Managing An Aggressive, Fearful, or Reactive Dog

<A version of this article was published in Barks from the Guild, a publication of the Pet Professional Guild  on Nov. 2020, pp.29-31>

< Updated 29DEC20 >

< A short link for this page – http://bit.ly/MngAggxFear >

 

When you have a dog that is exhibiting aggressive behavior, you have a responsibility to keep yourself, your family, your pets, and your community safe. A dog that is behaving aggressively is experiencing some form of emotional stress, so it is your responsibility to identify and keep him away from the stressors that trigger the behavior while working with a professional who can help you.

#1. Get Help from an Accredited Professional As Soon As Possible

Helping change aggressive behavior is not a Do-It-Yourself project, nor is your dog likely to “grow out of it.”

Aggression is an emotional response. That response could be due to fear, anger, or frustration and may be intensified by chemical imbalances in the brain.

Working with a dog trainer and teaching your dog behaviors like SIT, LEAVE IT, and more are extremely unlikely to change how your dog feels.

As such, I recommend you immediately seek help from a Veterinary Behaviorist, Applied Animal Behaviorist, or credentialed behavior consultant (PCBC or CDBC). The earlier you get professional help for your dog, the sooner you can relieve his suffering and the greater probability you have of changing their aggressive behavior.

Resolving this behavior will very likely require behavior modification and, potentially, medication as well. A Veterinary Behaviorist can provide you with both.  FMI –  http://bit.ly/WWM-Trainer-Behaviorist, http://bit.ly/HumanePetPros,  https://www.petprofessionalguild.com/Zip-Code-Search

#2. Ensure Safety

Preventing your dog from hurting you, another person, another animal, or themselves must be your priority.

  • Please keep your dog physically isolated from people or animals that could become the target of their aggression.

This may mean keeping him crated, preferably in another room, or closed/locked in another room when you have guests in your home.

  • When the dog is outside of your home, make sure that you can safely handle him. When he is outside of your home and in an unfenced area, he should be on a regular 6ft leash.

Please do not use a Flexi or retractable leash, as they do not provide adequate control. The leash should be securely attached to a front-connect harness.

  • Consider using a muzzle if you can do so safely. It is essential to gently condition your dog to wear a muzzle before using it. Seek the advice of a trained professional in helping you accomplish this task.

Muzzles can be a useful management tool; however, in my experience:

1) a determined dog can get out of any muzzle;
2) putting on the muzzle can cause the dog stress;
3) muzzling your dog and having them around others is tantamount to advertising that you have an aggressive dog and thus may change the people’s behavior which can cause a reaction by the dog;
4) a muzzle may make the dog more fearful; and
5.) A muzzle can limit your dog’s ability to breathe correctly, causing additional distress.

A muzzle is, at best, a temporary solution and does nothing to address the source of the dog’s behavior or his emotional state.

  • Do NOT leave your dog outside, unattended. Being tied-out can be very stressful to a dog and can be a frequent cause of fear aggression.

When a dog is tied up, he knows that he cannot flee or fight, which are both typical reactions a dog would pursue if afraid. Even if you have a fenced yard, I recommend you remain with your dog anytime that he is in the yard, as no fence can be guaranteed to be 100% secure.

  • If your dog does not need to go with you, leave him at home.

A dog that is reactive while in the car can be a threat to your safety and that of others. If he becomes reactive wherever you take them, you may make yourself unwelcome, and you are probably making him more likely to react in the future too.

#3. Prevent the Behavior from Getting Worse

  • This is a given but I will mention it anyway. Refrain from using any training and management tools that have the potential to cause your dog distress, discomfort, or pain. This includes alpha rollovers, shock collars, choke collars, prong collars, citronella collars, anti-bark collars, spray bottles, or anything else that has the potential to cause your dog distress, discomfort, or pain.
  • Avoid placing your dog in situations where there is a potential for him to display the behavior of concern. Preventing him from acting aggressively is essential to ending this behavior.

Each time the dog has the chance to engage in the behavior, it can make it more likely to occur again and to increase in intensity. Events like this can affect the chemistry and anatomy of the brain, making future reactions more likely.

  • Limit movement when your dog reacts. An activity can increase arousal, and this can increase the probability of aggression and reactivity.

If your dog is barking and running back and forth from window to window, either in your home or car, try to restrict movement either with a crate, a leash or if in the car, a seat belt.

If your dog chases people or other animals along your fence line, keep him on a 6ft leash.

  • Carefully consider safety issues and the possibility of making your dog’s behavior worse if you walk him away from home.

If you cannot walk your dog safely or if you continue to expose him to his triggers, you are better off staying at home. If you do take him for walks, choose locations and times when you are least likely to encounter his triggers.

When walking a dog with reactivity/aggression issues, you must be constantly aware of your environment. It is not a time to be daydreaming, thinking about tomorrow’s schedule, chatting on your cell phone, conversing with a friend walking with you, or listening to music.

Alternatively, you can find other ways to provide your dog with physical and mental stimulation, such as playing in the yard and feeding him with a Kong.

  • If your dog is aggressive towards people or dogs, you need to keep your dog away from places where people and dogs congregate. Dogs with aggression issues will not get better if you take them places like; pet stores, dog parks, dog events, charitable walks, or any site where people and dogs gather.
  • Prepare people before allowing them to interact with your dog, and do not force your dog to interact. Remember, it is not just your dog’s behavior that will determine the result of a dog/human interaction, but also the actions of the person.

Do your best to teach people that come to your home how to interact with your dog. Providing them with a copy of Dr. Sophia Yin’s How to Greet A Dog (And What to Avoid) handout is an excellent first step FMIhttp://bit.ly/YinHow2Greet.

Allow the dog to decide if he wants to interact with people, and if he declines, allow him do so. You need to be especially prepared if you have a breed that some people readily prejudge. If someone is anxious around your dog, it will likely make you and your dog nervous as well.

  • Be especially cautious in these situations:
    • whenever your dog is around large gatherings of people. Large groups are likely to increase his excitement/anxiety/fear/frustration, which increases the probability of an inappropriate response.
    • Anytime your dog is around children. Most children do not understand how to behave around dogs. Children and dogs ALWAYS need adult supervision.
  • NEVER punish your dog or get mad at them for growling. While a dog’s growl can be upsetting and disheartening to us, it also serves the beneficial purpose of alerting us to the fact that the dog is feeling threatened or uncomfortable.

It is the dog’s way of saying, “If something in this situation does not change, I may feel threatened enough to bite.” If your dog growls, calmly remove them from the situation. with as little fanfare and emotion as possible. FMIhttp://bit.ly/DogGrowls

  • Consider how your emotions and those of others may be affecting your dog. Dogs are very adept at reading the emotions of people through a person’s body language and scent, which may change how the dog reacts to them and/or you.

Since our emotions are always part of the dog’s environment, any anxiety and frustration we, or others, feel may cause our dog to become more anxious.

If your dog detects someone is angry, it may cause them to become angry or afraid. He will not inherently know why a person is angry or scared, but may react out of self-preservation.

If you are having difficulties with your emotional response, it may be beneficial for you to seek assistance. Your dog may also benefit from seeing a veterinary behaviorist that can help him temper their emotions.

#4. Reducing Your Dog’s Stress

  • Learn how stress affects your dog’s behavior. Stress, either the detrimental kind, distress, or the beneficial type, eustress, is frequently a component in undesirable behavior for people and animals.

Our bodies react very similarly when experiencing distress or eustress, producing hormones, and other chemicals that make us more likely to be reactive and irritable.  People often think of adverse events or memories of adverse events as being the cause of stress.

Even a particular scent may cause your dog distress and trigger an emotional response such as fear or anger. A scent can affect our dogs and us because smells have a more direct link to memory and emotion than any of our other senses. Knowing about the dog’s powerful sense of smell and the role of smell in emotional memories, we must consider scent when looking for a potential trigger for a reactive dog. I have worked with clients where cigarette smoke, deodorant, and cologne have triggered reactive behavior.

Even things our dog enjoys, such as playing fetch, can also cause stress.  When something our dog likes is allowed to the extreme, reactive behavior can become more likely. FMIhttp://bit.ly/Canine-Stress

  • Minimize Unpredictability and Be Consistent. Unpredictability in our behavior can be a significant stressor for our dogs. As a family, you all need to commit to working together and using the same training approach with your dog.

Getting a different response from each of you only stresses the dog more. You all need to have consistent expectations, but they do need to be reasonable.

  • Work with an accredited professional to consider options for helping reduce your dog’s stress. A veterinary behaviorist may recommend prescription medications and non-prescription products that may help alleviate your dog’s anxiety. Holistic veterinarians that practice Chinese medicine and homeopathy may also help as may other types of credentialed practitioners.

#5. Document Your Dogs Behavior

  • Keep A Daily Journal. Behavioral issues are seldom straightforward. However, if you keep a detailed journal of what happened and when, your chosen professional will be better equipped to help you help your dog.

A journal has the added benefit of allowing you to see improvements in your dog, which is positive reinforcement for you continuing to follow the program you are using.  FMIhttp://bit.ly/BHXDailyJournal.

#6. Train Your Dog

Training your dog to offer specific behaviors when cued will not necessarily change his emotional state. However, teaching him certain behaviors may make him easier to manage, especially if you can intervene well before he starts reacting.

Training your dog is also a great way to build and maintain trust, provided you use only rewards and do not use any aversives.

If you are unsure about how to train, find a professional, credentialed dog trainer (PCT, CPDT-KA). FMIhttp://bit.ly/HumanePetPros & https://www.petprofessionalguild.com/Zip-Code-Search

 

Recommended Resources

Articles on Don’s Blog
( http://www.words-woofs-meows.com  )

Do I Need A Dog Trainer or a “Behaviorist”http://bit.ly/WWM-Trainer-Behaviorist

Where Can I Find A Humane and Ethical Pet Care Professional?https://bit.ly/HumanePetPros

How To Greet A Dog and What to Avoid – Dr. Sophia Yinhttp://bit.ly/YinHow2Greet

What Should I Do When My Dog Growls?http://bit.ly/DogGrowls

Understanding, Identifying and Coping with Canine Stresshttp://bit.ly/Canine-Stress

Keeping A Daily Journalhttp://bit.ly/BHXDailyJournal

Help! My Dog is Aggressive, Reactive, Fearful, Anxious, etc. – http://bit.ly/HelpDogAggx

How Can I Tell When My Dog Is Anxious or Fearful?http://bit.ly/DogsSignsofFear

Introduction to Canine Communication –http://www.greenacreskennel.com/blog/2015/04/05/dog-training-introduction-to-canine-communication/

The Body Language of Fear in Dogs (Dr. Sophia Yin)http://www.greenacreskennel.com/blog/2016/04/04/body-language-of-fear-in-dogs-dr-sophia-yin/

Dominance: Reality or Myth –http://www.greenacreskennel.com/blog/2015/06/20/dog-behavior-dominance-reality-or-myth/

the misunderstanding of time by Nancy Tannerhttp://www.greenacreskennel.com/blog/2016/11/16/shared-blog-post-the-misunderstanding-of-time-by-nancy-tanner/

The emotional toll of a reactive dog by Jay Gurden-Dogs Todayhttp://bit.ly/SharedGurenEmotional

Dog Training – Reward Based Training versus Aversiveshttp://bit.ly/RewardVSAversive

Other Resources

Dog Training by Kikopup . (2013). Teach your dog to wear a muzzle [Video File]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJTucFnmAbw

Pet Professional Guild: Find an Experthttps://www.petprofessionalguild.com/Zip-Code-Search

Muzzle Up Project. (n.d.). Muzzle Traininghttps://muzzleupproject.com/muzzle-training/

Yin, S. (2011). Preventing Dog Bites by Learning to Greet Dogs Properlyhttps://drsophiayin.com/blog/entry/preventing-dog-bites-by-learning-to-greet-dogs-properly/

Books

Dogs In Need of Spacehttps://dogsinneedofspace.com/

________________________________________________________________________
Don Hanson is the co-owner of the Green Acres Kennel Shop ( greenacreskennel.com ) in Bangor, Maine, where he has been helping people with their pets since 1995. He is also the founder of ForceFreePets.com, an online educational resource for people with dogs and cats. Don is a Bach Foundation Registered Animal Practitioner (BFRAP), Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC), Associate Certified Cat Behavior Consultant (ACCBC), and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA). He is a member of the Pet Professional Guild (PPG). Don is committed to PPG’s Guiding Principles and the Pain-Free, Force-Free, and Fear-Free training, management, and care of all pets. He serves on the PPG Steering Committee and Advocacy Committee and is the Chair of The Shock-Free Coalition ( shockfree.org ). Don produces and co-hosts a weekly radio show and podcast, The Woof Meow Show, that airs on Z62 Retro Radio WZON (AM620) and WKIT 103.3-HD3 and is streamed at http://bit.ly/AM620-WZON every Saturday at 9 AM. Podcasts of the show are available at http://bit.ly/WfMwPodcasts/, the Apple Podcast app, and Don’s blog: www.words-woofs-meows.com.  The opinions in this post are those of Don Hanson.

©2020, Donald J. Hanson, All Rights Reserved <Click for Copyright and Use Policy>

Behavior Consulting – Keeping A Daily Journal

To help resolve a behavioral issue (anxiety, aggression, reactivity, etc.) with your pet, we first need to understand it. One way we can get a better understanding of what is going on will depend on your observations of your pets behavior on a daily basis. The best way for you to communicate that information to is is by keeping a daily journal. We suggest that you dedicate a computer file or notebook for this purpose. If you keep your journal in a word processing file on your computer, it will make it easier for you to share it with us as we work with you.

Your journal should contain the following basic information:

  • General comments on your pets overall demeanor for that day.
  • General comments on your overall demeanor for that day.
  • A description of any positive events that occurred that day.
  • General comments on your overall day (hectic, relaxed, etc.).
  • A description of any undesirable behavior noticed, with as much detail as possible.
  • Any additional stressors that may have occurred that day or within the previous 24 hours (vet trips, children visiting, etc.).
  • An overall score for that day (1=very frustrating/difficult to 5=perfect).
  • Your goal for the next day.
  • If using the Bach Flower Remedies; the times that remedies are given, including any extra doses and why they were given (when appropriate).
  • The times that any other medications or supplements, prescribed or over-the-counter, that are being given for behavioral purposes, are given.
  • A description of any training sessions completed that day; to include the time of the sessions,  the behaviors you worked on, the people involved, the progress made, any difficulties encountered and other details.
  • A description of any desensitization and counter-conditioning sessions completed that day; to include the time of the sessions, the people involved, the environment in which they occurred, the progress made, any difficulties encountered and other details. [We will provide you with instructions on performing these sessions after your behavioral consultation. We suggest that you do not start these sessions until after meeting with us.]

We will ask you to bring this notebook with you for any future consultations or training sessions. Additionally, we may ask to have the opportunity to review this log book when refilling remedies so that we can make changes in the formulation should the need arise.

The following pages are examples of how one client completed daily journal entries.

Examples

Sunday, July 7

Bach @

  • 5:00 AM
  •  1:00 PM
  •  5:30 PM
  •  9:00 PM
  •   also extra at 2:30 PM

Rating (1-5): 4

Notes

  • Rex spent the morning with my parents. Rex was calm but lots of nervous walking until I came home.
  • Upon returning to Sunnydale Rex snapped at Fluffy 2 times while transitioning into the house. Fluffy was near Rex’s face.
  • Rex settled well after 10 minutes
  • Practiced recall (took a couple to get it)
  • Practice sit, down and stay outdoors – did well with the stay.
  • When I left the house in the AM Rex would not go in his crate

 

Monday, July 8

Bach @

  • 4:15 AM
  • 1:00 PM
  • 5:30 PM
  • 9:00 PM

Rating (1-5): 4

Notes

  • Quiet morning
  • Around 10 AM practiced
    • Sit
    • Stay
    • Down
    • Recall in house
  • Rex is responding well to lie down when in the kitchen or working in the house
  • Played hard outside with Fluffy at 12:00
  • Went for walk – lots of pulling

Tuesday, July 9

Bach @

  • 5:00 AM
  • 1:00 PM
  • 4:30 PM
  • 9:00 PM

Rating (1-5): 4

Notes

  • Great morning, very low key
  • Clicker trained
    • Paw touches
    • Sit
    • Stay
  • Went for walk – lots of pulling, at first, did well checking in during walk
  • Is slow to eat first few hand-fed bites

 

Wednesday, July 10

Bach @

  • 5:30 AM
  • 11:00 AM
  • 5:30 PM
  • 9:00 PM

Rating (1-5): 4

Notes

  • Walked in morning – reactive barking to a girl on a scooter. Stopped and waited for her to go by, no issue after.
  • Hand fed breakfast
  • Did Remedial Socialization in Piggly Wiggly parking lot – ignored all people – had chicken as treat
  • Walked before dinner
  • Had friend over
    • Introduced Rex second, Fluffy first
    • Barked 5-9x
    • Used treats to redirect towards me, away from friend
    • Very friendly with friend after 10 minutes

Thursday, July 11

Bach @

  • 5:30 AM
  • 5:30 PM
  • 8:00 PM
  • Missed one, busy day

Rating (1-5): 3

Notes

  • I was not home in the morning, but Tom said Rex had a good, quiet morning
  • Rex was very excited when I came home
  • Worked on sitting to greet with Fluffy
  • Rex snapped at Blazer while Tom and I had dinner – we put him outside and withdrew attention until we were done eating
  • Rex tried to keep Blazer from coming into the room where we had been eating.
  • Quiet rest of the night

 

Friday, July 12

Bach @

  • 5:00 AM
  • 11:00 AM
  • 6:30 PM
  • 9:00 PM

 

Rating (1-5): 5

Notes

  • Too hot for walk
  • Played outside a little – very hot
  • Clicker trained
    • Sit
    • Recall
    • Leave it
  • Worked on reactions to being startled
  • Rex’s behavior, while Tom and I had dinner, was much better

 

Recommended Resources

Articles on Don’s Blog (http://www.words-woofs-meows.com)

 

 

©2016, Donald J. Hanson, All Rights Reserved <Click for Copyright and Use Policy>