I originally wrote this post in August 2012:
Last month, we discussed what aggressive behavior is and how it can worsen without intervention. This month, we’ll cover how to rehabilitate aggressive behavior.
The Best Defense . . .
As with most things, the best way to avoid aggression is to prepare your dog to be comfortable with novel situations and unfamiliar people and dogs. This is the process of socialization. Dogs are most receptive to new things during the first 12 weeks of their lives. After that, they can learn to accept new things, but it takes more work. Socialization isn’t flooding your dog with new experiences. Ensure their exposures are safe and rewarding. If overwhelmed during this prime socialization period, puppies can develop fears that will have the opposite effect than what you intend. Play it safe, but be relentless in giving your puppy exposure to a wide variety of people, dogs and situations. (See Resources)
Once Aggressive Behavior Begins
It’s natural to be alarmed the first time your dog behaves aggressively. Some try to quash the behavior with a stern response. Let me be very clear: You cannot punish away aggressive behavior. Remember from last month’s column that aggression is caused by stress. That stress will escalate if the dog experiences pain or discomfort when in that state. You might get your dog to suppress outward warnings of the stress. That is a bad idea. What you have then is a dog who may act aggressively, but gives you no warning – what a dangerous situation that is. As I tell my clients, “a growl is a gift.” Don’t punish it; accept it as the communication your dog intends, step back and form a plan to deal with it.
Rehabilitating Aggressive Behavior
I use a three-prong strategy for rehabilitating behavior: Management, Training, and Behavior Modification.
Management is controlling your dog’s environment so he doesn’t “practice” the behavior. While critical to an overall rehabilitation plan, Management has risks. It depends on structure and routine, and inevitably, we humans have lapses. So Management alone is not the solution.
Training extremely reliable foundation behaviors such as Come, Stay, Leave It and Look will give you more control over your dog in a dicey situation. You must rehearse those behaviors with your dog in numerous situations with different distractions before they become reliable.
Behavior Modification is the process of changing your dog’s attitude about something. If your dog is less stressed by something, he will act less aggressively. This is really the bottom line in modifying aggressive behavior, and the core reason why punishing the behavior doesn’t work. Consider your dog’s point of view. Suppose every time he is in the presence of The Scary Thing that makes him uncomfortable, he growls to let you know that. If he experiences something aversive as a result, he may associate that aversive with The Scary Thing. Ultimately, he’s starting the behavior sooner or reacting more aggressively to The Scary Thing because he is more stressed by it. Instead, pair the presence of The Scary Thing with something your dog considers to be very high value. Every time The Scary Thing appears, chicken falls into his mouth. With repetition, your dog is less stressed by that thing and begins to anticipate that “chicken happens” it its presence. With a different attitude about the thing, he won’t need to use aggressive behavior to keep it away.
The combination of Management and Training with sound Behavior Management techniques can significantly reduce aggressive behavior, and in some cases, eliminate it completely. Don’t hesitate to get help from a qualified trainer or behaviorist to get started on the path to rehabilitation.
Resources at your fingertips
The Puppy’s Rules of Twelve: www.uvhs.org/behavioral_docs/the_puppys_rules_of_twelve.pdf
Use of Punishment with Aggression: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/02/090217141540.htm
Carol Peter is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and owner of Cold Nose Companions, LLC Dog Training. She offers private training and group classes for people and their dogs throughout Geauga County. Carol focuses on resolving problem behaviors and teaching good household manners using positive reinforcement training and behavior modification methods. She can be reached at email@example.com.
©2012, Carol Peter, Cold Nose Companions, LLC