Dog Gone Problems is a weekly advice column by David Codr, a dog behaviorist in Omaha. David answers dog behavior questions sent in by our readers. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Dog Gone Problems,
We have a 16-month-old dog named Jethro who has been with us for eight months. He's a smart, high-energy random-bred dog.
We've been taking him to a dog daycare three half-days a week for a few months. It's a large daycare with a drop-off policy, so dogs might be with 15 other dogs or 50+ dogs at a time. We've been told on several occasions that Jethro was resource-guarding water bowls. Then we were told he had, on a couple of occasions, gone after other dogs. A staff person felt Jethro appeared to interpret the other dogs' signals for him to back off as threats, and his response was defensive aggression.
We have now removed him from that daycare. The negative behaviors he demonstrated there occur nowhere else, including other situations where he encounters other dogs. He is excited to see other dogs, but settles quickly and shows no aggression. I am not suggesting we hold the daycare to blame, but it is clearly not the best environment for our dog.
We are now researching smaller, more structured daycare environments for him. What should we look for in a daycare and provider? Or should we keep him out of daycare? Because he is our only dog, we've liked the socializing and play he gets at daycare. I work part-time (mostly from home) so he has lots of time with us, and he gets 60 to 90 minutes of walking a day divided into three walks. We also do a lot of learning games with him (which he loves), so maybe daycare isn't even necessary for him? He's a great dog with a tough back story, and we want to make sure we do what's best for him.
It’s awesome you rescued a dog and want to work through these issues instead of re-homing like his previous guardians have done.
In our puppy classes, we teach the humans how and when to give the pups a break. This can be for not reading another pup’s signal to back off, being too excited, attempting to dominate another pup, etc. We do this to help the puppies learn because they are babies who haven’t developed good social skills. But in your case, your dog doesn't read these signals well and needs help.
When you have a dog with a higher energy play style who has difficulty reading other dogs, it can be a recipe for problems.
I agree that a daycare with up to 50 dogs is probably not the best place for Jethro. In daycare, the humans are there to manage, not train. Some will do so when time permits, but if there are a few other dogs who are also offering unwanted behaviors, it's possible they may miss watching out for your dog.
I also like the social benefits of dog daycare — provided it's a good experience for the dog. If not, it's quite possible your dog will learn undesired behaviors. So looking for a daycare with a smaller group of dogs is a good idea.
Another option would be to find a few dogs who you can set up a private play date with. That would allow your dog to continue to socialize, but also give you the ability to step in and give the dogs breaks when they pass the 50% excitement range. This helps your dog settle down and can serve as practice. If you are consistent with your interruptions, the dog will start to regulate himself.
I'd also recommend you help your dog learn to stop guarding the water bowl. This video explains how to use positive reinforcement to stop a dog from resource guarding.
Since Jethro is guarding from a dog, you will need to recruit another dog who is well behaved to do this. Follow the steps in the video above, but while leading the other dog with you on leash. Remember, distance is key. If Jethro reacts at all, you are too close. If you practice regularly, you should be able to stop his water bowl resource guarding problem.
Good luck and remember — everything you do trains your dog. Only sometimes you mean it.