The instant Brian and Samantha spotted Thorin on Animal Humane Society’s website, they knew the fluffy Great Pyrenees puppy was meant to come home with them. The family adopted their first dog Pippin a year prior and felt he needed a companion. “Pippin sometimes looked sad, so we figured he wanted a friend,” says Samantha. “They instantly loved each other.”
As they got to know Thorin, Brian and Samantha fell in love with the 8-week-old’s affectionate personality and discovered his knack for picking up new tricks. The family enjoyed long walks around their Uptown Minneapolis neighborhood and often ran into other dogs without trouble.
But one day a switch flipped. At a local dog meetup, Thorin didn’t act like himself, pulling on his leash and barking aggressively at a nearby puppy. Over the next few weeks, his aggression towards other dogs escalated.
Thorin began barking at the dogs they encountered on their formerly peaceful walks, eventually lunging at bikes and cars as well. His hair and tail would stand straight up and he’d lose all sense of his surroundings. “It got to the point where taking him out to use the bathroom was a nightmare,” says Samantha.
Something needed to change, so the couple researched their options. On the AHS Instagram account, they noticed a post about Reactive Rovers, a class designed for dogs that bark, snarl, or growl at other dogs while on leash. “I thought ‘This could be it. This could help us get our Thorin back!’” Samantha says.
In Reactive Rovers, Brian and Samantha finally learned why Thorin was misbehaving. It turns out that dogs naturally greet each other from the side — in dog world, a head-on greeting only happens when a fight is about to start. When forced to meet head-on (as dogs do on leash), many will lunge, growl, and bark in hopes of making the threat go away.
The family discovered that their reaction to Thorin’s aggression mattered more than they’d thought. When they scolded Thorin by yelling “No!” he became more stressed and developed negative associations with other dogs, aggravating the problem.
Now, Brian and Samantha use positive reinforcement to distract Thorin when another dog is in sight. “We give treats, do happy talk, and have him focus on us,” Samantha says. His love of food has proven an advantage. Thorin knows that when he sees other dogs, he’ll get a tasty chunk of cheese or hot dog, which helps him feel less scared.
Avoiding situations where Thorin feels confronted is key. The couple no longer bring him to events where other dogs will be present, and are more aware of dogs in their apartment complex. “If we’re coming in from a potty break and see a dog Thorin doesn’t like, we'll go through a different door, or delay our entrance to avoid getting too close,” Samantha says.
Still, on-leash encounters are sometimes unavoidable in the busy city. But the skills Brian and Samantha have learned in Reactive Rovers make these run-ins more manageable. “Walks are now possible and enjoyable. We just need to keep a lookout and have plenty of treats on hand.” Samantha says. “Overall, we can tell Thorin is much more confident.”
All images courtesy of Pippin_Thorin on Instagram.