Channeling Unspent Energy to Stop Aggressive Behavior to Guests

By: David Codr

Published Date: January 6, 2015

ErskineErskine is a two and a half year old Catahoula Lab mix. His owners call me concerned about his escalating aggression to adult visitors to their home and his compulsive mouthing of comforters and dog beds.

When I arrived for the session, Erskine made it clear he did not approve of my arrival. His owner was holding him back as he was growling, darting back and forth and barking with his hackles up. While he wasn’t exhibiting a friendly demeanor, his movements and body language indicated that he was more bark than bite. He showed some insecure body language and movements and clearly wasn’t full force when it came to his interaction with me.

I never like to see anyone physically restraining a dog when its excited as it usually ramps up their intensity as they pull to try to get to the person or object they are reacting to. Obviously if you fear your dog may attack or bit someone, restraint is necessary. But in Erskine’s case, I detected more insecurity and territoriality than aggression.

I had his owner let go of Erskine. As soon as he did the dog approached me while simultaneously lowering his energy level a bit. He continued to bark and protest, so I had one of his owners step between us with her back to me. By inserting herself between us and facing her dog, she was in more of a position to disagree with his unwanted behavior. It did not completely stop his protests, but it did lower his intensity a bit more.

Her husband jumped in and got a little better reaction as he was moving faster and more assertively which to a dog means you are serious. After a few corrections the dog moved into an adjoining room that included his kennel. Erskine took it upon himself to go into the kennel on his own which was great.

When we moved to the living room, Erskine was still vocal in his disapproval, but he was much calmer and there was far less vigor in his exhalations. I started to discuss the situation with his owners, but Erskine’s barking made things a bit challenging so I took out a leash and had his owner place it on Erskine, then step on it a foot away from his head. By giving the dog a “time out” this way, they can effectively communicate that his behavior was unwanted and produces a consequence; lack of freedom.

Usually this stops excited behavior but Erskine continued to bark at me from a distance so I took the leash and pulled him closer. The closer he got, the less vocal and animated he was. I dropped the leash and stood on top of it the same way his owner did. After pulling on the leash for a moment, he sat down and a moment later, he laid down. I waited for him to get completely calm before i took my foot off the leash.

Because he was clearly insecure, I suggested his owners adopt some rules to add to help provide him with some additional structure and discipline. During this conversation, the mother of the family remarked “Well he doesn’t like you because you are being mean to him.” The ensuing conversation proved enlightening as the other family members mentioned that the mother was very close to him and probably coddled and gave in to him quite a bit.

Erskine had had a series of injuries that were likely a strong contributing factor. While its natural for humans to feel bad for a dog that has gone through some painful situations, letting them do anything they want to try to compensate usually produces a number of unwanted behaviors and that was clearly the case with Erskine.

While I was firm and assertive in my interaction with Erskine, I did not yell, strike or take any other action’s that could be construed as “mean.” I used this as an opportunity to discuss how important it is to be a leader to the dog. It was clear that a good part of Erskine’s issues were a result of his perception that he was on equal authority to the members of the family. Combined with no rules or boundaries, Erskine was confused when his owners attempted to disagree with him. By assuming a clear, confident and assertive demeanor and avoid feeling sorry for him, his owners can help elevate much of his stress and insecurity.

As we continued the conversation I learned that in addition to having no real rules or boundaries, Erskine wasn’t getting walked on a regular basis. For most dogs this is an issue, but the severity depends on the dog’s energy level. In Erskine’s case, unspent energy was likely contributing to many of his unwanted behaviors including the compulsive mouthing of blankets and comforters. When a dog has unspent energy, it can get frustrated and come out in ways that are not desirable with its owners. That was clearly the case here. I suggested that the members of the family start walking Erskine on a daily basis to help drain this energy.

Next we moved to the basement so I could show them a few leadership exercises that they could practice to help define the leader follower dynamic they wanted. Erskine completed the exercise a few times, but his energy level and demeanor were dropping so I changed things up to a positive reinforcement exercise to help him snap out of it. I prefer to stop and change tactics when a dog shows me that its feeling uncertain.

The change was just what we needed. At first Erskine was moving slowly, had a still body language and looked very uncomfortable. But after a few recall and rewards, he got a bounce in his step and you could tell the apprehensiveness was gone. I coached the members of the family through the leadership exercises successfully before I noticed a treadmill in the corner. Because its extremely cold here (The high tomorrow is expected to be ZERO), I asked if they had ever considered walking him on the treadmill. When I learned that they were not using this amazing resource I had them turn it on and Erskine was running on it within moments.

I suggested that they take him for daily runs on the treadmill and gradually increasing the time he ran for. We only ran him on it for about 5 minutes in our session, but he picked it up so easily I see no reason why his family can’t get him up to 30 minutes or longer every day. I also suggested that they take him for a treadmill run if they plan on hosting any events at their home. By burning his excess energy before visitors knock on the door, Erskine will be less intense and reactive at the door.

To finish the session, I had one of the family’s boys go out the back and wait a few minutes before pretending to be a visitor knocking at the door. We retired to the living room and sat down so as to appear as normal as possible. When the doorbell rang, Erskine jumped up and rushed to the door barking excitedly.

I walked to the door casually and once I passed Erskine I turned to face him. This had an impact as Erskine immediately took a step back but continued to bark. I marched directly at him which caused him to back up. I stuck with it and blocked his attempts to get past me. It took a few moments to get him to back away to the boundary I wanted as the boy was knocking and repeatedly ringing the doorbell per my instructions.

Once I got Erskine to the boundary I wanted, I stepped backwards to the door keeping my front to the dog. When I got a few feet away he started forward again. I immediately rushed right at him which caused him to stop and back up. As soon as he got across the boundary I stopped and walked backwards again to the door. Erskine sat down and waited for my next move. I slowly opened the door and let the boy inside all while Erskine keep behind the boundary I had established.

I coached his owners through the exercise as well. By the third repetition he only barked two times and it took little effort to get him to go to the boundary I had established earlier. I suggested that the members of the family practice this exercise when they return home until the territorial displays at the door stop completely when guests arrive.

By the end of the session, Erskine was much calmer and responding to commands and corrections immediately. He is not an aggressive dog. He was just confused as to his place in the family while his unspent energy caused him to get nervous. This combination led to some insecurity, lower self esteem and compulsive behaviors like mouthing inappropriate objects.

The rules and boundaries we installed should go a long way to helping Erskine identify as being in a follower position who should follow the commands and corrections of his owners. Combined with regular walks on the treadmill, it shouldn’t take long to close the book on Erskine’s unwanted behaviors for good.

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This post was written by: David Codr

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