Liz Eyes

i click
The “Click to Calm” methodology utilizes the science of clicker training to effectively and creatively develop strategies that will help calm and manage the reactive/aggressive dog. This program is designed specifically for any dog that is uncomfortable around certain types of stimuli: the most common being people and other dogs. It is also a great program for newly adopted shelter dogs.


What I am going to present to you is my own case study about my golden retriever, Benjamin. It was through Ben that I met Karen Pryor and, thus, found some of the most effective ways to deal with aggression and fear-based behavior in dogs.I purchased Ben from a breeder at seven weeks of age with the intent of showing him in competition obedience. At the age of five months, we started working with a wonderful obedience competition coach by the name of Patty Ruzzo, who employs purely operant conditioning training techniques. Ben blossomed under her tutelage.

Primary Causes of Aggression

There are many different reasons why dogs can exhibit dog-to-dog aggression. Some include the following: a medical condition, lack of socialization or inappropriate socialization, breed and genetic predisposition, frustration, fear or anxiety, lack of education in the home and/or while out in public, physical abuse from owners or well meaning dog trainers, or a trauma of some kind. It is not uncommon for well meaning owners to purchase a puppy and, because of hectic schedules, find that they keep the dog crated more hours than they originally planned. The puppy, therefore, is deprived of much needed exposure to different people and different dogs during that small window of socialization. Once this happens, there is no way to “redo” these early months. It is only by providing adequate structure and positive reinforcement training that the pup’s attitude toward “the unknown” will improve.

The signs that a dog is becoming aggressive or reactive to other dogs are pretty clear. This dog will be out on a walk with his owner, and upon sight of another dog, will start barking and lunging at the end of his leash. The owner will need to hold on for dear life! His hackles might go up, he may begin to salivate, and his respiration will increase while his pupils will become dilated.  

A typical response from the owner is to scold the dog and pull the leash tight hoping that it will stop the tirade. The difficulty with this response is that, in the tightening of the leash, the anxiety travels right down to the dog and makes the problem increasingly worse! Now, every time when the owner takes the dog out for a walk, the owner sees another dog, pulls up on the leash (automatic response) and the dog reacts accordingly. The owner, unknowingly, is actually warning her dog (cueing) that another dog is approaching. This can quickly become a dangerous cycle. 


Preventing Dog to Dog Aggression in Puppies

Listed below is a protocol where the main intent is to teach your puppy to interact appropriately with other puppies or adult dogs.

  1. A veterinarian should check the puppy to be sure that no medical problems exist. 
  2. Puppies should be socialized with other puppies or mature dogs, regardless of breed or personality type, between the ages of 8 weeks to about 6 months. A well-run puppy class is a great way to do this!
  3. The socialization itself should be appropriate and successful. For example, it is better to have no socialization than to put a pup in a situation where the puppy is either bullied or preyed upon by larger puppies or adult dogs. There is a difference between another pup teaching the pup a lesson by using the smallest degree of aggression needed to get a point across versus a pup that acts aggressively for no reason and pushes the pup about unrelentlessly. This should not be allowed to happen in a puppy class! In these cases, the fearful puppies become more fearful and continue to hide under the chairs, and the “bully” puppies become more rambunctious and learn that, through their obnoxious behavior, they can have their way with whomever they choose. This sets them up for failure in the future.  

    A well-run puppy class will have the dogs separated by temperaments and slowly, with success and gentleness, begin to integrate both groups. My rescued Golden Retriever, Kayden Blue, could not play with the puppies of his size in our puppy class. Instead he hung out with the Mini Poodles and Shih Tzus and did just fine. 

  4. Never assume that all dogs like puppies! Many do not and would not hesitate to seriously injure them given the chance! When out walking, always ask the owner of the other dog if it is ok to let the dogs meet. Instead of having the dogs meet face to face, ask the other dog owner to walk with you heading in the same direction. This is called parallel walking and it is a lovely way for dogs to get to know one another. Walk, with a loose leash, in this order: dog, handler/dog handler. As you are walking forward, one dog will start sniffing the other’s rear end. From there, the other dog can decide if he would like to interact, and if so, will do so accordingly.  

    The difficulty with head-to-head meetings is that it is an unnatural way for dogs to meet one another unless they have been taught this beforehand. They are actually forced into each other’s faces and that physical placement alone can lead to an unsafe situation. 

  5. Give your puppy confidence by providing structure at home (which I call Effective Home Management) and teaching him a set of foundation behaviors that he can perform in all environments especially highly distracting ones.  Foundation behaviors can include: automatic eye contact, sit, down, stay, heel on a loose leash, leave it, and come. 

It is important to start teaching the puppy these behaviors in a distraction free environment first, and then as the pup becomes more familiar with the behavior, start asking for them amid higher and higher distractions. The pup should learn to pay attention to the owner regardless of who or what is around. These skills are essential for those dog owners that will allow their dogs to run off-leash in the woods and for those who will frequent popular dog parks.

If you already have a dog with a dog-to-dog aggression issue, you can follow the protocol below:


Look Medical First!

The first thing that I would recommend is for the dog to be checked thoroughly by a veterinarian. Ask the doctor to run the following tests: blood profile, complete blood count, urinalysis and a complete thyroid profile. (I advise my clients to send it to Dr. Jean Dodds at Hemopet/Hemolife) Explore any other type of medical testing needed dependent upon what was found in the preliminary visit.

If the dog is experiencing severe aggression to other dogs or people, I recommend that they see a qualified veterinary behaviorist to see if veterinary pharmaceuticals are in order before starting any type of training plan.


Treatment Plan for Eradicating Dog-to-Dog Aggression

One of the most important pieces of this treatment plan is to not give the dog the opportunity to rehearse the reactive/aggressive behavior. The more the dog reacts to another dog, the more he will continue to do so. The more he does so, the more it will become a habit and the harder it will be to break. The intensity of the behavior may strengthen as well. 

Our goal is to have the dog perform a behavior that is incompatible with the reactive/aggressive behavior. When doing a behavioral consult, I will ask my client, “What do you WANT your dog to do instead of barking and lunging at another dog?” So many look at me blankly and say, “I don’t know! I just want him to stop!” We need to give the dog a particular behavior to perform while in the presence of another dog. In order for the dog to do this, he must be able to think instead of react.

Teaching a dog to think while in the environment and perform an incompatible behavior are two separate pieces of criteria and must be treated as so. In the past, I have seen way too many dog training demonstrations where the trainer has the handler and reactive dog enter the room. The handler is asked to get her dog’s attention. Once she gets his attention, another dog is brought in and positioned at the other end of the room. Now the reactive dog goes ballistic! The dog is barking and lunging at the end of the leash while the handler desperately tries to hold on. She is yelling at the dog, trying to get his attention but to no avail. The trainer keeps telling her to “GET YOUR DOG”S ATTENTION!” Finally the other dog leaves the room and both handler and reactive dog are shaken and exhausted. Once all has calmed down, the trainer explains that the relationship between the dog and handler is not strong enough and inadequate. It has nothing to do with this! The dog must be taught to tolerate the sight, sound and smell of the other dog in the environment first and then the dog can perform whatever behavior he has been previously taught to do.

There are several ways to teach this skill however the one that I highly recommend is to use the methodology of clicker training. Clicker training is a positive-reinforcement training system, based on the principles of operant conditioning, that incorporates the use of a marker signal (the click), to tell the animal what he is doing right at that exact moment in time. The clicker provides a simple, clear form of communication between verbal humans and nonverbal animals. A clicker is a box-like device that makes a noise when you press on the dimpled side. Each time the dog hears the click; the dog knows that he has done what you want and that he will get a special treat.

Information is empowering to any being, including our dogs, and helps to shape their attitude toward the environment in which they live. Once the dogs realize that they are in control of their own environment and the consequences of their actions, their confidence grows. With this confidence, comes success. Now the reactive/aggressive dog can go into any high distraction environment with their handler, trusting that his handler will make the best decisions for him. 

To put this system into practice, you will want to get a clicker, favorite treats, and a training bag or pouch. It is a way for you to “talk to the dog” directly. Each time that you click the dog, you are telling the dog, “That is exactly right!” 

It sounds simple but there are a couple of learning theory principles that must be put in place before you begin. 

Consider the following:

You will want to work this behavior separate from all others.

Use favorite treats that your dog would DIE for! And only use these treats when exposing your dog to another dog. Try to find a couple of these and rotate them.

Establish a threshold for your dog to work within and then add a few feet. A threshold is the distance that your dog can see or hear the other dog without reacting. He might be curious and attentive but not outwardly reacting. For example, if your dog can see another dog at 6 feet, expose your dog at 8 feet.

Keep your training session very short. Sometimes a minute or two are just enough.

Click and feed your dog for looking at and/or hearing another dog. Do so using a high rate of reinforcement, which means to click and feed your dog more times that you, can imagine. Become a human treat dispenser!

If this process is done correctly, your dog’s eye contact will bounce between you and the other dog. As this starts to happen, withhold your click for a few seconds. Now, click and feed your dog for looking at you instead. It is through this process that the presence of the other dog becomes the cue to look at you, the handler. 

Now that your dog is looking at you when he sees another dog, you can insert an incompatible behavior like sniffing the ground or walking by your side. Be sure to teach your dogs these behaviors in a low distraction environment first, separate from the exposure work that you are doing. 

Only when that behavior is reliable may you use it in a public environment.


Why Punishment Is Contraindicated

Positive punishment must never be used when working with severe behavioral issues like the one described above. In many cases, this behavior is triggered by fear of some kind, and if that is the case, then the punishment inflicted can cause serious side effects that can make the original problem several times worse. Take, for instance, my Golden Retriever Benjamin who was nervous around other dogs. When Ben saw another dog, he would bark and pull on the leash.  I took him to a well-meaning dog trainer who hung him, off of the ground on a prong collar, upon sight of another dog. The reactivity/aggression stopped temporarily, but two weeks later when he saw another dog from a distance, Ben was like “Cujo!” He not only lunged at the end of the leash growling but his teeth were now bared, his hackles were up, and puddles of saliva dripped from both sides of his mouth. 

Administering punishment makes it feel like we are doing something to help eradicate the behavior. We justify it in our minds by thinking; “Well we have to do this in order for this behavior to stop!” Punishment is reinforcing to the punisher. It mistakenly leads us to believe that we have “fixed” the behavior, when in reality, we did not teach the dog WHAT to do the next time he sees another dog.

Punishment can also damage the relationship between you and your dog. You want your dog to feel safe when he is with you, not feel threatened. Fear stops the learning process.


How to Stop a Dog Fight

Luckily the times that dogs engage in serious fights are relatively few. Dogs can certainly squabble with each other but many times these do not need any type of human intervention to break them up. Serious dogfights are those that are silent except for the one dog that is being injured who will most likely be screaming. The last thing you want to do is get yourself injured trying to separate the two. 

The most important advice is to try and stay calm. Yelling at the dogs will cause the aggressive attack to escalate. DO NOT try and take the dog’s collars and separate them! You can be gravely injured! Instead look for any object(s) in the environment that might be used to startle the dogs into separating. For example, you can try throwing a bucket of cold water on the dogs or spraying water from a hose, or if you have an air horn or noisemaker of some kind, activate it to see if the dogs will be affected. You can also try throwing a blanket over the two to see if that helps.

In the most extreme circumstances, you and another person can try picking up one of the dogs two back legs (like a wheeling a wheelbarrow) and drag the dog(s) out of the fray. The difficulty with this is that you run the risk of the dogs turning around and redirecting the aggression onto the person.   

Only in the most severe case, if the aggressor has a collar on, you can twist the collar and cut off the dog’s air supply. Caution: This is only to be done if you fear that the other dog might die! 

 Wished I had had a class like this to attend with Sky.
This is written by someone who definitely knows how it feels to be owned by a fearful dog.  Loved the total attention to  details the understanding of the fear of not only the dog but the owner too. The isolation that is felt by the owner. and not knowing how to help the dog.  I loved the total attention to detail keeping all dogs and handlers safe, from the time they left the cars and waked across the car park to enter the building by a designated door to entering their training area behind barriers (each training pair entering one by one) . Because the trainers would be so nervous about taking their dogs into a class environment, I really liked that they attended the first  class on their own without their dogs to enable them to learn the mechanical skills of clicker training and of course get to know the building, the other handlers and assistants.
I absolutely loved the double lead method, (I used a double ended lead and two different pieces of equipment for safety for Sky) wish I had thought about two leads and handing one lead to Barry to help.  I know she mentions one exercise in particular that really helped me and that's the U. turn. love the get behind exercise. . I really like the fact that the assistants do not go too close but are always there if needed to help,  provide treats if running out... etc etc. and always go with handler and dog when exiting and entering building so they are their eyes and ears and keep them safe. This is a book with real attention to detail that all handlers with fearful dogs have to learn if they want to keep their dogs safe and help them.  I could go on and on about it, definitely going to order the book so I can keep going back over and over it.  in fact it has jogged my memory and I will be teaching Fleck the U turn just in case we need to escape at anytime. and also the go behind. which is very useful should I want Fleck to be out of reach of dog or person. .She describes everything in this book including when you should up your re enforcement rate. I could go on and on... I love this book. I love these classes.

by Julie Gordon  (originally posted on 

Aggression in dogs is one of the most common and most serious concerns for dog owners, and it is the primary reason dogs are euthanized. However, while aggression is a significant problem, Karen Pryor Academy and ClickerExpo faculty member Emma Parsons has proven that no dog should be considered hopeless. Inspired by her own quest to rehabilitate her beloved golden retriever, Ben, Emma refuted punishment strategies that were often used to deal with dog aggression and developed an innovative, positive approach. For the last decade, Emma has given hope to many owners in their quests to find solutions for their reactive/aggressive dogs. Since the release of her bestselling book on dog aggression, Click to Calm: Healing the Aggressive Dog (KPCT, 2005), she has traveled throughout the US and Europe to share the “Click to Calm” clicker training methodology. In this interview, we catch up with Emma and explore why her strategies work, as well as discuss the resources that are available for pet owners who are facing this most challenging behavior problem. 


What was the catalyst that led to your interest in rehabilitating reactive and aggressive dogs?

When I was rehabilitating my golden retriever, Ben, he did not fit the typical pattern. Back then you either punished the aggressive behavior so severely that the dog would never think to do it again, or you waited for the dog to stop aggressing and be quiet so that you could reinforce the dog for the correct behavior. Ben did not fit into these slots. At one point, I tried to keep him in the presence of other dogs, hoping to reinforce the calmer behavior. Unfortunately, he started vomiting before I could reinforce anything! Ben would be aggressive toward dogs up close as well as dogs 100 feet away—with the same intensity! 

At that point, I discovered the learning theory principle that states that you can reinforce behavior at its lower intensity. Shaping Ben’s reactivity was never black or white. There were many shades of grey in between. With Karen Pryor’s advice, I started by clicking him for taking a breath. Little by little, tiny windows of silence started to open up. I only became aware of the silence when I had an easier time placing my click.

I am so committed to helping others with their dogs because Karen was so committed to helping me save my golden retriever. If it hadn’t been for Karen, Ben would not have lived past his second birthday.


Click to Calm has been described as the ultimate reference book for those looking for answers about dog aggression. Did the book achieve what you hoped it would?

Yes, writing Click to Calm: Healing the Aggressive Dog did achieve what I had set out to accomplish—that and much more! The most important reason I wrote the book was to teach others that you can shape a dog’s emotions like you can shape any other behavior via clicker training. I especially wanted others to know that, even if the dog appears to have no discernible threshold, there is still hope.


What are some of the key steps pet owners should take once they realize that their dogs have aggression issues?

The first thing that they need to do is see their veterinarian. I always recommend that my clients look medically first. If everything checks out fine, they should then see a veterinary behaviorist. Before I work with a client whose dog has a severe aggression issue, I want them to see if behavioral pharmaceuticals are appropriate. Once both of these specialists have been consulted, a pet owner can set up an appointment with a behavior consultant, someone who will work with the dog safely and in a positive manner.


Why do you think clicker training works so well with reactive dogs?

Clicker training works well for a variety of reasons. The click is a precise marker signal. It means the same thing all of the time, no matter what the circumstance or who is holding the clicker. The clicker is easy for the handler to carry. The sound of the click is calming to the amygdala of the brain (it calms our brain as well as a dog’s brain).


What are some of the myths about using a clicker with reactive dogs?

One of the misperceptions is that if you use a clicker to mark the pieces in between the aggressive cues, then you are reinforcing the aggression itself. For example, if an owner is out with his or her dog and the dog focuses on another dog, the owner should click and feed the dog for looking at the other dog quietly. Just because the dog is quiet does not mean that the dog is not stressed. The dog is very likely stressed, but if the owner can capture the behavior of looking at the dog quietly more and more often, then the dog will become calmer over time. The dog can learn to look at the thing that was troubling in the past.


Are there any dogs that can't be rehabilitated with positive reinforcement?

I have never worked with a dog that did not improve to some degree. The issue is whether or not the improvement was enough for the family. We all have dogs for different reasons. In order to work with an aggressive dog, family members must push aside all of their previous expectations and let the dog blossom into the dog he was meant to be. 

For example, I chose Ben hoping he would become a highly competitive obedience dog. Once his issues began, my main intention was simply to save his life. If we could do other things eventually, then that would be an extra blessing. I had to push aside all of my previous expectations and allow Ben to be Ben—the dog he was destined to be. In the beginning, I was not sure who that dog was!


What have you been up to since the release of Click to Calm?

Since the release of Click to Calm I have been teaching seminars and workshops in the US and abroad. I feel blessed to have worked with so many owners and dogs. Not only have I traveled across the US, but I have visited the Netherlands as well as Europe to share the “Click to Calm” clicker training methodology.

I work full time as a veterinary technician at the VCA Rotherwood Animal Hospital in Newton, Massachusetts. Though I could work solely in the behavioral field, I love having one foot in the medical field. It is such a nice balance to my life and I am hoping I can continue in this fashion. I am always worried that at some point my two worlds will collide!

I am also working with my dogs competitively in agility and obedience. I have four dogs: three golden retrievers and a papillon. Kayden Blue, my reactive golden retriever, will be reintroducing me to the world of canine freestyle. I let my dogs pick their sport, and Kayden has decided that freestyle is his sport!

Julie Robitaille is the “brain child” behind our video called TACT: A Training Program for Dogs that Are Fearful or Reactive Toward People that was published by Clean Run. Though Julie could certainly have done this project beautifully on her own, she asked if I would participate and help put it together. I was honored to oblige!


How did the idea for TACT come about?

Julie had been one of my reactive dog assistants for several years. Her degree was in canine massage. At the conclusion of one of our classes, she mentioned to me that she had set up a dog-massage booth at one of the pet fairs. There she met many people who asked if they could get their money back if she could not actually put her hands on their dogs to massage them. 

Julie did offer money-back guarantees, but she introduced challenging dogs to the clicker, working with them just as we were working in our reactive dog classes. Basically, she shaped all of the appropriate things that the dogs would do. Before long, she could actually touch and massage some of these challenging dogs! 

When I learned that Julie had been having this fabulous success for three years, I encouraged her to share this technique. When she asked if I would work with her on this project, I agreed happily!


What dogs benefit from TACT?

All dogs benefit from TACT, but especially dogs that are fearful or reactive to people. The most wonderful thing about TACT is that it uses a predictable protocol, which is HUGE for shy and fearful dogs. TACT places a format around how they can introduce themselves to people and how they can interact with them.


What are you working on now?

I am working on integrating a puppy into my reactive-dog household. This is new to me since I never introduced another dog into my home when I had Ben. I am currently writing about it on my blog. The other thing that I am describing on my blog is how to raise a clicker trained pup that will compete successfully in obedience and agility.

I am also continuing to teach reactive dog classes and Control Unleashed classes, with a little bit of “Click to Calm” thrown in.

Emma, thank you for sharing your insights and for everything you’ve done to give hope to aggressive dogs and their families.