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You've owned Dobermans before, but your current dog is different from all the other, friendly dogs. Instead, this dog lunges on walks, growling and barking in a most aggressive manner whenever he sees another dog.
This isn't a surprise, as he is a rescue and the shelter did warn that he isn't friendly with strangers. In part, this is down to a lack of socialization when he was a pup, but you also suspect previous owners were heavy-handed when dealing with this problem and made it worse.
Fortunately, you are aware of the seriousness of this bad behavior and are working with a certified dog behaviorist to put a desensitization and counter-conditioning strategy in place. Although time-consuming, you are making progress and are cautiously optimistic his unfortunate reaction can be improved upon.
Friendliness is the result of a dog feeling comfortable and relaxed in a certain situation. If, however, the dog feels anxious or fearful, then he may try to pull away and if prevented, lunge and bark. With a large dog such as a Doberman, this is intimidating and undesirable.
Teaching a Doberman to be friendly means unlearning his automatic reaction to the encounter, and replacing that programming with positive and pleasant experiences. This doesn't happen quickly, so expect to dedicate considerable time and patience to this retraining. The result, however, will be a dog that is friendly and well-adjusted.
Teaching a Doberman to be friendly doesn't require special equipment so much as a good understanding of dog psychology and buckets of patience and commitment. The importance of socializing the puppy from a young age should not be underestimated, and this should be continued even when the dog is adult.
Key to teaching a Doberman to be friendly is to build his confidence with reward-based training methods and by facilitating positive encounters in any number of different situations.
The basic training equipment needed includes:
- A regular collar and leash (not prong or electric collars)
- A treat bag for easy access to those rewards
- A patient friend prepared to act as a stooge
The Puppy Socialization Method
Understand the idea
In an ideal world you would start with a Doberman puppy from breeders who take care to socialize their dogs. You then continue this socialization process at home in order to create a confident, relaxed, and spook-proof dog. This makes use of the ability of pups under 18 weeks old to ready absorb information and regard the situation, dog, or person as normal. This is key to setting the groundwork for a friendly Doberman adult dog who is happy around people and other dogs.
Quiz the breeder
Ask questions about who how they socialize the pups and what experiences the pups have been exposed to. The more sights, sounds, and smells the pups have encountered the better. However, be aware these need to be positive experiences, which means the breeder must be aware how each individual coped and devised a way to make it a positive encounter.
Enroll in puppy class
Once the puppy is home with you, and is covered by vaccination, make sure to attend puppy class. This exposes the pup to a wide range of other puppies and helps continue their education in good manners and how to react around other dogs. Find a class with an empathetic trainer who makes the sessions fun and praises the pups when they do well.
Reward good behavior
Key to teaching a pup to be friendly, is reacting in a positive manner when he is calm and relaxed around other people or dogs. Have the puppy mix with other dogs that you know are healthy (to reduce the risk of infection in a young dog). When the puppy reacts well, praise him and give a treat. Work at the pup's pace and confidence level. If he is overwhelmed by big dogs, then seek a smaller dog to meet up with to build his confidence. Have him see larger dogs in the distance, and praise him when he remains calm.
Broaden the puppy's experience
It's important the pup gets to meet a wide range of people of all ages, genders, and skin colors. But this needs to be done in a controlled way so the pup enjoys the encounter. For example, it's not good exposing the pup to kids who are terrified of dogs and cower away whimpering at the sight of the pup. Instead, find a friendly child who has her own dog and is confident about the appropriate way to greet and react around dogs. Her gentle fuss and strokes will broaden the pup's experience around that type of person and generalize it to other people of her type.
The Build Confidence Method
Understand the idea
Some dogs may be anxious or fearful and pull away from strange people or dogs. If forced closer, their fear can turn to aggression as a way of making the feared object go away. DIscourage this by building the dog's confidence so that he overcomes his nerves and can make friends with strangers.
Less is more
Identify the situations in which your dog pulls away or shows other signs such as barking at people or dogs when on the lead. These are the situations you need to work on first. Never force him to confront his fears in order to prove there's nothing to worry about. His lack of ability to run away (which is a coping mechanism) may force him into 'fight' mode instead. While retraining, take steps to avoid conflict, such as walking in an arc around the object to avoid confronting it head on.
Stage controlled encounters
The dog needs to learn the object is no threat. To do this requires him to be exposed to the object in metered amounts so that he doesn't feel threatened. Let's say the dog is hostile to people with umbrellas. In this scenario, you'd ask a friend to stand with an umbrella, at a sufficient distance that the dog doesn't react. With the calm in the presence of the (very) distant umbrella, praise him for being brave and reward him. This is the first step.
Reducing the distance
The next step is to keep the dog's attention on you, and have the friend take a step closer. If the dog remains calm, then praise and reward him. Keep repeating this pattern with the umbrella getting gradually closer. If the dog starts to become aroused and fearful, distract him and have him execute a command you know he can perform, such as 'sit'. While he is occupied doing this, have the umbrella back away. Reward the dog for his 'sit', and start again with the umbrella further away.
Plenty of practice
You can expect this confidence building to takes weeks to months, especially if the fearful reaction is deeply ingrained. Work on this daily if possible, and you will overcome the dog's distrust of umbrellas so that he can be friendly when a friend with an umbrella approaches.
The Troubleshooting Method
Don't tense up
Let's say your Doberman, when on the leash, barks and lunges at other dogs. You want him to be friendly but immediately you see a dog heading towards you both, you tense up, shorten the leash, and say "Be nice." Hey presto, your dog takes a cue from the tension in the leash and your body language that you are worried, and that a certain behavior is anticipated from him. The basic rule here is to watch your own body language so you don't accidentally cue unfriendly behavior.
Use diversion tactics
Work on his basic obedience training in a distraction-free environment. Top commands that will help give you control are the simple 'sit' 'let's go', and 'look' commands. These three commands give you options for getting and holding the dog's attention, or moving him out of a situation without tensing up. The more encounters with other dogs he has where he doesn't resort to barking or lunging, the better behaved he will become.
Avoid head-on encounters
If the dog lunges at big dogs and you spot one in the distance, avoid approaching head on. Two dogs walking directly towards one another is tantamount to a show of doggie bravado and a challenge for authority as to who will back down first. Avoid the whole scenario by walking in an arc around the other dog, so they pass sideways on. This reduces the level of potential conflict and may enable them to pass without sparks flying.
Don't accidentally reward bad behavior
A common mistake is to give visitors to the house treats to give to your growling or anxious dog. In your mind, the plan is to make the people less of a threat by giving out goodies, so the dog will view them in a more friendly manner. However, what this does is reward the dog for being growly or anxious, hence making the problem worse. Instead, have the guests completely ignore the dog and pretend he isn't there. Better still, put the dog in another room when visitors arrive.
Seek professional help
A large powerful dog such as a Doberman can be dangerous when not in a friendly mood. It is always wise to seek the advice and guidance of a certified dog behaviorist if you are worried about your dog's behavior and committed to teaching him to be friendly.
Written by Pippa Elliott
Veterinary reviewed by:
Published: 02/07/2018, edited: 01/08/2021