Pamela J. Reid, Ph.D., ASPCA
The elderly socialite came flying into my office, hanging on for dear life to the leash of a handsome border collie mix. The dog lunged forward to greet me, leaving a large muddy smear on my trousers. The woman’s eyes told her story: she adored the dog, but she desperately needed help with him.
Joan had adopted Todd from the shelter a few weeks earlier. He appeared to be the perfect dog – affectionate, quiet and mannerly. But Todd’s true colors emerged as he became more comfortable in his new surroundings. At home in Joan’s apartment, he amused himself by chewing shoes and barking at noises in the hallway. He was in perpetual motion despite several walks a day. Indeed, walking Todd was a daunting task in itself because he was so unruly. He barked and lunged at just about everything he saw, including other dogs, cyclists, rollerbladers and skateboarders. Several times already, he had overpowered Joan and proceeded to chase after people and other dogs.
The Honeymoon Ends
Todd’s transformation from ideal companion to canine delinquent is an all-too-frequent story. Animals are often under extreme stress while in a shelter environment, which can have a subduing effect on them. Being adopted by new owners and moving to a new home further compounds the stress, so the dog holds back, remaining calm and composed, while he familiarizes himself with the new surroundings. As he develops comfort and confidence, he displays more of his “normal” behavior, which, for some shelter dogs, is not particularly endearing.
Todd’s wild behavior on walks was Joan’s main concern. Dogs who misbehave by lunging and barking at passersby are often all bluff – and Todd was no exception. The times that he had pulled away from Joan ended uneventfully. He ran toward the dog or person but then stopped short, lost interest and returned to Joan. If a dog approached him, Todd hid behind his guardian. In reality, Todd was an under-socialized, frightened dog who had adopted the strategy that his best defense was a strong offense. Joan’s problems with Todd were further exacerbated by the fact that, by nature, he is a breed that needs a lot of exercise. Border collies are highly attuned to movement and become stimulated by anything moving past them quickly. An under-exercised border collie is likely to try herding vehicles, bikes and skateboards; in confinement, he will find all sorts of ways to keep himself amused.
I suggested that Joan take Todd to a nearby dog run for daily exercise and socialization. In the morning, she took him when few other dogs were present so she could wear him out playing ball. In the evening, Todd was happy to chase the dogs while they played, but he also became more confident interacting with them. At home, he was much calmer, less bothered by outside noises and more inclined to sleep. And Joan offered him plenty of tasty dog chew bones so he no longer victimized her shoes. On walks, however, he was as unruly as ever.
If At First You Don’t Succeed?
We designed a walk strategy to teach Todd to tune in to Joan when people and dogs passed by. Each time a person or dog came into view, Joan spoke to Todd in a happy tone of voice and pulled out a handful of tasty treats. She encouraged him to nibble at the treats while they continued to move past. Once the person or dog was a few feet behind them, Joan praised Todd for a job well done and gave him a tidbit. When Todd caught on to this new association, he began to look to Joan in anticipation whenever he saw someone approaching. Soon, she was able to praise Todd enthusiastically for looking at her and delay pulling out the treats until the person or dog went by.
Joan was very pleased with Todd’s progress for the first few weeks, but then she reported that he sometimes ignored the treats and chose instead to bark and lunge, usually at fast-moving objects. She had already tried increasing the value of the treats, to no avail. We decided to use a punishment procedure to teach Todd to inhibit his desire to chase and herd. I fitted Todd with an anti-bark citronella collar, which automatically delivers a burst of citrus spray under the dog’s chin whenever he barks. Todd was no dummy; he quickly learned that it was in his best interest to stay calm and get treats rather than get riled up and be sprayed. Finally, Joan was able to enjoy their walks, and Todd benefited by receiving even more exercise and socialization.
Several months later I received a thank-you card from Joan. “Thank you so much, Dr. Reid, for all your help,” it read. “Todd is such a great dog now – he’s far more well-behaved and loyal than any man I’ve known in my life!”