Friday, February 21, 2014

When Good Dogs Go Bad

If things were black and white, Spartacus would be labeled our bad dog and Delilah would earn the title for easy, good dog. Spartacus growls and lunges at passing dogs and scares the pants off their owners, while Delilah can be within inches of strange dogs on leash without paying them any mind. Spartacus is enrolled in Behavior Solutions ("bad dog" class), while Delilah is signed up for a Canine Good Citizen prep course. Indeed, Delilah is not leash reactive. She doesn't go berzerk on leash. We can take her places without worries. But let us be clear, grey areas abound.

Like the grey skies we faced this morning. We awoke to pouring rain and huge puddles barricading our driveway. Hooray! We thought. We might get a park all to ourselves!

Rain jacket on, I leashed up the dogs and drove off to one of our favorite places in Athens, Oconee Forest Park. Oconee Forest Park is a 60 acre natural area of winding trails and an off leash dog area, all within a well preserved 100 year old forest. The off leash area isn't really a dog park so much as a place to hike with your dog off leash. Spartacus has generally done pretty well here and keeps on moving after meeting other dogs, no wild play involved. When we pulled up to the parking lot, there was only one other car. As we headed out onto the trails, there were no signs of anyone else, human or canine. Having the park to ourselves was a welcome respite.

Delilah has only been with us since August of 2013 and she's estimated to be about 16 months old. She completed a Basic Obedience class but has yet to really master any commands. Of these basics, recall is the most difficult for her. She's an easily distracted dog whose greatest passion is galloping top speed deep into the forest, presumably chasing squirrels. While Spartacus never trots more than a few feet ahead of us on off leash hikes, Delilah takes off through the forest and disappears. She always comes back, but it's incredibly frustrating. Even when we get a perfect recall going in the house and in practice runs, it just doesn't work when we need it in real life situations.

Today, a solid recall would have done us good. The off leash area at the park is not fully fenced, and the existing fence and gate are insufficient for the likes of smaller dogs. So when a leashed dog was passing the fence, it was our "good" dog that slipped under the gate and charged it. The owners called out that their dog was socially iffy. Before I had time to think, I heard barking and growling from both Delilah and her new frenemy. I was still inside the fence, untangling leashes, worrying my "bad" dog would react.

"Delilah, come!"

A glimmer of hope - she started to trot back.

Then took off again. The leashed dog was with two owners, and one of them body blocked Delilah. She gave up and returned to the gate.

Spartacus, our bad boy, showed no signs of excitement. I put him in a sit stay unleashed, walked out the gate, and leashed up Delilah. Though no one was harmed, I felt terrible for causing any set backs for the other dog. As owners of a reactive dog, we advocate for dogs to be leashed if they don't have solid recall, and here our own Delilah broke the rules.

We've been so preoccupied with working on Spartacus' leash reactivity, we managed to look past some of the weaknesses in our communication with Delilah. Delilah isn't leash reactive, but she certainly requires more training before we can responsibly take her on off leash adventures.

Do you have a solid recall with your dog/s?
Does your easy dog occasionally give you grief?


  1. So true that there is a grey area when it comes to "good" and "bad!" Your experience with Delilah used to be my life every day for about the first 6 months I had Kaya. It would often take me half an hour to leash her in a small fenced dog park! She had the worst recall...ever. But it really started to come around when I taught her fetch. Now she has the most solid recall of any dog I've ever seen. She'll turn on a dime to come to me as fast as she can no matter what the distraction. I'm always impressed! Something about fetch turn it into a really awesome game to come back to me and it translated in all situations.

    Norman has never been defiant or evasive like Kaya but he is not fetch motivated so we work with treats and praise. His recall is not nearly as good as Kaya's but his only issue really is being a total putz so he's not exactly getting himself into trouble.

    So if you think she'd be into fetch, I'd recommended trying that or maybe practice with a long line in a distracting area like this with like the most amazing treats of all time. I always thought I would use treats just to train them as puppies but 2 years down the road and I still always have a pocket full of treats on our walks:) I use really small ones and dish them out often and several in a row to keep them guessing.

    1. Hooray that you found a way to reroute Kaya's brain. Delilah loves fetch and I always carry treats with me, but squirrels(or whatever she's chasing) still win. We're gonna get a long line and just be really persistent. So much for these dogs to learn!