How to stop a dog’s aggression

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?

17 thoughts on “How to stop a dog’s aggression”

  1. Great post!

    I totally agree with the theory that you mentioned about getting all the wiggles out of your dog being a key component to reducing the likelyhood of them becoming aggressive. Sometimes also what we view as them being aggressive, is them not being truly aggressive at all so I think learning the true signs of aggression is also important.

  2. Lindsay Stordahl

    Yes, I agree. Although I think a similar “distance method” would also work for dogs that are not aggressive but overly excited. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  3. Makes sense. I’d prefer not to use an e-collar, though. So let me see if I understand correctly. At a distance when my dog first sees the other dog, turn away and tug in order to get my dog to also turn away without dragging or forcing him. Perhaps I can also use a “focus” or “look” command. Show him treats to distract him and if he focuses on me, give him the treat. If he doesn’t focus on me, try distracting again with a tug, treat, and cue. I imagine I want to do this at a distance before it gets really out of control and slowly over time build up his threshold so that eventually we can walk by another dog without trouble. Am I missing anything?

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      I am not speaking for Ty, only myself, but you should be able to use a choke or prong collar for this method. It does not have to involve an e-collar.

      Yes, sounds like you understand what to do. After a few seconds you would then turn and walk towards the other dog again, giving your dog another opportunity to decide how to react.

      1. The purpose of tugging on the dog’s collar is just to redirect his attention, right? So would a regular collar work just as well in this case? Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against anyone who uses the other collars your mentioned so long as they are using them properly. But I’d like to try to train without them. Thanks for verifying my understanding of Ty’s training tips. This is very helpful information and we will begin working on it right away… starting with improving their sit/stay when someone rings the doorbell, and having them be obedient even in distracting situations. I think that is the key right there. I don’t practice enough training in distracting situations.

          1. I would think a martingale would work better. The idea is to get the focus on you. If you are too polarized on either end (too much force on one end or too much motivation on the other) it typically doesn’t work well. You need a correction that is firm but fair that is followed by communicating what IS good and what you want the dog to do.

  4. Great info on aggressive dog in a walk…. How about if its aggression towards another dog within the household ? Same method ? Or what can i do? Thank you and any info in thus is much appreciated….;/)— Brenda

  5. My dog is dog aggressive, but he has been better now. Been trying positive methods that I’ve learned of, using really high value treats to distract and reinforce good behaviors, but it didn’t work. I don’t think that positive methods doesn’t work, it’s more like what I’ve learned didn’t work in our case. So in the end, we went to a trainer and learned how to use a prong.

    My dog’s aggression nature is that he is unsure and sees other dogs he don’t know as threats. He would go all the way and try to exert control in order to eliminate the threat.

    What we did was basically gradual approaches, and then correct when reacting negatively, and praising and allowing further approach when reacting in a friendly way. In the end, he ended up feeling safe with any dog he sees in the training camp, and met a few friends.

    But he still reacts to dogs during our walks. The problem is, we are not as skilled as our trainer when it comes to deliver corrections with prong that is good enough to completely stop any level of reaction.
    I can tell that if we don’t do it right, we might even escalate the reactivity sometimes. This is the typical situation in which people says “prong only worsens the reactivity”. But I can tell it is not coz of the prong, it is coz we are not skilled enough to deliver corrections as efficient as the ones from our trainer. But then, our trainer has +20 years of experience training air force dogs anyways!
    But what we figured out that could help is to set our expectations a bit lower, by being a bit more tolerant while avoiding situations that escalates the reactivity too much. We don’t approach other dogs too much, and we correct while encourage him to do alternate stuffs. For example, sometimes, it’s better to forgive a small growl or just tell him “go go go” to keep walking forward then correct for everything.

    In the end, our dog is better now, but the problem is that he can’t get better than this for now, since we can’t find him dog friends. The root problem is him feeling unsure of other dogs, so we need to provide a lot of positive interactions for him to be really cured.

    But I still believe that there might be positive methods that can be helpful. I might need to learn more and more to figure it out thought. Although I chose the prong for now, since it’s not fair to let my dog continue being too reactive just coz I don’t want corrections. First, I think that corrections are not really a bad thing if well applied. Second, if we don’t have a positive method at hand that could work, then it’s reasonable to use corrections. A dog’s life is too short to allow certain problems get worse and worse.

    Although on thing I don’t agree with my trainer is that he sets expectations too high, that it puts too much stress on the dog. He puts the dog sitting right next to the trigger, and corrects really strongly to cut the really high reactivity. In the end, the corrected dog submits, but you can see that he has a lowered posture, and that he is afraid of the other dog and the trainer, unlike when we do it rather slowly and with more realistic expectations.

  6. Good points, Sheep. Best of luck to you while you continue training your dog. You’re right, the timing of the corrections can be difficult as well as finding the right intensity. A lot of dog owners struggle with this.

    1. Yeah actually, aside of timing and intensity, how it is done also makes a whole difference. I could be as harsh as my trainer when it comes to intensity and my timing could be good, but I still can’t get the same result, which is a clear cut on my dog’s reactivity, when the reactivity level is too high. I can’t explain it through words, but maybe if someone sees their skilled trainer do it they can understand. And this might be what lacks in average owners, so that things might not always go well and they end up escalating the reactivity rather, which made them conclude that prong collars are bad, when it was actually their inexperience.

  7. I have the same question as Brenda above. How about if its aggression towards another dog within the household? Same method? Or what can i do? I have 3 dogs (littermates) – I will call them Dog #1, #2 and #3 to differentiate them. We got Dog #1 at 7 weeks of age, Dog #2 at 9 months, Dog #3 at almost 11 months old. Dog #2 and Dog #3 were owned by a person who then decided they didn’t have time for them (first Dog #2, then Dog #3). Those 2 dogs did fight at times and I don’t know the exact conditions they lived in. Dog #1 was neutered at 6 months old, we had Dog #2 and Dog #3 neutered as soon as we got them. Dog #1 gets along fine with both Dog #2 and Dog #3. However, Dog #2 and Dog #3 do not. Dog #2 attacks Dog #3 for no reason (we don’t have them all together now – we alternate keeping either Dog #2 or Dog #3 in a separate room with a gate in the doorway). We bring Dog #2 on his harness and leash multiple times per day and there are times he can lay quite close to Dog #3 with no problem but you can see/feel him wanting to attack him again. From the time we had them all loose together in the house, we know that Dog #3 does not want to fight but will if he has to. (One time the attack happened under the kitchen table and it took me a little longer to be able to get at Dog #2 enough to pull him off of Dog #3.) I do not want to/will not re-home any of these dogs. I want to do the right thing to get them to get along or if not get along, at least tolerate one another so they can live together. I never bring them outside together because we have a large fenced in yard and a fight could break out too far of a distance from me. I realize I am lucky that I have not gotten bit when I have pulled Dog #2 off of Dog #3. It just makes no sense – when we did have them all together, they could pass one another in the doorway 9-10 times, then in a split second, the 11th time, Dog #2 would instantaneously attack Dog #3 – no advance warning whatsoever. They will all be a year old at the end of this month (Dec 2012). I have spent countless hours researching on internet for ideas but don’t want to try the wrong thing. I found Ty Brown and have seen some of his videos and they seem so down to earth and sensible. Any help would be appreciated so very, very much.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      I wil ask Ty to comment as well.

      Personally, I suggest you hire a good trainer to come help you. At the very least, this person will give you some ideas to think about.

      If they were my dogs, I would work on the obedience skills of each of the dogs. Work with them individually and together so they all obey commands 99 percent of the time – stay, sit, come, etc. This will help keep your home more orderly, while putting yourself in a leadership role. I am assuming these two brothers are working out some sort of dominance issues, so you want them to view you as the leader.

      If you are comfortable with it, I suggest you also walk them in pairs so they get used to walking as a pack. Before you do that, though, you will want to train each one to heel. By walking together in a structured manner they will associate calm, relaxing experiences with the other while in a stable, following state of mind.

      Best of luck, and let us know how it goes.

      1. I cannot afford a trainer at this time (we hadn’t expected the expense of getting 2 dogs neutered and all of their shots right before the holidays). All three of them are probably only about 75% obedient so I definitely have some work to do there. It takes up a lot of the day keeping them separated, taking them out separately, yet also making time to have the one who starts the fights on his harness and leash so they are at least in the same rooms together as much as possible. I have often wished I could walk them together but if a fight broke out then, it would be impossible to stop it if I had each of them on a leash. My husband would walk with me but he has leg and ankle problems and would not be able to handle either one of them if they would see a rabbit or squirrel as we were walking and I don’t have anyone else who could walk with me. I will certainly try to work on the obedience. Do you think having the one who starts the fights on his harness and leash being near the one he attacks will help at all? We have been doing that as often as time permits. Of course, I have been making sure absolutely no fights whatsoever can happen when I do this and I can tell the one who was being attacked is much more relaxed and the one doing the attacking is growling less often at him. However, I am careful not to let them get too close when I can feel his tension. He definitely isn’t a mean dog in general – the way he gets along just fine with our first chow (the one we got as a puppy) shows me that – it’s just the other one (that he used to live with!) where the problem lies.I just so do not want to do the wrong thing here. I appreciate your advice – thank you!

        1. This is probably a really dumb question but I will ask it anyway – I really don’t know how much help/progress we are really having with having the one who attacks on a leash. Since we do not allow him to get in the position of attacking his brother, I don’t know how much, if anything, he is learning. If I let him walk with the leash attached and he did attack him, I could grab the leash and stop it immediately – but I don’t know if that would be a good thing or a horrible thing. In one way, I think it would be good in the fact that when I immediately stopped it, he would actually realize what he is doing wrong. But I also think it would be a horrible thing because that is almost as if I were permitting it to happen, even if only for a few seconds. I am torn about this because I don’t feel like he really knows what we’re attempting to do here but at the same time, I keep hoping that the longer he does not attack him, the more his “habit” will be not to attack him. Yet he does sometimes still growl at his brother quite meanly. I am confused! And of course I don’t want his brother traumatized either. I’m sorry if this is a totally dumb question but I would truly like an expert opinion on this probably crazy idea of mine.

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