Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Dog Aggression FAQ's

What is dog aggression?

For the purpose of this blog post, we will define “dog aggression” as any circumstance in which a dog displays an undesired behavior toward another dog. This behavior could be as simple as excessive barking or may be a more severe reaction such as snarling, snapping, or biting. There are a number of triggers for these behaviors, but they all fall under the umbrella of “dog aggression.”

What causes dog aggression?
A common misconception people have about dog aggression is that it is purely a result of poor socialization and it can be “cured” with training/dog parks/play dates/etc.  The cause of dog aggression is actually multifactorial; a combination of nature and nurture. Sure, poor upbringing and lack of socialization play a part in the development of dog aggression, but so do genetics.  Just like humans, dogs’ personalities are highly variable. Some are born to be outgoing and universally dog friendly while some are born to be more reserved and dog selective.
The age of the dog also plays a role in dog aggression. Often puppies are very dog friendly, but their dog tolerance can change as they reach maturity (around 2-3 years of age).
What triggers dog aggressive behaviors?
Aggressive behaviors can be triggered by a variety of circumstances and the purpose of the aggression can range from protection of resources/territory (toys, food, spot on the bed, etc) to formation of a social hierarchy (establishment of alpha dominance).

My dog gets along with some dogs, but not others. Does that mean that he/she is dog aggressive?
Bad Rap has a wonderful article about dog tolerance levels. They describe four tolerance categories (dog social, tolerant, selective, and aggressive) and explain that these categories are constantly in flux. A dog that was previously dog social can lose tolerance as they mature and ultimately fall into a more dog selective category. I think it is important to figure out where your dog’s tolerance level falls. When you understand your dog’s preferences you can better prepare yourself to manage the situations to which your dog is exposed. 
What can I do to improve my dog’s behavior with other dogs?
First and foremost, the best thing you can do for your dog is to set him up for success. Don’t put your dog in situations that result in the undesired behavior. Avoidance of triggers is the easiest and most effective way to manage dog aggression. For example: is your dog possessive of his toys? Then pick up the toys when other dogs are around. Do your dogs fight over food? Then feed them separately. Does your dog hate strange dogs running up to him? Then the dog park is not the ideal setting for him.
Once you learn to avoid triggers, you will be 75% of the way to a happier household. The remaining 25% of your energy can then be spent on training and behavior modification exercises.

Why do I need to manage my dog’s interactions?
Have you ever met a person that you don’t like? Perhaps that person is too rude, too bossy, or too awkward. Whatever it is, you’d just prefer to avoid any future encounters with that person. It doesn’t mean that you hate all people, it just means that there are certain personalities that don’t mesh with yours. The upside for us is humans have the ability to alter their situation. We can control our level of interaction with people we don’t like. Dogs can’t. They rely on us to do that for them.

What are some training exercises to help with dog aggression?
The best training trick you can teach your dog is “focus.”  The ability to gain your dog’s focus despite any surrounding chaos can help in a wide range of situations. Imagine you are walking your dog when he suddenly sees a squirrel. Without a second thought, little Fido jerks the leash from your hand and takes off running. He is just about to run into oncoming traffic when you shout a stern “Fido!” and he stops dead in his tracks and turns to look at you. All of that “focus” training just totally paid off, didn’t it?
Harry practicing his "focus" while Layla
watches squirrels
To practice gaining focus, start in your house with a low level of distraction. Keep a few tasty treats on hand and watch your dog as he goes about his business. As soon as his focus seems to be away from you, say his name once, in a happy tone. If he turns to look at you, reward him with a treat. Continue practicing, increasing the distractions as he learns.
The “focus” in response to verbal command generally works great at home, but sometimes once you are outside amidst the excitement of a walk the verbal recall is not as effective. In these situations, I find that bringing my dogs’ favorite squeaky toy is a miraculous replacement for my voice. Here, I give one squeak on the toy alongside my verbal command and “POW!”... I’ve got their attention again.
When you notice your dog’s attention turning negatively toward another dog, use the “focus” trick as a tool to get your dog’s attention back onto you. Once you regain focus, remove the trigger as quickly as possible to prevent any further negative behaviors. 

Our dog does well with other dogs outside the home, but he/she is not adjusting well to the new dog we brought home. What can we do?
I highly recommend a process called “crate and rotate” whenever you bring a new dog into the home. “Crate and rotate” is an exercise where for a set period of time (generally 1-2 weeks) you keep your resident dog and your new dog completely separate from each other. This means that only one dog is out at a time.
This period of separation allows your resident dog to accept the fact that there is a new dog in the home and that this dog is there to stay. At the same time, it allows the new dog time to adjust to his new surroundings without the added stress of having to meet and interact with his new canine sibling.

Ringo and Crosby practcing side-by-side walking
I know that “crate and rotate” is not ideal. Taking dogs outside to potty separately and having to spend time with each of them individually is time consuming and exhausting! But trust me, giving both dogs time to adjust before forcing an introduction will make a world of difference in how well they are able to get along.
Another trick I often resort to when things seem a little tense between the Drool Crew members is side-by-side walking. This exercise is best when there are two people (one to walk each dog). Walk the dogs side by side, first with the dogs on the outsides of the two humans. As the walk progresses, allow the dogs to walk side by side, between the two humans.  Side-by-side walking allows the dogs to exercise and bond as pack members all while reinforcing the humans as their pack leaders. 

Every dog should get to go to the dog park and have doggy friends. Don’t you think avoiding these “triggers” is unfair to my dog?
Absolutely not! It’s not unfair to avoid situations that make your dog uncomfortable. It is, however, unfair to continue to put him into situations in which he cannot succeed. His well-being is dependent upon you, and being forced outside of his comfort zone is not in anybody’s best interest.
Oftentimes people project their wants/needs onto their pet. It is YOU that wants to go to the dog park. YOU want your dog to get along with your friends’ dogs. YOU want to bring home a second dog. YOU think your dog is missing out on a great experience, but I can assure you…he is not.
Your dog doesn’t want anything beyond your love and affection.


  1. Great, great article!! I really needed this. Our younger beagle has been reactive to other dogs when I've been walking her. In both cases the other dogs were unleashed which I know is part of the problem, but I'm still not sure how she'll be even when meeting other leashed dogs. Mostly I avoid walking her in places when I think we'll meet other dogs. I've always kind of felt that avoidance was not a good thing....so it's great to hear that it is not bad. I still plan to work with her to try to get her better...and you gave great clear instructions on this "focus" technique. We are considering adding another dog and this has been one of my concerns. Thank you!!

    1. Jan, I'm glad you found the article to be helpful. Good luck with the focus training!!

  2. Great article!! I love the last part about "YOU" the most. Reminds me of C. Milan

  3. This is a very nice post! Drools Dog Food

    is one of the best foods.

  4. Thank you for taking some time to write this post. This is by far one of the most common problems that dog owners face, and it’s actually one of the most prominent fears that new dog owners have to think of for quite a while until they understand how to prevent it from happening. See more http://dogsaholic.com/training/my-dog-hates-other-dogs.html