The Sewell family was struggling with dog aggression
Angela’s dog, Tara, had dog aggression. Angela called me in distress regarding Tara’s behavior. She was extremely worried about her dog biting people. Tara, her boxer mix had already bitten someone. She didn’t want it to happen again.
Plus she had two kids that both had friends over often. She wanted to keep Tara in her family and feel safe. As a solution, Tara purchased our Calm Dog Program for Aggression.
Most dogs who suffer from dog aggression are friendly in many circumstances. They are triggered at certain times to act aggressively. The rest of the time the dog appears friendly.
For Tara, she got along great with her immediate family. When strangers came into the home it was a different story.
Tara seemed to be more triggered by the following:
- new people coming into the home
- strangers looking directly into her eyes
- upward hands movements (esp. petting)
- fast movements such as running or hyper activity
When Tara was triggered she may lunge, growl, bark or bite. However, she may also show much more subtle signs called calming signals.
It is important for you to learn what triggers your dog to act aggressively.
Some dogs may suffer more from fearful behavior. Generally, these dogs are more likely to move away from the person instead of toward. You can read about Gunner, a cattle dog, to learn about fearful dogs.
Involve the entire family
Tara lives with a family of four (Angela, her husband and two kids). If Angela did all of the training herself that wouldn’t work well if Angela wasn’t around. What if her children take Tara into a room alone with their friends? We want everyone to remain safe. Which is why it is important to involve the entire family.
In the past, I also worked with an American Eskimo named Drew who suffered for resource guarding. Drew was possessive with objects and would bite if an object was taken away from him. It was also important for this family to be on the same page as well.
First, teach the family to read subtle signs of when their dog is feeling uncomfortable. Some signs are called calming signals and some are just stress signs that show up right before the dog will bark or growl.
Calming signals help your dog calm down. If your dog cannot calm down and he/she keeps exhibiting calming signals, your dog will get more stressed. Eventually, your dog will progress to showing stronger signs of stress and may eventually bite.
Here are some calming signals to keep in mind:
- Turning the head away from the trigger
- Lip licking
- Eye blinking
- Shaking his body as if he is wet
- Smelling the ground after seeing a trigger
I saw Tara lip lick and turn her head away multiple times when she was stressed. Usually this was when I moved my arm or hand upward. As a result, I stopped doing those movements to avoid triggering her further. If I had not, then she may have progressed to biting me.
There are many other calming signals that you can learn about here.
Minor Stress Signs
Tara’s minor stress signs were more noticeable than her calming signals. Some of her signs were the following:
- ears moving forward
- body stiffening
- base of her tail raising or lowering
- hackles raising near the tail
- stiffening her neck upward
- huffing with her mouth
- tension in her jaw
It was important for the entire family to learn these stress and calming signals. If Tara showed any of these signs it was time to remove her from the stressor or do some training to help her decompress before she progressed to a bite.
Commands that help with dog aggression
We taught Tara quite a few commands that were very helpful in shifting her reactive behavior. When your dog is in a reactive state, your dog is in the limbic system of the brain. When your dog is performing a command they are using the cortex of the brain. It is important to shift from the limbic system to the cortex of the brain to stop reactivity / aggression.
By shifting the dog from their limbic system to their cortex, you can prevent or stop a reaction. You can also train a dog to perform this command instead of reacting.
We taught Tara the following commands:
- go to her bed
- leave it
- name recognition
Target is a great way to redirect your dog from a trigger. Put a treat between two fingers in an open hand. Have your open hand be a few feet away from your dog’s muzzle and at the height of your dog’s muzzle. When your dog touches your hand, c/t (click and treat).
You can move your dog around. This will move your dog from place to place. With Tara we used it to increase the distance from a person when she felt uncomfortable. The owners would ask Tara to “target” away from the person to help her calm down.
Your dog will generally feel calmer the farther he or she is away from the trigger.
This command usually works by calming down your dog. Those that are bonded with the dog should do this command and not strangers.
Put a treat in your hand and guide your dog’s eyes up to yours. When your dog gives you direct eye contact c/t.
If your dog is stressed take him away from the trigger and practice watch.
Tara did this with her owners to help her calm down especially after she had a barking reaction.
Go to bed or place
This is a command where your dog learns to go to his bed. I recommend that you do calming things on the dog’s bed. This will help reduce dog aggression and your dog will become more relaxed.
Petting and dog massage will help your dog to relax. With Tara we did a technique called Tellington Touch that relaxes the dog. It is type of massage. Tara relaxed very quickly and this helped her acclimate to new people better.
It is a good idea to teach your dog to look away from the trigger and back toward you. The command is called leave it.
Tara practiced this with her owners many times especially with distractions.
You can teach leave it by having your dog on leash. Back up slightly and when your dog looks back toward you c/t. Do NOT pull your dog. When backing up, you are only gently guiding your dog to look back toward you.
This is similar to leave it. We want your dog to turn to you when you say his name. Tara was very good at this one. She learned this one quickly.
You can train it by saying your dog’s name and giving your dog a treat. When your dog gets it he will look at you when you say his name because he associates his name with a treat.
Counter conditioning can lessen dog aggression
It is important that you work with a dog trainer that knows how to use counter conditioning and can help you implement the training plan.
Counter conditioning is one of many positive techniques that works great for dog aggression. I like it because it is easy to implement and is proven through science.
From a simple standpoint, you pair something positive with something negative. As long as the process is gradual your dog will begin to associate positivity with a previously perceived negative situation.
For Tara, she felt uncomfortable with new people in the home. By pairing the new person with special treats, overtime, she begins to like the new person because she associates the new person with the special treats.
Some special treat examples are the following: chicken, cheese, hot dogs, turkey, etc. It needs to be paired with the scary stimulus. Your dog will not get this special treat in the absence of the scary stimulus.
It is also helpful to take your dog out of sight from the stressful trigger. During this time the special treat is not given since the trigger is out of sight. It also helpful to do play, pet (massage) or give commands such as “watch” to help your dog decompress.
Keep timing unpredictable so that your doesn’t associate getting the special treats with a certain time frame but instead with the trigger or scary stimulus.
Counter conditioning works best when paired with systematic desensitization
Start at lower levels of intensity and then gradually increase the level of intensity. It should happen so gradually that the dog barley notices the change.
When we worked with Tara, we started at a distance from the guest. Tara was on leash at the far end of the kitchen. The guest was at the far end of the living room sitting down.
When Tara looked at the guest she received the special treat. Once Tara felt calm with the guest at this distance, we moved Tara 1-2 feet closer. Again we paired her looks at the guest with the special treats.
We repeated this process until we could go as close as was needed to the guest. When Tara was more stressed she needed to be farther away from that guest. For men, she needed more distance.
If your dog has a reaction it is best to redirect your dog and help your dog to calm down. With Tara we used “target” to redirect her away from the trigger (guest). Then we took her out of sight and did some decompression exercises as explained above.
Once Tara was more relaxed we brought her back into sight of the trigger at a farther distance than she was before. If Tara reacted then we were probably too close.
It is also best to end a counter conditioning session on a positive note every time. Doing longer sessions that are at least 20 min is best. However, if you can’t do 20 min shorter sessions are better than nothing at all.
How to generalize calm behavior
Generalization is also an important aspect of counter conditioning. This means if you change a variable your dog may not generalize the calm behavior he has learned from previous counter conditioning exercises.
Variable changes can include the following:
- the environment (a certain room, place or location)
- the time of day
- a new person that hasn’t done counter conditioning with your dog before
- movement (a person: walking, opening the door, standing from a chair, etc.)
- noises ( a person: laughing, walking, sneezing, etc.)
Just because you did counter conditioning before doesn’t mean this scenario will cause your dog to be calm in the next scenario. You have to work with many scenarios for generalization to happen.
For example with Tara we worked with a friend named Jon. If Tara got completely comfortable Jon, it didn’t mean she would be comfortable with Ted. Also, if Tara was comfortable with Jon sitting. It didn’t meant that Tara would be comfortable with Jon standing or walking.
You need to practice counter conditioning with every common scenario that your dog will run into. This takes time and commitment.
However, the more you do counter conditioning the faster your dog will generalize being calm in the new scenarios. You won’t start at square each time. Your dog does remember something from the previous scenario.
If your dog is highly aggressive, we alway recommend that you work with a professional reward-based dog trainer to ensure safe and positive results. Using punishment can actually make your dog more aggression. I highly recommend that you avoid training methods that involve the following:
- shock collars
- spray bottles
- choke collars
- prong collars
- leash popping
You can also read this article on “How to find a good dog trainer.”
Using a muzzle helps lessen dog aggression
A muzzle can ensure more safety. Your dog can still bite while wearing a muzzle but it is much harder for your dog to do so. With Tara, we used a baskerville muzzle.
This type of muzzle allows the dog to eat, drink and pant. Angela worked on counter conditioning with the muzzle. We used baby food as a reward.
When Tara put her nose into the muzzle she received baby food. We worked on having Tara hold her head in the muzzle for longer time periods as we strapped the muzzle around her.
We took the terminal behavior and broke it into easy approximations so that it was easy for Tara to learn and be happy.
Tara’s happy ending
I noticed Tara decompress much faster after working with me. Tara wanted to react at the mail carrier and Angela did some Tellington Touch. Tara calmed right down and didn’t have her normal stressed out reaction.
The entire family knows how to read Tara’s subtle stress signs and know how to reduce Tara’s stress. They also know how to train her so that she gets used to new people faster.
Tara responds to all of the above commands very reliably so the owners’ have great command control which has increased their confidence in getting Tara to listen.
The muzzle is also helping so they have a management tool for those people that are more stressful for Tara.
Lastly, the owner’s know that for some circumstances management is best. It is okay to keep away Tara away if she isn’t ready to be introduced to a particular person.
Most of all Angela is feeling more relaxed and empowered. No more endless amounts of fear.
Four Legged Scholars LLC serves Southington, Ohio and can help with dog aggression
I love training dogs and helping families in distress. An aggressive dog creates much pressure on the entire family. I enjoy relieving this stress and giving the family the positive tools that they need so that they can feel much more relaxed and empowered.
I recommend in-home dog training for aggression. I can personally show you what to do step by step in your home.
As a result, you will get effective results and feel peace of mind. I currently live in Middlefield and serve the surrounding areas including Southington where Tara resides.
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