Too often I see students who have gone to other trainers or facilities and then finally seek myself or another behavior professional because their dog's aggression issues remain unresolved...or worse...have escalated.
Just because someone tells you to do something doesn't mean you should do it. If you are hesitant in any way, do not believe it is right or humane, would rather use another method, etc, Do Not Listen to that person. There are many options available and there WILL be one that works for you and your dog. Even trying something “one time” can create future problems, especially if that “one time” resulted in your dog now learning how to snap or bite at you, in order to get you to go away. Usually what happens after your dog does these behaviors sets up future successes … or failures.
So...how do you "fix" aggression? You don't. Aggression cannot be "fixed". Behaviors can be modified into more acceptable ones, but the aggression, if there, remains there. Your best option is to prevent aggressive tendencies and instead reinforce your dog's acceptable behaviors from day one, modifying unacceptable ones in positive ways if they arise.
Want to know a secret, though? Lean in close...
ALL dogs can bite. There are Golden Retriever cases where they have mauled a child. There are Rottweilers that are great with children. There are Chihuahuas that have bitten people daily and then there are Chihuahuas that cuddle with anyone. Breed doesn't mean a thing. Just like race in people. Stereotypes exist for a reason, but are not always correct in predicting behavior.
Another common misconception is that every behavior is based on “dominance”. I am dominating you right now by having you reading this, but should you call and speak with me, you will be dominating me and my time. The easiest definition for the intent and purpose of this article is this: Dominance changes on a daily, hourly, or even minute-by-minute basis. Just because your dog growls when you try and reach for his bone doesn't make him “dominant” over you.
Instead, look at this particular behavior in another view: Your dog has a prized item. You go to reach for it. He growls. You back off. He just successfully communicated with you that he did not like what he thought you were about to do and you responded by going away. There is NO right or wrong theory to this. It is about COMMUNICATION. If you had a $100 bill and I went to snatch it from you, how would YOU react?
I respect a growl. The dog CAN make me stop doing something with a growl. I may not go away, I may not continue to reach, but I will respect the fact that the dog is mistrusting in this moment and then try and find a more acceptable way of communicating to my dog.
Dogs do not know English...and many of us will NEVER be fluent in Dog...even if we study! We ALL make mistakes. Teaching your dog a second language is like teaching a human. It requires: Consistency, Practice, Reinforcement, & Evaluation. How many of you remember your foreign language semester? Can you speak that language fluently today? How can you expect your dog to be able to respond to our English cues, when you probably haven't put as much effort into teaching him?
The point is: If we punish the growl, the dog's next NATURAL INSTINCT is going to be to snap, bite, or cause damage. This is usually when I get called...after damage has occurred. Also, most people have punished the growl by using physical force...teaching the dog that he is indeed correct to mistrust you and that he should be on guard when you are around, because something bad happens. Why would I want my dog to think I am untrustworthy? If I need his help, his growl/bark, later...why should he do it if I have punished him for it in the past? Instead, let's modify the situation!
I use a few different methods to help the dog understand that he does not need to be possessive over items and instead, when he trades them or lets me have them, he actually gets BETTER things. The entire point in modifying behavior is to help the dog learn a new, incompatible, behavior. A dog cannot protect and growl if he is truly taught to how to drop/give up the item and sit patiently. These behaviors are incompatible with one another. Then, instead, we also get a willing dog who learns that he can trust our judgment, respect our cues, and be our happy, working partner.
After class on Monday, Guinness happily ran around, picking up 23 sheets of paper on the ground and handing them to me. He brings me bones, toys, keys, shoes...just about anything I ask of him. HE does it happily, willingly, and HOPING to be able to trade for something cool: a treat, a game of tug, playing ball, or just some relaxing neck scratches. I also know he will go get the bad guy in Schutzhund just fine. Watch our YouTube videos.
Am I dominant? Or just fair? Obedience – true obedience – is about trust, clear communication, and understanding. It does NOT require collar or physical force. What we learn with pleasure, we rarely forget.
So, if you are having aggression issues, do NOT try these things by yourself.
Seek out professional guidance from an experienced behaviorist.
So, what are some first steps?
Step 1: Rule out any physical issues. We CANNOT modify behavioral concerns if there is a physical problem. We may not always think about it, but tumors, underlying disease. And other medical issues CAN and DO cause aggressive tendencies in some cases.
Step 2: Don't be breedist. DO understand what your dog was genetically bred FOR even your mixes!)...but also look at your dog as an individual and then work the actual problematic behaviors...don't jump to conclusions.
Step 3: Consult a professional. Dog Trainers and Behaviorists are two separate kinds of people and you should find someone that not only has experience, but one that YOU can trust and relate to. Only then can they help you in ways that you are going to be comfortable with. There are plenty of options for teaching ANY behavior. We can help you set up a successful game plan that will build your relationship with your dog into one based on trust and understanding, with clear rules and expectations, but fun games and a relaxing atmosphere.
We like to use the KISS acronym, Keep It Simple Silly.
Modifying Aggression does not have to be complicated.
Who knows...maybe you just might start having fun!
CVT & Owner of Awesome Paws Academy