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previously fear-aggressive dogs in agility?

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Lancer, my 15 month old Aussie, became fear-aggressive towards dogs when he was around 4 months old. I've taken him to herding classes, which he took to very quickly, but avoided agility due to the close proximity with other dogs during waiting times. That's to say, the herding class I went to only had 2 other very calm dogs that were present at the same time he was, so he was able to calm down. But if any dog barks in such close proximity (not necessarily at him, but just hearing a bark form nearby), it would cause him to freak.


I've been working with him on this issue for the past couple months, and he's actually improved drastically... when on walks or at the park. But I doubt he would be okay in an agility/excited class environment.


Does anyone have or know a fear-aggressive dog trained well enough to compete in agility? How was the issue overcome?

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First, just to clarify: Fear-aggressive or fear-reactive? Does he actually try to harm other dogs, or does he just warn them off and tell them (and you) in no uncertain terms that he is uncomfortable and wants out of there? There is a difference. If he is truly aggressive, make sure you get help from a behaviorist. You don't want to put him or anyone else's dog at risk. Don't label him as aggressive in your mind if he is not as it may alter how you (and others) treat him. A reactive dog can become aggressive if forced to stay in an uncomfortable situation, but usually they just want out of the situation or want the dog/person to go away.


Meg was afraid of other dogs, especially high energy dogs, and would show her teeth and growl while backing away from them (not aggressive, just reactive). If they ran up to her she would continue to show her teeth and try to get away. If allowed to continue further she might have progressed to biting, but that's what the human is there for...to prevent things from getting to that point. Meg was the worst when she was on-leash and felt she could not escape.


We worked with several trainers. Perhaps the most useful and important lesson was to stick up for your dog. If your dog knows that you are there to protect him, he can learn to relax and leave things in your hands. Meg learned to get behind me when uncomfortable and that has become my cue to not let any dogs or people approach and/or to leave and put some distance between us and the source of her discomfort.


Agility can be a great confidence booster all around and will help your boy get used to be around other dogs, even if you never make it to competition. However, if you take classes make sure you are in the right class with the right trainer. You want a small class size with a good, calm positive trainer that will work at the dog's speed and not rush or force things. Talk to the trainer about your concerns before you sign up. Visit a class or two before you sign up.


We have classes in a big open barn. Early on I just kept Meg away from the other dogs as much as possible. Sometimes this meant we moved to a quiet corner and did what we could there. I made sure all the other handlers knew she was a nervous dog and did not want their dog coming up to sniff her. Most of the foundation work was done on-leash or behind x-pens so it was easy to keep the dog apart.


We continued to work on her reactivity outside of class. As we got to know our class mates, I let her meet the calm dogs one at a time before or after class (just a quick sniff with Meg's leash dragging on the ground). She got to the point where she was comfortable with her classmates and a quick sniff from them was ok. Anytime a new dog came, she'd stare at them for the first class or two, unsure, but then was usually ok with them after that.


Now we've been doing agility for 3 1/2 years and Meg is not the nervous dog she used to be. She's gone to doggy day care. We can go to crowded dog events, group dog walks, Frisbee competitions, agility competitions, beaches, parades, etc. and Meg does great and loves it. She's been comfortable around other dogs for some time, but just in the past 6 months she's changed even more. She has suddenly become 'little miss social' and she's much more open to playing with new dogs. Up to this point she was very particular and had to get to know a dog pretty well before she'd play and they would have to conform to her play-style. Now she's willing to try their play-style (even wrestled with a puppy...never seen her wrestle before that) and wants to play with just about any dog...she's even more tolerant of pushy lab (though we still try to stay away from them).


In our agility class/practice there's an Australian Shep. that she wanted nothing to do with for 2+ years...now suddenly he's her 'boyfriend' and she looks for him when we go to class and runs to say hi to him as soon as she's off-leash (something we're working on not doing). He had tried to get her to play many times and was shunned by her so he wasn't sure what to think about her sudden change of heart, but he has come around now and they love to play together after class.


Dogs can change and there is hope. Just go slow, be positive and build confidence. Learn how to read your dog and watch for calming signals. If you get really good at it, you can prevent over-reactions while still expanding his comfort zone.


When you get to the point where you want to introduce him to more dogs so he can learn they are not all out to get him, choose your meet-and-greets wisely so its a good experience for both dogs. (Also, stay away from nervous handlers or people that can't read dogs very well.)

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Thank you for the reply!


Yes, Lancer is actually fear-aggressive. I won't go too much into the details, but he is a dog that lunges, snarls, and foams at the mouth AT the object of his fear in an effort to attack, if he is put in a situation that goes over his threshold.


My other dog, Rara, is like Meg, was just fearfully reactive in a terrified, backing-away-while-yelping way, and very nervous. I completed an agility class with Rara last summer, and like you, we kept our distance and eventually let her sniff the calm dogs. She's recovered significantly now, but still easily reverts back into her fearful whimpering/screaming mentality if she happens upon another reactive dog. But she also easily reverts back into "I'm okay and other dogs are okay" mode, after meeting a few calm dogs.


Yes, my question is with Lancer, with fear-aggression. I'm not sure where to find a behaviorist, but he has worked with three trainers whose methods just didn't help him. (I expanded on this on my blog here, probably too long to post here: http://lancerandrara.blogspot.com/2014/01/fear-aggression-turned-aggression.html ) I ended up discovering the way that ultimately got his reactivity on walks and at parks down, but I know a sports/class environment will definitely put him over his threshold at the moment. But my question here is wondering if anyone has experience with helping a previously fear-aggressive dog to be able to eventually participate in sports, and how?

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The answer is yes, but we were fortunate to have the facilities to train him initially on his own outside a class environment because he certainly wouldn't have been able to cope with a class environment until he had really learned to focus on agility rather than what was going on around. It's the keeping under threshold thing again.


And my daughter, whose dog he is, was an experienced handler already so didn't need input from a class instructor to start a dog off.


Our dog was very badly socialised and has quite a wide personal space bubble. He has never hurt another dog but could, and still can on occasion, sound extremely aggressive. He still needs management in crowded environments but when working a course he is fine and has reached the top grade here in the UK.


I don't think you'd meet the same number of dogs in a confined space as we do here.

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It's possible, but obviously it's not as easy as it would be with a dog-friendly or dog-neutral dog. As classes progress your classmates tend to better understand the personal space needs of the dogs, so I would say that in more advanced classes you're less likely to run into a problem. Plus, as your dog progresses to love the sport, he'll have better focus on you and understand the game better and the other dogs very well may cease to bother him in that atmosphere (assuming it's well controlled).


I'd be wary to sign him up for a beginner class. I think you need to speak to a trainer about your issues and talk about how dogs are managed in class. Private lessons may be best for you, especially for the first while.


I'd be inclined to work on his focus and self control around distractions for the foreseeable future. Control Unleashed: Puppy is a great book to get you started.

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My recommendation would be to try starting with private lessons. Perhaps the instructor could use his or her dog to see how Lancer does with just one - very well under control - dog present. If that works out, maybe the instructor might know some people who could come with their dogs to test your dog's response further.


I would also recommend taking Lancer through the CU program with lots of LAT at other dogs - at a very safe distance. Make sure he can watch dogs do Obedience or Rally before you bring him into an Agility setting!


If you do pursue Agility but he never gets to the point where he can trial live, you could check out VALOR. That is likely the way I would go with a dog who has serious issues with other dogs (serious enough that I question the dog's ability to work in class with other dogs, that is!). Even if you get to a point where you could do live work later, VALOR might be a really great place to start.


Might be something to look into. Also, if you can connect with some of the people who participate in VALOR (I believe they have a facebook group), you might find some great advice on the question you have posed here.


For more info:



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Yes, we had a male Border Collie that was fear aggressive towards other dogs and he had a long and successfull agility career.


Fear aggressive -- he would lunge and nip at other dogs that were "out of control". He had a soft mouth and never did physical damage. He lived peacfully with other dogs and foster dogs.


I did YEARS of obedience class with him. He learned a "watch me" command that meant look at my eyes as soon as I said it. This was initially used as a pre-emptive measure when I saw that something was beginning to bother him. In the end he learned that if something was bothering him he automatically looked at me. I was his safety net. I would not let anything hurt him.


After a couple of years of being in the same obedience class (people and dogs occasionally changing) we had a new dog (reactive BC) join our class. They pushed this dog up to our class because they felt the dog and human would be more successfull in a class with trained humans and dogs. I was actually kind of tickled to see all the "normal" dogs freak out when this dog reacted, while my "reactive" dog sat calmly at my side looking into my eyes.


Having a dog like this requires hyper vigilance. You need to be aware of everything around you. You learn which dogs can't mind their own business and stay away from them. You learn which handlers don't have a clue about dog behavior and you stay far, far away from them. You are never free to NOT pay attention to your dog as long as you have him with you.


A good behaviorist can help you. A good trainer can help you. I found that the best help came from those (trainers and behaviorists) that had worked thru similar issues.


There are lots of classes out there based on the "Control Unleashed" book. I would not sign up for any unless I went to watch a class first. Lots of those "teachers" have no qualifications, don't know much about dog behavior, and have never worked with a dog of their own with issues. I think that many of these classes put the dog over threshold and do more harm than good. Look for small classes and go watch before you give anyone your money. I can't help feel that these classes in general are good for the human (makes the human feel better because all the dogs are "naughty"), but not so good for the dogs because all the dogs are "naughty".

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There are lots of classes out there based on the "Control Unleashed" book. I would not sign up for any unless I went to watch a class first. Lots of those "teachers" have no qualifications, don't know much about dog behavior, and have never worked with a dog of their own with issues. I think that many of these classes put the dog over threshold and do more harm than good. Look for small classes and go watch before you give anyone your money. I can't help feel that these classes in general are good for the human (makes the human feel better because all the dogs are "naughty"), but not so good for the dogs because all the dogs are "naughty".


While I agree that it is always smart to go watch a class, and talk to the instructor at length before signing up for any training class with any dog, I do want to point out that a good many of us teachers have the qualification of having successfully rehabilitated reactive/fearful/etc. dogs, have made a serious study of dog behavior, and typically got involved with these types of classes because we had dogs of our own with issues that we successfully helped the dog overcome or - at least - learn to live with safely. In addition, many of us have gone on to successfully earn titles with our dogs who started out with serious issues in live competition settings.


In good CU classes (or any good classes geared toward helping owners learn to help reactive dogs) the dogs are never called "naughty". If anyone is passing that off as CU, he or she is misrepresenting the program completely.


By all means, check classes out. Make sure that isn't happening. Ask the instructor about his or her background.


But don't think we are all inexperienced hacks just because there are some out there. :) Some of us actually know some stuff, are careful about thresholds, and get good results when the owners cooperate and put in the work required.


Just wanted to share the other perspective. :) This may have come off like I was offended by dogrsqr's post and if that is the case, let me assure you I am not. There are people out there who misrepresent themselves and it is important to do your homework before joining a class. But there are also lots of excellent instructors out there who specialize in the CU approach.

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I didn't mean to say that anyone was calling these dogs naughty, but I think that's how the general population sees these dogs.


I know there are lots of instructors that have worked thru similar issues, but there are also many that read the book and think they are now qualified to teach just because they teach some other dog class. My suggestion was coming from my own bad experience. I left the class after a few sessions because the day after each class she had diarrhea which told me she was extremely stressed by the class. We moved to obedience and all was fine.


I think we can both agree the key is to go watch a class and make the best decision you can for your dog.

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Thank you very much for the replies guys! I think I will go that approach- finding and taking with an instructor who has experience with fear-aggressive dogs, and going to watch a class first.


I understand your point that the general population sees these dogs as naughty, and it's alright. It's true, but I don't take offense or anything. I know my dog and his fears and issues and that's that. :) And if there is an instructor who hints that my dog is "naughty", I will know that they are not experienced enough.


I'm also 99% sure that Lancer would do physical damage to the other dog, from the way he acted when put way over his threshold (I had no experience with how to protect him from situations, when this happened...). The experience happened when he was around 6 months old and he's now almost 16 months, but since he's only learned to "ignore" other dogs while on walks, I would assume that when faced with another dog a couple feet from him, he would act the same way.


Thanks again for the information! It's a big help.

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  • 2 months later...

Second what dogrsqr said. A look at me or watch me cue is invaluable, as is touch. Particularly because it allows you to keep a loose lead; if a dog like that hits the end of the lead, his stress is going to skyrocket. Teaching your dog to channel his energy into something he really enjoys works well, too: playing tug, shaking a toy, playing fetch. You can keep the dog in the car, bring him in and get him focused on his "routine" of playing tug or fetch, and then use watch me to get him to the line. It really, really helps if the dog *loves* agility, which keeps his focus on the course. This is not a dog to take to a beginners class; if you don't know enough about agility to train him yourself, take private lessons until he is fast and focused on course. Then teach him a behavior to perform at the end of the course: for one of my dogs it is a recall, for another it is running to get her lead (this works marvelously, the recall is much harder for the dog to do, as they have to reverse direction and it doesn't give them a target for their arousal like the leash). In other words, your goal is to give the dog alternative coping strategies for being in the building, being in the ring, and exiting the ring, all around other dogs.

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