This is the story of Johnny & Monkie
Date: September 9, 2020
This is the story of Johnny Cash (not the singer) and Monkie: two happy dogs that were NOT happy together.
Johnny’s dad and Monkie’s mom were moving in together to start the next phase in their relationship; the problem was their dogs were not in agreement on that plan. It was so bad, in fact, that the rocky dog relationship was starting to drive a wedge between their human parents. It would have been perfect fodder for one of the early episodes of It’s Me or The Dog.
The dogs could walk together, but if they were in the same room, invariably, a fight would ensue at some point—and it wasn’t just noise. Blood had been shed multiple times, so when I got the email from Monkie’s mom about seeing if the issue could be rectified, I was hesitant. It’s one thing to have fighting with a lot of posturing, noise, etc. It’s another thing when one dog is puncturing another, and the violence is repeatedly happening.
In dog training, safety is always the end-all-be-all, and if I ever feel a situation is truly unsafe, I’m always prepared to admit that a situation isn’t workable. I know that goes against the boisterous claims of some trainers that they can “fix” any situation, but that is simply not true in all cases—and frankly, it can prove dangerous for human and dog alike.
In getting a detailed history of each dog, it was apparent that the two dogs’ chemistry was set for volatility and violence. Monkie was more on the skittish/anxious side, and Johnny Cash certainly did not have many (if any) dog friends. Not exactly the kind of chemistry you’d want for a live-in relationship to work out swimmingly.
When we first started out, Johnny was definitely the bully in the relationship. He would stalk and be very intolerant of Monkie freely moving around the space. That is bad in any situation, of course, but what made it worse was Monkie would show strong, vocal reactions to this, which would incite both to keep climbing the ladder of aggression until there was a full-fledged fight.
It was stressful for the dogs, and it was incredibly stressful for the humans. It was hard for them to not take things personally. This was their individual “child” and any parent will naturally get “Mama or Papa Bear” when someone tells them that their child is the problem, especially when that person offering criticism is someone you care about.
The first step, then, was to get them to not take things so personally, as hard as that seemed at first. The only way we were going to gain success was if we looked at the dogs individually, and how as a team, we could all set them up for success, so we could ultimately succeed with behavior modification.
Next, we talked about every trigger that could lead to a fight. That included Monkie’s entrance into a space and movement, as well as Johnny’s reaction to Monkie, which would send Monkie into a lunging, frenetic defensive attack.
Lastly, we talked about prevention and management so that when we weren’t actively working on behavior modification, we weren’t allowing them to fail and have a fight.
Behavior modification is always (at least) a two-pronged approach. Prevention & management is one side, so that the problem behavior is not being practiced and experienced. The second prong is desensitization & counter-conditioning of the trigger/stimulus, so that we can change the dog’s reaction to the stimulus, ideally into something positive.
We instituted two key exercises:
The first was planning parties, well, treat parties (definitely a huge hit with the doggos). A treat party would consist of one of the dogs being separated from the other, and when they would be brought together, treats would start and continue until one of the dogs exited from sight.
We started with the dogs on-leash and from a pretty far distance (at least across the room). Monkie, for instance, would enter the room from upstairs and the moment Johnny noticed (and vice-versa), treats would start for both of them. We’d stay 30 seconds to a minute, and then have Monkie leave, with the treats stopping with it. A short while later, it would be repeated. (And repeated, and repeated!)
What we were looking for was to have each understand that the appearance of the other one made it rain, and when they were separated, all that good stuff went away too. Instead of “ohhhhh, no” at the sight of the other, we wanted that to be “yippeee!”
Fairly quickly, the “yippee” result was clearly happening.
Now, one of the most egregious mistakes you can make with behavior modification is going too quickly because you see some success and think the dog can keep handling more and more. Our innate impatience is to blame, but I always remind clients to err on the side of caution, because what’s the worst thing that could happen too much success? Slow and steady wins the race in behavior mod.
Treat parties were going well. Management was going well. Next up was working on some of the more specific triggers – mainly Johnny’s intolerance to Monkie walking around. We needed to prove to Johnny that Monkie’s movements were not threatening his space, his dad, or however he saw it. In fact, we wanted him to understand the closer Monkie came to him, the more rewarding it got. Again, this started from a distance and with both dogs on-leash.
On the other side, we had to prove that Monkie did not need to feel pushed to defend herself. If Johnny reacted (from a distance) that led to good things for Monkie. Also, if Johnny started to move towards Monkie, Johnny’s dad could now call him back almost instantly.
The first month was touch-and-go. We’d have success, but sometimes a breakdown in management would lead to a fight. I would get pics from Mom & Dad of the dogs lying next to each other resting, but I’d also hear of a scrap or two. It was slow-going progress.
But, as mom & dad were working their tails off to instill a controllable system for the dogs, Johnny became consistently more tolerant of Monkie’s sheer existence, and Monkie was feeling less threatened and in need of backing Johnny off. Most importantly, each dog began to understand that their respective human really understood them, and that was a huge turning point.
Within two months, there were zero fights happening and the dogs’ time together sans leash was increasing to the point where they were comfortably hanging out with each other. In fact, they would sleep on the bed together, sunbathe together on the floor, and wait patiently for their food next to each other. Were they playing? Definitely not! But, they were more-than-comfortably coexisting and in 8 weeks’ time, the dogs had obviously become hip to the idea of living together harmoniously, permanently.
And as you could imagine, there’s nothing that could have made Mom & Dad happier.