People are often very embarrassed when their dog behaves poorly, especially when it shows aggression to another dog. The reality is that for professional dog trainers who work in the pet industry, a large majority of their work is helping people with exactly this behaviour problem.
Why do dogs become aggressive to other dogs?
There are several reasons why dogs react aggressively to other dogs. The main and most common reason by far which causes over 90% of behaviour problems, a complete lack of early socialisation and training. If I could have money for every time I have heard “but I socialised him to my neighbour’s dog and my brothers’ dog”. Let me put it like this, let’s say you as a very young child you only met a couple of people outside of the family that you lived with. You were home schooled and only met a few other people until you were ready to join the workforce. How confident would you be? How many social issues would you have? Ok so point made. Dogs are by nature a very social beings, yet they need to get out and see the world. They need to be exposed to everything that will they be encountering in their lives with you. The more they experience, the more they will become confident and adaptable just like us. Hence early training and socialisation will make day to day living so much easier for you and your dog.
Another reason is one I have seen in a lot of pups and dogs that have attended these off-leash puppy schools. I see it most often in the smaller breeds as much bigger pups are allowed to harass and intimidate these little ones. For this reason, my puppy classes are completed entirely on leash. Pups are obviously allowed to meet and have limited play interaction to ensure we are building confidence and correct social behaviour, but it is always controlled and strictly supervised.
The developmental period extending roughly from 3 to 12 weeks of age is the most inﬂuential 9 weeks of a puppy’s life. This period is associated with the development of many social behaviour patterns and a great deal of learning about the environment. Much of what is learned during this early period is lasting, providing a foundation for many adult behaviour patterns and problems (Lindsay 2000)
For some people they do all the right things. They take their pup to puppy school, socialise it appropriately and so on, and then one day out and about, and it’s usually at the local dog park, the dog is attacked by another dog. This leaves them physically and psychologically scarred, if not corrected, for life. For a lot of dogs and it is the same for people, being attacked by a stranger for no reason can have a dramatic impact upon your confidence when out and about or in similar situations.
Dogs can and do lose the ability to recognise other dogs body language, signals or cues. As I have seen first-hand, approaching dogs who are indicating happy and very social signals, yet the affected dog will become highly fearful and or aggressive by the mere presence of the relaxed dog. In a dog’s mind to keep a ‘perceived’ threat away the dog will either go into fight or flight behaviour. If the dog is on leash or unable to move around freely, then often the dog will go into fight behaviour. For the most part these dogs have learned to ‘act’ in this way. They learn very quickly this will keep the perceived threat away, because in their mind the threat is very real. When the perceived threat is no longer present (as the owner of the happy dog has removed the dog from the aggressive dog’s proximity) it is a self-reinforcing behaviour, the behaviour will become stronger with every encounter.
Before I take this any further I need to make a point about aggression in dogs. Most dogs are not bred for what we consider to be an offensive aggression, also referred to as fight drive. This is a genetic trait that is far more commonly seen in guarding, hunting or fighting breeds. While some dogs appear to have this type of aggression it is often not the case as most dogs must reach a state of frenzy due to complete desperation. You can see this demonstrated in their rapid and high frequency of barking. This behaviour is referred to and defined as defensive aggression which is a fear motivated behaviour. A dog that is displaying an offensive aggression will almost look and sound calculated in his or her behaviour.
It must be emphasized, however, that even early castration will not necessarily prevent the development of dog fighting. Many individuals that have undergone preadolescent castration still exhibit strong intermale aggressive tendencies. (Lindsay 2000)
Now that you have a better understanding about dog to dog aggression, especially to how it was created, so I am going explain the steps and measures that need to be taken to help ensure the rehabilitation process is successful.
I cannot state strongly enough that I recommend you seek out a professional dog trainer before attempting any type of rehab or counter conditioning program. This is a general overview for the pet owner to serve as a simplified guide.
To help ensure success with eliminating this behaviour first the dog must have well-structured and consolidated obedience training. This is then coupled with correct handling skills for the owner. It will ensure you will have much better control over your dog and a clear passage of communication. As with training any dog clear communication and understanding of what is expected is the key to the success of any training program. Normally it takes a few weeks of obedience training and I am looking for a bare minimum of the dog being able to walk by the handler’s side, a well-formed sit and down stay.
When working with a client I always start with one on one lessons and the lessons are to be carried out in my training facility as this eliminates any territorial issues. I prefer this as I can completely control the environment to make the most out of each session.
So now that we have this I can introduce a dog of my own that I know all too well. It is always one of my personal dogs as my guys know that any type of aggression towards other dogs or animals is completely unacceptable. I have ensured that all my dogs are very social with any animals, especially dogs. Both dogs are on leash to be sure all is going to go as planned. In the first session our aim is to begin the counter conditioning process and in the same session we will also teach that dog that aggression towards other dogs is unacceptable. Through using conditioned reinforcers and impulse control. I am always measuring the reaction in the dog and the distance or thresholds between the two. Once I can see that the dog is not going to tolerate any further stressors I end the session as I always try to leave the session on a high. Sometimes the dogs get to go nose to nose and sometimes they do not as every session must be judged on its own merits.
Just like humans, and every other being that has a nervous system, a dog can only tolerate so much when we are counter conditioning. The dog also needs time to process what has happened, yet the process needs to begin for any goal to be achieved.
Every dog is different and for the best results we need to keep this in my mind constantly. All my goal is at this point is to stop the aggression. The dog to must be able to see and recognise a friendly passive dog is not going to intimidate or hurt it. I know when the dog is starting to overcome its issues when I see it wanting to start to investigate or actually meet the other dog with no signs of being aggressive and the body language has relaxed. In dog training and especially when rehabilitating behavioural issues, less is always more!
Some sessions are short, some sessions are much longer and everything else in between.
Normally it’s two or three sessions before I will introduce that dog to a small group of dogs at my obedience classes and we will move on from there.
I have taken dogs that are completely fearful of other dogs and helped them become happy, outgoing social dogs. Other dogs will tolerate other dogs but never be really social and that’s ok. I only ask that they can tolerate and function in the outside world. I’ve pretty much seen everything else in-between. Every dog needs to be trained within its own genetic capacity. I see the dog’s nervous system a lot like a rubber band some can be stretched a lot further than others but with additional exposure and training the capacity for learning and coping can always grow. Almost any dog can be rehabilitated and learn to enjoy the company of other dogs.