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Learned Components of Aggression

Should threats or aggression result in the retreat (or removal by the guardian) of the other dog, the behavior has been successful. If the guardian tries to calm the aggressive dog or distract it with food treats, this may only serve to reward the aggressive behavior. One of the most common mistakes is to punish the dog that is aggressive toward other dogs. This usually serves to heighten the dog’s arousal, and teaches the dog that the stimulus (other dog) is indeed associated with unpleasant consequences. Many guardians, in an attempt to gain more control, then increase the level or type of punishment (e.g. prong collars) which further heighten the dog’s arousal and in some cases may lead to retaliation and defensive aggression toward the guardians. And, if the dog to dog interaction results in pain or injury to one or both dogs, the dogs will quickly learn to become more fearful and aggressive at future meetings. In short, if the guardians cannot successfully control the dog and resolve the situation without heightening the dog’s anxiety or increasing its fear, the problem will progress with each subsequent exposure.

For territorial behaviors, what is most important is to prevent the dog from engaging in prolonged and out of control aggressive displays both in the home and yard. Aggressive displays include barking, lunging, fence running, jumping on doors, windows and fences. These types of behaviors should be discouraged and prevented. One important component is teaching your dog a “quiet” command for barking.

First and foremost, you must have complete control over your pet. This not only serves to calm the dog and reduce its anxiety, but also allows you to successfully deal with each encounter with other dogs. Leashes are essential and the use of head collars and/or muzzles is strongly recommended for dogs that will be in situations with multiple dogs.

Begin by establishing reliable responses to basic obedience commands. If the dog cannot be taught to sit, stay, come and heel, in the absence of potential problems, then there is no chance that the dog will respond obediently in problematic situations. Reward selection can be critical in these cases, since the dog needs to be taught that obedient behavior in the presence of the stimulus (other dog) can earn the dog favored rewards. The goal is that the dog learns to associate the approach of other dogs with rewards.

Long term treatment consists of desensitization (gradual exposure) and counter-conditioning the dog to accept the approach and greeting of other dogs with obedience and rewards. This must be done slowly, beginning with situations where the dog can be successfully controlled and rewarded and very slowly progressing to more difficult encounters and environments. The first step is to perform training for its favored rewards, in a situation where there are no dogs present and the guardian is guaranteed success. Food or toy prompts can be used at first, but soon the rewards should be hidden and the dog rewarded intermittently. The selection of favored food or toys is essential since the goal is that the dog will learn that receiving these favored rewards is contingent on meeting other dogs.

Another way to disrupt the undesirable response and get the dog’s attention is to use an air horn or shake can. Once the inappropriate behavior ceases, and you get your dog’s attention, the dog should be redirected to an appropriate behavior such as play. The greeting should be repeated, until no threats or aggression is observed. Success can be achieved in a number of ways, but head halters are generally the most important tool. Head halters provide enough physical control that the desired behavior can be achieved (sit, heel) since pulling up and forward, turns the head toward the guardian and causes the dog to retreat into a sit position. With the dog’s head oriented toward the guardian and away from the other dog, lunging and aggression can be prevented, and the dog will usually settle down enough to see and respond to the prompt. Rewards can and should be given immediately for a proper response (sitting, heeling), by releasing tension on the leash. If the dog remains under control with the leash slack, the reward (toy, food, affection) should be given, but if the problem behavior recurs, the leash should be pulled and then released as many times as is necessary to get and maintain the desired response. The dog’s anxiety quickly diminishes as it learns that the other dog is not to be feared, that there is no opportunity to escape, that his responses will not chase away the other dog, that responding to the guardian’s commands will achieve rewards, and that the guardian has sufficient control to achieve the desired behavior (which further calms the dog). Since there is no punishment or discomfort that might further aggravate the situation and rewards are not being given until the desired behavior appears, fear and anxiety will be further reduced.

Occasionally, for fear aggressive dogs in particular, anti-anxiety drugs may help to calm the dog enough so that the retraining session is successful. For situations where the problem has become highly conditioned and intense, antidepressants may be useful for regaining control. In most cases, the best calming influence is a head halter, good guardian control, and some strong rewards.

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