Ginger is a three year old pit bull terrier. Her story is unfortunately fairly typical for dogs of her breed, she was tied to a trailer for the first two and a half years of her life and was forced to have as many litters of puppies she was capable of having. She was under weight, malnourished and it was not until her owners were forced to give her up that she got off that chain. There are a variety of reasons why people chain their dogs outside. Whatever the reasons, fewer dog owners seem to be keeping their dogs tied up outside. Why?
First, more people are learning that continuous tethering is bad for dogs. As pack animals, dogs have been bred for thousands of years to form a strong attachment to their human family. An otherwise friendly and happy dog, when kept continuously chained and isolated, often becomes neurotic, unhappy, anxious and aggressive. This was certainly the case with Ginger; and she became dog aggressive. Being tethered to the trailer and unable to interact with other dogs frustrated her and caused her to develop aggressive behavior.
Aggression that is caused by frustration is often referred to as barrier frustration. It occurs when a dog is frustrated at not being able to get to something, and they take the frustration out in another way. This type of aggression is often seen in dogs that spend a lot of time tied out and a reason enough to justify euthanasia in most cases. Fortunately for Ginger, she had someone that has had a long term commitment to her breed that understood that given the right situation, she could get better.
Her new owner Denise also understood that the pit bull breed requires a great deal of exercise. These dogs are not the type of dogs that you can take on a short walk, they need to run. This is where I came in to the picture. Denise knew she was unable to exercise Ginger as much as she needed to and so she asked me to help her out. I started taking Ginger out multiple times a week; at first I tried to walk her on leash around town. We tried that once, she had no idea about walking on leash and would lose her mind when we would see another dog.
I decided that I would try taking her on hikes in places that I knew that we would not see anyone and focused the first month of hikes on walking on leash and learning to pay attention to me. I used a training technique that I was taught that requires the dog to give you their full attention and aids in recall (getting them to come to you when call). As you are walking forward with the dog on leash, start moving backward and call your dog to you. When the dog gets to you they should be sitting in front of you, facing you and at this point you start to give them treats and continue to do so to maintain their attention. The higher reward treats always work best in the early stages. I would do this repeatedly on our hikes and not only did it allow me to have recall with Ginger but it created a bond of trust that she started to relax and enjoy our outings.
After a month, still hiking in the same places where we would see no one, I allowed her to start hiking off leash and whilst I was anxious I tried to remain calm and not make it a bigger deal than it was. As it turns out the only thing in danger of being hurt were lizards and even then they were really safe. The more freedom off leash and exercise Ginger got, she became less anxious and aggressive. I then started to walk her on leash in places that I thought we may run in to other dogs but would also have a way to get around them or away from them. She continued to pay attention to me and be motivated by the treats and when it was an incident free walk she would also get a large treat at the end as a reward.
Six months in to the process, on an early morning hike in Left Hand Canyon I decided to let her off leash for the first time in an area where I thought we may come across other dogs. We were hiking along quietly and all of a sudden she took off on me and I could not find her for a minute or two. The next thing I came around a corner and she was on the other side of the creek playing fetch with two other dogs she had never met. We hiked the rest of the way out of the canyon with other dogs and it was completely incident free.
A couple of months later I started taking her and her Labrador brother Hank out together. Ginger definitely defers everything to Hank; she follows him and is very comfortable with him around. As it was summer we started hiking near water and I found out she could not swim, she would watch Hank swim to fetch a ball but barely get in the water but clearly wanted to follow. One day she just got it and started to swim, she still does not have the technique down, she swims with her tail out of the water wagging in the air, but can beat Hank to ball more often than not now. She has been on a hike and swam with other dogs, running to fetch the same ball and every time without incident. I have taken her to the dog park while other dogs have been there and she has always paid attention to me and the Chuckit Ball Launcher in my hand.
I am not naïve enough to believe that she is somehow cured of her aggression but I do know that as a guardian I am responsible to not give Ginger any opportunity to practice aggression. By working to inhibit, reduce and prevent aggressive behavior I have worked to break the cycle of aggression and significantly reduce the likelihood of an opportunity to behave aggressively. She is really a sweet dog, she loves people, she loves treats and food and she is very comfortable in her pack. Given the opportunity to do the right thing Ginger has chosen it every time and in the process I have gained the best hiking buddy anyone could ask for.
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