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[Paws & Awws] Dog Aggression: A Trainer's Guide

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As a trainer, the MOST dreaded phone calls come from pet-parents who are struggling with aggressive dogs. Why? Because certain types of aggression can be extremely difficult to modify, and, sometimes, aggression can even be part of a personality disorder. There are several different types of aggressions, but this blog will focus solely on dog-to-dog aggression.

Preventative Measures

TRAINER TIP: Take your puppy to Doggy Daycare at least once a week until they are 9 months old.

Dog-to-dog aggression is one of the most "preventative" aggressions that exist, but there are two solid rules that you should follow. Training a puppy should start as soon as they come home. Then, once a puppy's shots have been completed, they should be socialized with a multitude of dogs until they are about 9 months old. Sadly, too many pet-parents do not understand this important and imperative time in their puppy's life.

Did you know, that puppies need to meet approximately 100 different types of dogs (in a very positive and controlled environment) to prevent dog to dog aggression in the future by the time they are 9 months old? When I ask a client how many dogs their dog has met during that time frame, the usual answer is; "oh, my parents dog, and my two friends that have a dog." Well, that is three dogs. YIKES!

When working with clients that get a puppy, I tell them my long-term vision for their puppy, soon-to-be adult dog, is the "friendliest dog in the neighborhood." They LOVE that and immediately get on board with the socialization program that is needed to ensure this.

The easiest way to accomplish this is to take your puppy to Doggy Daycare at least once a week until they are 9 months old. What about dog parks? Unless the dog park is regulated, meaning the dogs are temperament tested, vaccinations are proven, and you pay an annual fee (this helps pay for the regulation), I am not a fan. Dog squabbles are normal at all dog parks, daycare, or other places. However, any joe-schmo can bring their aggressive dog into a public dog park that is unregulated. Sadly, they do this to "work" with their dog. This sets up all the other dogs in the park to possibly get injured by this particular dog that has aggression issues. Plus, there is absolutely no way to have proof that these pet-parents are vaccinating their dogs annually, which makes bringing a puppy, or any dog, into that type of situation pretty scary.

TRAINER TIP: Your puppy's 30 minute daily walk is more than just healthy for them physically, it's a great and effective way to socialize them!

Doggy Daycare provides a safe and regulated environment. Don't get me wrong, there could possibly be a dog squabble at Doggy Daycare, but the chances are so low that I would bank on Doggy Daycare any day over a public dog park. They temperament test every dog that comes in, vaccines have to be proven (including kennel cough), and they typically only allow your dog to stay for a few hours the first day to help them get acclimated to the program.

Another great and effective way to socialize your dog, is a daily walk! Yep, I know, - exercise, URGH! If you choose to get a dog, 99% of them will require a daily 30 minute minimal walk, and certain breeds will require more than just a daily walk. Not only is this great exercise for the both of you, but your dog will also have the opportunity to meet other dogs on their walk. Just be cautious when approaching other dogs, usually you can tell if a pet-parent is comfortable letting their dog meet yours. There's no way to be sure their dog is vaccinated, but, having a puppy, you shouldn't be be afraid to ask them. Responsible pet-parents are the ones usually walking their dog.

Train, train, train your puppy or dog. The more commands a dog can learn, the better their overall mannerisms will be.

Could this be a personality disorder?

TRAINER TIP: Understanding the breed's traits is number one in understanding how your puppy might behave around other dogs.

Yes, it really could be. All puppies are born with different types of personalities such as assertive, shy, friendly, bossy, diva-like, easy-going, playful, or timid. Puppies that have an assertive, bossy, shy, or timid type personality will need immediate training early on, as well as socialization. Assertive and bossy type personalities are STRONG personalities, meaning a dog will not take to listening very well. A shy or timid personality is a WEAK personality trait, meaning a dog will signal to others they are a weak-link which can easily be taken advantage of by other dogs.

Personality disorder is real. When a dog is displaying neurotic type behaviors, such as obsessing about anything, this is not a healthy mind set. One might be fine one moment and totally snap the next. They might display obsessive compulsive traits towards other dogs or within their family pack. This isn't normal puppy behavior. If a puppy's personality doesn't have these issues, they can develop them if not properly exercised or trained.

TRAINER TIP: Adopting a puppy? No worries - the rescue or shelter will temperament test the puppies, signifying a puppy's personality trait.

Even training and proper socialization does not guarantee a dog will never have dog-to-dog aggression issues. Sometimes it's just part of a puppy's personality. Doing as much as possible to ensure this behavior is never displayed is important, but that does not offer any guarantees.

The best thing to do is research all the breeds prior to getting a puppy, even if it is a mixed breed. Understanding the breed traits is number one in understanding how your puppy might behave around other dogs. Second, it is important to watch your puppy with their litter mates and parents, if possible. This interaction will speak volumes about how a puppy responds in social situations. Adopting a puppy? No worries - the rescue or shelter will temperament test the puppies, signifying a puppy's personality trait. This will offer a better understanding of how a puppy will behave when brought home.

My Dog Has Aggression Issues, Now What?

Don't give up on your dog. You do have a lot of work ahead, as this is not an easy behavioral modification. Here are some steps you can do to help modify your dog's behavior. Even with doing all these steps, don't ever assume your dog is "fixed." There is no fixing, but this will give you an opportunity to modify and manage their behavior.

Step 1: NEVER EVER use electric collars, prong collars, choke collars, or martingales to work with your dog. Sadly, these types of training tools can heighten aggression. Just imagine that every time you saw another dog, and you got zapped with an electric current, you would start associating that dog with the pain - not a good association for a dog to have with other dogs when trying to work with them on aggressive issues. In fact, I never recommend these types of tools and refuse to use them for any training I do with my clients.

Instead, consider using the Gentle Leader Headcollar. The Gentle Leader Headcollar offers a way to control your dog's face and head (it is NOT a muzzle), which also gives you full control over their body. This is a much easier way to manage your dog.

Step 2: Set Rules and Boundaries for your dog. A majority of the time, a dog that has aggression issues is typically running the show at home too. They don't take you seriously when you tell them to do something. They have no rules, are extremely demanding, and have other behavioral issues going on, such as jumping, counter-surfing, excessive barking, and many more.

Here are some tips to get the rules and boundaries set up:

If your dog has the privilege of sleeping on your bed, no more. Are they free-feeding (eating their food whenever they want)? Another big no-no. A dog's food is their highest value. Giving them their food where they are in control of it is not a healthy mindset for a dog. Make your dog "earn" everything they get from you. They want to be pet, great! Tell your dog to "sit," now you can pet them. Play time, fantastic! Tell your dog to "lie down," now you can play with them. This is putting the human back in control of a dogs environment. Your dog is learning to respect you.

The feeding schedule should be for the life of your dog. The earning program and sleeping arrangements should be done until you see improvements with your dog's behavior.

Step 3: NEVER EVER get physical with your dog. Stop watching all those dog shows on TV that show someone physically forcing their dog on their back and pinning them to the ground. The more physical you get, the more it will make your dog defensive. This is not the way to show your dog you are in control. This method can also heighten fear. A dog that is already displaying aggressive issues should not be trained with fear or physical dominance.

Step 4: Train your dog a few commands. Your dog needs to learn "sit," "watch me," and "leave it," to start with. "Sit" is important to help manage your dog, "watch me" teaches your dog to pay attention to you, and "leave it" helps with teaching your dog to back off of an object, human, or other dog. Build these commands up for a few weeks prior to working with your dog around other dogs.

Step 5: Time to start associating other dogs as a positive. Start taking treats with you on your walks, something of very high value, like cooked chicken, string cheese, or cooked turkey hotdogs. Every time you encounter a dog on a walk, immediately pull your dog off to the side (keep a safe distance between your dog and the other dog at all times), putting the cooked chicken to their nose to help them focus on you and the treat. As the other dog is approaching, start giving your dog their yummy treat. his is the only time your dog should receive this valuable treat. Soon, they will realize when seeing another dog, they get yummy treats, the association is other dogs bring good things.

Step 6: Have a friend with a calm and submissive dog (this is important as you don't want to work with another dog-reactive dog) walk by (keeping a safe distance) throwing your dog some yummy treats. Make sure to use the Gentle Leader Headcollar during these training sessions. Again, this is associating that good things come to your dog in the presence of other dogs.

Please remember dog to dog aggression issues are very serious and can often be prevented with easy solutions of socializing and early training but, it also can be a personality disorder. Either way, if you have a dog that has this behavioral problem, I would like to encourage you to seek professional help through a dog behaviorist that uses positive, calm, and gentle training methods to help.

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