Interview with Dog Trainer Irith Bloom About Aggressive Dogs
Nobody wants their dog to be aggressive. But sometimes it just happens.
And if your dog isn’t aggressive, he may one day run into a dog that is.
For those reasons, learning about dog aggression and ways to handle it can be useful to any dog owner. To that end, Irith Bloom, director of training at The Sophisticated Dog pet training in Los Angeles, California, has some answers for us. Bloom has been training various types of animals since the 1980s. Her certifications include Certified Professional Dog Trainer, Knowledge & Skills Assessed (CPDT-KSA), and Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC). She’s also a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner, a Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Trainer and is certified in Behavior Adjustment Training, a technique designed to help reduce fearful and aggressive behavior.
The Honest Kitchen: If your puppy is attacked, how can you keep him from becoming aggressive later in life?
Irith Bloom: If your puppy is attacked, there are several things you can do to minimize the odds of aggressive behavior later in life. Here are a couple of suggestions:
Make sure the puppy is completely physically okay. If the puppy is in pain due to something that happened during the attack, the continued pain will tend to make the puppy more anxious, and therefore more likely to behave aggressively. Go to a veterinarian as soon as possible after the incident and get the puppy a proper physical checkup. Dogs can have bruises or even broken bones without having puncture wounds, so it’s crucial to make sure the puppy is physically fine. It may be a good idea to take the puppy to a doggy chiropractor, too. Whether you are seeing a veterinarian or chiropractor, make sure the puppy gets treats while being handled, so he’s less likely to be nervous about the situation.
After making sure the puppy is physically okay, you can begin working on helping the puppy feel safe in the presence of other dogs. One useful technique is to feed the puppy treats any time another dog is in the area. You should do this even if the other dog seems friendly and the puppy seems calm. This will help the puppy learn that seeing dogs leads to good treats, no matter how the other dog behaves. If the puppy doesn’t want to take treats while another dog is around, that’s generally a sign that the puppy needs more distance but doesn’t quite know how to get that distance. Help the puppy out by coaxing him away gently—not yanking.
If your puppy prefers playing with toys over food while at home, you can offer the puppy a toy and play with him when you see other dogs, instead of using treats. If the puppy will not play in the presence of the other dogs, though, that’s a sign that you need more distance.
Any time there is another dog around, allow the puppy to decide whether or not he is interested in going up to, or even closer to, the other dog. If the puppy wants to move away, let him move away. Just like humans, dogs feel more comfortable when they are able to control how close they get to something scary. Letting the puppy choose whether to stand still, move away, or get closer will help the puppy feel secure.
If the puppy does seem to be interested in approaching the other dog, make sure it’s safe to get closer. To do that, ask the other dog’s handler, “Does your dog like puppies?”
THK: What can turn a dog aggressive?
IB: As for what can make a dog aggressive in general, there are a wide range of causes. In many cases, the dog was under-socialized; during the dog’s critical socialization period, the dog was not exposed to enough other dogs, people, and other things to learn to feel safe around new things. In other cases, socialization was done badly. For example, the dog might have been injured or threatened by someone or something. Another socialization mistake is forcing a puppy to interact with things when he is not interested or, worse yet, feeling afraid. All of these socialization errors can create a foundation for aggressive behavior in the future.
Another major factor in the development of aggressive behavior is the use of aversive training techniques, such as hitting, kicking, jerking, or even just yelling at the dog. These confrontational techniques can make a dog feel so anxious and threatened that he feels forced to respond with aggression. Another way to encourage aggression is to do something scary to the dog whenever the dog acts scared or aggressive. Most people assume that a dog will understand he is being punished for his aggressive behavior (e.g., growling). Unfortunately, in most cases, the dog will fail to make the proper association and instead will notice that every time he sees another dog, someone yells at him. This leads him to be even more afraid of other dogs than he used to be.
THK: What are some early signs of aggressive behavior in dogs?
IB: Dogs have an entire set of behaviors known commonly as “calming signals” that they use to communicate that they are slightly uncomfortable, or need more distance from a threat. An online article from the person who named these behaviors is available… You can also see a video showing several of these calming signals…
If a dog’s calming signals are ignored, the dog is much more likely to behave aggressively. It’s not just dogs, though; humans are the same way. For example, imagine a stranger is approaching you on a dark street at night. Since nobody else is around and you don’t know the person, you feel nervous. You might start out by saying, “Excuse me, did you need something?” If the person does not reply, you could move on to saying, “Please stay where you are. You’re making me uncomfortable.” Gradually, you would begin to raise your voice, and if the stranger insisted on approaching you anyway, you might resort to putting your hands in front of you to keep the stranger away. If the stranger then reached out and touched you, you would probably resort to the use of force to protect yourself.
Our dogs are basically doing the same thing—though most humans are not good enough at dog body language to understand all the subtle signals that appear before more obvious signs such as growling or snapping at us.
If a dog’s calming signals have been ignored, the dog may begin to exhibit fearful body language, such as creeping, putting the ears back, or tucking the tail. Some dogs even lie down on their backs or sides in what looks like the “I want a belly rub” position but is really a “please don’t kill me” position.
Sometimes dogs do want belly rubs when they roll onto their backs or sides, but there are subtle differences between the two body postures. When in doubt, take this as a signal to give the dog more space.
THK: What can pet owners do when dealing with a dog-aggressive dog?
IB: The first rule of dealing with aggressive behavior is to keep the dog from practicing it, as much as humanly possible. In other words, the first step is to avoid the types of situations where aggression towards dogs is happening. For example, if the dog is aggressive only while on-leash, you might only allow the dog around other dogs while off-leash. If leash walks are a necessity, you could pick quiet times for your walks so you don’t run into so many other dogs.
After you have managed the situation so that the dog doesn’t keep getting put in positions where he feels the need to behave aggressively, you can start doing proactive training. The first thing to do is to figure out roughly where your dog’s “threshold” is. “Threshold” is the point, in terms of distance or intensity of the scary thing, where the dog is no longer able to behave calmly or respond to simple cues. To be effective, your training needs to be done below the threshold.
Once you have figured out the dog’s threshold, begin by teaching him to give you eye contact on cue, or even better, check in with you automatically in a wide range of situations. To do this, you can simply go to a boring place, making sure you have treats on you, with your dog. Wait for your dog to look at you, then say “good dog” and feed him a treat held low or on the ground, so the dog has to look away from you to eat the treat. Repeat this until the dog immediately looks up at you after eating the treat, every time. This may take a few training sessions, and that’s OK. Once the dog is automatically looking up at you immediately, you can give the behavior a name, such as “Eyes to Me” or “Watch.”
Even if you teach a cue for eye contact, it’s a good idea to regularly reinforce looking at you even when you haven’t given the cue first.
You can use this behavior to help direct your dog’s attention away from other dogs—making sure to work on this when the dog is below the threshold. As soon as your dog sees another dog, cue him to look at you. Then, after he looks at you, say “good dog” and feed him a treat. You can also say “good dog” and feed the dog a treat if he looks at you on his own, rather than in response to a cue from you. After that “good dog” and treat, walk away from the other dog so your dog gets a chance to relax.
Be sure your dog has seen the other dog before you give the cue, or the technique will not work properly. The correct sequence is: You see another dog but are not sure if your dog has seen it. -> You watch your dog. -> You see your dog look at the other dog. -> You cue eye contact, or your dog offers eye contact. -> You say “good dog” and then treat…
Please avoid using choke chains or prong collars, [for the reasons mentioned] on what makes dogs aggressive.
If your dog has injured other dogs, or you are at all nervous about the situation, it’s best to consult a professional. Make sure the person you consult is a well-educated professional who is certified by a reputable organization. Even if you pick a certified trainer, if you find they are recommending the use of aversive techniques, or asking you to do anything you are uncomfortable about, find a different professional.
These tips are not meant to be exhaustive. Many dogs will need more training than what is mentioned… A qualified professional can help create a training program that is tailored to you and your dog’s needs.
THK: What can pet owners do when dealing with a human-aggressive dog?
IB: The tips for dealing with a human-aggressive dog are similar to the ones for dealing with a dog who is aggressive towards other dogs. Instead of focusing on stopping the aggressive behavior through punishment, work at a distance where the dog is able to remain calm and teach the dog to give you eye contact to earn a treat when scary humans are around. Note that with humans you need to be extra careful since the legal ramifications are worse if your dog injures a person.
One thing you might consider with dogs who are aggressive towards people—or other dogs, for that matter—is teaching your dog to wear a muzzle, especially when you are in public. The key to teaching a dog to be comfortable in a muzzle is to take your time and use food and play to make the dog happy about the muzzle.
As you can tell, there’s a lot that goes into dealing with dog aggression. If you have a dog with aggression problems, find a qualified professional to help you and your dog work through the issues. You can start with some reputable groups: Victoria Stilwell Positively, Peaceable Paws, Karen Pryor Academy, The Academy for Dog Trainers, Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, Animal Behavior Society, and/or American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.