Taming Dog Aggression
By Susan Garlinghouse DVM
Puppies usually learn how to interact with other friendly dogs during early life . However, for a variety of reasons, that doesn’t always happen, and such pups can grow up with poor social skills, unable to decipher and understand the body language of other dogs. As they mature, they can develop fear-based dog aggression—barking, growling, lunging or worse, which often gets more ingrained with time.
It would intuitively seem like the best way to discourage such behavior is to rebuke the dog or give a quick pop on the leash to reprimand for dog agression. However, doing so actually makes things worse, as punishment simply reinforces his anxiety that being around other dogs means bad things will happen.
Not Stranger Danger—It’s Time for Treats!
Instead, create a scenario with a positive association between seeing another dog and receiving a reward, so that your dog will eventually think, “Hey, there’s a dog over there! Forget about barking, where’s my treat?”
Set this up with a friend and non-reactive, on-leash dog approximately 50 yards away. Choose a position where the friend’s dog can move completely out of sight between short passes. Regardless of how excited your dog is reacting, ignore everything and concentrate on “jolly talking” and continuously passing out high-value treats (bits of boiled chicken works great). The moment your friend passes out of sight, all rewards stop. Do not reprimand for excited behavior, or ask for any behavior other than “eat this good thing.” Starting with a hungry dog helps, so feel free to skip feeding breakfast until after the training session.
Changing Dog Aggression to ‘Calm’ Takes Time
BE PATIENT. It might take numerous passes until your dog realizes nothing exciting is happening with the friend’s dog and the food is more interesting. Enthusiastically reward when his attention switches to you instead, even briefly. Over time, this teaches your pet that the presence of another dog means only good things, and diminishes stress-related aggression.
With consistent sessions (yes, this will take time), the other dog can gradually move closer, with the goal of being able to walk past within a few feet without strong reaction from your dog. This won’t happen overnight, and different dogs need varying amounts of time to learn calmness in stressful situations. Keep those food rewards coming, and eventually start to gently guide your dog into further positive behaviors, such as sit, walk a short distance on leash without pulling, etc. Help your dog look forward to these sessions by only offering high value food rewards during these lessons and nowhere else.
Keep Things Positive
Keep training methods positive, and remember to never use any negative reinforcement during these lessons, so as not to encourage his perception that he should be anxious and defensive around other dogs. No pinch or slip-chain collars, just a well-fitting web collar or harness. No matter what, stay calm and positive yourself—dogs are intuitive at responding to your own tension.
As your dog learns that the presence of other dogs means yummy treats, switch to different locations and different dogs. Eventually, work towards the goal of attending an adult dog obedience class to further socialize and educate your dog.
Be realistic about your goals. No dog is going to be perfect every time in every situation, so use good sense when encountering new dogs and new friends. In some cases, you might need to consult with your veterinarian for prescribed drugs to help keep everything calm and controlled until the behavioral problems have been resolved.