Dog for 1/8/20

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

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Dog Gone Problems,

I need some advice about my 4-year-old spayed female German Shepherd, Ava. We have had her for about seven or eight months. She had never been trained or socialized properly by her owners before us. I have a feeling she wasn’t treated well because she cowers and shakes when someone raises their voice. The only command she knew when we got her was “kennel." She is very high-energy. We can take her on two hour-long walks, play fetch in the yard and she still will get anxious and bored.

We have two smaller neighbor dogs. Most of the time if we are playing, just got done playing or the neighbor dogs are minding their own business, she is fine. When she’s calm, she acts like they don’t even exist. But when she is very excited or the neighbor dogs come up to the fence and start barking, Ava will come over and start barking and nipping at them. We have taken her on walks and encountered other dogs. She will start barking, jumping and lunging. However, my mother has two dogs who she has been mostly well with. They are older, big dogs.

There have been a few instances where she nipped at one, but she can be around them off leash and be fine. We are at our wits end because we can’t take her anywhere without fear it will become a stressful trip. We want more than one dog and we don’t see any way it will work with Ava. Is there any advice you can give me?



Hi Hallie,

It sounds like you have a few issues going on. It's great you are trying to increase her exercise to help with her behavior problems. The majority of my clients under-exercise their dogs, making excess energy a big contributing factor.

This video includes a number of creative ways to exercise a dog. I'd recommend you start getting her exercise in shorter, more intense sessions — ideally every two to four hours throughout the day instead of one or two long walks. Make sure to let her sniff on the walks. Many people discourage this, but dogs burn more energy from sniffing than the movement of a walk.

I make sure to point out to my clients that while exercise can help make fixing problems easier, it won't fix them alone. It's the same case here. I like to think of exercise as a multiplier. It makes working with an excited dog easier, while not exercising makes an excited dog’s problems amplified. So try to incorporate exercise before you get Ava around other dogs. Make sure she gets at least 10 minutes to rest and recover before starting with the other dogs.

Some dogs are so high energy that they are more suitable to be a working dog. These type of dogs thrive as guard, drug or bomb detection dog, or working with law enforcement, military or private security. If Ava is a super high-energy dog, you may want to consider re-homing her to an organization that could use a dog with her energy level. I can’t give you any advice on that without seeing her and knowing more about you and your lifestyle. I know that is hard to hear, but try to keep an open mind. Sometimes getting a dog into a home more suited to their needs is the most unselfish thing someone can do.

If you're going to keep Ava, here are some other tips.

It sounds like she is either a more sensitive dog or was verbally abused previously. Shuddering or shaking is obviously heartbreaking to see in any dog. One thing to know: Petting a shaking dog can amplify the behavior. Instead, you can lay your hand on her. Laying/resting your hand on a dog in the right situation is interpreted as love or affection, and won’t amplify the behavior. You can also sit or crouch down next to her. Be sure to face the same direction since front-facing can be confrontation to a dog.

To help her with the raised voices, you can use the technique in this video. You would replace the crinkling sound from the linked video with someone speaking in progressively louder tones until the shouting no longer causes Ava to cower or shake.

Ava’s reactive behavior is harder to solve in an advice column. One thing you should always do is increase the distance between her and whatever she is reacting to. Sometimes you may need to take her out of sight of whatever it is she is reacting to.

It's a safe bet that her confidence could use a jolt. Teaching a dog new tricks and commands is a great way to start rebuilding her confidence. I'd recommend you start with some commands that can help you redirect her attention, such as a focus exercise. You can teach her self control with the drop it and leave it commands. Teaching a dog to target a hand is a great alternative recall, and can be used to move or reposition a dog rather than man-handling her. Training her to wait for permission to go out an open door is another great way to develop self control as well as respect for you as a leader.

You have noticed the other dog’s dynamic or energy is a contributing factor to Ava's reactive behavior. That’s certainly a big factor with reactive dogs. Try to study or observe and keep track of the dogs she is reactive to. You may find other contributing factors. Once you know what they are, you can redirect her attention or move away before she starts to react. This is a great way to manage and keep her from practicing the aggressive behavior.

If possible, try to walk her with dogs she is reactive to. Many dogs only have negative interactions with a dog, and that is the last thing they remember when they see it again. Walking Ava with as much distance between her and another dog (you may need to be on the other side of the street) is a great way to build up some positive experiences. Just make sure everyone is in a line. In the dog world, whoever is in front is perceived as the leader. By keeping everyone in a line, everyone is equal.

I have seen many dogs with lower self-esteem stop acting aggressive once they are more confident in their humans and themselves. Increasing her exercise and teaching her new tricks and commands may do the trick. If she is still reactive after a month of these changes, you may want to enlist the help of a dog behavior expert to come to your home and customize a plan based on you and your dog's needs.

Good luck and remember — everything you do trains your dog. Only sometimes you mean it.


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