Teaching a Possessively Aggressive Dog Control to Change His Behavior

Murphy (Soft Coated Wheaton)

Murphy is a thre-year-old Soft Coated Weaton Terrier who live in Omaha. His guardians called me to schedule a dog training session to work on his possessive and protective behavior; showing aggression when an unknown person comes into his home. He also barks a lot, is spooked by loud noises and has some anxiety.

Knowing that Murphy was showing aggression to people he does not know who visit his home, I had walked his guardian through a way to introduce a muzzle when we booked the session. By introducing the muzzle while simultaneously providing high-value treats and doing so when there was no reason for him to be reactive, Murphy became very comfortable with his muzzle on in no time at all.

When I arrived to the session, I was instantly thankful that I had explained how to introduce a muzzle beforehand as there is no question that he would’ve bitten me if he had an opportunity.

By adopting a softer body language and using some calming signals, I was able to get Murphy to settle down fairly quickly, but clearly this was an urgent behavior that could turn dangerous very easily.

Later in the session I showed the dog’s guardians how they could clean the area around the door before opening it. Sometimes it’s necessary for us to use a leash or to hold a dog back physically when they are reacting as Murphy was. The problem with this technique is that often amplifies the dog’s reaction as the energy they put forth trying to break free cascades into their reaction to the new person.

By claiming the area around the door using body language and movement and moving him back without the use of the leash, we can help Murphy develop some self-control and restraint. This is not going to be an easy task as Murphy showed one of the most intense reactions to arriving guests that I’ve ever seen.

Obviously I was not going to be able to work with this dog effectively until we got passed his reactive nature so I decided to take him out for a little bit of a walk.

Seeing how dramatically different Murphy’s behavior was without being near his guardians told me that this was a case of possessiveness. Being a herding breed I’m thinking that it is related to Murphy having the perception that his job is to shepherd and protect the humans as if they were a flock of sheep.

When I returned to Murphy’s home I did so in a very structured way. Often when a dog is possessive, their behavior will gradually increase in intensity the closer they get to the human they are possessive over. So once we got next to Murphy’s house, we stopped for a few minutes in the neighbors lawn across the street. I waited for him to be completely calm before we continued returning home. I repeated this pause at the edge of Murphy’s lawn, on his front porch, in the entryway as well as in the hallway next to the kitchen.

Once we got back inside with his guardians, I kept Murphy on the leash and did not allow him to get too close to them. Just like humans, dogs get better at any activity the more they practice. As a result it’s important that we re-create situations and restructure them while removing or diminishing any stimulus the dog is reacting to while we are rehabilitating them.

I had noted that Murphy would pause or freeze right before reacting, so I spent a few minutes going over various warning signs that he is likely to give prior to reacting as he did when I arrived for the session.

Knowing what to look for will enable Murphy’s guardians to react much more quickly. From what I observed, they were reacting to him after he exploded. But because the dog was in such a excited state at that point, it was impossible for him to hear what they were saying to him. This is why they had almost no response when they tried to correct him.

But if you can catch a dog before it starts to react and disagree in a way that it understands, it’s much easier to stop a confrontation before it starts. Timing really is everything when disagreeing with unwanted dog behaviors. I spent a few minutes going over some leash training as the guardians were trying to stop or control Murphy by pulling  him on the leash. This usually only frustrated all parties.

I strongly recommended that the guardians start practicing my petting with a purpose philosophy. This involves not petting the dog at all unless it does something to earn it first like sitting or laying down. It will take the humans a couple of days to get into a habit of doing this, but this will be a very important part of his rehabilitation as he is used to demanding attention when he wants. This is a behavior they should practice for the long term.

I also went over a series of escalating consequences that I like to use whenever a dog is doing something that I disagree with. Because I derived these consequences after observing how dogs interact with one another, most dogs respond to them immediately. Murphy was no exception.

Because he had such a strong reaction to the doorbell, I spent a few minutes explaining how the guardians can use counterconditioning to help him learn to stop freaking out every time he heard it. It took a couple of minutes, but eventually were able to get him to sit and not bark at all while the doorbell rang.

Its going to be very important for the guardians to practice this doorbell counterconditioning exercise a couple of times a day for the next week or three, until Murphy no longer reacts to the sound of the doorbell. You want to establish a routine of behavior for an extended period of time without any outbursts when you were trying to change how the dog reacts to a stimulus.

To help the guardians redirect Murphy and help him develop more self-control I went over a Watch exercise with his guardians. I got this technique from Karen London’s book Feisty Fido. Murphy picked up on this exercise right away, usually it takes dogs a few minutes so we know Murphy is a smart dog. This is another exercise the guardians will also need to practice on a regular basis multiple times every day.

During the session, I noticed changes in Murphy’s reaction to being on the leash based on the proximity to his guardians. If he was on the leash and I came near; within 4 to 8 feet, Murphy started reacting. But each time that he did and I took the leash, his reactivity stopped almost immediately.

I handed my phone to one of his guardian so that she could document this behavior.

By the end of the session, Murphy was wiped out. This was a lot for him to process. While we didn’t get the complete transformation I normally get, I was quite pleased at the progress we made. His guardians seemed more confident now that they had tools and techniques to use when Murphy starts to react.

I told them to check in with me in 2 to 3 weeks with a progress report. Based on the intensity of his reaction, I’m fairly certain that Murphy is going to need at least one more follow-up visit. However, I have had clients with dogs that had similar issues that were able to stop them after the first session by consistently disagreeing with good timing and mastering the techniques and exercises we went over.

Only time will tell if Murphy needs a follow up session. Its going to be based on how much practice the guardians are able to do. The more they rep the techniques and exercises, the better Murphy will understand them and the better their timing and technique will be.

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