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.