The sweetest face in the world peered nervously out from behind the kennel bars. This was how I met Chance – a one-year-old Bulloxer from the dog’s home who had been picked up as a stray.
He was malnourished, appeared to have dodgy hips and also showed symptoms of kennel cough. He was scared but longing for attention.
Very soon, he fell desperately ill from the kennel cough and had to be hospitalized. I made myself a promise that if he pulled through I would care for him the rest of his life.
Well he did, and I’m sticking to it. But when it emerged that Chance had behavioral problems, I soon realised it might not be such a walk in a park. In fact, when a dog has fear-based aggression, even a walk in the park can be a challenge!
My partner, Ciarán, and I first that Chance had aggression problems when he wouldn’t accept my Auntie’s Collie Sheba in his house. Fair enough we thought, best to not let Sheba come into ‘his’ space and left it at that.
Then he pinned down my Cousin’s Cavalier-King-Charles-Spaniel, Stanford. Very naughty of him, but he didn’t hurt him and I was fussing over Stanford so maybe he was just jealous.
Don’t fuss over other dogs. Sorted.
Then it was next door’s dog, then a dog in the park, then another one and so on and so on.
I was devastated.
He was unsafe to be allowed to run off lead, go to other people’s houses or even out in public.
He loves people and he loves Frankie (our other American Bulldog) and is normally very placid, loving and playful so we couldn’t figure out what was going on with him.
We tried basic training practices that we’d learnt such as correct lead walking, reward based commands such as sit, stay, wait and even speak and Chance excelled at this home-schooled obedience training, except when other dogs were around.
We tried a muzzle and he practically ripped his own face off trying to get it off which was very distressing to everyone. I thought about selling him or taking him back to the home but knew that this would just be me passing the problem onto someone else and may ultimately lead to him being euthanized.
STARS OF THE DOG BLOG: Chance (bottom right), Frankie and Rachel
So I pulled myself together, remembered my promise and called a few trainers for some much needed help and advise.
I took him to an aggressive dogs class and he was so scared he literally peed himself in the middle of the class. Most of the advice I’ve been given over the six-weeks has been great, friendly and supportive with really useful training techniques but none of us could quite handle the over-subscribed classes and confusing, often conflicting advice and instruction.
I decided to spend good money on a very reputable canine behaviour course at night school and try and figure this out for myself. The behaviorist deems him ‘fixable’ in terms of being able to be trained in order to fit into our society full of human rules that don’t really make sense to our canine companions.
So, I’ve got books, training classes, equipment, websites, advisors and a canine behaviour class making him their case study and this is the plan:
1. Basket Muzzle. Needs to be trained to wear it with food and positive experiences. So far, I can’t even get it to fit his head.
2. Two-Lead approach. One for his collar, one for his harness to maximize control. Sorted.
3. Teach Chance some more control commands that we can use as correction such as ‘stand-still’, ‘behind-me’, ‘side-of-me’, ‘in-front’ and/or ‘face-me’. So far we have been working on ‘stand’ and it’s taking some getting used to for him but in two-weeks, I think that’s he’ll have cracked it. Getting him to do it when he’s scared though is another matter.
4. Use toys as a frustration reliever for Chance. This is working very well and Chance is correcting his own behaviour by distracting himself with his favourite toys.
5. Tell Chance that he is a good boy. Remain calm and convey positive, stress relieving words and feelings so he feels calm and not fearful of his doggie encounters.
So, I took him to the park today and it was hard work for the both of us. I tied him up to a tree and sat next to him with his toys, water and Frankie and we tried to relax.
Chance had a few wobbles and made a few lunges but his control was still there as he would sit mostly on command and play with his toys whenever he felt threatened.
It became harder for him to correct himself or follow commands without being physically moved into a sit as the park filled up with dogs and they came closer and closer to us.
He lunged at one dog that came over to see him and snapped at this face. I corrected him and checked that the other dog and owner were ok.
I thought about going home but the whole point was that he was socialised so decided to stay calm and stay put.
I again tried to put his muzzle on but it still wouldn’t fit properly and he began to panic straight away.
Suddenly another dog appeared beside us and before I knew it Chance lunged at him. I held him down so that no contact was made between the two, calmed him down and corrected him into a sit.
It was then when the owner of the other dog started her verbal attack on us. Apparently his behaviour was ‘unacceptable’ and I was to apologise for it. I explained that he was in training but she wanted to know why I hadn’t ‘done’ anything to correct his behaviour.
Even explaining that remaining calm was part of his training only got the response ‘god help him with you as his trainer’. This is just an example of the type issues you face on a daily basis when you own an ‘aggressive’ dog.
“Punishing a dog for not obeying a command or for unwanted behaviour without understanding why the behaviour is happening in the first place only serves to make the behaviour worse”
“Positive techniques are much safer when it comes to training aggressive dogs, and they help these dogs change the way they react by showing them that there is another way to feel so that there is no need to aggress”
Victoria Stillwell , Dog Trainer and TV Personality
[Alpha No More, Best Friend’s Magazine, Jan/Feb 2010]
Thankfully I have the support of many trainers and friends who understand dogs and support what I’m trying to do. It doesn’t make it easy though, for either Chance or myself.
Accusations and abuse such as that we have experienced today hurts our confidence and belief in our abilities.
Can he change his behaviour and/or natural responses? Can I lead him effectively in his training? I’d like to think so but we are going to need support, not condemnation from the general public.
So the next time you are walking past a dog on a lead who looks a little stressed, do everyone a favour and take a wide berth or speak to the owner calmly and you might just save a dog’s life.
Five minutes after this incident, we started to walk home when my bulldog crew of friends greeted us on the path out of the park with open arms, cheers and cuddles over Chance who they’d never met before as he’s normally banned from social spaces.
Chance happily let all three all three dogs sniff his rear and owners pet him. They were off to the water park to cool down.
One day, we can hopefully join them. This is positive training in practice. Look it up!
Rachel is a 30-year-old media teacher, who along with her partner Ciarán, owns two dogs and two cats. They also have another cat on long-term foster. As a self-proclaimed dog-lover, Rachel dedicates a large part of her time to the world of dogs, taking training classes, grooming classes, behavioural classes, judging dog shows, turned her dog into a ‘celebrity’ and regularly volunteers for Manchester Dogs Home.