Having not met Remy, these are just some general thoughts/insights from working w/many “Remy-like” dogs.

In general, dogs like Remy are not out to kill or fight with other dogs. On the contrary, they find other dogs unbelievably wonderful and stimulating. However, the adolescent dog has very poor doggie social skills and keeps offending the other dogs he so desperately wants to interact with. Think of the stereotypical “nerdy guy” from like a teen movie who is SO in love with the popular girl, but whenever he gets around her, he makes a total fool out of himself due to his over-excitement and lack of social graces. Naturally, he gets rejected. I see the same type of scenario kind of play out with these types of dogs.

Then there’s the human involvement. The initial encounters this type of dog has with other dogs usually don’t go so well. So the typical human (who is generally terrified at the prospect of anything they would consider “aggression”) tries to keep this dog away from other dogs, which only amplifies the problem (think how much more enticing chocolate is if you’re on a diet). If the human also escalates, yelling, pulling on the leash, it often tends to ramp the dog up even more.

It sounds like you need to put a lot more work into teaching Remy self control . Think about starting with working on self control games at home, and on manners going out the door, in and out of car, at dinner time, etc.

Then work up to asking for more self control in *any* situation (every situation) that’s important enough to Remy for him to get worked up about it, even if it’s one that you (as a human) don’t particularly care about, or that has little outward relevance to what happens on your walks. Like the mailman coming, or a stray cat in the yard, or a dog going by outside.

While you may have tried interrupting over-excited behavior before, there’s a big big difference between interrupting and managing excited behavior, and consistently asking Remy for more self control. Or, to put another way, if Remy can’t show good self control when, say, the mailman comes by, then how can you expect it of him in other situations?

Here are a few tips to consider:

  • You need to have BOTH a training plan and a management plan. A training plan for how to teach a desirable behavior, under a controlled setting. i.e. practicing having Remy sit quietly and split his attention between you and the other dog, while using a friend’s dog or a neighbor’s dog that’s tied out and not going anywhere for the distraction. And a management plan for how to cope and avoid practicing the bad behavior when you’re out and, uh-oh, there’s another dog, and Remy is already excited. — working on staying connected – for us, this means consistently throughout our walk, rather than either of us being distracted and then whoops! trying to establish an active connection or wait for an ACI when another dog is entering the picture.– cooperative compliance – me earning Cleo’s respect and the authority to direct her when she’s excited
  • Avoid collar pressure. I suggest that you consider using a harness to avoid even a slight tug setting Remy off.
  • Your body language – this includes a lot of subtle stuff like not closing your mouth when I see an approaching dog, continuing to breathe into your belly, keeping your body loose.
  • U-turn – practice it under a wide variety of distractions – anything that is of interest to Remy while out walking.
  • More opportunities for supervised off-leash social time with other dogs, to hopefully take the drama out of seeing other dogs on walks.
  • The right rewards. If you need to distract Remy in an unexpected situation, and get his attention back on you in a hurry, then you need a super-gold standard. In our case
    this is something warm and greasy, like sausage or freeze-dried liver bits. On the other hand, if used as a reward in some other situations, the super gold standard in food can also add to Remy’s excitement level and be counter productive, so you need to stay aware of how it’s helping the situation – or not – and adjust as needed.

To summarize: The first (probably most difficult) thing is for you to calm down and work on not pulling back on the leash. Initially when working with other dogs on leash, distance is key. If Remy is barking, lunging, or ignoring you, you’re WAY too close. Back up until you find the distance at which Remy is able to check in, focus on you, take treats, etc. That is your starting distance. SLOWLY move up from there. Remember that different types of dogs will be easier or more difficult for Remy to deal with. He can probably get a bit closer to older, calmer dogs, similar type dogs (young, hyper) will probably be more exciting/require more distance for longer.

I’d also work on the dog-dog socialization issues, off leash with an appropriate, tolerant dog in a controlled environment. Remy would also benefit from working on self-control in general, i.e. sit and wait for a release before going out the door every time, whether or not there are other dogs outside. For many dogs, self-control is a skill that needs to be practiced daily in order to be mastered. I work the Automatic Check In A LOT with this type of dog, as it really seems to help them to calm themselves down.

So, to answer the initial question as to whether Remy’s response is fear or aggression or both or neither?  In this instance, from your description, I would have to say it’s neither. It’s most likely just the excitement of an under-socialized, adolescent boy who needs more serious and consistent training.

If this all feels overwhelming, contact a good positive dog trainer for help.


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