Liz Eyes

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!