Managing Aggressive Behavior

Anthony DeMarinis CDBC, ADT, VSPDT, CBATI, VSA-DT, TTWC

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July 29, 2021

Dogs display aggressive behavior from a variety of causes. Once you can identify the possible reasons for your dog’s aggressive behavior, you should start implementing solid management and safety strategies that can keep your dog and others safe. Note: The information provided below does not replace a behavior modification plan with a qualified behavior consultant.

What Is Management?

One of my favorite descriptions of management is from the book “Behavior Adjustment Training 2.0: New Practical Techniques for Fear, Frustration and Aggression in Dogs”, by Grisha Stewart, MA. In the book, Grisha describes management as “Changing your dog’s environment to make it impossible or unlikely that he’ll do the unwanted behavior(s) you do not want him to do.”

Examples of Management:

    • Setting up the environment so that your dog can’t practice unwanted behaviors. For example, if your dog looks out the window and barks all day long, then you might block the windows so your dog does not have access to the window.
    • Giving your dog the opportunity to be successful by removing triggers or creating distance between the triggers.
    • Avoiding situations that can cause aggressive behavior, reactive behavior, fear, anxiety, or stress.
    • Taking control of situations in order to help your dog be successful.
    • Using specific equipment and tools to ensure safety such as: A leash or multiple leashes, secure harness and/or head halter, a properly fitted muzzle, safety barriers like secure baby gates and/or a physical fence.

Muzzles can be very effective management tools.

 

Getting Started:

Identify the triggers! Figuring out what causes your dog to display aggressive behavior will be crucial. This can be the sight of a person or dog, a visitor entering the home, or perhaps someone reaching towards the dog’s food bowl while eating.  An easy way to identify the trigger(s) is to write down all the incidents that have occurred. Be as specific as you can. Think about the details:

    • How the incident began
    • What occurred during the incident
    • How the incident ended

Working with a behavior consultant, you will be able to identify triggers so that you can implement an appropriate behavior modification plan and management strategies.

Management Suggestions:

Below are some easy and safe suggestions of what management can look like.

Use safe training equipment. Using equipment like retractable leashes (aka flexi-leashes), and electronic training collars may cause your dog and others to get hurt, as they cannot physically control most dogs in emergency scenarios. Keep everyone safe by using equipment such as a 6ft or 8ft leash, and a secure harness such as the Freedom Harness or Balance Harness. Other safety equipment that can be considered are a martingale collar, head halter, or a muzzle. Your behavior consultant can help make specific recommendations to you.

Keep your dog out of situations which they are likely to display aggressive or reactive behavior. Exposing your dog to uncontrolled situations can make behavior issues worse. Instead, come up with a list of new things to do with your dog in those specific situations. This could mean placing your dog in a secure area of the house when visitors are over, or placing your dog on a leash. This will depend on your specific situation.

Pay attention to the environment and your dog. When out and about, do not talk on the phone, listen to music or stop and chat with others. Instead, pay attention to your environment and your dog. Observe your dog’s behavior and body language. Look for signals that may cause your dog to react. Is your dog becoming aroused? Is your dog becoming hypervigilant, stressed, or anxious?

Do not let people greet or touch your dog if your dog does not like or enjoy this activity. Avoid places and situations that may be problematic for your dog such as family gatherings, a busy trail, or walking in town. If your dog does not like being greeted or reacts towards people in an aggressive way, then do not allow people to approach and greet your dog. And if your dog does not like being greeted by other dogs, then it is best to avoid that as well. It can make things worse for your dog if other dogs or people are invading their space, and it can cause harm to the greeter, be it a person or dog.

Allowing people to pet or handle a dog with a history of aggression “so they get used to it” can result in a bite!

 

Punishing your dog can worsen emotional responses such as fear, anxiety, stress, reactivity and aggression. Punishment includes: yelling or scolding, physical punishment, intimidation and fear tactics, and constant leash corrections just to name a few. Taking these types of approaches can cause behaviors, even unrelated behaviors to worsen. Instead, start teaching your dog what to do. Reward behaviors you like, reward behaviors you ask your dog for, and reward good behavior your dog offers instead!

Do not go to the dog park or allow your dog off leash if your dog is aggressive, reactive, or fearful. Instead play with your dog in a securely fenced area such as a backyard, a sports court at a park that has a lock, or any other private area that is secure so that your dog and others are safe. One of my recommendations to my clients is to use an app called Sniffspot, which allows dog owners to rent people’s backyards for a low-cost fee. It is like the Airbnb for dogs! Many of these yards are fenced, which can be a great option for those who need a safe and secure location. Before renting a space, make sure it is fully fenced. When inquiring, you should also ask how tall the fence is, as some medium and large breeds can climb or scale fences, believe it or not.  https://www.sniffspot.com/

Dog parks or off-leash play areas are NOT recommended to “socialize” a dog with a history of aggression.

 

Two layers of safety is always better! One of the most important takeaways for you should be this: Two layers of safety is always best! Two layers of safety means literally having two layers of safety! If one layer of safety fails, then there is another in place. This will depend on the specific aggressive issues you are dealing with. Example include a combo of two of the following: using a crate, locking doors, putting up secure bolting baby gates in the wall, using a muzzle, attaching your dog to a tether, etc.

Additional Suggestions:

Give Visitors Instructions: Have a sign posted on your front door with instructions to call or text you when the visitor has arrived so that you can have your dog safely managed and so that you are prepared. Prior to the visitors arrival, give them specific instructions to prevent mistakes from occurring.

Muzzle Training: There can often be a bad stigma about a dog wearing a muzzle. However, muzzles are a safety tool that can be used in many situations to prevent people and/or other animals from getting injured. The first thing is to learn about the different types of muzzles on the market so that you have one that is safe and secure for your dog. Most behavior professionals recommend basket muzzles (or muzzles similar to these) because they do not restrict your dog from drinking, eating or panting. To learn more about the importance of muzzles click here. Down below in the “Helpful Resources” section you will find many helpful resources on muzzles, muzzle training, and the different types of muzzles.

Baby Gates and Barriers: When using baby gates and barriers make sure they are securely bolted in the wall or door frame. Pressurized gates are typically not strong enough to keep your dog contained. Also make sure the baby gate or barrier is tall enough that your dog cannot climb or scale it. I always recommend getting extra tall metal baby gates which are usually four feet tall. In some cases you may need to place a second baby gate above the first one so that it is double the height. In other cases, owners may have a contractor custom build a sturdy gate or barrier that can be bolted on hinges with a secure lock.

Home Entrances: If your dog displays aggressive behavior when people enter the home, make sure to keep your doors locked so that friends, family and other visitors do not walk in unannounced to prevent an incident from occurring.

Tethering: Tethering a dog can be used a a layer of safety to keep your dog secure. I do not suggest just randomly tethering your dog up without training your dog to become comfortable with the tether. If you do not train your dog to become comfortable with the tether, it could add additional stress and discomfort. Your behavior professional can help you determine if tethering is a good idea, and if so, how to properly train your dog to become comfortable with the tether. There are a few ways to tether. At the end of the day you want to make sure you tether your dog to some place that is strong enough and secure enough. For large or powerful dogs, I suggest bolting an i-hook to a stud in the wall. Most people bolt the i-hook to the base or floor molding. There are also tethers called “Door Stop Tethers” designed to slip under a door which can be another option.

Schedule fun time with your dog: Do not solely focus on just your behavior modification program. You can come up with a list of things your dog enjoys so that you can provide daily quality time with your dog. This can be cuddling together, physical exercise, training time or even a dog sport. Provide enjoyable activities with your dog, as this is very important for your relationship together as a team!

Fun time in a safe space can replace many other forms of exercise and enrichment!

 

Additional Safety Equipment & “Safety Stations”: Discuss with your behavior consultant what types of emergency or safety equipment you might need to have on hand to prevent or break up an incident. You may also want to discuss having what I call “Safety Stations” with this equipment readily available around the home, backyard or attached to you on a walk in the event something happens.

Making time to work with your dog: Once you start working with a qualified behavior consultant, make sure to set-up time to practice and work on your behavior modification exercises with your dog. These practice sessions should be meant to be positive learning experiences for your dog. Your goal should be to keep your dog below threshold so that no reactions occur. The purpose of practice sessions should be to give your dog the opportunity to learn and process everything in order to become successful. Practice sessions do not need to be long. They can be a few quick minutes.

Helpful resources:

To help you further I have complied a few helpful resources below. Based on your specific situation your behavior consultant will be able to advise you with additional helpful materials.

 

About the author:

You can contact Anthony by email at anthony@demarinisdogtraining.com or by visiting his website at www.demarinisdogtraining.com

 

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