Helping a Big Dog See His Guardians as the Authority Figures

By: David Codr

Published Date: September 20, 2016


Ryker is a one-year-old Cain Corso who is starting to show some reactivity to unknown houseguests. His guardians set up a dog behavior session with me to evaluate him and help him stop reacting this way.

Because Ryker had nipped a few house guests (without breaking skin), I had walked the guardians through introducing a muzzle in a positive way a few days before our session.

Because of his reactive nature, the guardians had gotten into a habit of putting the dog into the kennel prior to letting any guest enter their home. Not knowing how Ryker would react to my arrival, she had also placed the muzzle on the dog prior to my arrival.

I entered the room slowly and used body language to communicate that I was not a threat before taking a seat directly in front of the kennel with my back to it. Before you work as a dog trainer, you need the dog to be calm and balanced. In fact calming dogs is a crucial element that needs to be addressed before you actually work with them.

When you have a large breed dog who is showing some reactivity to humans, it can be very stressful for the guardians. It’s important that we keep any stress or anxiety compartmentalized and not display it in front of the dog. These sort of reactions can actually intensify a dog’s behavior.

Often times I find that dogs that are reactive only inside the home or when their guardians are present to be more possessive than actually aggressive.

This is often the case when a dog perceives itself is to having the same authority as the humans. During my initial consultation with the guardians identified a number of interactions that may be giving the dog the wrong impression.

Because this could escalate into a dangerous situation, I recommended that the guardians start to incorporate more rules and structure; not letting the dog sit at the same height as the humans, not letting the dog within 7 feet of any humans who are eating etc.

I also recommended that they start to utilize my Petting with a purpose strategy.

Ryker had been breathing very heavily in the kennel as soon as I sat down in front of it. After giving me some good snaps he settled down a little bit but then wrapped back up about a half an hour later.

I didn’t want to release Ryker out of the kennel until he was as close to a calm and balance state of mind as possible so I spent the next few minutes going over the warning signs his guardians should be on the lookout for.

Knowing what to look for can help the guardians feel more secure and confident when interacting with their dog when guests are present.

Ryker’s guardians had identified that he usually to shaked his body when he was settling down and that’s what I had been waiting for. However at this point we were over halfway through the session and I needed to get him out of the kennel.

Fortunately, just as I was wrapping up the discussion of warning signs, Ryker laid down and let out a large exhale of breath. This is usually a good indicator of a dog coming itself down and moving to the next level. We were ready to let the big dog out!

I coached one of the guardians through a structured way of letting the dog leave the kennel. When you have a dog that’s reactive, you don’t want to open the door let them bolt out of the kennel.

It took a couple of minutes, but eventually Ryker understood that he was to remain inside the kennel even though the door was completely open. Practicing this kennel exiting exercise will go a long ways toward helping Ryker develop more control and respect for his guardian’s authority.

When Ryker did exit the kennel, he was very calm and did not show any signs of tension, stress, anxiety or aggression. The kennel training we did had paid off.

After spending a little bit of time getting to know him, I was ready to tackle one of his more challenging issues.

The scenario that caused Ryker to get the most animated was when guest knocked at the door to their home. Because security for the pack is typically handled by an authority figure, I wanted to show the guardians how they could take over door answering duties rather than letting Ryker run to the door ahead of them.

I had one of the guardians head outside to play the part of a guest so that I could demonstrate the technique. The first time around, the wife was outside pretending to be a visitor. Ryker reacted when he heard the knock, but not very intensely.

But when we switched guardians and Ryker was inside with the wife, we got a much more intense reaction when there was a knock at the door. This tells me the behavior is largely protective.

I suggested that the guardians practice this exercise when either one of them are on their way home. This will give them the ability to practice the door answering ritual without the pressure of an actual guest at the door.

After we wrapped up the door answering exercise, it was clear that Ryker was completely comfortable with my presence so we took off the muzzle. Actually we probably could’ve taken off the muzzle sooner but it’s always prudent to be safe when dealing with the dog who has a history of being reactive.

Once he settled down, Ryker was a really warm and gentle dog. I don’t see his issue as aggression, more confusion as to what his job in the pack is. Now that his humans know how to assume the leadership role, they can help him move into a follower’s mindset which will reduce his reactivity.

By consistently enforcing rules that help the dog identify as being in the follower position, his guardians will be able to help Riker stop being so reactive when houseguest come to the door in the future.

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This post was written by: David Codr