Question: I am a first time dog owner with a 6 month old female Shiba Inu. I got her from a breeder whom I met at the Golden Gate Kennel Club Dog Show a few years ago. I told the breeder I was not interested in ever showing the dog and simply wanted a good companion pet. Did the breeder take my needs into consideration? NO! She paired me with a singleton puppy who exhibits a laundry list of behavioral problems, at the top of which are lack of bite inhibition and no impulse control.10 days after I brought her home at the age of 8-1/2 weeks, I decided to work intensively with a highly recommended dog trainer who uses only positive reinforcement techniques. In addition to one or two weekly training sessions, I boarded her on two separate occasions with our trainer for a total of 3 weeks. My problem is that she continues to bite me sporadically when I put on her harness to take her for walks and long line exercise. Because there are no consequences for bad behavior (only the reprimands "settle" or "Uh-Uh"), I never know when she will lash out at me in irritation. Short of aversive training, is there any way to show this alpha puppy that in my house she must follow my rules and biting is a capital offense? Kidding, of course.
Answer: There is a lot in your question. First, Shibas in general are very difficult dogs. In many ways you could say they are more like cats – fussy, overly sensitive and very temperamental. In my puppy classes the Shibas often have great difficulty with handling exercises and it takes quite some time to get to the point where the dog can be handled in any way you see fit without throwing a fit, including biting. Second, positive “only” training is, at least in my not so humble opinion, a severely limited, one-dimensional and often ineffective way of training a dog. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not the positive part that’s the problem. Of course we want to do as much positive as possible! It’s the “only” part that’s the problem and the fact that you are simply not allowed to do anything else. In other words, out of the 4 generally accepted training modalities – positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment – this approach ignores 75% of available training methodologies and tries to squeeze every dog and its issues through the remaining 25%. When that doesn’t work trainers who advocate this will often either tell you that you’re not working hard enough or that your dog is untrainable. They’ll generally never concede that maybe their approach has limitations and at the same time castigate anyone who will try a more comprehensive approach to difficult situations like yours.
That said, your situation is complex and, as said, Shibas are very difficult. A proper combination of “rank management,” desensitization, and more self-assertion on your part should enable to get to the other side of this. In fact, I’ve yet to meet a Shiba, or any other dog, that could not get to the other side of these temper tantrums. Shibas just offer extra challenges in this department. Short of meeting the dog, it is difficult to offer simple suggestions as working with Shibas often becomes more art than science as we navigate the rather uneven terrain of their psyches.