Helping a Cairn Terrier Learn that Her Aggression is Unwanted and Unnecessary

By: David Codr

Published Date: September 9, 2014

ZellieZellie is a one year old Cairn Terrier. Her owner called me for help with her aggressive with the family’s other 13 year old Cairn Terrier.

When I sat down to discuss the situation with Zellie and her owner, I discovered that they were only moved into their current home three months ago. Because they moved into the home that was occupied by the other dog I surmise that a big part of Zellie’s aggression was an attempt to assert her position or place of authority in the new home.

Zellie’s owner had her on a leash when I arrived to the session. Usually I like to see how a dog acts without any restraint your correction when I arrive for a session so that I can better ascertain the best way to help the dog and family.

I asked selling his owner about it she said that she started to put Zellie on a leash or anytime she was not in her kennel due to occasional attacks on the families other dog.

I asked her to take the dog off of the leash so that I could observe how he interacted with the members of the family. I also asked them to bring the other dog into the room as it had started to keep a distance from any location that Zellie was in since the attacks started.

As soon as the other dog entered the room I could tell that it was wary of Zellie. I also felt a sense of anxiety or apprehension from the members of the family once the two dogs were in the same room.

While it’s natural to be concerned based on Zellie’s previous aggressive behavior, dogs are very sensitive to human’s emotional states of mind. I explained how important it is that all the members the family adopt a calm and confident demeanor anytime the dogs are near each other. I also suggested a few techniques and tips to help give them more control of Zellie which should help their confidence as well as enable them to more effectively stop any aggressive behavior or fight once it begins.

Next I went over the various communication methods that Zellie will likely engage in prior to any aggressive behaviors or outburst. By looking for telltale signs such as a dog staring intently at another dog, maintaining a stiff body language, bug eyes and frequent licking of the lips or yawning can all be indications that a dog is uncomfortable or is sending another message.

It will be important for all of the members the family to immediately disagree with Zellie any time she starts to exhibit any of these behaviors.  It is much easier and far more effective to disagree with the dog behavior once it starts then it is to stop a dog once it is really gotten all worked up or has started a fight.

Because many of the attacks had occurred around possessions or food, I suggested a more structured feeding ritual. Dogs usually eat in the order of their rank amongst their peers. Usually I suggest that the dogs owners only allow one dog to eat at a time, that the dogs eat in the order of their rank amongst their peers and that the dogs only eat after they have witnessed their own or eating a meal or at least a small snack. This makes it clear that the human is in the senior leadership position.

To help Zellie stop seeing the other dog as subordinate to her, I suggested that the other dog be allowed to eat meals before Zellie is able to. I had her owners fill up both dog bowls but block both dogs from approaching them. After snacking on a few crackers, instructors her to walk over to the bowls and to tell the other dog that it had permission to eat first. It’s like a little encouraging but eventually she came around and ate next.

Shortly after she walked away from her bowl Zellie started to stare at her, got stiff, gave her whale eye, licked her lips twice then snarled and went after her. I was able to grab Zellie before things escalated into a full fight. However Zellie emitted vicious sounding snarl and growl when I corrected her and stopped her from attacking the other dog. One of the members of the family mentioned that that sound is what scared her the most.

After separating the dogs Zellie continue to growl and snarl in protest so I placed her on her side and used the fingers in my hand to simulate a bite to her neck which I used to hold her down. This is a very aggressive move and something I don’t do very frequently but it was important that I communicated to Zellie that her behavior was completely unacceptable while preventing another attack.

I had a member the family bring the other dog over to sniff the Zellie while I held her on the floor in this fashion. When a dog is sniffed by another dog first it makes that dog who is sniffed more subordinate. After allowing the other dog to sniff Zellie (which she was very reluctant to do), I waited a moment before releasing Zellie to make sure that she was in a calm balanced frame of mind.

Once I released her she got up and walked away as if nothing happened. This is fairly common for dogs, they don’t hold onto resentment the way that humans do.

By identifying and disagreeing with any behaviors or communication that leads to aggression, Zellie’s family will be able to help her understand that there is room in the home for two dogs and that her aggression is unwanted and unnecessary.

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