English Mastiff goes from kind to scary when he’s on a leash

By Helin Jung
Updated March 02, 2010 07:59 PM
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Dear Ethel:

I own a beautiful English Mastiff named Murphy. We got him when he was 8 weeks old from a breeder. He is normally a gentle giant, great with everyone, including young children, our pet rabbit and our other dogs. Put him on a leash and he turns into psycho dog when he sees an unfamiliar dog. His fur stands on end, he growls and he could drag a 350-lb. linebacker down the street. Off-leash, he just wants to play. It is embarrassing to say the least. We use a nose ring collar with a two-loop leash.

We would love to take him to the park more but he scares people with his theatrics. He doesn’t want to fight, just play. He has never ever attempted to bite. Thank you for any help you can give.

–Jekyll/Hyde’s Mom

Dear J/HM,

Whether it’s in humans or dogs, such starkly-contrasting behavior is confusing (She loves me, but she yells at me when she’s drunk!). Believe it or not, you’re dealing with a fairly common problem. The catch is that it’s a fixer-upper. Oh, when is it not? This stuff always takes work.

You might not realize it, but you’re probably too slow on the uptake. By the time Murphy shows his aggression and goes psycho, it’s too late to stop and redirect him. We have to backtrack a bit, anyway, because you can’t teach someone how to drive stick shift in the middle of rush-hour traffic.

Dog trainer Bette Yip (CPDT) says you need to take it to the equivalent of an empty parking lot and start working with Murphy when there are zero distractions. No more park for at least a few weeks.

You’re going to want to teach Murphy something like a touch game. The idea is, when you’re out in public with other dogs, you’ll have a tool with which to redirect him.

Teach him to bump his nose to your fist, and use your fist to turn his body in whatever direction you’d like him to face. You’ll be breaking his focus with an activity that involves less pressure than a “sit” or “stay” command.

So, once you’ve worked tirelessly on this new cue, gradually build up to walking down the sidewalk, then move to the park during off-peak hours. Solicit the help of friends/neighbors/strangers so you can set up a controlled area for practice. Ask them to have their dogs walk toward Murphy, and the minute you notice him go on alert – before he starts going crazy – play the touch game and redirect his focus.

“What’s much more useful is for people to notice that a situation is brewing,” Yip says. “Here comes the storm. When you first notice that your dog is potentially about to make a mistake, redirect him to a new behavior.”

Learn your dog’s own body language. Learn his triggers. Eventually, Murphy will learn that he needs to earn access to the other dogs by showing good behavior.

–Ethel

Got a thorny pet (any pet!) problem that you can’t figure out? Try Ethel – she’ll do her best to help. Send your questions to helin@peoplepets.com or send us a message on Twitter or Facebook.