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How do I stop agression towards other dogs?

Q: How do I control aggressive behavior towards other dogs? I have three dogs who get along but when my beagle-pit mix gets around another female dog, she is very aggressive. We have tried everything to stop this behavior. Any suggestions would be helpful.

When diagnosing and treating aggression I first prefer to complete a thorough Behavioral History interview that provides detailed information regarding the client dog and the specific subject behavior. After compiling the history and conducting a preliminary evaluation, I then formalize a Diagnosis and construct a customized Solution Plan.

Since I have very little information about your dog and your dog’s aggressive episodes, I will describe a likely solution plan that is more generic in nature. A specific plan for your dog designed through the steps taken above would have far greater success.

Nevertheless, it would be helpful to know whether your Beagle/Pit’s behavior occurs exclusively when on-leash and/or when walked in along with with your other two dogs. For the purpose of this article, we will assume (based on the phrasing of your question) the following:
1) that your pet’s behavior occurs exclusively with female dogs or is at least more pronounced when around female dogs. 2) the behavior is more pronounced on-leash 3) you walk all your dogs together.

Ironically, a leash often makes excitable or aggressive tendencies worse.
Leashes can:
• Inhibit flight options, (“fight or flight” response) so that the leashed dog is more likely to choose the “fight” option
• Alter the normal canine greeting process in a manner that increases a nervous dog’s insecurity
• Creates narrowly defined artificial boundaries that arouse territorial aggressive behavior
• Elevate “barrier frustration”, which may result in excitability, anger, and hostility
• Provoke “opposition reflexes” that prompt lunging behavior
• Function as a conduit that transfers owner anxiety to the dog
• Increase the likelihood of “object guarding behavior”, where the dog guards access to her owner or housemates similarly to when another dog approaches her food or bone.

While not knowing which dog (in your situation) is the dominant or subordinate , be aware that walking alongside a calm dominant canine housemate(s) may decrease the frequency and severity of a subordinate dog’s aggressive behavior, the opposite may occur if the aggressive dog is the more dominant dog. The problem may also worsen if there isn’t a strong leader among your three dogs, or if either of the other two dogs is also nervous or aggressive.

Management Steps
The first step of a solution plan is a management step. We recommend that until your dog’s behavior is successfully modified, you walk her independently of your other household dogs, and at a time and place where you are unlikely to come in close enough contact with an unfamiliar dog where your Beagle-Pit is may become reactive. We first must prevent the continuation of the aggressive behavior before we can modify it via a formal treatment plan.

The Treatment Plan
At the same time, we will begin a behavior modification process that should eventually relax your dog and teach her alternative coping mechanisms that she will use when she comes in contact with other dogs during her neighborhood walks.

Step One
The first part of the behavior process is clicker conditioning. Purchase a clicker. Then, get her conditioned to the clicker by simply clicking, praising, and giving treats – in that order. When she responds with focused attention whenever she hears the clicker, you are ready to proceed.

Focused attention toward you is important with an aggressive dog, since an aggressive dog often exhibits a sequence of behaviors that progresses from looking, to staring, to stiffening, to leaning forward, to growling, to barking, and finally to lunging and/or snarling. By obtaining focused upward attention toward you and away from the target, we decrease arousal and raise the probability that your dog will stop her aggression sequencing process.

When clicker conditioning for aggression reduction, we recommend using high-stimulation food, such as lunch meat, chicken, steak, or hot dogs. We want to use food that is extremely “special” to raise the odds of success during our behavior modification endeavors.

Step Two
Once she regularly pays attention when hearing the clicker, the second step (in most cases) is fitting her for a Gentle Leader head halter collar. Because many dogs initially resent the collar, the Gentle Leader sometimes has a difficult fitting and adaptation process. .Despite this, the Gentle Leader frequently provides excellent results reducing an aggressive dog’s energy level and in subordinating a rebellious dog. In comparison to neck collars, the Gentle Leader better allows you to stop pulling behavior and more easily physically redirect her head position toward you and away from a nearby target of her aggression. To speed the adaptation process, once you fit your dog with the Gentle Leader, click, praise, and treat, so that she responds with attention when wearing the collar. Many dogs will initially try to remove the Gentle Leader with their paws or by rubbing their snout in the ground. To avoid this, divert your dog’s attention toward you and the treat while drawing her focus away from attempting to remove the unfamiliar collar. We also want to counter-condition and desensitize her to the collar. Once your dog is comfortable wearing the Gentle Leader we are ready to proceed to the next step.

Step Three
The third step is teaching your dog to walk properly on-leash without other dogs present. An article I previously wrote for the Loving Pets website describes the leash walking education process in great detail. It can be found by clicking HERE.  Basically, you need to encourage your dog to walk on your left side, with a loose leash, and her body positioned so that she is in “heel position,” with your left leg situated between her right shoulder and her right ear. In addition, to encourage upward attention when walking, whenever she looks attentively at you, respond with a click, praise and treat. As you can see, we are stepping through a schematic building block process.

Step Four
Now that your dog can behave while walking on a loose leash without other dogs present, we are ready to have your dog walk among selected “volunteer” dogs within the framework of three specially designed drills. Volunteer selection is very important at this stage. Select volunteer dogs that are mature, calm, confident (even when a nearby dog postures aggressively), and highly obedient. Select volunteer handlers that you can schedule frequently, who are calm, who communicate clearly, and who follow instruction closely.

Step 4A
The first set of drills is called Walking in Pack. The drill has two parts. The first part has the volunteer dog walking behind your dog. The second part has the volunteer dog walking alongside your dog. During Part One, it is best to use a quiet cul de sac (if available). Have the volunteer dog/handler team walk 50 feet behind your dog (or greater if your dog is still reactive at a 50-foot distance). If your dog walks with attention, click-praise-treat. Then, move the volunteer team closer in small systematic increments as your dog becomes comfortable at a given distance. The goal is to desensitize your dog, teach her to relax while near another dog, teach her that she is safe (since most aggression stems from insecurity), and teach her the replacement coping mechanism of looking up at you while walking on a loose-leash. Slow and steady wins the race. Do not decrease the distance too much or too abruptly so that your dog becomes reactive. Again, the goal is to teach her that she is safe and secure so that aggression is unnecessary. Gradually, she will remain relaxed at a closer distance. Perform the drill until your dog will comfortably allow the volunteer to walk as little as one foot behind her, which might take weeks or months.

During Part Two use a quiet street, field, or parking lot. Set up parallel to the volunteer team, with both your dog and the volunteer dog sitting in heel position and facing in the same direction at a distance 50 feet apart. Walk forward 70 feet and have the volunteer team similarly walk forward while maintaining the 50-foot spread. If no aggression is displayed and your dog walks comfortably on a loose leash, then give her exaggerated praise.. Click-praise-treat (with high-stimulation food) if she walks on a loose leash with upward attention. If she lunges, prevent the behavior by blocking her movement with your body, correcting toward you with the leash and Gentle Leader, or both. Then, on the next repetition increase the distance, as you should only work at a distance that your dog can handle successfully. Once your dog is regularly comfortable and successful at a given distance apart from the volunteer, then reduce the distance. After each 70-foot linear repetition, for the next repetition, change direction to walk back to the original starting point. This way you remain in a quiet and familiar area. Perform the drill until your dog can walk within a foot or two of the volunteer, which might take weeks or months.

Step 4B
The second set of drills is called Dual Approach. The drill has two parts. The first part has the handlers next to one another. The second part has the dogs next to one another. For both parts, use the same venue you used for Step 4A- Part Two. During Part One set your dog up in heel position with you to the left of the volunteer team that should similarly be set up in heel position 70 feet ahead and 50 feet apart. Next, walk forward. Likewise, the volunteer team should walk straight, so that they are walking toward you with the dogs on the outside and each of you maintaining the 50-foot width apart from one another. Praise if your dog walks on a loose leash. Click-praise-treat if your dog walks attentively on a loose leash. Response block and increase distance on the next rep if your dog acts aggressively. In addition, during this drill, click-praise-treat only on the approach phase, the first 35 feet, before the volunteer passes you. We wish to convince your dog that the approach of the volunteer indirectly brings food. Consequently, we do not wish to offer food once the volunteer team passes you halfway through your path. Once your dog is regularly comfortable and successful at a given distance apart from the volunteer team, then reduce the distance. Like with the Step 4A- Part Two drill above, after each 70-foot repetition, for the next repetition, change direction to walk back to the original starting point. This way you remain in a quiet and familiar area. Perform the drill until your can walk within a foot or two of the volunteer person without your dog becoming reactive, which might take weeks or months.

Part Two is identical to Part One with one exception. Instead of having the handlers adjacent and to the inside, we will place the dogs adjacent and to the inside. Therefore, you will start by lining up to the left of the volunteer team with each dog in heel position. Since the dogs will not have human buffers separating them from having visual or physical contact with one another, Part Two is more difficult than Part One.

Step 4C
The third set of drills is called Single Approach. Again, the drill has two parts. The first part has the volunteer stationary with the subject dog (your dog) approaching. The second part has your dog stationary with the volunteer team approaching. During Part One locate your dog in heel position 50 feet away from the volunteer team. Place the volunteer dog in heel position, but perpendicular to your dog, so that there is no direct eye contact. With the volunteer remaining stationary, have your dog walk 5 feet toward the volunteer, then stop. When your dog delivers upward attention, click-praise-treat, and depart back toward the starting point. If your dog is confused as to what you expect, do something to attract her attention, such as scraping a shoe on the ground, humming, or sighing. We wish to teach your dog that if she is uncomfortable near the stationary dog, the best way to immediately obtain distance is not by lunging or barking, but by calmly paying attention to you- the replacement coping mechanism. As your dog is regularly successful, systematically move your dog closer before stopping, until your dog will remain calm approaching within two feet of the volunteer.

Part Two is basically the reverse of Part One, with a few exceptions. Again start 50 feet apart. However, your dog will directly face the volunteer rather than set up perpendicular (unless your dog is overly reactive with direct eye contact, whereby you will start perpendicular, then convert to facing the volunteer as your dog progresses). Have the volunteer walk 5 feet toward your dog. When your dog responds non-aggressively and by looking at you, instead of focusing on the volunteer, you will click-praise-treat, then have the volunteer depart to the start line. As your dog is regularly successful, systematically move the approaching volunteer closer before asking him/her to stop, until your dog will remain calm within two feet of the approaching volunteer. Again, we are teaching your dog that the most effective way to repel an oncoming dog is by providing focused attention, not by posturing aggressively.

Step Five
Now that your dog can non-aggressively associate near a calm volunteer(s), with the volunteer(s) behind, alongside, and approaching, perform the same drills with increasingly more difficult dogs that are less calm and less obedient or that fit the profile that are more likely to provoke your dog’s reactivity. When commencing the familiar drills with unfamiliar difficult dogs, begin at lengthy distances to program your dog for success. We wish to build on success, where we teach your dog that she is safe and secure and wins by remaining relaxed and attentive.

Step Six
Now that your dog has successfully completed the drills with dogs of different personalities, you are ready to progress from a controlled “laboratory” environment to a less controlled real world environment. Walk in a park or in the neighborhood cohesively alongside a group consisting of a friend and his/her dog or a group of friends/dogs that participated in the preceding drills. We hope that the pack environment of partially familiar dogs transfers confidence to your dog and diverts your dog from focusing aggressively on unfamiliar dogs that may approach on walks. Still bring your clicker. Still click-praise-treat for attentive behavior that occurs when an unfamiliar dog approaches your group.

Step Seven
At this point, behavior modification may be complete. Therefore, you may wish to wean the clicker and/or consider again walking your dogs collectively together again. However, if her aggressive behavior returns, immediately return to a level that she can handle non-aggressively.

Conclusion
On-leash dog-dog aggression is a behavior that we frequently improve or eliminate at CPT., The above training recommendations provide an excellent description of CPT’s most common on-leash aggression reduction protocols. Nevertheless, canine aggression is often a complex condition that is difficult to resolve. It significantly lowers the quality of life of both the human and pet, causes injury to the subject and/or target dog, dramatically reduces the joy of pet ownership, has owners hesitant to walk their dog, and prompts owners to abandon dogs to animal control or a humane society where there is a high probability of euthanasia, we highly recommend the services of a skilled trainer/behaviorist (like those at CPT) when diagnosing the origin of the condition and implementing a customized solution plan. If you are in the Atlanta area: to schedule a CPT behavior modification session, please contact the CPT office by phone at 770-396-6433 or contact us by e-mail at info@cpt-training.com.

© Copyright Mark Spivak and Comprehensive Pet Therapy, Inc., May 2010, All rights reserved.