“Lunging Lucy” & “Growly Gus”

Guest post by Jody Epstein, CPDT-KA

Picture this: You and Polly are walking together in your neighborhood. She’s showing off just how good her leash skills are. And then . . . you see it. Down the street . . . another dog is coming. Suddenly your Perfect Polly does a full-blown Jekyll & Hyde, and suddenly she’s a Lunging Lucy! Barking, pulling, growling, snarling, and you’re at a loss for how to stop it. After the strange dog disappears around the corner, Lucy does a big shake, yawns and reverts to her Perfect-Polly self.

Does that sound familiar? Do you find yourself embarrassed or frustrated by your dog’s unruly behavior in the presence of unfamiliar dogs – or maybe it’s strangers or cars or motorcycles or children or people with hats/sunglasses or, or, or…?

Take a moment to collect yourself and breathe a sigh of relief, because there are several techniques that can be used to address this most distressing of public doggie behaviors.

One common technique is a combination of Desensitization (increasing Polly’s tolerance for the scary thing) and Counter Conditioning (changing Polly’s emotional response from “that thing is going to kill me!!!!!” to “Oh goodie! Awesome things happen when that thing is nearby!!”) To do this we usually use high-value treats (Polly tells us what is her favorite) and pair the super scary thing (the trigger) with the super yummy food. When you get the order and timing correct, you can help Polly learn that the scary, strange dog reliably predicts hot dogs (or maybe she prefers cheese).

Another very useful technique that I use is called Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) -- a protocol created by Grisha Stewart. BAT takes into account that Polly is barking and growling for a reason. BAT honors Polly as an individual with likes and dislikes, fears and pleasures. Giving her more control and confidence allows her to get over her fears. We never push her to go closer than she’s comfortable going, and in fact we stop her going too close before she’s ready. Keeping her below her threshold for reacting is key to BAT.

We set up situations to give her time to take in as much information about the trigger as she needs. When she’s ready to move on, she’ll tell us by doing a behavior that indicates she’s done engaging (e.g. looking away from the trigger, sniffing the ground, or checking in with the handler among other things). When she gives one of these “cut-off” signals, we happily trot away from the trigger. BAT training allows Polly to be fully present and not always distracted by the sudden presence of yummy food. It gives her a chance to process that she was able to get her needs met – usually more distance, but not always – even without those overt “get away from me!” behaviors she was doing before.

There are 3 different stages of BAT training that can be used, given the circumstances and what you think Polly can handle in that moment:

Stage 1: When you think Polly may react badly if you let her just look for a long time, try this. Click the very moment that Polly sees the trigger and then immediately retreat away from the trigger and TREAT (yes, super high value food is used in this stage). Ideally you’re clicking before she has a chance to react to the trigger in any way. But you do want to be sure she actually saw the trigger (and not just you).

Stage 2: At times when you are a little further away, you can use this stage to give her more of a chance to take things in. Let Polly look at the trigger and wait for her to offer one of those “cut-off” signals. Then CLICK the “cut-off” signal, retreat away from the trigger and reinforce the retreat with super high value food (yes, treats here too).

Stage 3: This is for times when she has enough space to think before responding. Let Polly look at the trigger and wait for her to offer one of those “cut-off” signals. When she does, ask out loud if she’s ready to go with, “Done?” and trot cheerfully away from the trigger. There’s no food here, though you are encouraged to praise your dog for making such a polite behavior choice. This is the ideal stage to be working in and the one where Polly learns the most because she’s not distracted by the treats.

Stages 1 and 2 are best suited to the neighborhood walk when you suddenly find yourself facing a trigger that’s too close. They are your emergency escape to help Polly get through the situation without turning into Lunging Lucy. But whenever possible (during training set-ups or if you see a trigger that’s far enough away that Polly can look at it and still think clearly), you want to use Stage 3 because it offers the clearest learning opportunity for her.

The result of this work? A dog who is much happier and who can be close to things that used to be triggers for aggression. She’ll show an increased confidence when confronted by former triggers. That means increased curiosity and often an eagerness to engage when she used to want to avoid interacting. Of course, Polly can always be startled or uncomfortable, even after training. We always want to pay attention to what she’s telling us and respect her if she’s saying she would rather not say ‘hello’ to another dog or a stranger.

With the help of a professional trainer, knowledgeable in a technique such as BAT, you can help your dog feel more comfortable and confident as they navigate this big, scary world with you at their side – leash and all.

Jody Epstein, CPDT-KA is the owner/operator of Good Dog! Dog Training. She has a graduate education in animal learning and behavior and is currently working toward certification as a Certified BAT Instructor (CBATI). She has been professionally training obedience and behavior modification for more than 6 years.