Strategies for working with aggression in dogs, All rights reserved (c) 2012-
2018 Frania Shelley-Grielen

What does aggressive behavior in dogs look like?  For starters, 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 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

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.
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
Ask me for a consultation
212-722-2509 / 646-228-7813

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