Strategies for working with aggression in dogs, All rights
reserved (c) 2012-2019 Frania Shelley-Grielen

What does aggressive behavior in dogs look like? To begin with, 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, 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 a
nd 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 differ-
ence.  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.

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Learning canine body language can help to distinguish between play and aggression
"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
Schedule a consultation
212-722-2509 / 646-228-7813

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