Q. Several months ago, we adopted a 2-year-old Irish Terrier mix named Sadie. She has aggression problems around other dogs. Whenever we’re out on a walk, if she sees another dog, even in a fenced-in yard, she starts to bark and snarl and growl. We have had to assume that she hasn’t had a lot of previous socialization. I was wondering if there was a training tip to help her be friendlier.
A. If a dog doesn’t have dog friends growing up, by the time she’s mature she may prefer human company and not really feel any need for dog friends. That’s not necessarily a sad situation, as long the dog gets lots of satisfying time in the company of her human friends and family.
But, just being near another dog, Sadie gets upset and reacts with an aggressive display. Reactivity like this is most often based in fear and worry about what the other dog might do. Her lack of experience with other dogs leads to this barking and snarling display, to warn the other dog not to come any closer or try anything “funny.”
What Sadie needs is help learning to be less worried in the presence of other dogs. If you can, get one-on-one help from a good professional dog trainer who is experienced with using counter-conditioning and desensitization techniques. You can work on this yourself, but hiring an experienced trainer would smooth your way.
Start by taking Sadie somewhere there will be other dogs she can see from a fairly far distance, but where they will not approach her. You need to start far enough from the other dogs that Sadie sees them but doesn’t feel the need to react.
When a dog comes into view, start feeding Sadie her favorite treats. When it disappears from view, stop feeding. Repeat that until Sadie seems to make a connection between seeing other dogs and getting yummy treats. If Sadie reacts to the dogs or won’t take the treats from you, that means you’re too close to the other dogs – find a spot that’s farther away and try it there.
Gradually you’ll be able to move Sadie closer to the dogs, still keeping her far enough away that she does not start to bark, whine, etc.
Once you’ve made some good progress with this, enroll Sadie in a reward-based training class with an instructor experienced in helping owners teach dogs to become less reactive.