I consult with many hundreds of desperate dogs owners every year that have dogs that display dog aggression towards other dogs, either at our facility in a Behaviour Consult, through our Board and Rehab programs, via interstate Behaviour Consults and or by Phone Consultation so I have a lot of experience when it comes to dog aggression.
We have dogs referred to us by vets, pounds, councils, dog clubs, trainers and past clients and more than 50% of my work is dog aggression related problems.
Whilst there are many that claim to have the answer to this much asked question but I will cover a few things that I feel are strong contributors to the (almost) epidemic that we face these days.
When people get a puppy they are quick to be advised by everyone from the breeder to their neighbour that the puppy most be “socialised“. Few explain what that actually is and most people have no goal in mind other than to “socialise” the pup.
So they take their pup out and let it become friends with everyone and play with every dog and along the way one of two things happen: –
- The pup establishes an extreme high value for other dogs, loves them, goes NUTs when it see’s one.
- In the process of exposing the pup to other dogs, an older dog that is aggressive attacks or at least frightens the pup and the pup becomes traumatised. The pup owner examines the pup and there are no physical injuries so nothing to worry out, but a few months later, that pup erupts in aggression when it is faced with another dog.
Let’s look an each of these in a little more depth, because this is one of the major causes of frustrated related aggression.
We aim to “neutralise” our pups, meaning we aim to expose them to other dogs and set the “value” to a low rational value. We want the pup to interact with other dogs, but not at the extreme levels that play occurs at. We want to check this value regularly (every two weeks) and make sure that other dogs are not becoming our pups greatest reward.
A simple test would be to allow your pup to interact with another dog and when he or she playing, recall the pup. If the pup “turns and burns” (recalls to you instantly) then you’re still number one. But if you get any less than an instant response, things are getting out of control.
I don’t attend dog play dates or dog parks and I am not on the lookout for dogs for my dogs to play with, so we don’t suffer the aggressive dog in the park either.
I want my adult dog to think that me and my rewards and games are the best things in his life so he need not look elsewhere.
So back to what happens when you “over socialise” your pup and he or she gains a very high value for other dogs.
Well at first, the only problem is that the puppy will be all wiggly around other dogs, this is usually between 8 and 12 weeks.
Next is that your pup is 13 – 30 weeks and the wiggliness has gone in favour of lunging into the leash, running up to every dog he or she see’s, barking, whining or even screaming to get to other dogs and of course you have no obedience or engagement from your puppy at all.
It’s not uncommon for a 6 month old pup to race up to another dog in the park and this trigger an attack from the other dog, who thought the pup was out of line (because he or she is!).
So perhaps this is your German Shepherd Pup, and he has a very high value for other dogs, he is now 7 or 8 months old and when he see’s a dog he goes nuts to get to it. But for now, your stronger and hold him back by the leash, no matter how hard he tries to get to the dog.
Holding a dog back from a reward only serves to increase the value of that reward through frustrated related arousal. We actually use a process like this to motivate the recall, the restrained recall.
Now your German Shepherd is highly aroused and bouncing and lunging into the leash, this is very likely to cause the other dog some stress and that dog shows aggression or, your German Shepherd lets out a big bark or grabs the dog with his mouth.
THIS WORKS, and it becomes your dogs mode of operation with dogs, he sees one, elevates his levels of arousal in a heartbeat, dives and barks into the leash with as much noise and action is possible, this is frustration induced dog aggression.
It is very common, it is very real, the dog is very intent on grabbing, biting and or getting to the other dog, it can morph into predatory aggression and the capture and destruction of small animals.
High values for other dogs is highly risky.
Our second common socialisation issue is when you’re young dog suffers trauma via interaction with another dog. I deliberately avoided saying “being attacked by another dog” because sometimes, all it takes at the right, or should I say wrong time is a fright.
Many people have said that their puppy once met a dog and screamed and tried to get away and all the other dog was doing was trying to play. That event likely was traumatic for this particular dog and can generate (irrational) fears which in early maturity 6 months – 15 months, manifest into dog aggression.
This dog aggression is the dog displaying “distance increasing signals” and whilst there is no desire to hurt the other dog, just get rid of it, sometimes harm does occur.
Interactions with other dogs should be controlled and your pup should always feel safe and without fear. This happens through many repetitions of your dog interacting confidently with other dogs over his early life for at least the first year.
Another type of ineffective socialisation is either no socialisation or not enough socialisation.
I will meet a new puppy owner in a lesson and throughout that lesson, I establish that the puppy is nervous, shy or fearful (breed irrelevant), let’s say the pup is 9 weeks old.
I advise that they take this dog out into public every single day and teach the pup how to interact with people, dogs, children, noises and the world. I would always have food rewards with me and I would layer food into social situations and build more confidence through a lot of controlled exposure with reward.
I will often get told by the puppy owner that they don’t have time and they will definitely take the pup out most weekends.
Puppy comes back later, maybe 6 – 12 months of age and has fear based dog aggression. As soon as the dog see’s a strange dog it barks and lunges, bearing teeth and almost screaming “get away from me!“.
Taking this young dog out every day now will not help, the pup has developed a negative value for dogs and learned to use aggression to ward them off. So now it will take a LOT more work to get this young dog calm in public, back at 9 weeks, it would have been lots of fun exposure, now, you’re dealing with a bigger, stronger dog that is also aggressive. This entails risk both for yours and the public’s safety and you may find you could be facing council too.
Some pups however are full of swagger and would be fine being taken out some weekends, but some definitely need more than that. Not giving them what they need to become comfortable will only require more work and more time needed later.
Know that, most people who bring me aggressive dogs say “but we did socialise him?“.
Not getting the right help
Many people ignore problems, promise to work on them later, go to an obedience club and expect the instructors to solve complex or dangerous behaviour problems in class, consulting Google and or youtube for the answers and or following advice from well meaning friends, neighbours and dog park experts.
If your dog starts to display a behaviour problem, your best chance of extinguishing this behaviour is to get professional help as soon as you see the behaviour.
Rehearsal of behaviour is one of the strongest reinforcers, so this means that as soon as you know there is a problem, seek help, don’t wait.
Time poor owners
These days, time is short, we have so many things to fill our lives that it is hard to get time to do anything. Well this should be considered before you get a dog, even more so when you get a puppy.
People used to walk their dogs to the shops and tie them outside, there could be three or four dogs tied to one post whilst owners picked up the milk and bread. I don’t see that any more, in fact a large percentage of dogs will not tolerate being near other dogs, or even tied up.
Milk and bread is picked up from a convenience store and the dog doesn’t leave the back yard. The weekend comes and we remember our dog and decide to take him for a walk. It’s been a week since he has been out so he is pumped, which means he hasn’t been trained either and he pulls on the leash.
By the time you get home, your arms and shoulders are sore and you really regret that walk. So Sunday comes around and you miss the morning walk in favour of a sleep in but take your dog to the dog park in the afternoon.
Your dog races over to other dogs, get’s in scuffles, won’t come when he is called etc and dragged you to the park. You are really sorry you bothered…
You get home each day and are tired from your long day, and just can’t face walking your dog on Monday, or Tuesday, or Wednesday and then, you put it off Thursday and Friday vowing to take him out on the weekend.
Each time your dog goes out, he is full of pent up energy, lack of exposure and lack of impulse control, so he behaves worse each time.
Dogs need interaction, with you, not other dogs, or grass parks, you. If you have a dog, make the time, if you don’t have the time, don’t get a dog.
Other aggressive dogs
Dog to dog aggression is contagious, this means it can be spread through emotion from one being to another. We have more aggressive dogs these days, if your dog comes across an aggressive dog, this dog will have an effect on your dog. If you have a young dog with little socialisation, it will have a big effect, if you have an older dog, less so, but it will have an effect.
Once your dog has had enough exposure to the “aggression virus“, your dog will contract this behaviour and start to display it too. Just like a disease.
Not only people with aggressive dogs are to be blamed, in fact I often find that is other people who are at fault here. They insist on letting their “friendly” dog race up to yours with no care at all.
This means your aggressive, on leash dog is being pressured by their off leash dog and your dog reacts with a distance increasing signal of aggression, and of course that is another repetition where the behaviour becomes stronger.
For those people that do let their dogs race up to other people and other dogs, remember, not every dog welcomes your (over) friendly dog and he or she could be hurt too, so give some space unless you clear it with the owner.
The thought of a park set up so that dogs could run in a grass, fenced area with other dogs and play and have a great time sounds awesome. But let me tell you this, dog trainers don’t do dog parks.
Why? well for all the above reasons for a start, first what would I hope to gain by going there? A dog that prefers to play with dogs than come when I call?
A dog that goes to the dog park to practice bad manners by racing up to other dogs and jumping all over them?
A dog that went to the park to play and was attacked by that one dog that seems to be at every dog park in the world and goes around attacking other dogs?
Now some people will be saying “no, to have fun and play games“. In my dogs life, that is what I am for, that is why I got a dog.
The dog park model coupled with peoples lack of understanding of dog behaviour is where most of the aggressive dogs learned to be aggressive.
I advise people to avoid dog parks and find other ways to exercise and enjoy your dog, they are too risky, like playing on the road, it’s not if you get run over but when.
Some breeds are more sensitive, aggressive, nervous, confident and or driven than others, and some dogs within a breed are even different than their litter mates, and this is one area that seems to cause a lot of problems.
When a person comes to me and they have an aggressive dog, they will often tell me that their neighbour or postman or work mate gave them some advice on how they should fix it because that person has a dog and it does not have this issue.
It does not work like that. When a dog grows up from puppy to adulthood, it is a journey, a journey that cannot ever be repeated exactly like another and then of course that dog that is owned by your friend has a totally different temperament.
When I meet a dog I assess its temperament, I find out what this dog likes, what are the problem behaviours and what is causing those behaviours, then I set a program to reduce / eliminate the problem behaviours with a program that is suitable for that specific dog.
Many trainers and behaviourists will have a method that they prefer and try to get all the dogs they meet to fit into that method. I don’t believe this works for me, it does not consider the variances that exist between dogs.
Have you ever seen a Kelpie or Border Collie that is ball mad? So have I, millions of them, but I have seen many that are not at all interested in balls, see what I mean? The breed doesn’t determine the way the dog is trained or rehabilitated, its temperament does.
The dogs breed, genetics and environment determine the temperament. When we talk about genetics contributing to a dogs aggression, some dogs are bred to be aggressive. This means the breeders goal is to breed dogs that will pass on aggressive traits to their off spring. These dogs may be used for some type of protection, policing type roll.
Some breeders may breed a dog that has many attributes they like, but may be nervous, over sensitive or fearful and these traits as explained above could produce fearful dogs, fearful dogs are much harder to work with and can display aggression easier, on a whole.
I do a lot of puppy evaluations, whether these be for the private sector, a government department or another reason, and when I see nervous, fearful dogs at 7 weeks, I advise my clients to try and find another litter.
I have been to breeders homes and saw very fearful pups and when I saw the pups mother, she was cowering off to the side at my presence, this not a dog I personally would breed.
The goal for most breeders is to improve the breed, that is stamped into us at every turn, but when it comes to choosing breeding animals, some people either forget this goal or they are too busy focussed on other things and breed unsuitable dogs anyway.
This is a real issue as they are multiplying the problem and extending it by a generation.
The idea here is to choose a good breeder who is producing dogs that you have seen and like the temperament of. You may benefit from a temperament evaluation carried out by a professional with experience in puppy selection for your desired goals.
Remember a puppy is for life (or should be) and it is imperative that you make your choices wisely.
Simple lack of training
Finally although there may be many other reasons, one stands out as one of the more common reasons for problems to arise, its lack of training.
Many people think that “Obedience Training” is for those who wish to compete, when in reality it might be teaching your dog how to understand the world and communicate with you.
To save confusion, I have renamed this “Life Skills“. Life Skills classes with me teach you and your dog core behaviours that will help your dog move through your life with skills to understand what their role should be.
These may include certain calmer behaviours such as sitting on a matt whilst you have visitors over for dinner, or resting comfortably in a crate when you have tradesmen carrying out some work on your house. Walking down the street by your side without pulling, sniffing, lunging, barking or other non cooperative behaviours.
A reliable enough recall that you can let your dog off leash with confidence they will come back when called, even under distraction.
A dog that has an understanding of work ethic, “I do something I get something“, and this will mean they understand how to earn rewards, without being lured or shown the reward, how the owner will communicate with the dog and when the owner will not be around, the dog should not be concerned or anxious.
Many people get a puppy and one of the main short term goals is toilet training. This is a pretty easy thing to teach in a few days to a week, so what are your other goals I might ask.
Remember the best time to start training a puppy is the day that it arrives home, not when he or she is starting to display bad habits or getting so big the pulling is no longer something the owner can cope with.
When a dog has learned and rehearsed undesirable habits, the training needed will have to be remedial. This is more difficult and takes longer than training a dog without issues, much longer and much harder, because you will be combating the old behaviours and teaching the new.
If you don’t have much time to train your pup, start as soon as he or she arrives, that will give you fastest track to a trained dog.
When an owner brings me a dog and tells me what he or she is doing wrong, I ask them “what should the dog be doing?“
I’m often met with a confused look, or they may say “well not that“.
It is very difficult to teach a dog not to do something, but much easier to teach the dog what he or she SHOULD do in this situation. This means teaching and training target behaviours that are usually incompatible with the behaviours your don’t like.
Taking a pro active approach to training will see you with a better behaved, more balanced and relaxed dog that lives well within your lifestyle.
The video below shows my then, 5 year old daughter and her 11 week old Lab pup training distraction work.
These days, we have more information available to us through the internet than we know what to do with. We have also seemingly stopped verifying the sources of this information.
I have seen puppy classes being run by people who have never raised a puppy to adulthood or perhaps don’t even own a dog.
I see trainers working with dogs to solve problems they can’t solve in their own dogs.
Learn to be discerning in the advice you follow…
The dog in the video below was socialised, was taken to puppy class and some other training, it just was not suitable for a Working Line German Shepherd.
Summing it up…
Means setting values where you want them to be in your adult dog.
Working on this as a goal with your puppy as much as is needed.
Giving your pup social exposure as much as he or she needs to become comfortable.
Don’t over socialise.
Get professional help
Behaviourists that specialise in aggression can get to the root cause fast and develop a strategy to help you and your dog.
Treat this problem seriously.
Time poor dog owners
Dogs need time, it is what we call a 100:1 investment, every hour of good training you put in will give you 100 good hours in return.
If your time poor, avoid getting a dog, they need you in their life, often.
If you have a dog, look at your schedule and add some time to your dog.
Other aggressive dogs
It is your job to protect your dog, so be discerning of what dogs you allow to approach yours.
Those who “let them sort it out for themselves” at some time or another face a disaster.
I avoid these, yes I know that many dogs in parks are ok, but it only takes one to psychologically damage a young dog, maybe for life.
If you are thinking of getting a puppy from a breeder, do your research. Flashy websites wont help your nervous puppy.
Get help to assess temperaments
Get an appropriate breed and make sure the dog you choose has the right temperament for you.
Simple lack of training
I think most people “intend” on training, but life gets in the way for many. You have to raise the priority of training to one of the most important things to do with your pup.
Small sessions, and by small I mean as little as 2-3 minutes a few times a day can be effective.
Use your dogs meal times as training times, check out my Triangle of Temptation program for ideas.
Don’t believe everything you read, do your research…
Get information from sources that deal with your breed and your problem to achieve your goals.
Even these days, after training dogs for over 3 decades, I STILL get a kick out of teaching a dog something new or improving his or her behaviour. It is a great way to bond with your dogs and as I have mentioned, you will get back 100 times what you put in.
When your dog displays unwanted aggression, his or her world becomes much smaller. The amount of places that you can take them become less, way less.
There exercise, exposure and well being all suffer in favour of preventing aggressive behaviours and the problem escalates out of control.
Dogs do not grow out of these behaviours, they just more and more of your trust.
Dog Aggression, here are my tips
Invest 1 hour a day in your dog, even if that hour is split into smaller sections!
Catch your dog in the right and reward like hell!
Avoid situations or circumstances that will see your dog rehearse bad behaviours
Don’t directly punish your dog, this is not the answer.
Give it 30 days where you REALLY try and I whilst not every problem your dog has may be solved, there will be some improvement and if there isn’t, instead of giving up, get some help.
All my clients that put in the work universally say that they wished they had started sooner.
As always we would love to hear from you, so all comments welcome, please enter yours below.