Last weekend, I had the pleasure of presenting a lecture on dog aggression at The Pet Pantry Warehouse in Greenwich, Ct. During my talk, there were several happy “ah-ha” moments. It was really gratifying to watch my audience go from anxious concern to confident understanding.
I brought my whole crew: two adult dogs and a rambunctious puppy. I always bring my dogs and I’m puzzled by trainers who don’t incorporate their own dogs into their lectures or events. After all, I am a dog trainer and if my dogs don’t know how to behave, then what message is it sending to people who might turn to me for help?
During my lecture, two points made the greatest impact on my audience, and I offer them to you for consideration. The more we know about another species, the better able we are to improve their overall existence and ultimately their behavior.
- Self-Protective Aggression. This is defined as a situation in which dogs show aggression towards strangers (dogs or people) who approach their personal space, either inside the home or when walking (often on leash) away from the home. While it often gets confused as territorial aggression, it is more fear-based and self-serving. Seeds of this fearful, reactive behavior can be seen early. When a young dog is approached by often well-intentioned admirers, he may misread this adoration as a predatory approach. As this same puppy matures, he may assume a more self-protective stance and self-protective aggression is the result. It is a common form of aggression. Ideally puppies are raised or dogs are taught to look to their people for reassurance, but unless owners are properly “trained” to watch for this reaction, it often goes unnoticed until it becomes more pronounced. Generic dog training should (though often doesn’t) teach owners how to “listen” to their dog’s behavior;
- Territorial Aggression A home is a dog’s den. It is a place where they should feel safe, nurtured and protected. The familiar areas outside a home are considered “territory” and dogs are prone to alert to all activities surrounding the territory. The dog that barks frenetically and runs the periphery of the territory is simply assuming the task of boarder patrol and responding to the consequent attentions of their people. If you yell at your dog for doing this, he will translate it into barking – he’ll think you’re backing him up. If you try to grab at or chase your dog when he runs at or chases another dog, you will heighten his awareness to the alarm and guarantee a repeat performance – often of escalating intensity. A more pronounced aggressive display often develops.
So how does one cope with these reactive behaviors or how can you arrest the tendencies in early puppyhood? The first step is empathy – to recognize your dog as a thinking, feeling, responsive being that will react in relatively predictable way due to a mix of genetic programming and human reinforcement.
Next you need to assume the role of the authority figure and teach them human language as you’d teach a foreigner English as a second language. Once you're heading down that road, every effort must be made to expose and link more positive reactions to overwhelming situations (rewards may be in the form of ).
The two types of reactions listed above result from a puppy maturing with the perception that their reactions are acceptable and warranted: that unpredictable noises may bring chaos, and that unfamiliar people/dogs are dangerous. And further – and most importantly, that their behavior controls the intensity of the situation, keeping "danger" at bay.
The good news is that it is as easy to train most dogs to look to their person(s) for translation and to redirect the situation. In the end, all dogs are more relaxed and well mannered when they have a reassuring authority figure at the helm of their little lifeboat. Tune in next column for part two, and meet Toby – a live case study who arrived at the lecture and overcame his fears!