Getting help with dog aggression

Often people will say that their dog is anxious, and this is the reason why they are aggressive, but anxiety and aggression are not the same thing.

Fear and aggression are not the same thing either, but in some cases these elements may be linked.

Whilst they can be linked, understanding aggression is much deeper than simply labelling it.

Let us understand that aggression is an action and anxiety is a feeling.

Actions can be driven BY feelings or feelings can be driven by actions, but there are benefits in knowing they are two different elements, and this means you can work on one at a time.

When a person seeks to change a habit (an example I use often is to stop smoking cigarettes), they will need to go through a process to extinguish that behaviour.

Many variables will determine the difficulty of quitting this habit, or addiction if you like.

Things that may play a role are:

  • The elements that make up this person’s personality, so a mixture of genetics and learned experiences.
  • Reinforcement history, how long the person has been smoking, for example. The longer the history of reinforcement, the stronger the habit will be.
  • The persons ability to regulate their emotions, control impulses and make rational decisions and not be tempted by the benefits of the habit they are trying to quit.
  • The support they receive from those close to them in an ongoing constant as long as it takes.
  • The environment they are in and if elements of that environment motivate the habit.

Our goals are aimed at preventing rehearsal of the habit. IE: Stop the action.

The reason this is important is, actions need to change first, feelings change next.

dog aggression

Without reinforcement (smoking cigarettes), the desire to smoke will fade over time. A different amount of time for everyone, but sure enough this process has proven effective.

Many dogs that go through our boarding program will travel through a rehab journey. With some dogs with minor problems, it may be the complete journey, whilst with some others it may be only a part of the journey.

Psychology, be it animals or people is not an exact science, people who have gone through drug rehabilitation may need very clear boundaries in which none of their friends should offer them access to drugs, ever again, or a severe relapse could occur, even many years later.

Whilst others may be able to participate in recreational or social use without relapse.

This is commonly known by most people.

Dogs can be very much the same, some genetic predispositions can be almost immune from developing aggressive behaviours whilst others will develop aggressive behaviours with almost no external influence at all.

Some breeds that are more naturally aggressive and have developed aggressive behaviours to engage other dogs for example, may never be able to freely interact with other dogs, without good owner control, or at all, without the behaviour relapsing into full blown aggression.

This is not the dogs fault, but it certainly should make getting a puppy from certain breeds a more thought out choice.

Not all dogs of all breeds will fit all homes.

Training will give me a “fixed” dog.

The term “fixed” is as inaccurate as “broken” to be honest. People may use this as a euphemism to describe something that isn’t working but it is not really accurate.

When a dog is displaying aggression, he or she is simply displaying a behaviour. That behaviour may be triggered by another dog, a sound or anything that causes your dog to display the behaviour.

Training is a part of rehab, exposure is another part and reframing triggers is another. Just like the person giving up smoking, there is no set time, or time they will be “fixed”.

When dogs stay with us, we usually have a pre set amount of time, this means that within that amount of time, we will move the dog towards the desired actions and feelings as far as we can in that time frame.

There have been dogs that we have sent home early from the program as they had progressed so well, we did not need the amount of time we had allocated, there have also been dogs that have had to stay longer than we first expected and others that we have had come a number of times to work through very complex problems.

The beautiful girl in the video below is called Audey. She came here with some physical and mental problems and spent nearly 3 months here in one of our custom programs. We helped her through back injury with our Osteopath, regain her fitness, lose some weight and taught her how to behave around dogs and people.

It took this amount of time to work through her issues and get her to a level we felt the owner could then manage her and continue her journey.

Audey has an incredible owner, who when she returned for follow ups has amazed us at how great Audey is looking, feeling and behaving!

The Process

It would be impossible to give a detailed step by step because each dog is different, we respect each dogs differences. A different age, breed, stage of development, how many previous failed attempts have been made and many more considerations are made to determine how we need to proceed.

We need to conduct a Functional Behaviour Assessment to see what we are dealing with and the dogs training and communication levels.

With a large percentage of dogs (around 70%), we will start by hand feeding food in place of daily meals. This is to encourage an expectation of reward, develop food motivation and a work ethic of “I do something – I get something”.

We move onto to teaching exercises, most times from our Life Skills program, that we will be able to ask for, in place of aggression for example.

These may be referred to as “incompatible behaviours”, from Skinners Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behaviour principles.

For example, a dog that is walking on a loose leash would not be able to also lunge.

So, we are going to teach a series of these behaviours, motivate the dog to display them and reinforce the dog for displaying these behaviours. This is done one on one in our training room where there are no competitive motivators or distractions. This version of Discrete Trial Teaching allows the dog to better understand the criteria of the exercise.

At some point, when we feel the dog is reliable and confident displaying the trained behaviours, we will ask the dog to display these now known and reinforced behaviours, around a trigger for aggression, let’s say another dog or person.

We will then motivate and encourage the dog to display the new behaviour, in the presence of the other person or dog and when he or she does, we reinforce that choice. Antecedent based intervention helps dogs reframe triggers.

Simply put, we now have a dog that is not rehearsing the aggressive activity. This over time will change the feelings.

This sounds simple enough, but some dogs are extremely motivated to display aggression, some have been through several trainers and learned that we will give up if we keep getting ignored. Some owners are defeated as their dog is just relentless and will not listen at all, or are very difficult to motivate or teach new behaviours too.

Over the time we have dogs, we are going to apply these strategies, which we call “therapy”.

Each dog responds different to therapy in terms of: –

  • How fast they learn.
  • How easy, or difficult they are to motivate.
  • How long they have been rehearsing the behaviour.
  • If there is a genetic component/s that contribute to the behaviour.
  • How much reinforcement the dog gains from each repetition.
  • The dog’s natural resilience to change a behaviour.
  • The dog’s level of drive
  • The size of the dog, strenth and risk the dog poses.
  • The previous relationship the dog has / had with the owners.
  • And more…

We are always very transparent about these factors that govern progress because we want owners to understand that their dog can only progress at the rate they can.

We run a variable number of sessions throughout each day, these too are determined by the amount of time the dog can focus without adding undue stress, the dog’s fitness, health, and previous working ability.

Some dogs could be getting 10 sessions a day plus exercise, and some could not at all cope with that level of intervention, physically and mentally.

All in all, the welfare of the dogs we work with is the most important factor to us and we want to take the dogs as far as we can along the journey, but the dog is the biggest factor in how far that can be.

When dogs are training with us, there are always multiple priorities that need addressing, but we have to arrange those priorities in the order that will yield the best results.

Our main focus is to improve the mid and long term welfare of the dogs.

Once the dog goes home, it is imperative that the owners follow the program and push past any extinction bursts or spontaneous regenerations of the behaviour in the home environment.

It is highly unlikely that a dog staying with us for Board and Rehab will have totally regressed the “feelings” they have for the undesirable behaviour, but they will usually be able to show you much improved actions.

Owners need to understand that when you go to a psychologist for example, they will apply strategies to help you act in different ways and in time feel differently.

You will be the biggest influence on the outcome of the therapy you receive. Hence your dog will have the biggest influence on the outcome with us.

Most dogs seek and love the benefits of learning new ways to deal with stressful situations and give their all.

Some dogs though actually find the behaviour, perhaps aggression, highly stimulating and rewarding. 

They are not going to love being denied access to that behaviour and the reward / reinforcement / positive consequence, that behaviour provides.

Risk management

Dogs that are going through behaviour modification in which we need to see a reduction or extinction of a behaviour, may go through an Extinction Burst.

This is often experienced as a sudden, often temporary increase of the behaviour in order to regain the original source of reinforcement.

A very concerning example of this is when a dog is trying to get to another dog for example, the owner holds the dog back and the dog escalates the behaviour to a level previously unseen.

This can result in a dog becoming aggressive with the owner or handler.

This is one variable that may see us recommend a boarding program for this dog so we can manage the extinction burst and the owners safety.

If this is not carried out correctly, the dog can learn that displaying aggression to the owner brings reinforcement or access to reinforcement and it can be dangerous.

Below are a couple of examples of Extinction processes, the second is when the program fails and the behaviour is worse.

Many people will describe their dogs behaviour as getting worse, consider your probably somehow living the second model.

dog aggression
dog aggression

To wrap it up…

Modifying serious behaviour problems is a complicated task, in fact it is heavily biased by the dog not to be effective.

Dogs will resist change because the current set of behaviours have purpose for the dog and ultimately attract some form of reinforcement.

It is common that by the time the owner seeks professional help, the dog has been displaying the behaviour/s for some time, meaning the reinforcement for those behaviours will be strong.

As demonstrated above in the diagram, when you start intervention, the dog will “become worse before he or she gets better”. If you were not aware of that likely process, this may encourage you to stop.

Of course at times people are using an intervention process that is unsuitable and will be making the behaviours worse.

Experience helps us know better what is happening, which is why an experienced professional should always be consulted for behaviour problems.

It should be known that the best practice is always to select the right breed and temperament for your goals.

Once you do, choose from a breeder that can demonstrate those qualities to you with previously placed puppies.

Prepare to take on what I call “The Big 3” with conviction.

  1. Effective Socialisation
  2. Management
  3. Education

Do these well and your very unlikely to need help with behaviour problems. It would be very wise to invest in an experienced professional to help you get these Big 3 right. A couple of lessons with a puppy can save many with an adult.

If you find yourself with a dog that has a behaviour problem, get some help and support from an experienced professional.

There will be changes needed on your part, be ready to change your dogs lifestyle so he or she looks at the world differently.

Be aware there are no quick fixes, it is not a simple change of leash or collar and all will be “fixed”.

Your dog is counting on you to help him or her move to behaviour patterns that make you both happy.

In the very large majority of cases, there is happiness waiting for you and your dog.

Comments and shares welcome

 – Steve Courtney

About SteveK9Pro

Steve Courtney is a Nationally Accredited Canine Behaviour Specialist, Obedience Trainer, Law Enforcement Dog Trainer and ANKC Breeder. Steve has been training dogs all his life and in these articles he shares with you his experience...

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