Eliminating Leo’s Dog Aggression

By: David Codr

Published Date: August 22, 2013

Leo and KC
Leo is a seven-year-old poodle, pictured here on the left with his roommate KC, an seven-year-old female.

I was called in to help with Leo who has become more and more dog aggressive lately. I had met both dogs and their owners at a farmers market the previous weekend.

While Leo didn’t appeared to be anxious or uneasy in the public setting, a few minutes after I met him, he got into slight altercation with a black lab was also at the farmers market.

When I sat down with their owners a few days later to discuss the situation, I found out that the dogs had very few rules they were expected to abide. If you have a balanced well-mannered dog you can get away with not having rules or structure in their day-to-day lives. However, anytime you have a dog with behavioral or aggression issues, having rules, boundaries and limitations is a must.

After suggesting a few rules to incorporate I demonstrated my preference when it comes to correcting unwanted behavior. I don’t believe in negative reinforcement or harsh corrections as most many dogs do not respond well to this technique. Instead I believe in using escalating consequences to communicate that an activity or behavior is not wanted.

Often times dog owners yell “stop!” or “no!” to their dogs whenever they are engaged in a behavior they don’t want. The problem is we use those words so often in our day-to-day lives that they hold very little value to dogs as they dont know if we are speaking to them or someone else.

I’ve taken a page out of Cesar Milan’s dog whisperer handbook and use a sound to disagree whenever a dog does something I don’t like. The sound Cesar and I use is “ssssssssht!”  I use that sound for two reasons: first off, it’s a sound that is only used with the dogs, therefore there is no question that I’m disagreeing with the dog instead of communicating with another human in the home.

The second reason I use that sound is a number of animals that dogs interact with on a regular basis make a hissing sound as a warning. SInce dogs are biologically wired to respond to that sound, incorporating it as a way to disagree gets the immediate attention of your dog.

Usually when a dog is aggressive to humans or other dogs it is either because its territorial or it is because the dog believes that it needs to protect or ward off anyone from stealing or attacking the members of his pack. Once the dog’s owner establishes its authority in the dog’s eyes, most dogs will fall in line and stop showing aggressive behaviors.

To help Leo see his humans as his pack leaders, I demonstrated a leadership exercise that they can practice with him. I placed high-value treat on the floor and stood over it in a guarding position. When Leo approached the treat, I immediately stepped forward so that the treat was behind me and I was in a guarding position. When i did this, Leo stopped moving forward so I also stopped. After pausing a moment I took another step backwards so that I was standing over the treat again. I paused to wait for Leo to move, but he remained in place so I took another step backwards. After taking a few more steps back while pausing in between each step, Leo laid down on the floor to indicate to me that he was no longer challenging me for the treat. As soon as he did this, I immediately walked over to the treat, turned so that it was on my side, kneeled down and tapped the floor next to the treat to give him permission to take it.

I repeated the exercise a few times to make sure that Leo got it and then I coached his owners through it as well. At first, one of his owners was a little bit hesitant and trepidatious in her movements which signaled Leo that he could try to assert himself. However, as soon as she started to move in a more confident and calm manner Leo immediately fell into line and showed her the proper respect.

Next we moved to the dog’s backyard so that I could demonstrate a recall exercise with Leo. I call it the “bump” and it is a great and fun way to get the dog to come to you whenever the command word is used. It’s slightly different than the standard “come” command because we often use that command to indicate an end to an activity such as being outside. For some dogs, using the “come” command only can result in diminished results because it is associated with an end to the activity that the dog enjoys. Using the bump command is more of a game to the dog as it represents a fun activity.

After we finished the bump exercise, we decided to fit the dogs up with martingale collars and take them out for little test walk. Leo’s owner had been using a pinch collar to control the dog, but he wasn’t a big fan of using it.

As usual the Martingale collar with my special twist to lease stopped the dog from pulling. In fact it worked too well with Leo as he almost shut down and refused to walk.

After a little encouragement, Leo gradually started to relax and fell into a nice heel position with his owner. We practiced walking around their neighborhood until Leo was comfortable and walking in a normal pace.

Because Leo had gotten into a dust-up with the neighbors dog, I asked if they could bring that dog outside so that I could judge his reaction and behavior. As soon as the other dog came outside, I could see Leo tense up. His body became stiff, he lowered his head, he curled his lips up to show his teeth and he was growling.

I took the leash and moved Leo a good 20 feet away from the other dog then turned to face it. Often times, increasing the distance between a dog and whatever stimulation it’s reacting to can cause the dog to calm down. I asked Leo to sit down and corrected him whenever he showed signs of aggression.

Once he was able to sit in a calm manner, we took two steps towards the other dog before stopping and repeating the sit and wait process. It took us about five minutes before we were able to completely approach the other dog, but that by the time that we did, Leo was in a calmer state of mind. You could tell Leo was still a bit uncomfortable, but he was not reacting or showing aggression.

I moved Leo around the other dog and the other dog around Leo as well as around Leo’s roommate to judge his reaction. Leo showed some signs of being unhappy with the situation, but they were very mild. I corrected him and showed his owners how to correct him at the first sign of aggression. Often times disagreeing with the dog before it gets all riled up is all that is required to keep things from escalating into a fight.

After a few minutes, I held Leo’s leash looser and he started to actively sniff the neighbor’s dog without any aggression.

As an experienced dog handler, I’m usually able to get an aggressive dog to act in a more calm and balanced manner, but this is not always the case with the dog owners themselves. I advised Leo’s owners to practice the leadership exercise I showed them earlier as well as incorporate the rules and boundaries we discussed to help establish a foundation of leadership.

Once Leo sees his owner’s as his pack leader, He will learn to trust their judgment and stop being the protector of his humans. Once this takes place, Leo will learn to relax and eventually be able to enjoy the company of other dogs. It won’t happen overnight, but the progress that we made in the two hour session proves that Leo can absolutely learn to be social with dogs he does not know.

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