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Part III: Training the Aggression Out of the Dog—Or Not

Understanding and managing dog aggression.

Recently, I’ve been focusing on . I’ve profiled Toby, a young rescue dog with a defensively aggressive reaction to men. concludes today—with a heartening ending—but not all aggression cases end so happily. Some dogs are so reactive that they are a danger to children/people, but many aggressive behaviors can be modified, especially when they are addressed in the early stages.  

It's a misnomer that aggression can be trained out of a dog: aggression is not a behavior such as jumping or chewing, it's a natural response to high levels of fear or frustration.  

A dog who is showing aggression needs empathy first to understand the roots of their response, and positive reinforement training to redirect their focus and control/contain their impulses.

If you remember Toby’s story, you’ll recall that he had serious man issues. Even a distant masculine silhouette sent Toby into full freak-out mode. Leash walks were a trial involving lots of pulling, sniffing and excessive marking. When he was loose in the dog park, Toby would frolic happily with other dogs but woe unto any man who entered the Toby zone. Toby’s over-the-top reaction caused Jessie, his owner, to grip the leash very tightly or, if Toby was loose, race up to him, shouting.

I explained to Jessie that Toby, a rescue dog, was trying to identify his new role in her home. He is exhibiting a very defensive reaction to men, which likely stems from either a lack of socialization with men or a direct traumatic experience at the hands of a man. 

It is not uncommon for small dogs to be intimidated by men. Even a head-on approach by a well-meaning man can be overwhelming and cause a lifelong phobia if the dog is not socialized with and handled regularly by men from an early age.

My regime for Jessie and Toby had immediate, positive and prolonged results. During our first meeting, I introduced Toby to my husband. Roman is a mellow and dog-centric sort of guy and Toby allowed him, after some encouragement, to present a for his consideration. Jessie put him (Toby, not Roman) in a sit-stay and Toby accepted the treat, albeit cautiously.

Three days after our first consultation, Jessie attended my aggression lecture in Greenwich, CT and reported good results. Over the next few weeks, she continued to walk with Toby instead of behind him and instructing “back” whenever men passed.

Copying Roman’s greeting approach, Toby is slowing overcoming his fear of men and is learning a new pattern with Jessie—he depends on her to protect him when he feels unsettled or frightened of new situations or people. In the end, that is the essence of good dog training, that a dog feels a strong and profound emotional connection to a human so that in confusing or stressful situations he will look for instruction rather than react impulsively. 

I end this series with a recent email from Toby’s Jessie. She writes on Feb. 21, 2012: “I am particularly happy that rather than being the scourge of the neighborhood Toby has a growing fan club of family, friends and neighbors (one neighbor—a non dog owner—asked if she could schedule play dates with the Tobester). Success!”

Aggression is still a closet subject—people feel tremendous shame or embarrassment when their dog is reactive, though aggression is a very normal reponse to fear of frustation. Only in understanding it can we help our canine friends to manage their impulses and feel safe, calm and emotionally grounded.

Bring your thoughts here and share your stories!

Sarah Hodgson February 26, 2012 at 12:10 AM
Discuss your experiences with canine aggression. Next week I will debunk the "dominance theory" model: now considered outdated by all respected canine theorist, including those at the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association). Dogs who use aggression to ally feelings of extreme fear or frustration are not dominant dog per se. Tune in next week and help me shape the column by adding your comments here.
Christine February 26, 2012 at 01:22 PM
I know a westie who becomes aggressive near her food or whenever she is under a table. Other than that she is a great dog.

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