Adding Structure to Stop a German Shorthair Pointer’s Dog Aggression

By: David Codr

Published Date: October 28, 2015


Gus is a three-year-old German Shorthair Pointer who is getting progressively more dog aggressive.

Often when I have a client who’s dog is reacting to dogs I probe to see what kind of rules, boundaries and limits are in place at home. I have found that for many of my clients this reaction is due to the dog thinking it has more authority than it actually does.

If the dog thinks that it has the same authority as the humans or more than they do, often it appoints itself as being in charge of security. Protecting the group or security is a job that is usually handled by the top dog in a pack.

When a dog is reacting to other dogs due to this misconception of its authority, I have found the best way to solve the issue is to modify the leader follower dynamic. This allows us to change how the dog sees itself in conjunction to the humans.

A great way to modify the leader follower dynamic this is to add structure; rules, boundaries and limits.

By consistently disagreeing with Gus with these escalating consequences, his guardians will be able to tell the dog what limits they want him to respect.

By petting Gus for engaging in desired actions or behaviors, we can help him learn to adopt them to get his guardian’s attention instead of nudging, jumping up on or pawing at them.

To help the guardians practice using the escalating consequences, I went through a Leadership exercise I developed a few years ago. After running through it a few times myself, I coached one of the guardians through the exercise.

The guardian’s movements and reaction times were a little slow and soft the first time she ran through the exercise. Its extremely important the guardian move back the instant the dog starts to sit so it understands we wanted and appreciate that movement. Its equally important the guardian steps forward and continues marching right at the dog if it crosses the three foot boundary. Once the dog is back at least three feet away, only then should she stop moving at him.

By giving and taking territory this way, the guardian is essentially communicating with the dog in his native language.

The guardian will also need to remember to use the hiss as her first objection when the dog approaches the three foot boundary and to hiss with enough intensity so that the dog respects it. You always want to start with the hiss as eventually that will be the only action needed to disagree with unwanted behavior.

Gus’s other guardian went next.

Because this guardian works in a job that comes with authority, his movements and body language were easily recognized by the dog. Sharp, deliberate movements are easier for dogs to recognize and understand.

By the time we shot the above video, Gus had the exercise pretty much figured out. I suggested that the rest of the family practice this exercise when they get home so that the dog sees all the humans in the house as having the same authority.

If all the members of the family practice the leadership exercise every day until the dog can sit and wait for 20 minutes before getting the treat, the dog should be well on its way to developing the right mindset as far as authority goes.

Because his guardians said that Gus’s recall outside wasn’t the best, I went through a simple recall exercise to help pump some positive reinforcement Gus’s way.

By practicing the recall exercise inside where there aren’t many distractions we can help the dog learn that coming when called is rewarded. Just like anything else, practice makes perfect.

I wanted to practice the exercise inside to give the dog a fresh memory of positive reinforcement before we headed outside.

But being a super-hunting-breed, Gus was easily distracted once in the back yard. I removed a few fetch toys he was intensely trying to play with, but this didn’t snap him out of his “fetch-mode” intensity.

Anytime I have a dog that is focusing on something else, I look for stronger attractants or ways to motivate the dog. In this case, I decided to use the family’s other dog Riley, an eight-year-old Beagle female.

By only rewarding the first dog to come over and sit in the right place when the recall command is given, we were able to use competition to get Gus’s attention.

Once both dogs recall at the same speed, then the guardians can go back to giving each dog a treat.

Now that we had changed the leader follower dynamic and given the guardians the tools they need to communicate and disagree with Gus, we were ready for a walk.

I fitted Gus up with a Martingale collar and added the special twist to the leash to give the guardians more control on the walk. Next I went over my rules for a structured walk;

  1. Give the dog a position (right or left) int he walking formation and correct it the instant it gets too far in front.
  2. Keep the handler’s arm relaxed going straight down and avoid any tension on the leash unless correcting with a quick tug, then letting the leash go lax.
  3. Don’t allow the dog to stop and sniff. The dog needs to be mindful or the guardian’s lead.
  4. Don’t allow the dog to mark. Marking territory is a leadership activity. By blocking the dog from doing so, we can help it identify more as a follower.

At first the guardian bent her arm slightly back to try to keep the dog from moving in front. You can see this by the way the leash is a diagonal line going backward from the dog’s collar to her wrist.

But holding he leash this way will only cause the dog to pull more. By consistently tugging the leash up in a quick motion then letting the leash go slack immediately after the correction the second the dog starts to move too far forward, Gus will learn the position his handler wants him to walk in.

When she applied the right correction with good timing and intensity at the end of the video, you hear the dog yelp. This is due to the dog being caught off guard and also because Gus is a little bit of an actor. Correcting a dog this way with a Martingale is not at all painful unless the dog has broken ribs.

Unfortunately this was a morning session on a weekday so we didn’t encounter any dogs out for a walk. Fortunately the guardian’s had a neighbor who’s dogs were able to come outside into their fenced in yard on their own.

As it happens, these dogs were the ones that Gus reacted to the most strongly. We practiced walking back and forth past their yard with the guardians leading Gus so well that he only needed a few corrections.

Within a few minutes Gus was walking by their yard ignoring the backing dogs. The guardians told me this was quite a difference as usually Gus is barking and lunging at the dogs and even nipping at the leash of his handler.

By stopping and placing Gus into a sit every few paces, we can help him settle himself down. Offering some positive reinforcement for doing so will help make it easier to get him to sit in the future.

Because sitting is a more subordinate position to dogs, placing Gus into a sit when a nearby dog is reacting can have a positive influence on the other dog. In this case the sitting and stopping action caused the other dogs to not only stop barking, they went back into the house on their own.

Gus isn’t an aggressive dog. He just thought he was helping out by “protecting” his family members by trying to ward off any approaching dogs. Now that the guardians are assuming the leadership position and know how to communicate what they do and don’t want in a way that Gus understands, its entirely possible that his dog reactivity stops altogether.

I asked Gus’s guardians to follow up with me in a month to see how things are progressing. For the majority of my client’s with dog’s with Gus’s issues, changing the leader follower dynamic was enough to stop the reactivity. But if they persist after 30 days, a follow up session to introduce counter-conditioning may be needed.

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