By Kathy Diamond Davis Author and Trainer Aggression to Passersby Does your dog growl, snap, snarl, lunge or otherwise threaten passing dogs or people on walks? Perhaps the dog has had bad experiences that make this behavior understandable. Yet it's embarrassing, and raises concerns the dog will injure a person or dog. What can you do? Can this problem be cured? How do you manage the dog safely while working on the aggression? Safety First When a dog threatens, it's unwise to assume the dog would never carry through on the threat. Have your veterinarian check for illness or injury that is often at the root of aggressive behavior. When the aggression has not continued long enough to become a habit, curing or controlling the physical cause will in some cases immediately stop the aggression. Dogs have a survival instinct to hide their pain. Showing any sign of weakness in the wild could get them killed. Aggression is often the first and sometimes the only change in behavior from pain, as the dog acts to ward off approaches and touches that the dog has learned will hurt. Even the most experienced dog handler can be fooled, so don't be quick to rule out pain as a possibility. Aggression that has continued long enough to become a habit or is not rooted in physical pain is reason to consult a behavior specialist. Ask your veterinarian to recommend one who can meet with you and the dog, evaluate the situation, and prescribe treatment. A veterinary behavior specialist is the board-certified expert who can evaluate and treat medical as well as other causes of aggression. The behavior specialist can fit the dog with a head halter or muzzle and teach you how to use it safely and effectively. You will then have excellent control of the dog's mouth, and a greatly increased ability to keep other dogs and people safe in the presence of your dog. Either a head halter or a muzzle also helps get other people to remember to keep their dogs out of your dog's face, and to ask your permission before touching your dog or allowing their children to do so. These should be common courtesy and safety measures that people extend to everyone they see out with a dog, but too many don't. The dog who is aggressive to passersby desperately needs this consideration in order to make improvement, and safety demands it, too. If you cannot enlist the cooperation of other people to govern their dogs and children to provide your dog with the needed space, you'll need to find more controlled settings. An orderly training class is perfect, if you can sufficiently control the dog for safety to other dogs and people in the class. If not, you'll need to start with private lessons. Some dogs don't belong in public. One factor is whether or not the person can restrain the dog. A dog has about a three-to-one strength advantage over a person of the same weight. In other words, a 60-pound dog is about as strong as a 180-pound man. Be sure that you are able to control your dog before taking the dog out in public. In fact, because you may need to do something else-such as repel a loose dog-while walking your dog, you need to be able to control your dog with ONE hand! Don't try to walk another dog at the same time you walk an aggressive one. A dog with a questionable temperament requires your full attention on outings. Avoid walking where there are loose dogs. If your neighbors let their dogs run loose, cooperate with the authorities to work through this problem. Loose dogs endanger everyone who has to walk or drive through the area, and the dogs are themselves in danger of losing their lives at any minute. One trick that can work to repel a loose dog out of your dog's face is to carry an umbrella with you, the kind that opens with a fast "Whoosh" when you press the button. A lot of dogs will back off from this, and you may be able to keep the dog back by holding the umbrella between your dog and the other one. This won't break up a fight, so it must be used the instant the dog approaches. Move off slowly, without turning your back on the loose dog. Aggression toward Passing Dogs The focused attention exercise, developed by expert trainer Linda Newsome, is ideal for handling your dog around other dogs. You teach the exercise first in other settings, but soon will be able to use it anywhere and know that you can keep your dog's attention on you and off anything else. It's a humane way to be in complete control of your dog-especially when combined with a head halter until the dog is totally reliable. The first requirement for using the focused attention exercise is to find a setting where you can provide your dog with a safe personal space. Don't ask your dog to give you full attention and ignore everything around the two of you unless it is safe to do so. Part of what makes this work is for you to become someone the dog can trust to look out for safety. A dog whose experience builds the expectation of having to always be on guard has good reason to be aggressive. To resolve this problem in your dog, you'll have to take over the job of safety officer. Have treats on your person (later you may use a toy instead, but it helps to start with tiny, tempting treats - lots of tiny pieces), but keep them out of the dog's sight. To initiate the attention sequence, say "[Dog's Name]!" and YOU MOVE ABRUPTLY away. If you want to say "heel" or "come" or "front" or "by me," that's fine too. The main thing is, say the dog's name - this is going to become the cue for the dog to give you eye contact - and then MOVE. When your dog moves with you, quickly PRAISE. This is when you would use a clicker if you wish, but a word of praise is fine, too. Then instantly whip out a treat and give it. Do not show a treat until you are ready to give it. This prevents the sight of a treat from becoming, in the dog's mind, part of the cue to listen to you. When you give a treat, align it between the dog's eyes and yours. You want eye contact with each treat. Soon you'll notice your dog seeking your eye contact even when you don't say the name. Always praise this, and sometimes give a treat to reward it. You're not done. When you do this sequence, always do it at least 3 to 5 times in a row. That means each time you 1) say the name, 2) move, 3) say the praise word, 4) whip out a treat and 5) give it. This doesn't necessarily require much space, since you want it all to happen very fast and the movement is not over a great distance. You can move one direction the first time, back the other way the second time, etc. But always do at least 3 to 5 repetitions in a row before you release the dog's attention. This is what conditions the dog to SUSTAIN attention on you until you release it. Practice everywhere, and don't be quick to discontinue the treats. Keep them up at least occasionally forever. Because you're not dangling the treat in front of the dog before giving it, you're conditioning the dog to respond even when you don't have food. You want to make the behavior quite strong and build the importance of other rewards (praise, petting, play, toys, etc.) in the dog's life before moving away from food. Praising before each treat or other reward will make your praise more motivating to the dog. Eventually you'll be able to praise for the behavior you're rewarding, and use your voice as a bridge while you walk to the treat jar or refrigerator at home. The dog will understand the treat is a reward for the behavior you praised. In this way you can reinforce behaviors you want to see more of-such as coming quickly to your call-when the dog does them at a time you weren't expecting to do a training session. Do not postpone intervening in your dog's aggression issues with the focused attention exercise, a head halter or muzzle, and appropriate expert help in-person. These problems do not magically disappear. Dogs don't just outgrow aggression. It usually gets worse unless the right interventions are done. The sooner you start working on the problem, the greater your chances of success. Every single time the dog acts on the aggression, the habit gets stronger. It will then take a longer period of time and more reconditioning sessions to change the habit-if it can be changed at all. These problems often emerge in adolescence. This is a volatile time for dogs and a period of their lives when time is running short for you to effect significant change in the dog's adult personality. There is no time to waste! If you immediately start the focused attention exercise every single time you spot another dog on outings with your dog, you'll soon find that your dog automatically looks at you when another dog appears! In many cases, you can actually turn a problem and a weakness in your dog's temperament into a special strength! This has been noted over and over in humans who put a great deal of effort into overcoming some disability or disadvantage in life, and you can do the same thing for your dog. Social Experiences with Other Dogs Sometimes the effort to create a dog who can play happily with other dogs in dog parks and when out on walks is actually the cause of these aggression problems. Not all dogs have the genetic make up to socialize peacefully with other dogs as they mature past puppyhood. Dogs frightened by encounters with other dogs in public often become aggressive to other dogs on outings. The leash is one problem since it interferes with dog body language and can make a dog feel and act "trapped" in trying to relate to another dog. If you want to allow a social encounter between your dog and another dog, it's better to find a place they can safely play together without leashes. You can use the focused attention exercise to teach your dog to pay attention to you when on leash, and ignore other dogs. When you remove the leash and release the dog's attention to go play, the dog is "off duty," and able to interact with the other dog. Making a consistent distinction between working with you and being off duty to go play will give your dog a greater sense of security and will help to ease fears. The dog who always wins encounters with other dogs can develop an aggression problem, too, perhaps connected with the adrenaline rush of the fight. Adrenaline seems to be addictive. We can't read a dog's mind and predict the future when watching dogs play together in a dog park. Sometimes you can clearly see in watching the dogs that unhealthy patterns are developing, but many times you can't. It's safest to give your dog play dates in a safe area with one other compatible dog at a time. Whatever your choice in dog social experiences, enlist the aid of a behavior specialist before continuing any dog interactions that have resulted in fear or aggression from your dog. Aggression toward People When a dog bites a human, it's a very serious matter. Your wisest course is to enlist the aid of a behavior specialist at the first sign the dog MIGHT bite a person. Like aggression toward other dogs, aggression toward people doesn't go away on its own. In recent years many localities have strengthened their laws governing dog bites. People have gone to prison when their dogs killed someone. Young children make up most of the fatalities from dog bites. Few bites result in death, but courts consistently award victims of dog bites all expenses, including time lost from work. Your homeowners insurance might pay for one dog bite, but then would likely refuse to insure you at all anymore. You would likely be faced with the decision of putting the dog to sleep, after first paying for the dog to be held in quarantine long enough to rule out rabies. This is a thoroughly unhappy ending for everyone concerned. In the very earliest stages of reaction to people on outings, you may be able to work through the problem with classes, diligent application of the focused attention exercise, and a head halter or muzzle to remove the dog's option of using the mouth against a human. You'll need to work the dog at a distance from people-both physically and emotionally-that allows the dog to feel safe. Changing a dog's state of mind is a slow process. Don't rush it. Every time the dog sees someone approaching and goes into an aggressive display, you've had a major setback. Your goal is to bring the dog along at a pace that prevents this from happening, until eventually the dog can remain calm around people. The process also requires cooperative people who will follow your instructions around your dog. At first you'll simply want the dog to see them at a distance and then immediately focus on you. Gradually, over many sessions, you move closer to people, have them pass, have them pass and drop down a treat, have them pay slight attention to the dog, have them very briefly touch the dog, and perhaps-with dogs who can make it this far-you eventually have the dog going up to the person for petting. If the person rushes the process and the dog's aggression triggers, you've lost ground. You can see that a behavior specialist is a great help in structuring the right training situations for the dog. Genetic temperament, experiences, and of course the skill and commitment of the handler will determine the dog's chances of improvement. Some dogs will never be safe to take out in public. If you have the facilities to keep the dog at home without posing a threat to other people, you may be able to do that and give the dog a good life. You might be surprised at the number of potentially dangerous dogs who live out their lives this way, in competent hands, and never hurt anyone. If you don't have those facilities, you'll have a difficult decision to make. Enlist the expertise of a behavior specialist in person to help you assess the dog and your options. Face the Music, and Dance! When a dog starts to show aggressive behavior in public, most people make excuses for their dog. "He's just scared." "That person stared at her!" "Those kids were making entirely too much noise!" Don't make excuses. Don't deny what is right before your eyes. Your dog needs your help, and there's no time to waste. The focused attention exercise will surprise you. It's a joyful thing. You'll find yourself dancing, and your dog dancing with you! Meeting each other's eyes, moving together, you praising and the dog happily earning rewards-this makes for a very good time with your dog! Handling a dog with these problems requires good timing, vocal control, and skill with a leash. You'll need to learn how to keep a LOOSE leash in order to direct the dog with your voice and body language instead. A tight leash interferes with the action of a head halter, and can even make it mar the dog's face. A tight leash also interferes with the dog's ability to focus on you, and makes the dog more defensive. That's exactly what you DON'T want a dog to feel when aggression is an issue. Get the help you need to become the handler your special dog needs. The added bonus to you is that these new skills will stay with you, and every other dog you live with-in fact, every other dog you MEET will benefit. Just as this training can turn your dog's weakness into a special strength, it can turn you into an awesome dog handler.
well done! too bad the world can't be trained on how to approach doge to eliminate some unwanted behavior. for instance (my pet peeve) ASK ME TO PET THEM!!!! dont just lunge in! i'd snarl at you too!!! :)