Monday, March 30, 2009

Training Rant - The Aggressive Dog

A fellow blogger, Fred, asked "Will you be doing any posts on how you're dealing with the aggression? Very interested." as a response to my post about the latest foster dog we have. For those who didn't read the post, you can read it here.

First off, I'd like to encourage everyone reading this blog to go check out Fred's blog, One Bark at a Time. It's a great blog about everything from his adventures in volunteering to experiences with his own dogs to general dog related topics.

Now, back to the point. How do I deal with the aggression? What a great question ... but bloody hard to answer! Each dog is different so it's hard to pinpoint a specific answer, but I will try to do the best I can.

I always look for a hands-off approach when working with these dogs. Why? Because I don't want to get bitten and I don't want to make the problem worse! I am a small person and not that strong. Most of the dogs I work with are stronger than me; a few are heavier. The thing that too many people don't understand is you don't rehab dogs by being the strongest or "dominant".

Generally, the dogs I get are the ones that are on euth-row. Most can't be handled by people, many have shown signs of aggression, some have bitten, almost all of them are simply shy and scared and have found that showing aggression is the best way to deal with their problems.

The first thing I do is determine why the dog is showing aggression. What is fueling it? Boredom? Fear? Anger? Frustration? Once you know why, you can start addressing the problem. Also, I usually isolate the dog I'm working with and start introducing stimuli one at a time so I can figure out what their issues are. When I find an issue, I work the dog through it.

Remember the post I put up about expectations? Always remember to set your expectations somewhere where the dog can reach. If you want to raise your expectations, than you should set them up for success so they can meet them.

For example, this is what I expected walking into my latest foster situation.
At the end of the first day I worked with her, I expected she would take a cookie from my hand.
By the first week, I expected she would take a cookie when I was standing and she wouldn't back away after taking a cookie from my hand when I was squatting down.
By the second week, I expected that she would allow me to touch her lightly and that she would take a cookie from me when I was taking a few steps.
By the third week, I expected that I could put a leash on her with some resistance.

When she showed aggression towards me (snapping at my hand), I knew she was trying to scare me (from what I could tell, she wasn't really a biter) so I called her bluff - that gamble paid off. We had a few power struggles, but she won none of them. Once I set myself up to be the one who calls the shots, I knew I could control any situation we walked into together.

When she showed aggression towards my dogs, I corrected with a leash tug and No. When she launched herself into the air to grab them, I stepped between them and used my big-angry voice (which was new for her) while simultaneously controlling the situation with the attached leash. With this particular dog, I knew that would be enough which is why I allowed the situation to exist in the first place. My dogs were told to Stay (if they left, she would have learned that this behaviour causes the dogs to leave which is what she wants). Once we were all calmed down (which took almost 10 minutes) and there were no more residual growls and all the dogs were looking at me, each got a cookie. We have been working with this and she is now to the point where she will physically show her stress (head shift, ear moves, muscles tense, face moves, etc), but she will not bite, nor verbalize - almost there, but not quite.
This only works because I have put enough foundation training into my own dogs that I can trust them explicitly. I know exactly what they are going to do because I have trained them how to react with these situations. They are experienced enough now that they will follow my direction without the need for a leash or a second handler to correct (provided they are within 15 ft). They also trust me to control the situation.
When I know the problem is more (example, the rottweiler/ridgeback x last summer/fall) than I start with people being the first stimuli. When the dog is ok with people, I get my husband to walk one of our dogs and we begin working the foster's thresholds (I'm still teaching my dogs how to stop and sit on command at specific points far away from me - so far they will do it 15 ft or less away but it needs to be further). In that case, because I knew the aggression was borne out of more than simple fear, we dealt with it differently and didn't allow the foster into a situation where she will fail. Always know your expectations and encourage the next step (but only the next step - don't leap!)

Every little reaction, every act is a learned behaviour. People forget that.

So, here are the things you need to know when working a dog with issues:
Why is the dog showing aggression?
Will the dog bite you/others or is it simply a show?
What are the dogs thresholds?

Once you have determined the answers to those questions, you can begin working with the dog and setting him or her up for success.


Sully said...


GoLightly said...



Poor dogs, their poor brains.

Twisted to a T. By their previous owner..

DogsDeserveFreedom said...


It's hard for me to do generalized posts about something as broad as aggression.

Like I said, each dog is so different as is each circumstance :)

Barb said...

Great post, thank you!

Do you encounter many dogs who have been taught not to growl or give other warnings of distress/anger etc? That seems to be a fairly common problem we see - apparently there are a LOT of people who will correct a dog every time it growls without ever trying to figure out what it was upset about. So the dog learns to not give those easy-to-recognize warning signs. You'll still see the subtler warning signs but those won't be picked up by most people. Then the dog bites or snaps at them (because they've given it no other option) and they take it to the pound.

DogsDeserveFreedom said...

Great question Barb. The short answer?

When you first start working with a dog, you find out their thresholds, then you start making them smaller. Growling is a threshold. It can also be used as a warning.

I teach the dogs not to react to things with stress (including growling). If the dog gets to a growl, I have failed because I should have redirected well before the dog was ready to growl. You can see the stress building in the dog before it growls.

When you are first working a dog, you do need to push those thresholds to see where they are. Once you know them, you fix them.

You're right - many people correct the dog, but then don't address the real problem. That's a problem in and of itself.

I will blog about this for a more detailed answer. I've rewritten this answer a few times and it always ends up being WAY too long!

Sully said...

Do your dogs have a pecking order? Is there an alpha dog other than you? I have read that 'I' should be the alpha and all of them below me, but I have three large breeds and one is dominant over the other two. He is non-aggressive, but definitely the boss dog. Is this a problem?

DogsDeserveFreedom said...

Sully - yes, my dogs do have a pecking order, however I don't allow them to exercise it while I am home. I don't allow one dog to steal from another; feeding is staggered to prevent "favourites"; no dog is allowed to interrupt another when receiving attention from a handler; etc. The list goes on.

The only way I could prevent a pecking order from being created when we are not home would be to prevent them from being together when not monitored (example, crating separately). Since we allow our own dogs to be free-roaming in certain rooms of the house together, they will develop their own relationship without our interference (though you can set this up as a preset behaviour)

There have been conflicting opinions about pecking orders and its importance in a dog's family. I feel a pecking order is a natural occurrence when dealing with most pack oriented animals.

It is how you deal with this knowledge that is important.

I have found that, as is common with many things, people use a pecking order as an excuse not to train their dogs properly.

(Note the foster dogs' interaction with everything is limited to the confines of crates/kennels unless we're actively monitoring)

Sully said...

My big boy Rocko, the rhodie mix, just does small things like not move when another dog wants him to. He tried the guard different dog bowls thing so no one could eat until he was done. I separated their bowls farther apart to make this impossible. I have caught him being a little possessive of the toys (gathering them and laying on them) and showing his teeth when the others approach to get one. I just give him my 'disappointed' look and it hasn't happened to my knowledge since. I spy on them in the yard frequently.

I just didn't see why it mattered if one dog was king as long as he isn't aggressive.

Now if I can get Rocko to quit blocking the entrance to the dog house so the others can't get in we will be in good shape. Three dog houses and they insist on all being in the same one. *rolls eyes*

DogsDeserveFreedom said...

Sully - the thing is that as long as the dynamics in your group never change you won't have a problem. However, dogs get older. If you have a dog older than Rocko you may find that as he/she ages, Rocko will be more and more pushy with that dog. I'll blog about this in more detail to explain a bit better.

DogsDeserveFreedom said...

Sorry Sully - forgot to finish that first thought. I was going to say that the dynamics will always be changing, so you can't depend on them to stay the same.

Sully said...

Rocko will be 6 this year. The other two are girl (2) and boy (1). Neela is lazy lazy lazy girl and doesn't care who is boss as long as it doesn't involve her having to do anything other than sleep and eat. Charlie is a big doof and doesn't push it too much YET.

Thanks for the advice.