Teaching a Trio of Dogs to Respect Their Guardian’s Authority to Stop their Dog Aggression

By: David Codr

Published Date: May 18, 2016

Millie, Gia and Cody

Millie (left) is a three-year-old Pit Bull mix who lives in Omaha with Gia, a five-year-old Cairn Terrier Mix and Cody a seven-year-old Cairn Terrier. Their guardian works at a dog day care and takes the dogs with her, but due to a developing dog aggression problem with Millie and Cody, she asked me for some dog training help.

I started off the session by sitting down with the dog’s guardian and discussing their daily routine and structure. I always want to get a feel for the rules, boundaries and limits that are imposed on the dogs by their guardians.

Some dogs don’t really need rules and just fit perfectly into your life. However when you have more than one dog, it’s natural for a little bit of rivalry or competition to creep into the equation.

While I would not call these dogs rivals, the guardian did incorporate some rules inconsistently between the dogs. This can often cause one dog to think that it has more authority or rank than the others. Just like with humans, this often leads to some animosity and varying behavior from those involved.

Because Gia was allowed to not only get up on the couch, but to get up on the cushion behind her guardian (sitting at a higher level than she did), it’s possible that Gia was under the impression that she was in charge. Being the most anxious dog of the three, it would not be a surprise me to find out that her stress was a result of her being overwhelmed by the perceived burden of responsibility.

I went over a number of small changes that the guardian can make when she interacts with her dogs that will help them start to see and identify her as being in the leadership position. To dogs, whoever is in front is literally the leader so I suggested that the guardian not allow the dogs to walk through any doors before her.

I also went over a technique that I have developed that I like to call Petting with a purpose.

Because sitting and laying down are more subordinate positions, asking the dog to engage in one of these before we provide them with attention or affection goes a long ways towards altering the dog’s perceived authority.

Next I went over some nonverbal communication cues that the guardian can use to more effectively talk to her dogs. I find that many people use too many words and incorporate them at the wrong times which can cause a dog to become confused.

As a rule of thumb, its best to give a dog a command word or correction sound within three seconds of them engaging in the activity. I also suggest that the guardian pet the dog at the same time (if its following a command). Because dogs learn through association, this makes it easier for the dog to associate the word with the command with the reward.

I also recommended that the guardian refrain from using interrogative or adjectives when giving a dog a command or correction. While it makes sense to a human to say “good dog,” “go eat,” etc. these additional words can cause the dog to become a little bit confused.

By utilizing the escalating consequences I shared and applying them with good timing (right before or the instant a dog starts to break a rule), it will be easier for the dogs to understand what it is the guardian does not want them to do.

Changing the leader follower dynamic so that the dogs identify their human as being a clear authority figure will go a long ways towards eliminating Cody and Millie’s dog reactivity or aggression.

But I also wanted to give the guardian some leash training tools that she can utilize that will help redirect the dogs attention. The first of these is a technique that I learned from my mentor Karen London CAAB as outlined in her book Feisty Fido. Karen likes to call this the Watch.

I suggested that the guardian practice this technique with Millie and Cody separately, multiple times a day for short dog training sessions. The idea is to practice this technique at first in a calm and quiet setting, then gradually adding distractions as the dog’s skills improve. This allows the human to have their own private dog school to practice at wherever the dog is bound to get into trouble.

Another dog behavior training technique to use for a dog who is reactive to other dogs is something called counterconditioning. Counterconditioning involves exposing the dog to whatever stimulus it reacts to, but at such a distance that the dog does not perceive the stimulus as a threat.

Counterconditioning is the most effective way to stop a dog from getting reactive or aggressive, but it does take time. Key is to gradually collapse the distance between the dog and the stimulus over a period of time which allows the dog to practice being progressively closer to the dog without having any outburst. This often stops their reaction and can also stop dog barking. The key is to stop the exercise when the dog has difficulty sitting or taking the treat. You don’t want to push things too far when counterconditioning. ITs best to move in small steps at the dog’s pace.

Next we went over a more structured way to feed the dogs. Because eating is a very primal activity for dogs, adding structure to it can go a long ways towards helping a dog identify as being in the follower position.

Neither Gia or Cody are aggressive dogs. It’s a safe bet that they are either conditioned to react to the site of other dogs or that they perceive their position as to be the protector or possessive of their guardian. For this reason it’s going to be important for the guardian to consistently correct the dogs as well as practice the Petting with a purpose strategy at home to help the dog’s gravitate into a followers mindset. This sort of dog training happens all the time and should become second nature to their guardian.

Practicing the watch exercise and incorporating counterconditioning in situations that the dog normally reacts to will give the guardian tools to redirect the dog’s attention as well as eliminate their reactivity to other dogs.

Because Millie was reactive in very specific situations, I suggested that the guardian look for ways to incorporate some additional structure to help stop Millies reacting. One good idea is to keep a journal of your dogs behavior when it is engaging in dog aggression. By writing down as much detail as possible as to what was going on before, during and after any outbursts, it’s easier to spot trends or specific actions that can trigger a response.

Once those activities and actions are identified, then the guardian can look for ways to do some leash training or recreate that specific trigger in a low level of stimulus and in a more controlled setting. This way you can put your dog in a position to succeed rather than putting it in a situation that is beyond its capabilities which puts it in a position to fail.

By the end of the session Millie was showing more respect for people’s personal space, all three dogs seemed to be responding better to commands and corrections and were even starting to adopt a more subordinate posture in order to ask their guardian for attention.

It’s going to take practice at the various techniques and changing the leader follower dynamic in the home before the guardian will be able to put these behavior issues behind her. But because she has such a good way of being with dogs and clearly knows how to communicate and leave them, it shouldn’t take long to rehabilitate her pack into calm balanced dogs that no longer react to other pooches.

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This post was written by: David Codr