Dolores is the owner of a 170-pound Great Dane named Hercules. She's had him since he was a puppy and he is currently 5 years old. At about age 4, Herc started to develop aggressive behavior towards Dolores’s neighbors as well as strangers. He would run off his lawn, even passing through the invisible fence at times, and chase people and kids on bikes, nipping at their arms and legs, or dart after people on foot whether they were with their own dogs or alone. When a victim would behave unruffled by this aggression and stand up to him by standing their ground and bumping back into him, he'd usually back off and run back home. One elderly woman was brave enough to grab him by the collar and walk him back home. I found that to be amazing. But it worked. If a person reacted more fearful, he'd keep at the nipping and growling.
At first Dolores thought it was just a one-time thing, but then it happened again, and again. The last straw was when it happened 3 times in one week. The problem wasn't going away, it was getting progressively worse. She didn't know what to do. This is when I like to think about pet owners in general. What would you do if this were you? Would you give up on your dog and drop him off at a shelter, hoping someone else will take on your problem? Would you just avoid the issue altogether and keep your dog penned up inside for the rest of his life? Would you do nothing and just hope and pray no one got hurt or pressed charges against you? Or would you do what I think is the best possible thing you could do for your dog; either research natural dog behavior and try to learn what is causing the issue, or call in a professional in this field to help you?
Dolores decided to call a professional to help her with Hercules. His name is John L. Ford and his business card says he's an in-home trainer for all breeds and all problems. That made sense right away since the unwanted behavior was in fact happening at home.
The first thing he did was rule out other issues that may have been causing the aggression such as weak leadership on the owner’s part, or lack of energy-releasing exercise, for example. He assessed that Hercules was bored and needed a "job" to do. A dog needs direction. If you don't give it to him, he'll make something up and usually it's something destructive like Herc nipping and chasing cyclists. Boredom occurs especially easily for working type dogs. Historically, Great Danes were used for tracking, guarding or carting. If a dog is bred to do certain activities and no activities are given to him, he will most likely let you know he is bored by acting out. Dolores was told to purchase a dog backpack and put it on Herc. She was instructed to fill the pack with something to give it weight. She filled it with water bottles then proceeded to walk Herc through the neighborhood, delivering bottles to neighbors. They would knock on their door and hand them the bottled water. She explained the situation and the neighbors found it very amusing and were also grateful since they'd rather get water than get bitten. Everyone worked together and understood it was for the good of the entire community to help this giant.
Sometimes they deliver mail, or notes with enlightening messages on them. All around it's a positive solution to a once serious problem.
Since they've been "working" on the aggression issue by giving Hercules a job to do, the aggression has completely stopped. Herc is back to being a good guy again in the neighborhood.
While the trainer was there, Dolores mentioned that she sometimes had difficulty getting Hercules to eat. He always seemed to be indifferent towards mealtime and his food. A good way to get his gastric juices flowing, enticing him towards food, is to make a little ritual out of the meal preparation. She was told by the trainer to involve him in the preparation, making the sounds of the wrappers unwrapping, letting him see her mixing it. Don't do all the preps and then call your finicky eater—let him see, smell and hear the process.
An added bonus to really help him want to eat more was to add a little treat or surprise on top of his meal. The day I visited she gave him one slice of cheese, broken into little pieces, on top of his food. The next thing she needed to do, and most importantly, was to make sure that he waited before he was allowed to eat. She has to be the one to tell him to start, not him. All 3 of these additions to her ritual of feeding Hercules helped him to become a better eater and now he actually eats all of his food, and with gusto.
Here, Dolores tells Herc not to follow her to his eating area. He must wait for her to give the command. Waiting while Dolores explains her process to me is really enticing Hercules’s appetite. He is working for his food. It's psychological work, but it's still work. Dogs need to work for their food. It's an innate part of their DNA. Consistently offering food to a finicky dog without making him work for it will make his problem worse.
Finally, the reward for all his hard work. He eats it all.
One last thing the trainer expressed to Dolores is that the ENTIRE family has to be on the same page where Hercules is concerned in order for the training to work. In other words, her husband and kids all need to be TRAINED on how to teach Herc to be a more polite, happy, and hungry dog. He suggested posting some important aspects about dog psychology on the interior, front door for all family members to see easily and read each and every day.
"BASTA" is on the note that's hanging on the door. It is a Spanish word meaning "that's enough" or "stop!" They use this word instead of his name for discipline so they do not say his name when they have to sort of yell or get his attention or to stop something. She said all she has to do is say ”basta" and he stops dead in his tracks. I use "hey" a lot, but she said it should be word that you don't otherwise say, because it will confuse the dog. The dog's name should only be used for positive things, associating the dog’s name with something good.
Hercules deserves his chance to be taught how to improve his unwanted behavior. He is a lucky dog to have such a caring family. Not all dog owners want to go through what they think is going to be a lot of trouble. They need to realize it's effort, but it's doable effort that requires just a few added habit changes. My wish is that all pet owners will at least attempt a solution with the help from professionals (whether from a book or in person) before they give up their pets. Hats off to this family, they addressed the problem and sought to solve it. Fortunately the trainer they chose seems to know what he's doing and the proof is in the positive changes Herc has made. Keep up the good work, Dolores and Hercules.