Thursday, February 13, 2014

Dr.Jeckyll and Mr.Spartacus

When Spartacus looks up at us with his soulful eyes full of innocence, it's easy to forget about the side of him that seems vicious and aggressive. Especially considering what an angel he is to his little sister, Delilah. He's never shown an ounce of meanness toward her, even though she pounces on him in his sleep and chews on his ears and jowls when he's trying to relax. He doesn't put up a fight when she steals his bones and toys, and he's happy to be her pillow any time of day.

After going through Basic Training when he was a year and a half old, he also became quite the gentleman toward people. Sparty prefers to properly introduce himself with a handshake. He still has trouble containing his excitement and wants to hug visitors, but overall he knows his manners and understands he has to earn his privileges with good behavior and neat tricks. He won first place in "Down Stay with Distractions" when he graduated his Basics course, after all.

And let's not forget his never-ending concern for his people. Indoors, we sometimes regard Sparty as our therapy dog. His love of cuddling is intense, and he's the kind of dog that will wake up from his slumber and lick tears off your face if you've had a bad day.

This all changes when we leave the comfort of our home. His soft brow with his sweet, sad eyes furrows as Sparty locks in on the target, another dog walking on leash. All hell breaks loose and he goes berzerk - lunging, growling, barking, writhing in the air. Spartacus is leash reactive and his main trigger is other dogs walking on leashes.

Luckily we've never lost control of the leash, so the worst that's come out of this most of the time is embarrassment, and startling strangers. But a strong 60 pound dog resisting the leash with all his might is not to be taken lightly, and can pose a danger to the handler, other dogs and people, and the reactive dog itself. We've had our share of bruises to prove it. 

He didn't start out this way. He was a happy go lucky puppy for the most part, despite being found homeless with Canine Distemper and mange. We didn't know very much about training and were intent on spoiling this puppy who had suffered so greatly. We barely socialized him due to his weak immune system. By the time he was full grown, he was difficult to control but still perfectly happy, a bit too enthusiastic maybe, to pass dogs on leash. His aggressive reactivity seems to coincide with the time we started training him to heel, ironically. We have some theories about where we went wrong, and we suspect a combination of genetics, upbringing, and day to day management are all equally related to reactivity. Like others, we are guilty of doting on the past and over-analyzing our mistakes. Ultimately, it's more fruitful to focus on what we are doing in the present to manage Sparty's aggressive reaction to other dogs he sees on leash.

Luckily, we have the help of a professional and the support of a community to guide us in learning to manage our Dr.Jeckyll and Mr.Hyde pup. We are taking a special class with a handful of other reactive dogs, and learning how to implement well-timed rewards and corrections to counter-condition our dogs to their triggers. Like many others, the "watch me" command is our starting point. Currently, we use a parachute cord slip collar to give corrections when Spartacus is ignoring us and starting to target another dog. We understand that some people want to use 100% reward based management, but with a strong 60 pound dog, it's impossible to ignore his outbursts - he might literally drag us into moving traffic if given the opportunity. 

In the last month since we started our class, we have progressed to being able to be on the opposite sidewalk of passing dogs with Sparty choosing to look to us for treats. Closer distances to passing dogs still have mixed results, but by body-blocking and grabbing Sparty's collar, we can get him to calm down quicker when he does react. It makes us sad to see something that is so normal for other dogs, including our Delilah, be so stressful for our special boy. We hope that the new techniques we are implementing will eventually make these experiences more normal and enjoyable for us all.

*This post is part of the WOOF (Working Out Our Fears) Support blog hop, where other owners with reactive dogs can join together to share their experiences. Today's theme is "A walk in my shoes/paws". #WOOFsupport

Oz the Terrier


  1. You are look into Sparty's sad eyes and you would never think a crazy dog lurked within. It's the same with Oz. We are using the "Look" command and treats for counter-conditioning for the past month - it is working with mixed results. It sometimes feels like 3 steps forward and then 2 steps back. But at least we are then one step ahead from the last "start". So glad you joined our hop! I hope we can all learn by sharing. I know it sure feels good to "not be the only one".
    Gina and Oz

  2. Hi Gina and Oz! We hear you on the 3 steps forward, 2 steps back. Today we passed a lot of dogs on our walk and had two reactive instances. The first one started when a reactive little dog on a retractable was barking at us and the owner had no control. After that, Sparty was a bit stressed. I've read that the stress hormones like cortisol take some time to retreat to normal levels when a dog has gotten spooked, so your dog is likely to be on edge for a while after a reaction. Prevention with "look" or "watch me" is always best but not always possible. I've really enjoyed reading the blogs on the blog hop so far, sounds like the eye contact command is a standard tool for reactive dogs!

    Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Thank you so much for joining our hop! I think it's great that you've started a blog to share your progress with Spartacus. It sounds like you are doing everything you can, and I'm sure that will pay off in time. Can I say what a cutie he is? And Delilah too! I also hope you'll introduce your "mean but special cat". :) We have one of those too. Can I suggest that you add an email subscription button? I find other blogs easier to follow that way and I'd love to follow yours.
    Jan, Wag 'n Woof Pets

  4. What beautiful pups! It's so hard not to dwell on what we did in the past, isn't it? I used to think, "oh if only we'd never used a prong collar, Isis would have been perfect." Well, we never used a prong collar on Leo, and he barks and lunges at everything while on leash, too. We just do the best we can. I really like the Maya Angelou quote, "You did then what you knew how to do. And when you knew better, you did better."

  5. Your pups are absolutely adorable! It sounds like you have a great support system and are making some great progress with his training! For the first few couple weeks after I realized my pup was reactive, I was almost devastated thinking that he was a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde dog, and I had no idea how to process that. But then I realized that he is always my sweet, loving, careful, happy dog who just has times where he gets too scared or too anxious and just needs some help from me and wants me to "hold his paw" through the situation. Spartacus sounds like he is a great dog :)

  6. Both Spartacus and Delilah are adorable! It sounds like you're doing your absolute best for him, and I like the quote Kari shared as well. I know theres little point in dwelling on the past, but I wonder if having had distemper before you got him could have anything to do with it... I've never seen a case, as in my area people are generally really good about vaccinating and outbreaks are rare, but I know it can involve the nervous system and cause tics and things.

  7. Hi Joanna, thanks for stopping by! It's true Spartacus does have a head twitch from his distemper. Luckily it hasn't progressed in the three years we've had him. I have my suspicions that distemper effects his behavior issues, but our trainer ensures us she's seen much more reactive dogs who were perfectly healthy. We're at a point where we can break his reactions really quickly, leading me to believe it's just good old reactivity and not a neurological issue. He's also very calm a lot of the time and doesn't seem to be inflicted with constant stress. Either way, we started him on L-Theanine yesterday for it's calming effects to see if that will reduce his issues on our walks. We'll report on those results soon.