Tiptoeing around teeth in your own home isn’t exactly what someone expects when they acquire a dog. The fundamental age-old idea of having a dog is like having a best friend. But what happens when your best friend displays aggression towards you?
To begin, we of course want to follow suit with the typical standard for all aggression cases, including making an appointment with the veterinarian to rule out any underlying physical issues, meeting the dog’s exercise needs, providing mental enrichment, and educating the owner on how to read body language (especially distance increasing signals). However, I’m going to focus on the meat and potatoes of the most useful recommendations here. And finally, there’s safety – which is what this is really all about – how to LIVE with the dog every day safely. This is where behavior consulting becomes more “people training” than “dog training.” We’re literally teaching a lifestyle.
No one (well, mostly no one) signs up for this. It makes the very idea of having a dog difficult. And while there are many options to live with this kind of dog safely, owners need to understand that letting go of society’s typical ideals for what owning a dog is like in replacement for what’s best for the dog they have, is crucial.
Startling the dog can be a big issue in these cases because it can create mistrust. It’s so common to reach out and touch them in passing, to pet them, leash them, or pull a hitchhiker off their fur when they aren’t expecting it. Instead, we want to create predictability in our interactions because when we know what to expect, we don’t worry.
First, we choose an “engagement cue.” I often use sit, but you can use other things such as touch, a chin rest, or moving to a specified target location. As long as the dog understands this as an individual behavior, you can begin to utilize it. Say the dog’s name, have the dog orient to the owner and ask for the engagement cue. If the dog complies, we will take it as consenting to a physical interaction. The owner can then proceed. If the dog doesn’t comply with the engagement cue, then the owner doesn’t proceed with the exchange. They’ll walk away, give space, and try again later. This helps teach the dog that we are trustworthy in our actions and that we “listen” to them. Some people have a hard time grasping this concept because of the pop-culture view of dog training: when you ask the dog to do something, they do it. This is where work with behavior truly forks off from work with obedience. We’re using response/compliance to a cue as a gauge of the dog’s willingness and readiness to interact.
GOING TO THE SAFE SPACE AS A COPING SKILL
It’s part of a dog’s basic biological needs to have their own safe place where they can retreat to where no one will bother them. This place will be a crate for most dogs, but for others, it can be a room or an area that’s gated off. If the dog has already chosen a spot they voluntarily retreat to; I’ll try to incorporate it. Make it as inviting as possible by adding bedding, coverings, and favorite toys and by feeding meals in the location.
Once set up, we want to teach the dog to go there on cue and heavily reinforce it. Then, when the dog is consistently going there on cue when nothing is happening and everybody is happy and relaxed, we can potentially start using it as a coping skill.
Suppose the dog displays any distance-increasing signals during an interaction that the dog “consented” to, OR during a time when the dog voluntarily seeks out the owner. In that case, we have the owner calmly give the cue to go to the safe space, walk away, and scatter a jackpot handful of treats into the area. Then, secure the dog inside the space and give them a 15-minute break.
The point of this exercise is to pair the feeling of becoming uncomfortable with the habit of walking away. As soon as the dog asks for space via subtle body language cues, we help them by asking them to move away and heavily reinforcing it. With enough time, consistency, and repetition, dogs will make this association and at least begin to walk away a few steps when feeling stressed. I always prep the owners to be on the lookout for when the dog does this behavior voluntarily because we still need to reward it. This exercise teaches the dog to create the space rather than trying to get the person to move away. Making an appropriate decision on their own when they’re starting to feel uncomfortable is invaluable.
A common problem is when people intentionally wake their dog up to go outside for the last potty break or accidentally wake the dog up while they’re moving around. If this is an antecedent for displays of aggression, I recommend bringing the dog out for an early last potty and then putting them away in their safe space to sleep for the night. This also works well for dogs who are more agitated at the end of the day.
HANDS OFF THE DOG
Many people don’t think twice when they do certain things to their dogs. It’s essential to sit down with the owner and make a complete list of all physical interactions that have proceeded with aggressive behavior in the past. Those will become the interactions we want to avoid or replace. They include but are not limited to grabbing a collar, pushing, pulling, cornering, hugging, kissing, acts of grooming, and more. Many of these are intrinsically threatening behavior from a dog’s point of view. Separating the interactions that are easy to avoid (such as hugging and kissing) versus the ones we need alternatives for will help formulate a plan. For example:
- Teach a strong recall or touch cue to move the dog around.
- Lure with treats or toss treats (if safe to do so) in the direction you need the dog to go in. It can also be paired with a verbal cue such as “go.”
- Have the dog drag a thin leash around the house. This can be used to guide the dog into, out of, or around places if verbal cues fail or in an emergency.
- Let sleeping dogs lie. There’s a reason that old adage exists, and it’s very much so true. No one wants to be startled awake, which can affect our stress tolerance. If absolutely necessary, wake the dog up by calling their name or making a noise.
- I also like to teach the dog that anytime they are lying down; we leave them alone. It’s a safe position to be in, where no one will bother you.
- For acts of grooming, I recommend that they regularly utilize a groomer or vet so negative associations with that type of handling do not become associated with the owner. Options for working on husbandry behaviors can be offered later. (I’m a realist and understand that not everyone has the resources to work towards holy grail behavior goals!)
ADDITIONAL PRECAUTIONS TO CONSIDER
There’s so much variety in the types of owner directed aggression and the little nuances found in each. Here are some additional scenarios and considerations.
- Resource guarding is a whole topic, but it wouldn’t be right not to mention it. If a dog displays aggression over food items, I always restrict access to those items to the dog’s safe space. Again, not everyone wants or needs the holy grail!
- Along similar lines, I will prevent access to elevated surfaces if those locations were previously guarded. The dog’s redirected to their bed on the floor and rewarded there.
- In many cases, I recommend that people stay at a higher eye level, strictly for safety reasons. It does not have anything to do with hierarchy. If a dog has displayed aggression towards a person, there’s just no reason for the dog to be in a position to tower over them.
- Keep petting short and sweet at three-second intervals to help prevent dogs from becoming overwhelmed in those interactions.
- Giving too much environmental freedom to a dog that isn’t used to it or isn’t ready for it can actually cause additional, unnecessary anxiety and stress. This is common in recently rehomed dogs. Limiting freedom to a smaller area can help the dog feel more secure.
- A necessary conversation that nobody wants to have is, “What to do if the dog goes after you?” I make it very clear that these are NOT training techniques and that they’re only used in the owner’s defense during an actual attack. If they cannot move away, then picking up the nearest large object (cushion, stool, ottoman lid, etc.) and placing it between them and the dog can allow them to move away safely. I also recommend keeping a couple of air horns around the house in easily accessible places. Afterward, promptly confine the dog for a couple of hours to calm down. At that point, they should also contact the professional they are working with to re-evaluate the situation.
- When an owner has exhausted all resources (financial, emotional, physical… everyone’s capacity for resources is different) OR they can no longer SAFELY provide basic care to the dog, they may consider behavioral euthanasia. We must do our best to provide guidance and support because living with this can be so incredibly challenging.
TIPS FOR SUCCESS
Living with a dog that displays aggression towards you can be emotionally draining. But, there are some things to keep in mind that can help ease the process for the owner.
- Don’t take things personally. The dog doesn’t have a vendetta against you. The dog is just trying to cope with their own feelings and navigate what works best.
- Don’t let up on rules because things are going well. If cutting a certain food out of your diet makes you feel better, but then because you feel better, you decide to eat it again … you’ll have problems! Commitment to compliance is key.
- Progress is always challenging to see when you’re in the midst of it 24/7. It’s a little cliché, but it’s a lot like how you barely notice the leaves changing colors in autumn when you live there versus how someone visiting sees them. Try not to compare today to yesterday. Instead, compare today to before you ever started making any changes.
- Getting into the routine of new habits can be tough, so I encourage owners to utilize sticky notes around the house as reminders for specific rules.
- If an owner has multiple dogs, I’ll encourage them to utilize these recommendations with all of the dogs in the household, even if the other dogs don’t have any issues per se. It can be helpful to have consistency with all dogs across the household, instead of having to think about what applies to who.
- If there’s something that the owner really enjoys about the dog, and they can safely engage in it, then make a point to do it as often as possible! It could be walking the dog, taking pictures of the dog, or going for car rides. Anything that can help the owner celebrate the dog – do it frequently so they can feel good about the relationship.
The main goal of working with owner-directed aggression cases is to help the owner improve the relationship with their dog. This eliminates the need to tiptoe around teeth in their home by allowing them to walk in reassurance knowing that they’re on a better path towards finding value and understanding in their “best friend.” It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it.
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