Adding Rules and Structure to Put a Stop to Riley’s Dog Aggression

By: David Codr

Published Date: October 1, 2015

Riley and Simba

Riley (Left) is a four-year-old German Shephard mix who lives in Los Angeles. His guardian called me about his aggression to animals he doesnt know and doesn’t like the car. His partner in crime Simba (right), is a three-year-old German Shepherd mix who is skiddish around men and loud noises.

I took care to carry a soft body language when I arrived to put Simba at ease; moving slowly, lower head, sitting down and ignoring her so that she could come and investigate me in her own time. Many people like to try to pet their way into a dog’s heart. But if you have a fearful, anxious or nervous dog, this is often too much for them to process. It often results in a dog backing and trying to get away.

By ignoring the dog, I was allowing him to come to me on his own terms, when he was ready. Its pretty simple. Because I wasn’t interested in him, he became interested in me. When the dog is the one who comes to a human, it places itself in more of a follower position.

A couple of mines later, Simba came up to me and we had a nice introduction. After that, she was calm and confident with a nice playful energy. Her guardian mentioned that while he liked to fetch, he didn’t bring the object back or drop it so we worked on that.

I love using the fetch. Not only does it burn excess energy, when done right it helps to strengthen the leader follower dynamic. A big reason why is that the exercise allows the human and dog to work together. Regular practice at this type of interaction deepens and strengthens the bond between human and animal.

We had been waiting for Riley’s guardian to arrive for the session as we practiced the fetch. Because these are mostly outdoor dogs, I was expecting to see more primal behavior, but up until that point, they had been pretty well behaved.

I should say they were until Riley’s guardian arrived. The minute she did, the dynamic definitely shifted. Both dog’s energy level shot up and they started moving around from person to person showing no regard for their personal space.

After explaining how the guardians can claim their personal space, I had them head inside for a moment. Once the dogs were calm again, they came out of the house at once and started to define and defend their personal space.

When the dogs had been invading the personal space of all the humans before we shot the above video, they were doing so to compete for the human’s attention. I decided to use this same framework to

To help reinforce the proper leader follower dynamic, I showed the guardians how to use competition to get the dogs to respond better. By only rewarding the first dog to obey, it didn’t take long for the dogs to start responding to the guardian’s commands much faster.

Now that Riley had spent a good hour in more of a follower mindset, I fitted him up with a Martingale collar and explained how to apply the twist of the leash to stop any pulling. I also showed his guardian how to use the rig to better control the dog.

I had her practice circling the yard so I could coach her up on how and when to correct Riley to keep him in a heel position. It took a few laps before his guardian started to improve her timing and technique. Once she was in the groove, we headed out.

As we walked down the street, the practice we had done in the back yard was paying off. Riley was in an almost perfect heel position and because he was testing the boundaries, his guardian had a good 100 yards of practice leading and correcting before we came across any dogs.

The guardian did a great job for much of the above video correcting Riley before he started to stare at the nearby dog. This stare is usually the first communication that triggers a response from other dogs. It is also the point where your dog starts to enter a hunting mode. By disagreeing and snapping the dog’s attention away from the other dog the second this happens, you get a much better response from the dog.

On the second pass in the above video, the guardian was slightly late in correcting Riley right before he reacts to the Bulldog. Her pausing while correcting him wasn’t ideal, but if her correction would have been sooner, I doubt Riley would have reacted at all.

Because she was able to distract and lead him rather than gradually getting more wound up, Riley was much calmer which helped him to listen to his guardian.

I know that there was a dog down the street that Riley reacted to so strongly that he would nip and bite at his guardian when she tried to correct him. One of my goals for this session was to get her to be able to walk past this house with Riley calm and under her control.

I noticed a number of small and subtle changes in Riley as we practiced these exercises. His body started looking less confrontational, he carried his tail lower and he wasn’t targeting nearby dogs despite their reaction to him.

While taking control of the walk is an important part of the rehabilitation process, Its going to take practice at developing the proper leader follower dynamic at home to really stop Riley’s dog reactivity. The more his guardian is seen as being the leader who has things under control, the less the dog will think he needs to react.

When we returned to his home, Riley’s guardian mentioned that Riley went crazy if she tried to put him into the car. When a dog has a problem with a specific activity that it shouldn’t be resistant to, I try to beat it down into individual steps and practice at each one individually before moving on.

In Riley’s case, the first step was simply getting into the car.

After Riley no longer hesitated to get into the car and sitting down, we practicing closing the doors and sitting there doing nothing. At each new step, you need the dog to return to a completely calm state before continuing.

Once Riley was calm, we slid it into reverse and slowly backed out into the street. Riley remained calm so we slowly headed down the street. This first trip, I wanted to avoid any sudden starts, stops and turns. Many dogs react negatively to getting into a car because they have motion sickness.

By practicing short slow drives, then medium speed with slow turns and so on, we can help Riley get more comfortable gradually. Because he remains calm throughout each step, the dog essentially practices the entire process in slow motion. This makes it much easier for Riley to process and get accustomed to.

We ended the session with a structured feeding ritual. Because they are outdoor dogs, their guardians controlling access to food can be an important way to reinforce the leader follower dynamic every day.

You could already see a difference in the dogs. They weren’t jumping up or getting in their guardians personal space, they responded when called or corrected and were calmer and well mannered. By setting new rules and boundaries and enforcing them, the dogs were responding and interacting with their guardians in a more respectful manner. This will be particularly important for Riley’s rehabilitation. The more he sees his guardian as an authoritative figure, the less appropriate the dog will feel in reacting to nearby dogs. Instead he will be able to adopt a follower approach and let his guardian handle it.

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