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Dealing with Aggression
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Dealing with Aggression

My definition of aggression is "any attempt to intimidate." How should we respond to a dog that is trying to intimidate another dog or a person? In my 30+ years of teaching obedience classes, I have found that almost all acts of aggression are easily changed.  Dogs are problem solvers. If the dog believes that acting aggressively will solve his problem, he will act that way (Read "How Dogs Learn"). 

Some Case Studies:

  1. The Bad Actor: Daisy, the Cocker Spaniel showed up with her owner to attend the first night of beginning obedience class. She sat between her owner’s feet. Whenever another dog moved in her direction, she flew to the end of the leash growling and snarling. I gave the owner a “penny bottle,” that is an empty water bottle with 2-3 pennies inside. The next time Daisy lunged at another dog, the owner tapped her on the head with the penny bottle. It took two repetitions before Daisy was looking away or at her owner as opposed to the other dogs in class.

  2. The Bike Chaser: “Slade” was a Weimaraner that loved to chase cars. Soon he was chasing bicyclists and joggers as well. The problem came to a head when Slade chased and bit a tri-athlete in the calf as he rode by on his bicycle. It was easy to set-up Slade.  Riding on a bike past the house, armed with penny bottles and water balloons, when Slade sprinted at the bike, the rider simply turned toward Slade and started shouting, throwing penny bottles and water balloons. The cyclist chased Slade right up to the front porch. It took 3-4 set-ups over the course of two weeks and Slade was convinced that barking and running to the porch was much safer than barking and chasing anyone.

  3. The Bowl Defender: Coal, the Newfoundland, thought it was perfectly OK to growl at any family member who approached him while he was eating. The owner was under the impression that Coal should be willing to let people walk up and even put their hands in his bowl while he was eating. Actually, it is quite unnatural for two dogs to willingly chew on the same bone or eat out of the same bowl at the same time. Generally one dog gives up the object to the other. We explained to the owner that it was not only unnecessary but also unnatural for Coal to be comfortable eating while the owner’s hand was in his bowl. Instead, we taught the owner that when he set down Coal’s food and walked away, he was giving Coal permission to eat. However, if the owner wanted to go near the food, Coal needed to back away from the bowl. Leaving Coal on a long line, the owner put down Coal’s food and walked to the end of the long line. After Coal started eating, he calmly said, “Coal, Come.” When Coal didn’t come, he gave a tug on the line and made Coal leave the food and come. He then told Coal to sit and went and picked up the food. Within four meals Coal learned that when someone came toward him while he was eating, it was necessary to move away from the bowl and offer to share his possession, not defend it.
Typically, dogs that are acting aggressively are doing so for one of four reasons:
  1. Possession Aggression - This is a dog that defends his food, bone, or toy. He is trying to defend some object that he doesn’t want anyone else to take from him.
  2. Area Aggression - This is a dog that is acting aggressively in his crate, his car, his house, his yard, etc. He is trying to defend his area.
  3. Fear Aggression - A dog’s instinct is fight or flight. If the dog cannot flee, he may act aggressively to defend himself.
  4. Dominance Aggression - This dog is typically the one that thinks he’s in charge of the family or all the other dogs in the family and is going discipline anyone that he thinks is behaving improperly.

By the time an owner is concerned enough to seek professional advice, it is rare for the dog to be exhibiting only one type of aggression. Because dogs are problem solvers, they quickly discover that aggression solves their problem. The puppy that was growling to keep the children away from him while he is eating (possession aggression) then tries to growl to keep people from moving him off the furniture (area aggression).

How do you deal with a dog that has learned that aggression works? Most of the time, it can be quite simple. The dog thinks that he can solve his “problem” by acting aggressively, and has never been shown another way to behave. In the case of Daisy, who was exhibiting area aggression, it was easy to come up with a correction that offended her. She quickly realized that a bop on the head with a penny bottle was a much bigger problem than the problem she perceived the other dogs to be.

Slade, also exhibiting a form of area aggression, was chasing cars and bikes because he perceived that he was successfully chasing them away. Once he found out that they would not leave, but would chase him back, he was largely cured. Pairing that with the noise of a penny bottle and the offensiveness of getting wet when a water balloon exploded near him was enough to make him understand that the consequences of being chased were much worse than the joy of chasing.

Possession aggression is often cured when a dog finds out that he has to be obedient even when he has an object to defend. Enforcing obedience commands gave Coal something more important to think about than defending his possessions.

However, for some dogs, aggression is more complicated. Before any owner can stop a dog that is acting aggressively, he needs to be sure that the dog believes that he must be submissive to the owner.

On August 7, I am conducting a webinar about teaching obedience classes. Included in that webinar there will be a demonstration to show you exactly how we teach our students to respond to aggressive behavior. If you cannot attend live, you will receive a recording of the webinar within a few days.

Meanwhile, feel free to send me your questions so that I can be sure to answer them the night of the webinar.