Advice needed: Aggressive behavior from Pyrrha on walks

So, since we’ve been fostering, Pyrrha has displayed a totally new behavior on walks with our fosters. She has never done this with us before, not even a shade of it.

Pen Park with Laszlo
Pyr walking trails with my sister and brother-in-law.

Here’s the scenario:

We are walking with Pyrrha and the foster (whether it was Brando or Laszlo) in the neighborhood. Another leashed dog and its human start approaching us. When the dog gets close enough to pass by us, Pyrrha FREAKS out. She lunges at the dog, barking ferociously, hackles up. I pull her back with all my might, utterly stunned and shaken. (And embarrassed!)

I am pretty sure that this new behavior is not a fear display. In the early days, her fear exhibited in her hackles up, tail curled under, ears back, lips curled up, slinking away, quiet growling; THIS is lunging forward, vicious-sounding barking, full body thrown at the other dog. Although it may still have its roots in fear, it does not look like a fearful display; it just looks outright aggressive.

I don’t know what this means. Someone suggested that she’s protective of the foster. I guess this could be, but I’m unsure. I need to walk her on her own, without another dog, and see how she does. Again, I have never, never seen this before and I don’t know how to handle it. She has now reacted this way to passing dogs on walks with both Brando and Laszlo. (As a side note, she hasn’t flipped out with every single dog we see; it’s only certain dogs. Last night, she freaked only after Laszlo had barked at the other dogs.) It’s only with dogs, too. We passed some unusual-looking people, children, kids on scooters — nothing.

I started to question my posture and energy, but I don’t feel like I was tensing up, because normally, when other dogs would pass us, she was SO happy! I wasn’t nervous when other dogs passed us. She’d pull me to them and start play-bowing. I just had no idea this behavior even existed inside her.

Any advice?

What do you think could be causing this behavior? Ever seen this in your own dog (a totally surprising reaction in a familiar environment with familiar stimuli)?

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23 thoughts on “Advice needed: Aggressive behavior from Pyrrha on walks

  1. This must be distressing…My first thought was that she was being protective of the foster as well…Don’t know if that’s it, but maybe when you walk her alone you’ll find some clues

  2. Pretty much all aggression starts with fear, despite what the aggressive display may look like. I would start counter conditioning with Pyrrha to other dogs immediately, and try to prevent opportunities for her to practice the behaviour. Every time Pyrrha does an ‘aggressive’ display, and the other dog goes away, Pyrrha learns that behaving this way gets the scary dog to go away, which is probably what she wants.

  3. Have you read How to be your dog’s best friend? The monks who wrote it raise German Shepards exclusively. They subscribe to pack behavior techniques. Some you can take; others leave. But I suspect you are seeing pack behavior since the other two dogs defer to her with mouth licking behavior, etc. She is guarding her pack and protecting them more than herself. She is after all a Shepard and her lif experiences have not taught her what a real threat is because she’s had to be wary of everything up until now. You may need to more firmly establish yourself as the alpha so that she doesn’t feel it’s her job to protect everyone.

  4. I don’t have much advice except to say that this behavior sounds so much like my reactive dog (although she does it with almost every dog and even when alone, but worse when walking with a “friend”). I just wanted to say you are not alone and I know you will do everything you can to help Pyrrha overcome this and to do whats best for her. Reactivity can be so scary and Pyrrha is lucky she has a family who is so willing to educate themselves, research, and be open to learning. Good luck!

  5. We experience something similar with Tuchena if we are walking her with our other dogs. If we walk her on her own she is much more timid. My thoughts are that she uses our males as ‘back-up’ and feels brave enough to stand her ground as the male role is to offer protection (therefore if something did happen with another dog she would expect one of them to jump in). Are your fosters male?

  6. Pyrrha sounds A LOT like Morgan in this scenario. Morgan is very protective of her pack, inside and on walks. We went to Allerton Park with her, Bunny and Blueberry a couple if years ago, and I kid you not, her leather leash stretched out an extra foot and a half. It is scary when it happens, too. I try hard when we’re out not to feed her fear. If it turns out to be a day when she’s having trouble with everybody, Bunny and I will walk ahead of her and act as a buffer. Other times its better if we walk behind her. I don’t know how to explain to you how I know which way to go, but something about her body language gives me the cue. When we brought Küster home, she became even more vigilant. Nothing is harming her puppy! Even though she herself sometimes wants to. I would start by walking her alone and see if that helps. I don’t know how you feel about training collars, but we do use a pinch collar on Morgan. I have no chance of stopping her if she suddenly gets amped up without it, and I know it. I’d rather use a pinch collar on her and keep her from hurting someone ( and possibly ending up being removed from us ) than to worry about what could happen. If you’re not comfortable with a pinch collar, you might want to think about using a harness if you’re worried about her breaking away.

    1. Thanks so much for your input; I am always eager for your advice! You have a lot of dog-rearing wisdom, and having two shepherds certainly makes your input all the more salient to me! This is good advice. What you describe does sound like what she’s doing. She does wear a martingale (cinching) harness, which does help. I am going to start walking her solo and see what happens.

  7. Everyone has already given great advice, but I thought I’d add that I agree- she is either “resource guarding” the new dog or she is trying to gain dominance over the situation. Now that there’s a second dog, she may feel as though she needs to prove herself as the top dog. Whatever the issues may be, definitely start working on it now. She has such an amazing history with other dogs, it shouldn’t be hard to get her back in a good place. If you need to walk her alone for a long time before she’s ok on pack walks, that’s ok.

    1. Thank you! Agreed. I think this is something that needs to be handled ASAP, and I think I’ll be able to figure out what’s happening if I walk her solo.

  8. I moved away from dominance/alpha talk/theory sometime ago. Does sound like she’s resource guarding or simply guarding by going on the defensive first. I would check anything by Patricia McConnell or Victoria Stilwell. Will be interesting to see her walking alone with just you.

    I have a JRT mix (adoptable!) who guards our yard/home from a very nice brindle Mastiff type dog. If he comes down from his home and is near our place, she heads out (over the porch) and chases him away. Bless him, he could chomp her in half with one bite but just goes home.

    1. Thanks, Roberta! I agree with you. I don’t think this is a dominance thing. I think she is being excessively protective (with a side of her natural fear?), which is just a behavior we’ve never seen before. Thanks for your input!

  9. We are currently going through this with Avery and I’m working with a trainer on it. He’s on-leash reactive to other dogs and does exactly what you’re describing. He lunges, growls, barks and looks like a hot aggressive mess. Except he isn’t dog aggressive at all. He actually wants to meet the dog and say hi but because he’s on leash and “restricted” he gets frustrated. Which leads to the barking and growling.

    I have no idea if this is the same for Pyrrha but really just wanted to offer support and say that it’s totally something you’ll be able to work through and get under control. I agree with the others, walk her alone and see how she does. And I would definitely consult with a trainer and see what steps you can take to help Pyrrha out since you guys will probably be fostering again.

  10. Sometimes dogs that are fearful gain a little confidence and then start to put on big displays to get the other dog to go away. She may still be fearful, but with the presence of the foster she’s just confident enough to put on an aggressive show in an attempt to scare the other dog away. You sometimes see this with dogs with anxiety/fearfulness as they first gain some confidence.

    Whatever the cause, one of the really effective ways of dealing with this is the “Look at That” game that you can find in Leslie McDevitt’s book, “Control Unleashed.” This is a very good description of the game, too: http://clickerleash.wordpress.com/2009/08/23/look-at-that-a-counterintuitive-approach-to-dealing-with-reactive-dogs/. The critical thing is that you MUST keep her “below threshold” while you are working on this. You don’t want her to practice that behavior! The more they do it, the harder it is to work on it.

  11. My dog can be reactive on walks. I know one of his “triggers” is another dog’s anxiety. If he is walking with a calm friend, no difference. If he is walking with an anxious or even overly energetic friend, big difference. That’s just my dog, though. Your situation might be different.

    We did BAT (Grisha Stewart) for about a year. Recently we switched to more LAT (Leslie McDevitt) and LAT works better for him, but we still BAT from time to time. We now have a fun game we play called “where’s the dog” whenever I see a dog. He gets rewarded for “pointing” the dog out to me. It’s pretty fun watching him scan the environment when I’ve seen a dog that he can’t quickly locate.

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