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JoAnne’s Workshop: Love Does Not Fix Aggression

Addressing aggression in dogs and how to deal with them.

JoAnne’s Workshop: Love Does Not Fix Aggression

This month I would like to begin to address aggression in dogs, and how I have dealt with many dogs with aggression and aggressive tendencies.

There are many different reasons for aggression in dogs. Everyone at this point has heard of dogs being reactive or afraid of people, dogs or surroundings. There are dogs that will back up showing aggression, or move forward showing aggression. There are dogs that will react aggressively to someone touching them when they are injured. There are so many ways dogs can show aggression, from mild to extreme. Many people give reasons for the dog’s aggression. Perhaps they will say the dog has been abused, or he had been attacked by a dog. If you research aggression, you will find many different reasons and types of aggression.

There are a thousand explanations for why the dog is aggressive and how to define the type of aggression, but very few will actually tell you what to do about it. The ones that offer a solution do so on a modified basis, trying to steer you to a trainer instead. It is a huge controversial issue when it comes to how to work with an aggressive dog. Can we fix it or even manage it?

Love does not fix Aggression.

That is by far the hardest concept to teach people that feel that the dog needs love and understanding. What is important is to show a fearful dog how to become confident, and an aggressive dog how to handle himself in a situation. Hugging your child after he has been bullied at school, tells him how much you love him. Teaching him confidence to get past the incident and technique to deal with future episodes gives him values that last a lifetime.

When an aggressive dog comes to me for training, the first thing I have to assess is why they are aggressive. This helps me to understand how I am going to deal with the dog. Of course there is a huge difference in dog aggression and people aggression, and also a huge difference in dogs that can be aggressive with strangers, but never with their owners.

Breaking it down to basics, I will attempt to figure out if the dog is fixable. Some are, some aren’t. It is that simple. I will tell the person that I will work with him and his dog for a short number of sessions, and if I cannot fix the dog, or show improvement in that period of time, then I will not continue to take his money or give him false hopes. I am extremely honest.

I am going to take you through my thought process, and how I work with aggression, and the steps I will take if necessary.

Understanding the dog…

In my world of training, there are only two types of aggression: Genetic, and Acquired. Genetic aggression is nearly impossible to train, however there are many ways we can learn to manage the dog, giving him a correct set of values to live by. This type of dog may never be able to be trusted completely.

Acquired aggression is based on a given set of circumstances. These dogs have the potential to be fixed if the problem has not gone for too long of a time. Fixing these issues is dependent on the person that owns the dog, and how much time and energy they are willing to put into the dog. There are many reasons for acquired aggression. As a puppy, there may have been little or no socialization. The litter may have had to struggle to get food when they were weaned, creating anxiety and food aggression. I once saw a person with a litter of puppies put a bucket of water in the ex-pen and watch all the puppies scramble over each other to get the water. Because they spilled the water often, the person only put water in at designated times.

I watched one of these dogs grow up, and for all her life, she laid on the floor, two front legs around the water dish, suspiciously eyeing any person or dog that came near. Because she was in a good home, and had an overall good disposition, there were no signs of aggression, just caution. She was not food aggressive, as there was plenty of food as a puppy, but water triggered her brain for the behavior she showed.

While some issues are because of unknown instances in puppies, it is sometimes harder to figure out. As the dog gets older, there are sometimes issues that have triggered fear aggression in dogs. One of these is being attacked by another dog. That is huge, and very difficult to fix, unless you handle it correctly as it happens, which in some instances is very hard to do emotionally, as you, the owner, are in severe emotional distress, sometimes more than your dog is.

Understanding what the dog is feeling is one of the best ways to figure out what to do about the situation at hand. Every situation is different.

A few issues that I have had to address were some of my simpler fixes. One was a Pomeranian that was extremely aggressive in her dog bed. Anyone that walked near her bed was met with an angry little dog charging, teeth bared, chasing anyone that came near the bed. I had the person come in with dog and bed. The dog was not really aggressive, and actually quite friendly. That left me to assume that the issue was definitely acquired and allowed for lack of knowledge on how to fix the issue, so the fix should be relatively easy. I was right.

There are many reasons for acquired aggression. As a puppy, there may have been little or no socialization.

I put the dog on a leash, mainly so I didn’t get bit, and let her go to her bed. I was holding the end of her leash and as I walked towards her, her teeth bared, and she formed a warning stance. Of course I had leash attached, and simply pulled her out of her bed, and as she came out, I stepped into her bed and stood in the middle of it. The look on her face was priceless. She just stared at me in disbelief. I stepped out and pointed for her to get in her bed. She did, I took a step towards her and as soon as she started to escalate, she was pulled out of her bed, and I stepped in. What she was taught was that the bed belonged to me, not her. One session and we had fixed the problem. I did not try to take the bed away from her, or push her out of her bed. I used the leash to take her out of the bed, and just claimed it.

This is basically how I would tell you how to deal with food aggression towards the owners.

For the moment, we do not care why or how it began, just that it did. Food aggression, what is the fear? That the food will be taken away. The owner tries hard to teach the dog to not be aggressive by putting his hand by the food, feeding the dog out of his hand. Taking away and giving back the food. None of these methods work very well. To put your hand by a food aggressive dog is dangerous. To modify by feeding out of your hand can also be dangerous. How then do we deal with this kind of aggression?

Start with no food and your dog on a leash. Teach your dog to back up out of your space, by moving into him until he yields to you, on a leash. If he is aggressive with this, then wait for future issues on how to deal with the issue of the dog being overall aggressive. Let’s assume that he yields to you and backs up. Fantastic. Now the next step. Put a few pieces of food on the floor, asking him to leave it, and keep him from going after it. Ask him to back up. If he does not, move into his space to force the back up. Do this until he backs up, when he does, release to the food.  You are not to put your hands by the food.  Do this a few times, until he knows he has to back up to get the food.

The next step is to add more food, maybe about 20 kernels of kibble. Spread them around in a few foot area. Back your dog up, and then release to the food. After allowing him to eat a few pieces, back him up away from the food. At this point, if he refuses, I would use the leash to correct him away from the food, as getting in his space may be dangerous. If he tries to scramble to the food, he needs a bit more correction. If he readily moves back away, praise lavishly and release to the rest of the food.

The reason this works is you are never taking the food away from him, and yet you own the food by not allowing him to have it until you tell him he can. This works so well for so many dogs that just don’t understand why you would want to take their food away. As the dog gets comfortable with this, you will start to add to this behavior. Have him back up, and when he does, put more food down, perhaps something a bit tastier than kibble. Begin to put his food in a bowl, ask him to back up and add something tastier to his meal. He will sooner than you think know that you are not coming in to take his food, but give him something.

This may not work if your dog has severe aggression issues that go way deeper than food. This works for dogs that just have a fear of someone taking their food away.

A true story: My cousin had a very food aggressive Golden. From puppy on, she would stiffen whenever someone went near her food. She lived a few hours from me, and while I offered to help, she always said no, she didn’t want to trouble me. Through the dog’s life, they just didn’t bother her when eating, but at one point, she tried to correct her by grabbing her and screaming at her, and the dog turned towards her, coming at her growling and scared her half to death.  Her husband told her it was her fault for making the dog angry.

Then her daughter needed a place to stay between houses with young children. My cousin finally asked for my help. She was terrified her husband would feed the dog when she was at work, and not watch the children. So I traveled up to her house.

The results were almost immediate, and totally successful. I did as I explained above, and actually within minutes, the dog was not only respectful of my space, but as soon as I walked near her food, she backed away respectfully without me even speaking to her.

The huge test was as my cousin feared, her husband fed the dog with grandchildren around, and when she came home from work, one of the children told her, “Grandma, I did what I saw you do and told Lacy to back away from her food so I could walk by, and she did.”

Not really an ideal situation overall, but what we did definitely saved a child from getting bit. This Golden was extremely friendly, just not with food. Who knows where it came from, but it rarely matters.

JoAnne Brettschneider