How can I stop my dog’s aggression around other dogs?

Note: This is a guest post from Ty Brown, owner of CommuniCanine, a Salt Lake City dog training company voted the best training company in Utah. Ty is also the owner of Dog Behavior Online, a dog training resource offering DVDs, Skype training and free videos and articles.

Over the years my dog training business has evolved quite a bit.

I started out as a sole proprietor doing everything on my own and taking any training job that came down the pike.

As the years progressed, I added new trainers and office staff, and we became much more laser focused.

In our state of Utah we are known for being able to solve dog aggression. All types of dog aggression.

Whether the subject is dog aggressive, person aggressive, child aggressive, food aggressive or handler aggressive, we’ve dealt with it successfully. Fixing aggression has become probably 60 percent of our business, and it is due primarily to several key points I’m going to share with you today.

Obedience, obedience, obedience

Any of my clients will tell you that I sound like a broken record.

You ask me about a house training problem, and I ask you about the dog’s obedience. You want to fix destruction, and I want to find out just how well your dog heels on a leash. You want to solve door manners, hyperactivity or neurotic behaviors, then I want to know if your dog has great obedience or is it only so-so?

Obedience is so critical because it has a calming effect. It is structured, and structure fights dog “evil” in all its forms. An obedient dog is also a respectful dog.

So when someone is hiring us to solve her dog’s aggression issues, the first thing we always start with is obedience. It sets the foundation for fixing this and all other issues.

Now, I know what some of you out there are saying. “My dog is obedient and he’s also aggressive.”

I’ve heard this before. Probably dozens if not hundreds of times. Only once did I hand it to the person and say, “You’re right.”

You see, any time someone tells me her dog is very obedient, it normally only takes a few moments to highlight where the problem is.

“Does your dog stay when told?” I’ll ask.

“Sure,” she’ll tell me.

“What about when someone is ringing the doorbell?” I ask.

“Um … not so much.”

“Well does he come when called?”

“Oh yes, he knows ‘come.'”

“What about if another dog were around?”

“I guess not at that point.”

Folks, there is a difference between “obedience” and “applicable obedience.”

Nearly every dog I’ve ever met has some obedience, but it’s the rare dog that has applicable obedience. You know, the kind of obedience where your dog will perform the command regardless of distractions – cats, other dogs, kids, bicycles and the rest.

If your dog doesn’t have that level of obedience then that is job one for solving your aggression problem.

What do I do when my dog is acting aggressively?!

Assuming we are progressing along with some solid obedience training, we’ve got to have a strategy in place for what to do when your dog starts acting like a turd and barking, lunging and growling at his “trigger.” (Trigger is the word we use for what starts the aggressive behavior.)

At our company we teach, through a few different means, a method we call “The Distance Method.”

Let me walk you through how I often see a typical person dealing with his dog’s aggression.

Owner and dog are walking down the street when the dog is suddenly triggered. The dog starts barking and lunging and the owner starts dragging the dog away, ostensibly being “corrected.”

Look at it from the dog’s perspective, though.

The dog’s entire focus is on the “trigger.” As she’s being dragged away she is associating the discomfort of the drag on the trigger and therefore is wrapping the trigger into her correction.

“Man I really hate dogs,” the dog’s internal monologue says. “Every time I see one my owner starts dragging me off.”

In fact, it’s quick work to worsen an aggression problem doing this.

Dogs are disobedient for only three reasons:

1- Focus problems
2- Communication problems
3- Dominance/relationship problems

Most aggression I see is focus related.

The dog is so focused on an outside trigger and has no clue how to redirect that focus towards something constructive rather than destructive.

(Sound familiar? How many of you know someone who has allowed an outside trigger of alcohol, gambling or other vice to take his focus away from constructive things? It’s easy to say “stupid dog” without realizing people often have the same problems in different formats.)

‘Aggression snowball’

One of Ty's trained dogsWhat we look for is when the dog starts his “aggression snowball.” You know, the moment the dog starts huffing and puffing and beginning to wind up.

The second that snowball starts, we correct in the opposite way. This can be done with a leash and training collar. We’ve also developed a method using an e-collar that is very unique to us called the “Step Back Recall.”

The idea is that we don’t want the aggression snowball to get any bigger. Before it does, we correct the dog away by giving several firm tugs and releases (not drags) moving directly away from the trigger, therefore changing his focus, and allowing his brain to calm down for a second.

After doing that, we turn back around and re-approach the trigger, and allow the dog to decide again. If he makes a poor choice, we repeat. If he makes a good choice, we keep walking.

You see, dogs focus on what their two little eyes are scanning right now. As we get their eyes to look away, and reinforce that with a correction, we get the dog to zero in on us.

If your dog is focused on you, he is a good boy. If he’s focused on his trigger, he may not be. It’s important to get that focus onto you.

These days we’ve even been experimenting successfully with using a treat after the correction to get the dog to zero in and focus on the owner’s face. I know, I know. Anyone who’s read any of my stuff or seen any of my videos knows I’m not a treat trainer. I’ve found, though, that a well-timed treat after the correction can really focus the dog in well.

Now, I know at this point there are going to be plenty of readers that say, “Well this study … or this book … or this trainer says you can’t correct dogs when they are being aggressive. It will only make it worse!”

To those that argue this point, I never know what to say.

What do you say when a study tells you something that you know from your own two eyes to be false? I don’t know.

Needless to say, for those who are going to want to love the dog, treat the dog, or calmly reason with the dog into not being aggressive then I say “all the best.”

Our system has been working great for years and has helped thousands of aggressive dogs.

Checks and balances

I mentioned earlier that structure is good and fights evil. That is very true, and if your dog is aggressive you want lots of structure in a lot of good ways. I call them “checks and balances,” little things you do throughout the day that are reminding the dog about her relationship with you and her purpose around the house.

You should be walking the dog, not her walking you.

This is an absolute. Make sure you train your dog to walk right next to your side.

You should have your dog do obedience tasks throughout the day.

Have her wait before you go out a door. Have her lie down and stay for the 30 minutes while you eat dinner. Have her sit calmly when someone knocks on the door. In other words, give her a job.

And, of course, because it’s true and because it’s a nod to Lindsay the dog runner … make sure your dog gets plenty of exercise from focused walking or jogging.

I’m on the record saying that I want a dog to not be aggressive even if she hasn’t had exercise for weeks. I stand by that. However, it is so much easier to have a calm, non-aggressive dog if you are getting the wiggles out and getting your dog the mental and physical stimulation she needs.

In summary, fixing dog aggression is simple, but it’s not easy. Simple because these are principles and concepts that most people can do. That’s not easy, though, because it requires a good bit of work. So get out there and get to work!

Happy training.

Have you experienced any aggression issues with your own dog?