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Part I, Reality Bites: Tips On Preventing and Managing Dog Aggression

Developing empathy for for a common misconception.

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of presenting a lecture on dog aggression at The Pet Pantry Warehouse in Greenwich, Ct. During my talk, there were several happy “ah-ha” moments. It was really gratifying to watch my audience go from anxious concern to confident understanding.

I brought my whole crew: two adult dogs and a rambunctious puppy. I always bring my dogs and I’m puzzled by trainers who don’t incorporate their own dogs into their lectures or events. After all, I am a dog trainer and if my dogs don’t know how to behave, then what message is it sending to people who might turn to me for help? 

During my lecture, two points made the greatest impact on my audience, and I offer them to you for consideration. The more we know about another species, the better able we are to improve their overall existence and ultimately their behavior.

  • Self-Protective Aggression. This is defined as a situation in which dogs show aggression towards strangers (dogs or people) who approach their personal space, either inside the home or when walking (often on leash) away from the home. While it often gets confused as territorial aggression, it is more fear-based and self-serving. Seeds of this fearful, reactive behavior can be seen early. When a young dog is approached by often well-intentioned admirers, he may misread this adoration as a predatory approach. As this same puppy matures, he may assume a more self-protective stance and self-protective aggression is the result. It is a common form of aggression. Ideally puppies are raised or dogs are taught to look to their people for reassurance, but unless owners are properly “trained” to watch for this reaction, it often goes unnoticed until it becomes more pronounced. Generic dog training should (though often doesn’t) teach owners how to “listen” to their dog’s behavior; 
  • Territorial Aggression A home is a dog’s den. It is a place where they should feel safe, nurtured and protected. The familiar areas outside a home are considered “territory” and dogs are prone to alert to all activities surrounding the territory. The dog that barks frenetically and runs the periphery of the territory is simply assuming the task of boarder patrol and responding to the consequent attentions of their people. If you yell at your dog for doing this, he will translate it into barking – he’ll think you’re backing him up. If you try to grab at or chase your dog when he runs at or chases another dog, you will heighten his awareness to the alarm and guarantee a repeat performance – often of escalating intensity. A more pronounced aggressive display often develops.

So how does one cope with these reactive behaviors or how can you arrest the tendencies in early puppyhood? The first step is empathy – to recognize your dog as a thinking, feeling, responsive being that will react in relatively predictable way due to a mix of genetic programming and human reinforcement. 

Next you need to assume the role of the authority figure and teach them human language as you’d teach a foreigner English as a second language. Once you're heading down that road, every effort must be made to expose and link more positive reactions to overwhelming situations (rewards may be in the form of ).

The two types of reactions listed above result from a puppy maturing with the perception that their reactions are acceptable and warranted: that unpredictable noises may bring chaos, and that unfamiliar people/dogs are dangerous. And further – and most importantly, that their behavior controls the intensity of the situation, keeping "danger" at bay.

The good news is that it is as easy to train most dogs to look to their person(s) for translation and to redirect the situation. In the end, all dogs are more relaxed and well mannered when they have a reassuring authority figure at the helm of their little lifeboat. Tune in next column for part two, and meet Toby – a live case study who arrived at the lecture and overcame his fears!  

joy January 31, 2012 at 08:44 PM
Not aggression, but my adorable dog gets sassy with passerbys and cars sometimes. Most pass with ease and with no notice or a polite encounter, but even so often (every 10 humans that pass or so) she will pass them and, as soon as we go by, will turn around and lunge at them. No teeth showing, but she barks. I am usually between her and the people, so she never actually touches them. Never at dogs, sometimes at kids/elderly/grownups. But it freaks some people out, even if she is very sweet and never mouths anyone even. Bizarre, welcome to any ideas…
Sarah Hodgson February 01, 2012 at 02:22 AM
Not so bizarre actually; I like most people I meet, but there is that 1-in -10 for me that just rub me the wrong way. Mind you I don't lunge or bark, but then again I'm not on leash. It's important that all dog learn to walk next to their people and routinely "reference" (i.e. look up to the person) when unpredicted or startling events occur. Her reaction is self directed and self-protective; in every case you want her to look to you for a read on the situation. Making personal recommendations without meeting her is not in anyones best interest, as what works for one dog can make their assertive reactions worse in another. Explore your different conditioning collar choices (no pull harness, or Gentle Leader) and continue keeping her behind you on a leash. For more tips check out WhenDogsTalk.com--if you plug aggression into the search bar you'll find more info. Next week my column will highlight just this type of situation. S
Sarah Hodgson February 01, 2012 at 02:25 AM
You are right that that one incident prompted her leash-related reactivity. Kudos on the insightfulness. Molly sounds like an amazing dog! That said, she can't play this old record in her head every time she's on a leash. Use one of the conditioning collars mentioned in the comment below and teach her to look to you and walk next to you when out and about. This is a frustration I can solve in a single session: I'm here if you need me (or search out another training who can help you with this specific problem). If you can't solve it it will get worse as she ages. And really it is a simple quick fix.
joy February 01, 2012 at 02:43 PM
Thanks so very much!
theresa locher June 10, 2013 at 01:56 AM
I have wrote to you before maybe 2 years ago about the 2 aggressive dogs living next door to me in our condo, one of the dogs had gotten out of the house and came over to my patio and tried to attack my dog ( lab mix ) she is very sweet we are not talking any more from that time to the women next door, she still has the dogs pitbull mix ??? every time she comes out of her house the one dog comes out wanting to fight its terrible we can t even sit on our patio any more because the dogs go nuts attacking their glass sliding doors condo people said they can t do any thing went to police to make a report at that time said he would talk to the owner... called me back that night & said i should try and get along with the dogs that there only doing ther job protecting there owner.... well 2 years later & i can t enjoy living here i can t afford to move believe me i ve tryed i don t know what to do ? do you know of any laws here in yorktown that maybe some thing can be done ? i don t know if they have a licence or shots or does her insurance company know any help ??? thank you T.

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