Introducing Training and Structure to Stop a Dog’s Aggressive Play

By: David Codr

Published Date: May 1, 2016

Piggy

Piggy is a two-year-old American / English Bulldog mix who gets excited and reactive when seeing or meeting other dogs. I was called in for help after Piggy got the boot from a couple of day cares for playing too roughly.

Because piggy gets so excited when guests arrive, her guardian was keeping her in the back bedroom to prevent her from scratching up the nice wood floors in their home as she jumped up and circled arriving guests.

As soon as the bedroom door opened, Piggies excitement level was pretty apparent; jumping up on me repetitively. But after I used a hand motion trick that I’ve learned, I was able to get her to sit and settle down pretty quickly.

Because it was such a beautiful day in Los Angeles, we headed outside to Peggy’s backyard to discuss the situation and how I could help.

It didn’t take long for me to spot some behaviors that were related to her seeming lack of control when exposed to new people or dogs.

Petting with a purpose is one of the easiest things that any dog guardian can do that will have the biggest return on their time invested. It usually takes a week or so to get into the habit, but once that’s the case, the guardians will just raise their hand up to put the dog into a sit, then scratch them under the chin without thinking. The nest part is that every time they do this, they teach Piggy a valuable lesson, sitting and being calm is a great way to get attention.

In the course of my discussion with her guardian, I learned that Piggy did not really have many rules in her life. Also, because the dog was able to nudge or jump up on her guardians to tell them when to pet her, they had created a bit of a perfect storm.

A lack of rules and structure can very easily give the dog the impression that they have the same authority level as the humans. When a dog thinks it has the same authority as a human, then listening to the humans is a choice in the dog’s mind.

To help change this, I spent the next few minutes going over some rules and boundaries that Piggies guardians can incorporate to start to help her identify as being in a follower position.

By asking the dog to sit and wait before eating food, sit to ask politely for attention and respect the personal space of her guardians, we can help the dog start to develop some self-control while also creating a healthy leader / follower dynamic.

One of the other suggestions I made to Piggies guardians were to increase her daily exercise. Dogs that are not getting the sufficient amount of structured exercise can often develop unwanted habits and behaviors. While running around in the backyard does burn energy, it’s not very stimulating for the dog. Adding in daily walks or hikes will go a long ways towards helping piggy adopt more desired behaviors and energy levels.

I suggested that the guardians provide Piggy with a few long sticks and some other appropriate toys to help her focus on. Having indoor and outdoor toys can go a long way towards helping a dog stay stimulated.

Next I went over a technique that trains a dog to look away whenever they encounter an unknown dog while on walks. After demonstrating it for Piggies guardians myself, I walked them through the exercise. They will need to practice this exercise multiple times a day every day for the next week or two. Its a very easy exercise that won’t take longer than a minute each repetition, so they should sprinkle those practice sessions throughout the day while also adding distractions that gradually increase in intensity.

If they practice these this technique this way, eventually they will be able to get piggy to stop reacting to the sight of dogs and instead sit down and politely look up at the guardian instead.

I wanted to make sure that the guardians were able to correct Piggy in a more effective manner so I showed her guardians a set of escalating consequences that I like to apply whenever a dog is breaking the rules.

Because Piggy was invading the personal space of her guardians and attempting to get attention while I was explaining this technique, her guardian was able to put the escalating consequences into practical application right away.

A few years ago I developed a Leadership Exercise that also helps guardians practice using these escalating consequences. We went inside so that I could walk them through that exercise.

Piggy picked up on the exercise pretty quickly for me so I coached her guardian’s through it as well. I suggested that the guardians practice this exercise every day for the next 7 to 10 days while gradually increasing the amount of time the dog has to wait before getting her reward.

In addition to helping the humans practice using the escalating consequences, this exercise will also help the dog develop an ability to restrain itself. This is a skill that will be crucially important for Piggy to master before we start reintroducing her to other dogs.

As we were wrapping up the Leadership Exercise I noticed the family’s cat outside the back door asking to come in. Piggy’s guardian walked over and was about to open the door with the dog in front of her. This positioned Piggy perfectly to pounce on the cat to play the instant she came into the door.

I used this opportunity to demonstrate how the guardians can use the Escalating Consequences to move the dog away from the door and control the situation before letting the cat inside.

Adding structure and taking control of simple every day activities like this will go a long ways towards Piggy developing a healthy respect for her guardians as authority figures. Once that is the case, listening to them will no longer be optional.

By the end of the session, Piggy had stopped trying to jump up on me or her guardians for attention, was already starting to sit to ask for some petting and was looking up at the humans for guidance and corrections.

Adding in the rules, boundary and structure will help Piggy’s responsiveness and obedience to her guardians. Combined with practice at the various techniques and exercises we introduced will help her develop self-control.

It’s quite possible that her overexuberant play or dog reactivity will diminish entirely if her guardians assume the leadership position and train her to stop getting over excited. I asked her guardians to follow up with me in a couple of weeks to a month or so and let me know how things are progressing.

If Piggy develops respect for them and masters her self-control at home but is still unable to restrain herself when seeing other dogs, we may need to schedule a follow-up session to introduce a counterconditioning technique to put that problem too bad once and for all.

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