Softly, slowly- working with wolfdogs (just like any other dog)

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A few months ago we received an email at Dog Communication from someone who was really struggling with the behaviour of their Czechoslovakian wolfdog (CSV), Falcor. Falcor, 19 months old, was showing aggression towards people, some other dogs, he was anxious and had chase issues around other animals.

Falcor had been turned away by several other behaviourists and trainers who said that CSV were too difficult to work with as they were so inherently aggressive that they couldn’t be changed. We’ve quite a bit of experience at Dog Comm of working with wolfdogs and other similar breeds and of course we have an Inuit teaching dog who shares a few similar traits.

Traditionally wolfdogs and northern breeds (Inuits, Malamutes, Akitas etc) are thought to need a ‘firm hand’ and it’s sometimes said that reward-based training doesn’t work for them and they are often subjected to methods using force and pain because of misguided ideas about dominance and pack theory. At Dog Comm we only use reward based training and know it works for all breed and types, even wolfdogs! In fact, it’s crucial to use reward based methods with wolfdogs (and all dogs!) as they don’t respond well to force or confrontation and many with behaviour issues are inherently anxious, partly perhaps as their critical period for socialisation closes super-early compared with more traditional breeds of dogs (perhaps at 5 weeks rather than 8-12 weeks).

Falcor was so anxious of new situations and people when we started working with him that we worked on just briefly getting him out of his car for a quick sniff around our fence line with no other dogs or people around (sniffing is great for helping anxious dogs to become more comfortable in an environment and lowers arousal). Over the coming weeks we worked towards having Falcor in an adjacent field, 100m away from our training field so that we could counter condition to the new people and dogs at a distance he could cope with. Michele is a brilliant trainer and her timing with CC was impeccable, getting it right every time. Falcor would occasionally feel brave enough to approach Penel or I from behind and very briefly sniff us from about a metre away before retreating again to a ‘safer’ distance.

Over the weeks the time he could comfortably spend out of the car increased and he even managed to approach the field with our class in for brief periods. Then after a few months something really special started to happen- Falcor actually wanted to go into the field with the rest of the class! For a few more weeks he stayed at the opposite end of the training field so that he could carry on counter conditioning at a distance he could cope with.

A few more months down the line and he was fully participating in our on lead classes and finally we had the breakthrough that we’d always hoped for- Falcor finally began to trust us all, he approached Penel and I and let us briefly touch him (and of course, we made no eye contact with him at all), then something even more amazing happened- he invited other dogs in the class to play. His whole demeanour had changed, he was happy and his whole body was loose and relaxed. He’s made progress at home too and life is a lot less stressful for both Falcor and Michelle.

Falcor’s success is really down to:

• Michele’s commitment, he’s been to Dog Comm almost every single week for 5 months.
• giving him space and time to progress at his own rate with no pressure.
• proper implementation of counter conditioning so that we’ve enabled Falcor to have really positive associations about new dogs and people.

As with every dog we work with, our success is never due to force or punishment, but reward-based training in the right outdoor environment and with appropriate dogs and people to practise with- it’s not rocket science but it does take commitment and hard work and it really is quite magical when it all goes according to plan.

Falcor’s become such a firm favourite at Dog Comm as he arrives with his head sticking out of the car window, he must turn heads as he travels round the M25 with his huge wolfy head poking out of the window!

Here’s a few words from Michele (Falcor’s owner)

I cannot thank Laura and Penel enough for what they have done for Falcor and I. About 6 months ago I was in utter despair as I was unable to find a dog trainer / behaviourist / dog whisperer or anyone who was willing to help me with the issues I had with Falcor. They would reject us as soon as they heard Falcor was a wolfdog saying that wolfdogs are too difficult. It must have been fate then when a friend of mine met Laura whilst walking her dog and Laura said that they could help at Dog Communication. I contacted Laura for help and Falcor and I haven’t looked back since.

Falcor had an extreme fear of strangers, especially men. He would pull my arm out of its socket to get away from anyone. In the evaluation Laura and Penel determined that the closest distance a strange man could come, where Falcor still felt comfortable, was roughly 100 metres. I am glad to say that this has now decreased to a tenth of that. Falcor has even on 4 or 5 occasions gone right up to a stranger and touched them.

The second issue I had with Falcor was his growing aggression towards most dogs. As a younger dog he had been nervous around, but still good with, other dogs and loved to play with most dogs he met. But this started to change as he started to mature. So, I had him chemically neutered thinking this was the solution. It wasn’t and actually seemed to make it worse. It was Laura and Penel who explained to me that his aggression stemmed primarily from fear. So, again with excellent guidance from Penel and Laura, Falcor has come on in leaps and bounds and would quite happily want to leap and bound around with his fellow classmates now. His confidence has just grown so much and I hope that in the near future he will be ready to interact with other dogs off the lead.

I have been attending the T & C classes with Falcor every Saturday. I feel that the classes are a brilliant ground work in a controlled environment where, under the guidance of Penel and Laura, you learn to read and understand your dog’s (and other dog’s) behaviour and communication signs and get a chance to practice what to do in different situations. It gives you the chance to practice knowing that it is ‘set up for success’ so to speak. This way I always have a totally positive session for Falcor at least once a week.

Thanks to Laura and Penel, Falcor is a much more relaxed and happier dog and I am a much happier owner. I cannot sing enough praises for these 2 amazing ladies – thank you Laura, thank you Penel.