Zac - Border Collie Cross
A story of a dog's rehabilitation from aggression to fun family pet

Early days ...

Zac wearing muzzle
Zac on a long lead
Zac turning away from a dog

And now ...

Zac's running free
Zac's playing with dog
Zac's running

Zac's rehabilitation

You may like to use our solutions to Zac's problems, if your dog has similar issues. However, please remember that all dogs are different, and your dog may need a different approach. We had the help of a professional dog behaviourist company for aggression: Colin Tennant and Ross McCarthy (website). Their advice was terrific. We had a thorough assessment before embarking on a rehabilitation plan suitable for our particular dog.

The first three pictures show Zac in his early days: wearing a muzzle, confined to a long lead, not wanting to meet dogs. The next three pictures show Zac now - running free, and playing with dogs.


Nervous aggression to people

When we first had him, Zac was scared of everyone he didn't know. Unfortunately, his fear manifested as horrifying aggressive behaviour. When a stranger approached him, Zac leapt at them, snarling, snapping, and barking. People were usually afraid to enter the house, such was the ferocity of attack. He bit two of our friends - not drawing blood, but leaving painful tooth marks in the skin. What is he like now? Well, he remains a bit wary of strangers. He also tends to bark at people as I open the front door, which can be off-putting to visitors. However, he no longer attacks. Sometimes he is friendly and interested straight away. If not, it usually only takes a few minutes before he starts to relax with a stranger. It helps if the stranger just ignores him for five minutes, allowing Zac to see them as unthreatening. Then Zac goes forward, wagging his tail, wanting to be petted and noticed. Outside, he is normally tolerant to friendly with strangers. Just occasionally he leaps at someone if he is frightened by something, such as a loud noise or if the person is carrying a stick which they wave near him. He stops immediately to the command, "No."

The solution - cheese, and lots of it! We also used a kong, full of tasty meat. (Kongs are hollow rubber dog toys.) When Zac was aggressive we used mikki discs (clattering metal discs) to distract him.

In the street, we asked strangers to give him small pieces of cheese - and felt very silly doing so! However, to our surprise, most people were happy to oblige. This was despite Zac wearing a muzzle! The muzzle had a small hole at the front and Zac could pick up the cheese though the hole. At first we just asked people to stand several feet away, avoid looking at Zac, and just drop bits of cheese on the ground. As Zac started to anticipate this, and his aggressive behaviour faded, we asked them to come nearer when they dropped the cheese. Later still, we asked people to hold out their hand while holding a piece of cheese.

Visitors to our house would find Zac unmuzzled, but tethered by a long lead. The lead was tied onto heavy furniture in the corner of the room. Our visitors would come in, avoiding looking at Zac and sit down. In the early days, Zac would go for the attack, and we would throw mikki discs down, which stopped him. He couldn't actually reach our visitors because of the tether. As soon as he was quiet, our visitor would throw cheese across to him, then roll him a kong full of meat - his dinner! It would take him about 20 minutes to get the food from the kong. After that, our visitor would chuck him a small piece of cheese, or other tit bit, at about twenty minutes intervals. As his behaviour improved, we could fade out some of the treatment, until it was normal for him to be wandering freely, and just receive a small reward as the visitor came in the room.

All these different people feeding him, and not threatening him, taught Zac that people were actually pretty nice. The muzzle and tether meant no-one could get hurt. It also meant people weren't scared of Zac attacking, and so could relax, even in the early days when he was snarling and leaping up.

Zac does still wear his MasterPlus - for those very rare occasions when he reverts to snapping. However, we use it maybe twice a year!

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Nervous aggression to other dogs

Another dog on the horizon? A playmate for Zac maybe? For sure, he looked at the dog with exited anticipation ... but, wait, as the dog approached, Zac's fear took over. Zac would lunge at the dog, snarling, snapping, barking, leaping up wildly. A terrible sight. He was completely uncontrollable. Wearing a muzzle and being on a short lead allowed us to control him to some extent, but the best that ever happened was Zac shunning another dog who approached him. Now he greets any dog who approaches him, and sometimes he even makes the first approach himself. He loves all dogs who are playful. If not, he greets the other dog, then soon looses interest. There is still the occasional fit of barking, but it is very rare and not very aggressive. However, he does have an annoying habit of doing the occasional "drive-by-shooting" to dogs on lead ... he rushes past them in a large arc, with a staccato bark as he passes.

The solution - slow introduction to one particular dog, and ensuring we followed other dogs instead of meeting them head-on

When Zac was aggressive we used mikki discs - throwing them down just in front of him. This startled him, and interrupted the leaping and snarling. One day we explained the advice given by our behaviourist to a group of fellow dog walkers. One very helpful man agreed to help us. We met with the man and his quiet gentle labrador, Mitch, very regularly, twice a week if possible. Both dogs would be on lead, and we would walk parallel to each other, about 7 feet apart. At first Zac would leap and snarl at Mitch when we met, but then calm down as we walked. Eventually he tolerated meeting Mitch. He had learnt that Mitch did not attack him. Mitch was somewhat frightened of Zac at first, and we owe a great deal to Mitch and his owner for their perseverance. Gradually we decreased the distance between the dogs, until Zac could walk right next to Mitch. There is a happy ending - Mitch and his owner remain our firm friends, three years on. Zac and Mitch great each other with sniffs and tail wags, just as doggie-friends should!

Meanwhile, we avoided meeting other dogs head-on whenever possible. Instead we would look out for other dogs in the park, and deliberately follow other dogs. Zac was less frightened when we did this, and better behaved. Whenever possible, we would follow the dog until we caught up with them, and even passed them. Whenever Zac was calm, we praised him until he learnt that meeting other dogs was "A Good Thing." We still take him to dog classes (high level obedience, and basic agility), and he is very friendly with all who are there!

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Running wild off lead

His previous owners said they let Zac off the lead "when safe to do so." What did that mean? We were to find out ... Once we had Zac coming back to recall in house and garden, we let him off the lead on open land. Zac acted like a greyhound under starter's orders - he was out of earshot within seconds. Eventually he hared back - and we put him back on the lead! But this wasn't a one-off. For months, we dared only take him off lead in restricted places, otherwise he was away like the clappers, and well out of sight in a few seconds. Now his recall is good.

The solution - a MasterPlus. This consists of a little box worn, on a collar so that the box is under the dog's chin. It is full of a safe odourless liquid, which is under pressure. The owner has a remote control, and when they press a button, the box releases a small amount of the liquid. It startles the dog, but does not hurt them. Before trying the MasterPlus, we had tried the normal methods of recall. We tried treats (tasty tit bits and toys), for both enticement and reward, but nothing was as rewarding for Zac as running fast. We tried a very long lead, trailing on the ground, 50 feet long. The idea was that you can step on the lead if the dog goes too far. But Zac was out of range of even that lead within seconds. So we tried the MasterPlus. You call the dog, and then release the liquid if he doesn't come. Most dogs then come back to their owner. Zac was frightened by the the MasterPlus, and did his normal thing when really scared - he laid down and refused to move! But at least he wasn't running away. Then we would cajole and cajole until he came to us. During this training, we never fed him in the house - all his food was reserved for big rewards when he eventually came to a recall. And after a food treat, we would play with his favourite tugger toy. Within days, Zac was usually avoiding the MasterPlus being triggered, and running back for his rewards. Within a week we had good recall in all sorts of places and circumstances.

A personal note about the MasterPlus. The makers refuse to call it a "punishment." I disagree, I think it is a punishment. Whatever, Zac certainly didn't like it. However, it is a shock for the dog rather than at all painful. Also we combined its use with reward for the desired behaviour. We had had Zac on a lead for 6 months, without ever being able to let him really run. Within a week of using the MasterPlus, Zac was having normal off-lead walks twice a day or more. He runs a long way away, yes, but is always happy to come back when called. Zac is an extremely active dog, and being able to run undoubtedly made him calmer, too, so that his other problems were easier to treat. In my opinion the MasterPlus transformed Zac's life in a way which simple rewards had not been able to do.

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Noise phobias

Zac was frightened of all gunshot type noises. Fireworks sent him into a frenzy, running from room to room, hiding in ever tinier spaces. But that was not all... several times a day there are "bangs" and "thuds" - bird scarers, car doors banging, roadworks, or the noise of something being dropped. These noises are so quiet (and common) that most people do not register them. Frequently other people wondered why Zac was suddenly in a panic. I got used to listening, so that I could understand why Zac was panicked, and I started to hear them all. There are millions of such noises! It wasn't just that Zac lived in almost perpetual fear because of the noises, it was also dangerous. He would get very frequent full-blown panics, and try and run home. Once we could let him off lead, this became a real problem. And now? We haven't really got over his noise sensitivity, but he is considerably better. He can tolerate the occasional firework outside, but still tries to run home if there are lots of fireworks outdoors. If there are loud fireworks and Zac is indoors, he likes to retreat to his bed in a secluded corner, but he's not too frightened. He tolerates bird scarers, and isn't upset at all by most of the incidental noises.

The solution - a desensitization CD, DAP (Dog appeasing pheromone), and determination to act as normal.

We played Zac a CD of firework noises, starting at a very low volume and slowly increasing it. Zac is very noise sensitive, so we had to start at a barely audible volume to prevent him panicking. We played the CD in the house, the garden and even on local walks (on a ghetto blaster). We would do fun things to the delightful background track of fireworks - eg play, train with tit bits. When Zac heard other noises, like bird scarers, we would ignore them ... but crucially we would not let him just run off. If he was on lead and heeling, he still had to heel. If he was off lead, we might put him on lead, but would carry on walking away from the house. When he was calm again, we would do some training with tit bits.

We still play the CD occasionally, particularly in October. Zac knows the difference between the CD and fireworks, and is not at all worried by the CD, at any volume. This means it is far from a perfect desensitization aid, but it has certainly helped. It is probably still helping to keep Zac accustomed to bangs.

We also used DAP, which is a pheromone (body chemical) released by bitches to calm their puppies. It is believed to calm adult dogs, too. It comes in a little jar, which you plug into an electric socket, like an air freshener. We cannot say for sure whether it helped Zac, but we think it helped a bit - it does no harm, anyway.

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Chasing cyclists

Zac used to chase cyclists, barking, snapping at their wheels, and generally being a dangerous nuisance. Now he is completely calm about cyclists.

The solution - Dog Stop Distraction Device. This is a small aerosol, which emits a loud, high pitched noise when activated.

Zac hated the noise. The device cured him in a week, with just a few "reminders" needed in the next few months. True, the cyclists hated the noise, too. However, a few startled cyclists during our training was a small price to pay for the many non-traumatised cyclists who have cycled passed Zac since.

The Dog Stop is a punishment-orientated training aid, however gentle. Therefore it needs to be used with care. Punishment orientated training is risky, as it can result in worse behaviour or a more fearful dog. We used this method because Zac's behaviour was a social nuisance and very dangerous to him and the cyclist. It occurred when cyclists came from behind, which made anticipating the situation hard. We took care to follow the following principles:

It helped that the Dog Stop is a noise, so Zac did not associate it with me - I just looked as if I was walking on. It also does not come from the cyclist, reducing the chances of Zac then attacking the cyclist through fear aggression. If Zac had not responded well to the training aid, we would have quickly stopped using it. We could use this method because we came across cyclists particularly on one section of our regular walk, and came across them virtually every day. That meant we could hold the Dog Stop, ready for use, when we reached that section of our walk.

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Chasing cats and joggers

Zac used to chase cats and jump up at joggers. Now he does not disturb joggers, and we can stop him chasing most cats after a small excited lunge. This is just as well, as my sister's cats are more than capable of retaliating!

The solution - giving a command for another behaviour and the MasterPlus (see "running wild off lead" for a description of the MasterPlus).

When Zac chased cyclists we used a training aid called the Dog Stop, which emits a loud noise. For cats, it would have been unfair to the cat to use the Dog Stop. For joggers, the speed of passing is less with joggers than cyclists, and it would have been unsociable to use the Dog Stop unless essential. In any case, Zac's reason for chasing joggers was different from the reason for chasing cyclists. He chased cyclists who came from behind, not from the front. His bark was high pitched and excited, and his ears up and alert. This looked like indulgence in a fun chase instinct (though with fear thrown in, I think). He might chase any jogger, but particularly those running towards him. His bark was lower pitched, more warning, and his ears back. This looked more like an example of his fear aggression to people (with a bit of chase excitement thrown in?). We would not have wanted to make him even more scared.

With cats and joggers it was often easy to anticipate the situation, because we could frequently see them in advance of Zac's chase behaviour. When Zac looked alert as we approached a cat, we told him to "Sit." When he did, he got a titbit. We walked on at "Heel." If the cat remained, we told Zac to "Sit" again, and rewarded him again. We can now ask him to sit maybe four feet away from a settled cat. Similarly with joggers approaching, we told Zac to do something, like "Sit" or "Heel," then rewarded him. If Zac did chase we used the MasterPlus. We only used the MasterPlus for chasing after Zac's recall had been excellent for 6 months, in case we still needed to use it for training his recall.

Zac no longer chasers joggers. He does chase cats who run suddenly, or whom he comes across in the undergrowth. However, he is well used to sitting near cats, so we can control him with cats whenever we need to.

Some of Zac's wild behaviour was because he is a very active, and extremely playful dog. I am sure that it also helps that we give him lots of outlet for his energy - playing with him frequently, with many different toys, taking him for long walks, and giving him frequent little training lessons.

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Squirrels! Running space! Birds, especially those wonderful big black crows! Gardens where plants can be torn with teeth! Oh, when he feels safe, the world is an exciting place for a Zac. And so he must bark, and bark, and bark, and ....

The solution - well to be honest he is still rather noisy. However, he knows the command, "Quiet." Oh, okay, he sort of knows the command "Quiet."

When his barking was too much, we would say "Quiet," and turn our back on him until he stopped barking. We also use an Aboistop, which is like the MasterPlus but activated by barks instead of a remote. We use this in the garden, when his barking is excessive. However, we have never really followed this through, so when his barking reduces, we stop using the Aboistop. Therefore, Zac has never really learnt to be quiet in the garden. We only use the Aboistop when he is really over the top! If you want to train your dog out of barking excessively, you should use the device consistently for several months.

Basically, we don't mind dogs barking within reason. Barking is what what dogs do.

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Digging the garden

Once I had a lovely lawn and nice flower beds. Now the lawn has a bare scratched patch, and various smaller blemishes. The beds have several holes and some plants have vanished forever.

The solution - I've revised my ideas about how my garden will look! it's fun to have a companion who "gardens" with me!

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Resources relevant to this page:

Dog behaviourists: London Dog Behaviour Company, The Canine & Feline Behaviour Centre.

Kongs: You can buy these from many websites and pet-shops. Just search for them.

Mikki discs: You can buy these from many websites and pet-shops. Just search for them.

Masterplus and Aboistop Bark Control: Available from many websites and petshops. We used Doggie Solutions.

CDs with firework noises: You can buy a variety of these. We used the CD called "Sounds Scary." Search for it online.

DAP (Dog Appeasing Pheromone): Available from various outlets, eg from Doggie Solutions. Many vets also stock it.

Dog Stop: You can buy this from Company of Animals.

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