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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Hi Everyone. I have a seven month old Australian Shepherd puppy who gets scared when people (usually just one or two people) walk toward us. She's usually okay in crowded settings. She's also very scared of noises and will bark and bark until I can get her out of the situation and calm her down. I'm sure people think she's an aggressive dog (she's not- very sweet and loyal if she knows you), so we've had a few private trainer lessons to address this behavior. The trainer suggested I put her on L-Theanine, but the brand they suggested is $100 for 30 tablets. The trainer also recommend I don't get her spayed because it could increase her aggressive behavior. (my vet told be to spay her at 6 months).

I would love to find a calming supplement that is safe, effective, and not $100...and would also love some advice about the spaying. I don't want to risk her developing other health issues by not spaying her and I also thought spaying could alleviate some of the aggression...

Any advice would be much appreciated!!
 

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Ah, aussies. Gotta love their fear aggression.

@Shandula, I know Levi is a complete love bug, but do you have any suggestions in this situation.

I am pretty sure it's a trait of the breed. Almost every aussie I have met is stand off ish, including my own. What I do (and I need to do more of) is bring him out on his own (without his sister who he feeds off of) and bring out a high value treat. We try to go to situations that may be a little scary and I try to constantly reward for good behavior with that high value treat. So we will go to a park, go a little off the path and ask him to sit and watch people walk past. If he is able to watch people walk past without fixating or barking I keep pumping him with rewards. If he gets distracted and pays more mind to the distractions over me I will set myself a little further back and ask for the attention again.
 

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He IS a love bug, and thank you for the mention @jclark343

Aussies are by nature, quite stand offish, I believe it's even in the description of the breed "Aussies may be reserved toward strangers" is in probably everything you ever read about them. Levi is just a freak. :p

You say she's okay in crowded situations, but not when people approach you? Could it be she doesn't like being pet by strangers? Levi tolerates it, but he doesn't love it. My suggestion for that would be to go somewhere that you can find people walking. Stand off to the side and watch for people coming. As soon as your puppy (also I need pictures...for research purposes ;) ) sees them coming, click and treat her with something SUPER high value (think cheese, hot dogs, real meat etc.). If she starts lunging or barking, just walk away and out of sight of the person, then try again. Over time you will hopefully condition her response to "People coming, that means good things are going to happen!". If it is being pet she doesn't like, I might look into something like a "Please don't pet me" harness or leash. I know she's an Aussie, so she's freaking adorable, but people also need to learn to bugger off and learn you don't get to pet every dog you see, and some don't like it.

As for noises, could you be more specific? What kinds of noises? Just noises where she can't see the source or any strange noise?

As for spaying, I'm waiting until my Border Collie is a year old, and growth plates are finished forming. That being said, there is really no link between neutering and increases or reduction in aggression, so spay her when you feel the time is right.

As for calming supplements, personally I don't think they work. My sister has tried a dozen varieties to help her two fear aggressive Dachshunds and they have had zero effect.

And finally, I always have to ask, what kind of physical and mental exercise does she get?
 
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Discussion Starter · #4 ·
Thank you so much for your responses @jclark343 and @Shandula! First of all, your pups are absolutely adorable! It also makes me feel better to know you guys are familiar with the breed and know this is pretty typical Aussie behavior.

I have been working on the de-sensitizing training, but I'm learning how important the high value treat is. I think she's much better when we're working with chicken instead of packaged treats. We went to a playground today and just observed all of the kids from a couple of yards away- she was very content just watching and eating chicken! Then a little girl caught sight of her and wanted to say hello, so Meru (my puppy) started barking. So that was pretty interesting.

She's scared of sudden noises that are close by...specifically when someone opens up a door while we're walking down the hallway or if someone slams a car door on the street. If she gets spooked like that she just barks and barks. She's completely adjusted to most city noises though- like fire trucks and buses. I think she's smart enough to know that the fire truck isn't a threat, but a door opening up close by could be.

As far as exercise, we normally run 2 to 3 miles in the morning and I take her to the dog park for an hour or so in the evenings. Most days I come home during lunch and take her on a quick walk. I also take her to daycare on days when I have to work late...so that's usually once or maybe twice a week. I don't think I do enough mental exercise. She has a few puzzle toys we work on together, but do y'all have any good suggestions?

As for the spaying- that's what I was thinking too. I ended up calling the vet to ask, and they were horrified that the trainer said that. So it's tough when your vet and trainer are telling you two different things!

Thank you so much for your help!! I've included a couple of pictures :) As you can tell, she's a very vicious little pup!
 

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Oh my gosh, I love her spotted nose!

My Mini is the complete opposite. He loves meeting people more than anything in the world. I have to teach him to be calm and polite, which I think will involve similar techniques. But I expect it to be a very slow process as people love to pet him and squeal and reinforce his excitement.

I guess I don't have advice to add, but good luck!
 

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She's scared of sudden noises that are close by...specifically when someone opens up a door while we're walking down the hallway or if someone slams a car door on the street. If she gets spooked like that she just barks and barks. She's completely adjusted to most city noises though- like fire trucks and buses. I think she's smart enough to know that the fire truck isn't a threat, but a door opening up close by could be.
This isn't terribly surprising. Most of the herding breeds are fairly noise-sensitive, so sudden noises do tend to surprise them. What you want to work on is getting her to recover from noises. Maybe a CD with every day noises, and since you know when they're coming, you can quickly click and treat.
I use a doorbell and someone knocking on the door sound (on YouTube!) to desensitize both my guys - as a result they don't bark when someone comes to the door (so nice).

As far as exercise, we normally run 2 to 3 miles in the morning and I take her to the dog park for an hour or so in the evenings. Most days I come home during lunch and take her on a quick walk. I also take her to daycare on days when I have to work late...so that's usually once or maybe twice a week. I don't think I do enough mental exercise. She has a few puzzle toys we work on together, but do y'all have any good suggestions?
That is a good amount of physical exercise, my only advice there is make sure you aren't running too much on super hard surfaces, just from a growth perspective. For puzzles, I like Kong. The regular Kongs are way too easy for my guys, so I have to freeze them in order to keep them busy. But, I like the Kong Genius line (Here) and I love the Kong Wobbler.

And once again, welcome to the DF - your puppy is adorable!!
 

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@AudreyS first off, your puppy is adorable. I love her little spotted nose!

You are totally not alone. A lot of people struggle with the same problems with aussies.

Honestly it sounds like having high value treats on you whenever you are out is going to be the key. Also maybe working on a cue that would remind your dog to focus like a watch me. Sounds like the biggest thing you want to work on is getting your dog to focus back on you when something scares her. Honestly this is something I work on with Forbes every time we go out. I usually will either back up, ask for a watch me and stick a treat right in his face. Luckily he is more food motivated then fear motivated.
 
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Super, super common.

Some supplements/products that I find helpful to skittishness/fearfulness are

Adaptil (DAP)
Zylkene (Casein)
Thunder Shirt

All of these are NOT MEDICATIONS and while they won't solve your problems alone or together, they can make counter-conditioning and desensitization go a lot quicker.

Also, this may sound like tricky advice but if you can "shut down" your dog for a period where they are not exposed to anything "scary"... Quarantine them from scary things for as many days as you can. It really helps keep their stress levels at an optimal baseline for counter-conditioning. Remember, every time your dog has a full-blown episode of reactivity or extreme fear, the subsequent cortisol pumped into their brain takes days sometimes to return to normal levels. The result will leave them more jittery, and prone to other episodes. If you can really limit those experiences (I call them "scares") the calmness starts to snowball and you get a very "workable" dog that readily accepts counter-conditioning.
 

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OMG that pup is too cute, and that spotty nose is just too much!

In terms of mental stimulation, I find shaping games to be a great little mental exercise, whether that be a free-shaping game (like "the box game"), refining captured behaviors (ex: I work with my pup a lot on offering novel behaviors; usually if I go long enough just staring silently at her while in possession of food she'll start offering things and eventually offer a behavior I decide to make into a trick), and shaping a trick. Another great thing to do for mental exercise that is also very useful is to play recall games or impulse control games.

Also, if your dog is motivated by play or running I would recommend using that as a reinforcement in your training sessions as well as food. My dog looooves running and playing tug and especially to be chased, and so one of her most exciting reinforcements for when she does something really well or does a behavior perfectly that we've been working on for a long time is a game of tug followed by me chasing her around while she carries the toy- she gets so excited doing this sometimes she'll start making this weird bark/howl and play growling loudly, she sounds like a chainsaw.

Free shaping games:
- IMO/E playing shaping games is what creates an operant dog that offers behaviors, and this is really easy to achieve with a biddable dog like an Aussie
- a great one is the Box Game, where you present the dog with a box, wait for them to interact in some way with the box, and then reinforce that interaction and work towards refining it (for example, you start by reinforcing the dog for looking at the box, then build towards reinforcing the dog for sniffing the box, then for putting their mouth on it, then build towards them carry the box, either on cue or spontaneously- usually you aren't working towards putting anything on cue with this, the point is there's no pressure in this session because the dog is never actually doing anything wrong)
- some people will come up with a command to indicate to the dog that they should start offering behaviors, like "what can you do?"

Refining captured behaviors and turning them into tricks:
- I don't have any more "named game" ideas, but other free-shaping activites might just including sitting around and waiting for the dog to do anything (that might include getting bored and starting to sniff around, even), and then beginning to shape that into a more refined behavior and/or put it on cue as a trick

IME another great mental game is putting naturally reinforcing/ especially exciting behaviors/movements on cue. These will be different for every dog, and you'll have to observe yours and brain storm to figure out what they are for her; mine has some normal ones like sniffing and barking (which I'm utilizing by teaching a "speak" command as well as a "quiet" one) as well as some weird ones like jumping up on her back legs (she gets soo excited, and if she is just generally excited she'll often express it by rearing up), pawing with her feet (she always hits things when she gets excited and uses her feet a LOT in play, it's adorable), spinning (don't know why she likes it so much, but she starts play growling and barking excitedly when I have her do a bunch of quick spins for a toy). Once these exciting things are on cue, I then use them in play- they don't make the game less fun for the dog since they're such fun behaviors for them, but they do help to keep her from going into crazy puppy mode and sort of tone down the play if she starts getting overstimulated, because I've noticed my pup tends to have trouble calming down is she gets overstimulated. I think its partially her medium/high energy level and partially her age (10 months).

In terms of recall games:
- Restrained recalls (someone holds the dog while you run away from them, dance around, generally make them wiggly and excited, then just as you call them the person restraining them lets go; presumably they are trying to get to you the whole time and then it's super exciting when you finally let them. Note that this is not safe/fair to do if your dog reacts with aggression, fear, or anxiety when restrained in any way)
- Call the dog and start running the other way while vocalizing excitedly/acting fun/excited, proceed to have to dog chase you for a little bit and then reward (IME its usually more productive to use play/tug as a reward in this case rather than food)
- Throw food away from you (I usually start with a few feet and build up the distance I throw them as they start to get the way the game works), just after the dog has eaten the food you threw spread your feet a little bit, call the dog, and then throw the food just between/behind your feet so the dog goes through your legs, while saying "through"
- Do the same throw food away then call the dog routine as above but instead ask for the dog to sit at heel/sit in front/swing around from one side to the other and finish at heel, whatever
(search youtube for "recall games" and you'll get a lot of ideas)

For impulse control games, look up the "Its Yer Choice" game. Link below describing it:
It's Yer Choice: Teaching Self Control | Dog Trainer Games

Note: both recall games and Its Yer Choice were developed by Susan Garett, who is a great resource for fun training games useful for teaching recall, impulse control, building attention and attraction to the handler, and generally entertaining a young, energetic, smart dog. She has a great, interesting blog filled with great articles (although IMO it can be a little self-promotion-y, though not without cause).

Other great things to teach that are good, quick ways to exercise a dog mentally and physically are teaching sends to cones as well as jumps or barrel racing patterns. Once your dog has the idea of offering behaviors down its usually pretty easy to start teaching sends around cones, then working towards a barrel racing pattern. Below is a good example video of shaping a send around a cone:
Dog training for send-away | Clicker Training Videos | Video

Training a dog to go over a jump (which can be made of anything, like two jars holding up a broom handle or length of pipe- through preferably it would be made of something that can be easily knocked down to prevent injury) is also fairly easy, and you can find information on doing that through an internet search. I would suggest waiting until she's closer to 9 months or a year to do any jumping stuff, though.

Also, agility might be something good to look into- I've heard about a lot of success stories of shy, anxious dogs that gained confidence through agility. Also, with a smart, high energy dog like a young Aussie its a great way to channel that energy in a structured way, which I find can be more relaxing than just a whole lot of unstructured physical exercise might be.
 

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Discussion Starter · #11 ·
Thank you everyone for your thoughtful and tremendously helpful advice. I'm looking forward to helping Ru work through this fearful stage so she can reach her full potential. I've been working with her a lot over the past few weeks, and I think she's making small improvements.

Also, all of your pups are so adorable!!
 

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OMG, even her name is so cute- I love the name Ru, I had a rat in the past named Rue and have thought about re-using the name for a dog because I love it so much! (also, I had just a strong OMG how adorable reaction to those pics of her the second time I saw them, LOL).

Celebrate those small improvements thoroughly! They're your best friend when working with a reactive dog! It can feel like an endless struggle, sometimes, but those little improvement are the glimmer of hope towards a happy, well adjusted adult dog, and given she's still young you've caught it early, which is always good!
 
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