A little know fact about Lilo is that, she suffers from fear based dog aggression. The root of the problem started when she was about one years old and another dog attacked her in a pet store. We still kick ourselves about that day because we should have been able to protect her… but instead, the attack left puncture wounds to her face and a deep emotional scar. After the incident, she was no longer able to go to the dog parks and beaches she once enjoyed. She would lash out at dogs for what seemed like no reason, but she was just afraid of what would happen if she did not. We knew that we had to help her, but we were unsure how… Thus the journey of Lilo’s dog aggression began.
Rewinding to the beginning, Lilo had come to us as an 8 week old puppy with some behavioral issues to start with. We had done extensive research on the breed to prepare ourselves for our first ever, dog. However, no amount of research could have prepared us for a husky puppy. Huskies are definitely wild at heart and true to many horror stories, Lilo was quite the devilish little pup. The first problem we noticed was food aggression. It was alarming at first, but we were able to train her out of it by hand feeding every meal, and adopting a “nothing in life is free” mantra. Basically, she had to work for her food. We also taught the “leave it” command, to which she caught on very quickly. It was a tedious process, but it was very successful in counter conditioning the food aggression. At 9 weeks, she was enrolled in puppy school at Petco. It proved too easy for our crazy pup and she quickly graduated with flying colors. It did not however, help with food aggression towards other dogs. So we set out to to find a training method that would help.
At 3 months old, we enrolled Lilo in something called “formal training”. Formal training incorporated the positive reinforcement we had previously learned and combined it with corrective training. We worked incredibly hard for months perfecting obedience, recall, and agility. At the end of it all, Lilo walked away Canine Good Citizen (CGC) certified and top of her class! Formal training was AMAZING in setting down a foundation of trust and obedience that would really be tested later. Right around this time, Lilo was attacked at the pet store. We debated on going back to formal training in order to address her dog aggression, but her problem was not lunging or barking at other dogs– in fact, she could walk right next to one and have a solid focus on her handler. Lilo’s problem came when it was dog on dog interactions (i.e. sniffing or face to face interactions). She became uncomfortable and would lash out at the offending dog, often ending with full blown fights. This particular formal training school did not believe that dogs should interact at all. Naturally, they were also against dog parks, dog beaches, and dog social events. This was unrealistic to us, so we parted ways.
A year passed as we were looking and meeting with new potential trainers. Then Rosie came along and another year passed by without any breakthroughs in Lilo’s aggression. Lots of trainers came and went, unable to help her. We even took her to UCDavis School of Veterinary Medicine to see if they could help. Their advice was helpful, but not completely useful. We started avoiding other dogs completely and Lilo’s condition slowly worsened. We had come to the conclusion that Lilo did not need obedience training (many trainers use obedience as a management tool for aggressive dogs). Lilo already had the obedience, what she needed was the behavioral aspect of training.
Finally, we found a place that was willing to work with her. The type of training was “immersion” training, strangely scarce on the West coast, but more prevalent in the East coast (so we’ve heard). Immersion training is a type of behavior modification that works by basically putting a fear aggressive dog in well balanced pack of other dogs. They are slowly acclimated and learn that other dogs are not out to hurt them. They also learn doggy social behavior and cues, which Lilo was lacking since she had not had any other dog interactions. Lilo went away to the immersion boot camp for about a week and she came back a completely changed dog! She picked up their “language” and was now able to communicate her discomfort without outright attacking the other dog. She returned twice a week for doggy daycare for about a year to keep up with the socialization. Then we started noticing a reversion in her behavior. Slowly, she started lashing out at other dogs again, and we made the difficult decision to pull her from the program.
For a few months, we debated on what to do… Was this really in her best interest? Did Lilo even want to interact with other dogs? Was it time to give up? We agonized over a decision that could end years of what we had been working towards. But at the end of the day, we could not forget the happy pup that once loved playing with other dogs at the pak and beaches. Finally, we decided to give it one more go. We wanted a life for Lilo in which she did not have to fear other dogs, and be able to walk away if ever she felt unsafe–not lash out. We researched and reached out, this time, to dog walkers. The reasoning being that going somewhere fun with other dogs = positive association with them. We met with a few people who turned us down, which was completely understandable. Then, we found a dog walker/trainer who had experience with “touchy” dogs. Our initial meeting was at the dog beach and Lilo was in fact, suspicious and uncomfortable with the group of dogs. She did give warnings a few times (by barking) but overall there was no fight that broke out. The other dogs were all very well mannered, which we knew would be key in helping Lilo feel safe. We were hopeful it could work out. The walker decided to take Lilo on and flash forward to today, now takes her on weekly trips to the dog beach with about 20 other dogs! Lilo has been getting more confident with every trip and now plays happily with the other dogs. It is great socialization and exercise for her, and we could not be happier with the outcome!
We know that Lilo’s journey will probably go on, because, your fears are always in the back of your minds. But we never want to give up on her and we never want to stop improving. Finally, to answer the question, “How did you do it?”: Not any one method worked 100%, so we blended multiple techniques and training styles in order to tailor something that worked for Lilo. Her well being was always at the top of our list, and as long as that was the goal, we felt like we could never go wrong. Good luck to all, and Happy Training!