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 don’t?
How do you handle an aggressive dog at a doggy day care or in your home? 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 we did: We walked in to the play area alone. Staff picked up on warning signs as Gladys approached us. She was warned off initially but soon after jumped and nipped us (shirt sleeve only, no body contact). We retreated out of the area but stayed between the safety fences. We avoided eye contact with Gladys but interacted with friendly dogs, in particular, boxers. We then entered the area briefly for intervals of 2-3 minutes and retreated for at least 3 times longer. If Gladys approached we dropped our eyes or turned away to take pressure of her to respond. She did rush the gate several times during this step in the process, when this happened we offered a short (no more than two syllables) verbal reprimand and then dropped our eyes immediately. After 15-20 minutes of this we entered the enclosure and directed staff to distract Gladys when she noticed us, chasing a ball or enticing her with a high value toy. Gladys was now not stalking us but still stiff and interested. When she got close enough to investigate us we asked familiar staff to approach her and stroke and praise her for her calm behavior next to us. After the positive interaction 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 us in the enclosure.
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. We took the pressure of Gladys initially by not invading her space when she reacted to our 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 us 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 us. 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.
Questions? Want to know more? Contact us for more information.
copyright Maria Gray
"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".
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