Tips to Build Up a Dog’s Confidence to Reduce its Occasional Dog Aggression

By: David Codr

Published Date: March 9, 2017

Bernie is a one-year-old Australian Shepherd mix who lives in Simi Valley. Her guardians reached out to set up a dog behavior training session with me because she has attacked an elderly Beagle who stays with her a few days a week. Normally they play together, but when Bernie has an object or food, she seems to guard it or be on edge if the Beagle gets close.

Some dogs engage in Resource Guarding and when that is the case, there is a real danger of a bite when its fixated on an object in its possession. Its usually caused by an insecure dog who lacks the ability or experience to deal with some social situations.

When I met Bernie in person, it quickly became apparent that she did indeed have some insecurities and social awkwardness.

The guardians started off great by increasing the distance between Bernie and the door. But as she continued, the wife went over to try to calm Bernie down by saying “its ok” and moving towards her with her hand stretched out.

As a dog behaviorist, I have seen multiple clients actually condition their dog to react in unwanted ways by consistently using an expression like “its ok” when the dog is acting out. Because dogs learn through association, this can become a command to get upset. I don’t think that was the case here, but advised the guardians to stop using that expression completely.

I showed the guardians how to claim the area around the door and establish an invisible boundary before opening the door. It took a little practice, but eventually Bernie barked and challenged less.

I recommended that the guardians practice this exercise with family members and friends playing the part of the arriving guest. Security for the pack is very much a leadership duty. Demonstrating the humans have this handled will go a long ways towards helping Bernie start to shift into the follower mindset she needs to have in order to stop feeling the burden of responsibility that is contributing to her insecurity.

Once Bernie stops challenging at the door, the next step would be to use a positive reinforcer to help her start to see the arrival of guests as a good thing. One way to do this is have the guest drop a high value treat every other step as they walk to the living room. The guardians should keep Bernie back until the guest takes a seat on the couch.

Once the guest is sitting, her guardians can give Bernie a release command (NEVER the word OK) to go and gobble up the treats the guest dropped. If she is feeling confident and approaches them in a calm manner, the guest can go even further by holding out a treat to his or her side. This type of positive dog training works wonders as it helps the dog want to do what the humans want.

The advanced version of this exercise would be to have the guest tell Bernie to sit when she approaches (with the guest facing front so the dog is on their left side), then hold the treat out in their left hand with their palm up.

For guests Bernie is not comfortable do thing this with, they could also play a catch game. This is as simple as it gets. The dog sits down near the guest and the guest tosses treats to her. This should only be done if Bernie is calm. The human should avoid a “wind up” or the two practice throw moves most people make when getting ready to toss a treat to a dog. Instead hold up the treat, tell Bernie to sit, then toss it on the first motion.

Of course none of these should be done with the other dog’s present. If they are there, the humans should take the Beagles into another room to ensure no redirected aggression occurs.

Eventually, the humans should practice the door answering exercise with one of the Beagles present, but at a distance from Bernie and never between Bernie and the door. When practicing this step, Bernie or the Beagle should be on the leash to ensure better control and that everyone stays safe.

Whenever you have a dog who has behavior problem or difficulty with a specific action or interaction, a great strategy is to break the activity down into small steps and practice them by themselves in a lower intensity until the dog is calm and confident with it. Once the dog has that step down, you move to the next step and practice it in the same way.

When the dog can behave as desired for all the steps separately, the next step is to start stringing them together until you can complete the whole action at once without any distractions like sounds, other dogs, etc.

Once the dog is behaving as you want five times in a row while cold (without warming up practice), then the next step is to practice it again but with distractions like another dog. When bringing in the other dog, using a tether or leash is advised at first in case something goes awry.

After practicing the exercise over and over this way in progressively more intense or realistic ways, the dog is put in a position to succeed. With enough repetition, this new behavior becomes the new normal. It takes time and practice, but this dog behavior modification strategy is the best way to change a dog’s behavior for good.

When I was sitting down with the guardians to discuss the situation and observe Bernie’s behavior, I started to think that this was not Resource Guarding and rather a case of an insecure dog. One of the reasons for my thinking was Bernie did not guard any resource form the humans at any time. Usually resource guarders guard from everyone. Additionally Bernie was very wary of my presence for the first half hour or so of the session despite adopting soft body language, little to no movement and refraining from looking at or trying to engage with her.

Dogs can develop insecurities in for many different reasons, but I find its often a result of how the humans interact with the dog. They unintentionally do things that nurture an unbalanced state of mind or send a confusing or mixed message to the dog. These can give the dog the impression it is in a leadership position which contributes to stress. And if the dog acts out in the avenue it thinks its an authority figure in and the humans don’t listen to it, this compounds the stress which enhances the insecurity.

I recommended that the guardians look into dog day care for Bernie. Not only will this be a great way to let her burn off excess energy (something she has a lot of), the social interaction will help her confidence. Just like humans, dogs have to solve social interaction challenges. This social problem solving experience will help Bernie develop skills that she can use to disagree with the Beagles instead of attacking them.

I spent much of this session showing the humans how to add little changes to things they did with Bernie all the time. By adding a little structure to these recurring interactions, the humans can help Bernie start to transition into a follower’s mindset.

One of these recommendations was that the humans start petting Bernie with a purpose rather than on demand or for no reason at all. Other suggestions included not deferring when moving around the dog, asking her to follow through doors or down hallways, claiming personal space and incorporating some additional rules and boundaries.

I also wanted them to look for ways to delay gratification. A great example of this is making Bernie wait for permission to eat her food and to feed her last. Dogs who guard need possession of something to do so. By eating something first, then feeding the Beagles one at a time then Bernie last, we can help her practice self control while simultaneously removing access to the thing she was guarding; her food.

One of the guardians was concerned about feeding the dogs this way as they were feeding them all at the same time, but in different locations. While this stops a fight from happening in the act, it does help Bernie practice a new behavior. It will take a few days to a week or so, but once Bernie gets used to this new meal time it will be less stressful for everyone involved.

I wanted to give Bernie’s guardians ways to redirect her attention so I shared a few exercises that they will need to practice to fully develop this ability. One of them was a simple hand targeting exercise.

By training Bernie to come over and put his nose or paw on a hand this way, the guardians will have a tool they can use to redirect his attention. One of the dog training secrets I have pick up over the years is distracting or redirecting a dog before it gets into trouble is a very effective technique.

But in order for the targeting exercise to be a reliable option, the guardians will need to practice it multiple times daily, in different places and times of day. This should be something the dog looks forward to and is happy to do at any time.

ROADMAP to SUCCESS

  • Increase Bernie’s exercise, preferably early in the day and especially before the Beagles come over or any other situation that stresses her out like guests arriving, etc.
  • Enroll Bernie into dog day care and take her there at least once a week (more is better).
  • When Bernie gets rowdy take her out back for a quick game of fetch.
  • Start a daily journal for the next 3 weeks, noting all the exercise she gets in that day along with a final grade for the day. Do this to find the right combination that helps her relax and enjoy her day rather than being anxious.
  • Introduce additional rules (walk in a heel, wait for permission to eat food waiting n her bowl) and boundaries (not being allowed near the door when guests arrive, not allowed in baby nursery, not near a human who is eating) and consistently enforce them.
  • Stop petting Bernie on demand or for no reason.
  • Start petting Bernie with a purpose (under her chin while saying the command word only).
  • Come up with a condensed list of command words and exclusively use them (Come, not come-here, over-here, here-girl, etc).
  • Use passive training to reward Bernie for engaging in desired actions or behaviors.
  • Each guardians should practice the hand targeting exercise at least twice a day with 10-15 treats per training session. Do this in different locations and times of the day.
  • Guardians should take turns teaching Bernie a new trick or command like balancing a treat on her nose, each week to build up her self esteem.
  • Identify opportunities to ask Bernie to do something that helps develop control or discipline before getting what she wants (like sitting before the human throws the ball, wait for invitation to go out the door, etc).
  • Get into a habit of consistently correcting or rewarding the dog within 3 seconds.
  • Practice putting Bernie into a stay when getting up to get a glass of water, use the bathroom or other short activities to help her develop more self control.
  • Practice holding onto a high value item (like a marrow bone) that Bernie is allowed to chew on while one of the Beagles is in her line of sight. Make sure the Beagle is at a good distance (8-10 feet away). Do not let go of the chew item. May want to tether Bernie during the first few practices at this exercise to help ensure she can’t get to the Beagle and help the humans feel comfortable.
  • Keep practicing having Bernie chew a high value item while the Beagles are near by but relaxed and not approaching her. This will help Bernie practice having something with them nearby without threatening her. If she reacts, increase the distance between her and the Beagle and try again (perhaps after getting her some good exercise).
  • When Bernie plays too rough with the Beagles, interrupt and have her practice the stay or hand targeting exercise or something that requires self control.
  • Change the release command word to something much more unique than “ok.”
  • Use the Escalating Consequences to disagree with unwanted actions or behaviors.
  • Immediately disagree when Bernie barks at the window. use the Escalating Consequences and establish a temporary boundary to the window until she calms down.
  • Use the counterconditioning exercise with the door bell and knocking at the door to help Bernie stop reacting and ensure a quiet and quality baby sleeping environment.
  • Disagree with unwanted actions immediately to help Bernie learn what is and is not allowed.
  • Identify interactions that Bernie has difficulty with (start a journal), then recreate them in a controlled setting while helping her practice each step individually as detailed above.
  • If there is another dog fight, immediately sit down and journal as much detail as to what was going on at the time as possible (what toys were out, what room, time of day, sounds present, what room in the house, how close were the dogs, what were the dogs doing before, etc). Include as much detail as possible so we can look for common factors if the conflicts continue.
  • Read this column on introducing the baby to Bernie for the first time.
  • Add structure to meals with the human eating first, the Beagles next (one at a time) and Bernie last while keeping Bernie and the Beagles on opposite sides of the hallway. Dump any remaining food from the bowls.
  • Close the door to the feeding room when its not meal time for the next few weeks until Bernie is showing new behaviors in multiple areas.
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