Strategies for working with aggression in dogs (c) 2012- 2017 Frania
Shelley-Grielen all rights reserved

Being around dogs means seeing and hearing all sorts of canine behaviors; from play
bows and growls and attention seeking barks to warning nips and bites, especially
when dogs are around other dogs.   A lot of behavior that we see is a reaction to what is
happening in the environment; canine communication utilizing body language,
actions and vocalizations to get the message across.  Our actions are a huge part of
what our dogs are reacting to.  By using positive reinforcement for the behaviors we
are encouraging and ignoring the behaviors we would prefer not to see we set up our
dogs for positive interactions with both human and canine but what happens when we

How do you handle an aggressive dog at a doggy day care, in your home or in the dog
park? For starters, is your approach increasing the behavior or lessening it?  If what
you are doing is not stopping the behavior you want to try something else. If you are
seeing the behavior getting worse you definitely want to try something else. If you are
seeing displacement behaviors-other behaviors that are occurring that had not been
happening before (usually a result of the corrective action being taken) then here is
another approach. Review the case history below to see if you can integrate the
methods into your day care or home environment.

What was happening: A three year old female boxer, “Gladys” (not her real name)
was reacting to new entrants to the play area. Whether dog or human, Gladys would
menace the newcomer by nipping and biting. Some staff would scold Gladys to end the
behavior and if that was not effective, tie her to the wall. Other staff members would
grab a slip lead and tie Gladys to the wall as soon as a new presence entered the play
area. Not surprisingly, Gladys was getting worse and was being blamed for her
“aggression” as if she alone was responsible for it.

What I did: I walked in to the play area alone. Staff picked up on warning signs as
Gladys approached me. She was warned off initially but soon after jumped and nipped
me (shirt sleeve only, no body contact which I ignored). I retreated out of the area but
stayed between the safety fences. I avoided eye contact with Gladys but interacted with
friendly dogs, in particular, boxers. I then entered the area briefly for intervals of 2-3
minutes and retreated for at least 3 times longer. If Gladys approached I dropped my
eyes or turned away to take pressure off her to respond. She did rush the gate several
times during this step in the process, when this happened I offered a short (no more
than two syllables) verbal correction and then dropped my eyes immediately. After 15-
20 minutes of this I entered the enclosure and directed staff to distract Gladys when she
noticed me, chasing a ball or enticing her with a high value toy. Gladys was now not
stalking me but still stiff and interested. When she got close enough to investigate me
we asked familiar staff to approach her and stroke and praise her for her calm behavior
next to me. After the positive interactions Gladys would retreat and returned to
investigate two more times with staff praising her calm behavior each time.

How it worked: After less than an hour Gladys was totally relaxed around me in the

Why it worked: Gladys was being punished each time a new individual (either
human or dog) would enter the play area. She was reacting to both the punishment
and the anticipation of the punishment. Punishment may end a behavior initially but
studies show that it is not effective long term. The amount of punishment has to
continually be increased to avoid habituation (or getting used to it). The animal being
punished usually associates the pain with many signals not just the one behavior we
are trying to extinguish. Look at Gladys; staff body language, stiff and squared off with
a leash in the hand to tie her up would announce her being withdrawn from attention
and the group environment, being tied up also was associated with new individuals
making her reactions to them even worse. The stress of being punished usually results
in ”displacement behaviors” in addition to increased aggression. Displacement
behaviors are basically inappropriate responses as a result of a conflict and could be
anything from excessive barking to breaks in house training.

Not punishing Gladys and rewarding her for her good behavior made all the difference.
I took the pressure of Gladys initially by not invading her space when she reacted to
my presence, no correction-just literally ignoring the bad behavior. Staying in close
proximity and interacting with friendly dogs, particularly same breed dogs helped to
stimulate Gladys’ mirror neurons—those parts of the brain that would light up as if all
that friendly interaction was happening to her. Going in and out of the play area in
short repeated increments of time also helped to desensitize Gladys to our presence.
Redirecting Gladys away from me with a ball kept her moving and redirected her
initial energy in a positive manner. Of course, the most positive move, what did the
trick, was praising Gladys for being calm around a stranger (me). Key here is working
up to it in the steps outlined and setting her up for success by praising her when she is
close enough not to react negatively. By soliciting Gladys’ attention for praise and
petting when she was calm and close to me she was being mightily reinforced for good
behavior and learning to associate my new and novel presence with good things
happening. Repeat with new people and dogs several times and she would surely drop
the biting and nipping over praise and petting.

Remember, there is no distance at which it would ever be too far to praise the
aggressive dog for not being aggressive. Setting this dog up for success means
reinforcing the pet's positive body language before it signals aggressive intent. If you do
see that aggressive signal (look for "hard eye", squaring off, stiffening, freezing, hackles
coming up, pursed lips, etc.) a redirection followed by immediate praise for execution
gets you back on track. Each dog is an individual and being able to read your
particular dog must be learned.

This is a valuable exercise and it works but it must be carried out by proactive and
compassionate handlers who are well versed in reading canine body language and
defusing situations in a positive and non threatening manner.

with aggressive
"If what you are doing is not stopping
the behavior you want to try
something else. If you are seeing the
behavior getting worse you definitely
want to try something else. If you are
seeing displacement behaviors-other
behaviors that are occurring that had
not been happening before (usually a
result of the corrective action being
taken) then here is another approach"
Maria Gray
Ask me for a consultation
212-722-2509 / 646-228-7813

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