Q&A: Help! My newly adopted dog is dog-aggressive

Question

Rocky has really been a great dog. The only issue we have run into is he tends to be pretty dog aggressive, so we have had to slow our trips to the dog park. He seems to be just wanting to protect his family when another dog comes near. What can we do?

- Mark

Answer

Hi there-

While dogs do sometimes react to other dogs as a protective response, this sort of reactivity usually has more to do with the dog’s own feelings about proximity to other dogs. That is,  feeling concerned about the experience in regards to their own safety and status. By looking at Rocky’s size, one might assume that he wouldn’t be concerned about being near other dogs. However, dogs of all shapes and sizes can experience fear and fear does not always show itself in extreme body postures (such as a tucked tail and lowered head).

There is a genetic component to a dog’s behavior, but part of reactivity to other dogs is also often a result of not having had adequate, positive social encounters with other dogs at a young age (8-22 weeks old is the crucial socialization period). In this case, a dog will not have had the opportunity to develop the requisite skills to feel confident and interact with self-control when encountering other dogs. Add to this, that if Rocky is a higher energy dog he has a higher propensity for arousal. In a high state of arousal, his reactivity rate is presumably higher.

One of the most important things to work on is improving Rocky’s impulse or self-control skills. Starting with some simple exercises in the home, you can help Rocky learn to better control himself, eventually even when faced with distractions and stimuli (i.e. other dogs). Start with the simple treat over the head exercise; Hold a piece of his food or a special treat about 12 inches over his head. If all four of his feet stay on the ground for the count of 1, say ‘yes’ and give him a tiny reward. If his feet come off the ground, simply raise your hand out of his reach, and wait for his four feet to be on the ground again. Don’t say anything to him if he jumps up for the food. Doing so doesn’t allow him to become a calm problem solver. Repeat, and gradually increase the count to 2, 3, 4, etc. Even when Rocky starts to master this skill and is able to control his impulses for 10 seconds or more, be sure to sometimes give him an easy win by only counting to 2 or 3 before saying ‘yes’ and rewarding him.

Work on making sure you can get Rocky’s attention easily, starting in your home and then working in more distracting environments. The goal here is to know you can get Rocky to focus on you rather than other dogs, and to help him learn to calm down more quickly when he does have an encounter that raises his level of arousal. Of course, this is also essential for safety, whether other dogs are around or not. Start practicing at mealtimes, so he is most likely to happily participate in the training game. Say ‘watch me’ and move a piece of his food up to your eye so he looks at you. Say ‘yes’ when he does and give him the food. With practice you can fade out the lure of your hand moving to your eye and increase the duration of eye contact.

You should also work on basic leash manners. Dogs that walk in an excited or aroused manner on leash (i.e. pull and direct the walk) are showing a lack of impulse control. This lack of self control will surely escalate when the dog is faced with a stimuli they have a history of responding to (in this case, other dogs). We like the step, stop, sit method because it is effective and simple. Start practicing in your home and then progress to outside walks. Have Rocky sit at your side. Take a step or two and then stop and wait for Rocky to sit. Say ‘yes’ when he does and give him a tiny treat. Repeat in 3-5 minute training sessions and gradually increase the number of steps in between the stops. In addition, consider the type of collar or harness you are using. We often recommend front clip harnesses, and the Walk in Sync is a good option. These types of harnesses can aid in improving on leash manners by gently curbing the dog’s ability to leverage their weight and pull.

Putting Rocky on a Learn to Earn program is also important. This means you take control of as many of the things he wants in life (food, toys, attention, access to different environments) as possible in order to help him learn that access to those things is contingent on him showing impulse control and responding to your requests (to look at you, hand target, sit, etc.). For example, before putting his food down, opening the door for a walk, inviting up for a snuggle, or tossing a toy, ask him to do one or two things. With practice, these skills and Rocky’s understanding of looking to you for guidance will be usable even in the most challenging situations (i.e. when around other dogs). Think of Learn to Earn as a way for your dog to say please in order to earn what he wants.

I would also suggest you consider that Rocky may be a dog who is not dog park appropriate. While dog parks can be a great outlet for a dog’s energy and a great place to maintain social skills, the constant influx of new dogs and the wide range of personalities (both canine and human!) can be too much for some dogs. Some dogs do much better with select social encounters with individual dogs they have a history of interacting with in a positive manner.

Woofs,
Andrea

About Andrea Arden

Andrea can be seen on Animal Planet's shows Dogs 101, Cats 101, Pets 101, America's Cutest Dog and America's Cutest Cat. She is the author of numerous best-selling books on animal behavior and training. Andrea is thrilled to be a part of Pets for Patriots' efforts to help its members successfully adopt and share their lives with shelter pets! Read more...
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