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We adopted a medium sized Border Collie mix from a shelter 3 years ago. He was very depressed and showed signs of having been abused. He grew to love and trust us but still - after 3 years - is aggressive towards almost all dogs and will occasionally just randomly snap at people. I just came back from a very stressful hike with him where he growled and snapped at several dogs and some people as well, including a young girl that bent down to pet him. It's such a stark contrast to the very gentle and loving way he relates to our family and people he knows.

I've had one trainer over and she just said that he isn't social and we should keep him away from others. I find it difficult to believe that he can be so gentle with us and can't be trained to trust others.

I'm hoping that someone here has a suggestion ...
 

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What exactly is your aim?

He'll probably never be a social dog but I would think that a good trainer could help you get to the point where hikes aren't stressful.
 

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I’d hope so. The one trainer I tried has a really good reputation and didn’t help at all.
I'd try a new one. i'd be specific about what happens on hikes and that you'd like to be able to neutrally pass other dogs and people.
 

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For now, I would not allow anyone besides family and maybe very trusted friends to pet or touch your dog.

If you know your dog is uncomfortable about strangers petting him, then do not risk it by letting strangers touch/pet him. You are gambling ---and it is unfair to your dog to cause him stress at this point. You don't want your dog to get a bite record or hurt someone right?

I know it is very difficult for you, and hard to accept, but right now your dog is uncomfortable with strangers, both humans and dogs. You may be able to work on changing his mindset through lots and lots of counterconditioning but that takes lots of time and precision and does not happen overnight. Long road ahead possibly.

I know bc I have a wonderful, beyond sweet, beautiful shy cautious dog named Gracie. And no, I do not let strangers touch or pet her. No way. But I do take her everywhere with me, but I always control the situation for her. Lots and lots of caution used. Over time I have worked with her to be able to meet people and even do tons of tricks for them. She loves people. But does not want them touching her. If you met her you would never even know she has any shy or fear issues. But she does!

So I get your concern over this. Believe me, I do.

So.... for now....Do NOT take your dog on walks where you cannot control your environment

Avoid busy areas, hikes with random people all about, tight narrow paths or streets, stores where you could run into another dog all of a sudden, festivals where people are super close, etc .

Gracie and I don't go to dog parks or go off leash since I do not want anyone touching/petting her suddenly as they could if she was roaming off leash.

Find other places to go with your dog, where you can minimize his stress... and yours-- since now you will be very worried (and should be!) about him nipping or displaying aggressive behaviors.

Here is an example that may help you understand your dog's thinking.

Think ultra shy kid being thrown into a busy dance party...and random people grabbing/hugging on him or her. Ewwwww. That is probably how your dog feels. So he is now barking/growling/etc to drive the strangers away and give him the safe distance he needs to be able to relax.

Does this make sense?
 

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It's such a stark contrast to the very gentle and loving way he relates to our family and people he knows.

I find it difficult to believe that he can be so gentle with us and can't be trained to trust others.
He trusts your family so he can relax and let his guard down with y'all. With strangers it is not the same. He is worried about them and probably views them as a threat in some way. Or simply he finds unknown people or animals stressful. Makes sense. Unless you have taught him otherwise.

Border Collies and Heelers (My Gracie is Heeler mix) are highly intelligent and very sensitive dogs that can be prone to being on the leery/cautious side. They tend to be watchers and analyzers. Always monitoring their environment, right? Hard for them to relax. We have to literally teach them to relax!! Super important for these fearful/cautious dogs.

So, you have had him for 3 years now, right? What types of training/conditioning have you guys done with him over the last three years? Have you tried counterconditioning him to strangers or people?

Also, what do you do when he growls or snaps at people?
 

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Thanks for your response but I think your dance party analogy is somewhat over the top. Passing by occasional people or dogs on a hike is hardly the same as being grabbed and hugged at a loud party. We do try and keep him away from stressful situations but you can't avoid people and dogs altogether - and he usually doesn't growl or snap. I also don't think I'm doing him (or my family) justice if I avoid all situations that may induce stress. He'd be a much healthier, happier dog if I was able to help him adjust.

We did try a very popular trainer. Her attitude was that some dogs simply aren't social and that the best approach was to avoid people and dogs - for example, cross the road if another dog is approaching. I've been trying that for the last year or so and I just feel that it reinforces his fear. If I cross the road then there must actually be something to fear...right?

I wonder whether it's actually me that needs to change. His reactions are definitely fear-based. Maybe I need to find a way to let him know that he's safe with me and he doesn't need to bark or snap at others.
 

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Have you tried teaching a heel? I've found it really useful for passing cows with my BC. It can take a long while but when done with the idea of the dog focusing on you and trained positively it is incredibly powerful against fear. It also gives you a strict set of behaviors to expect so you know if they break the heel they are feeling so overwhelmed they are having trouble controlling their actions. I'll see if I can find some good videos to show you how to teach a good heel, you'll need an upside down food bowl and about 5 minutes a day.
 

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Thanks Chas. Sure, I'd be willing to give it a try. I do it now but with mixed success...probably because I haven't trained him well enough to remain focused on me.
 

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Distance is your friend! Crossing the street is ok!!

Thanks for your response but I think your dance party analogy is somewhat over the top. Passing by occasional people or dogs on a hike is hardly the same as being grabbed and hugged at a loud party. .
I can understand how you may feel my analogy was over the top. Sometimes, though, I think we humans underestimate just how stressful things can be to our dogs.

Something as simple as passing a few strangers and a dog or two shouldn't be a big deal, right? For many dogs it is not a problem, in fact they would be happy in this situation. But- fear based reactive dogs can merely see a dog far away and honestly go into panic attack mode.

My Gracie dog was like that. Pretty much seeing a dog (cat, deer, etc) at any distance, even if we were in my car, blocks away, she would freak out and bark, growl, lunge, etc. It was terrible. I had never had a dog like this before, so honestly, it was very scary and troubling (and embarrassing!!!) behavior. All fear based.

What worked for us? Counterconditioning. LOTS of it!!!!!!!!!

I gradually over time changed Gracie's mindset with counterconditioning (CC) to think seeing other dogs would predict good things like amazing food, praise, happy things.

Is she 100% perfect now? Heck no!!!!!!! But she is so vastly different now. Night and day difference. She can actually think things through now, instead of just instantly panicking and (over) reacting.

I didn't suggest you always keep your dog isolated or away from stressful events forever. Just use caution so no one gets hurt and your dog doesn't get overwhelmed. Use distance as your friend. Work towards decreasing her safe distance space so she can approach scary stuff. Like maybe your dog can see a dog at 500 ft at first and not bark. Work towards being able to see a dog at 100 ft gradually, for example. Not all dogs have to actually meet. But the goal is to reduce our dog's stress so they will not need to react (growl, bark, lunge, snap)

Sometimes I think people think that over time, with no dessensitization work or CC work, thier dog will magically get better. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. (not at all saying this is you)

About crossing the street upon seeing other dogs:

Yes, we cross the streets when we see other dogs! It is not reinforcing that there is something to fear like you are mentioning. Unless you are screaming or yelling at your dog as you are bolting across the street!

Instead, crossing the street allows your dog's brain to be able to process the training that you are working on bc you are allowing your dog to be at a safe distance for your dog.

Remember, what you think is a safe distance is probably not the same as what she thinks!!! If she feels threatened, it is very real for her. Fear is fear. No dog chooses to feel fearful. Giving her space between her and the scary stimulus (other dog or person) will help her to be able to work on your counterconditioning since she will remain underthreshold.

A dog cannot generally learn if she is over threshold. Brain just registers fear or panic or stress.

Just like a child at a dance. Sometimes a shy child can panic at just the thought of being in a place like that.

Does that help clarify? Hope this helps you guys. I know it is hard having a reactive dog.
 

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Happy chat and counterconditioning for reactive dogs!!!

I wonder whether it's actually me that needs to change. His reactions are definitely fear-based.
If you are wondering if you are contributing to his fear reactions, maybe think about what you are doing when you see another dog approaching. Think hard about it and be honest with yourself. Break it down, step by step.

In the beginning before I learned a better way, I know I was doing what I call the Oh Sh*t Dance! I would see another dog at any distance, and think oh crap this is going to be a nightmare!!! I would start sweating, worrying about what the other dog owner would think of me. (Bad dog mom, right?) Or why do I have such a loud viscous dog? (if they only knew how fearful she was...) Or blah blah blah blah. Super uncomfortable situation.

So, I started doing counterconditioning (CC) with my Gracie.

But what really helped in addition to CC?

I changed my perspective and how I thought of her reactivity. I took it now as a challenge to help her, not an embarrassing arduous chore. I started actually looking forward to practicing daily on our reactivity CC. Watching Gracie progress became the highlight of my day!!!

We made fun rewarding games out of "Where's the doggie?" or "where's the kitty/deer/squirrel?" Also called LAT--look at that.

But-- most importantly I started talking happily to Gracie whenever I saw a dog. So I would say, "heeyyy Gracie, look at that cute dog over there with the cool harness, or look at that swishy tail, or heyyy that dog looks so nice. Etc etc."

This happy talk calmed ME down, refocused me, let the other dog owner know I was working with my dog, (which again calmed me) and told Gracie that I just looove seeing other dogs. (At a distance!!)

Unbelievable how the happy talk really works for us, in conjunction with counterconditioning!

If you've tried everything else and you feel that you are not making progress with your dog's reactivity, try this. You will be happy you do.:)
 

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This is what Echo looks like when we heel, it won't win any competitions but it has some criteria that we maintain. She lines up with her shoulder at my left knee and remains relaxed and somewhat focused throughout. If she forges ahead or if she looks away for more than a few seconds then we make a turn and either try again with extra treats or find a way to move away from whatever has grabbed her attention. Neither she or I have failed it's just that the behavior is unsustainable in that particular scenario and it's something to work towards. The dog is never wrong, breaking a heel isn't a deliberate misbehavior it just means it was too difficult for her. The cue is one of position not movement, the movement comes from the dog exisiting in the heel pisition while the handler moves.

https://youtu.be/ecAzx15vDuI

Frustratingly, there's a problem with the other footage I recorded showing the early stages of heel training.

For me the steps are as such:

- dog puts two front feet on pivot disk (upturned bowl) while facing handler.
- dog moved back legs as handler moved sidewards while facing dog.
- dog puts front feet on disk while to the left of handler.
- dog moves back legs as handler moves counterclockwise/clockwise, dog is next to left leg of handler.
- dog pivots around disk with handler.
- dog pivots with no disk but in heel position.
- dog takes steps in heel position with handler.

Here's a kikopup video, she does it very well. https://youtu.be/xsvNvK8T1z8
 

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Really serious caveat: if you try to use a heel to force or bribe a dog to face it's fear it will go horribly wrong, the method above is essentially counter conditioning while doing a trick that helps both of you stay within safe boundaries.
 

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Reactivity? Start small, set your dog up for success!!

. Neither she or I have failed it's just that the behavior is unsustainable in that particular scenario and it's something to work towards. The dog is never wrong, breaking a heel isn't a deliberate misbehavior it just means it was too difficult for her.
Yes, @Chas, I agree with what you wrote here about the dog not deliberately misbehaving or disobeying a command. Usually it is because the dog simply cannot do the task in that situation--too much for the dog to do. Too much distraction, too close to the scary stimulus/trigger, too much anxiety, etc.

So many people sadly don't realize this and then get so frustrated with their dog--- and then the situation (reactivity etc) only gets worse!

Always set your dog up for success, even if it means breaking training down into itty bitty tiny baby training steps!!!! Then reward and celebrate the tiny accomplishments until you and your dog get it right.

Most people fail when they try to work on reactivity with their dogs. Why??? Because the owner is asking WAAAAY too much out of their dog. How can a dog actually sit and focus on you in the beginning if the dog is scared out of their wits bc the other dog is too close????

Start small, CC your dog to merely just see the dog at a distance, no extra task required! You can certainly work up to asking for a sit or a focus or a trick or whatever you'd like. That takes time....and patience on your part!!

But in the beginning, your goal should simply be:
Your dog sees the stimulus (other dog) and your dog gets the yummy treats. Very simple.
 
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