Teaching Meelo to Mello Out of her Dog Aggression

By: David Codr

Published Date: September 7, 2013


Meelo is a 2 YO female German Shorthair Pointer.

After an attack by another dog, Meelo has become more and more dog aggressive; lunging at other dogs whenever she sees them. This is compounded by the fact that she is a high energy dog who doesn’t have the best manners in regard to respecting her owner’s commands, property and personal space.

When I arrived for the appointment, I could tell Meelo didn’t have much discipline as she was all over the place; sniffing, jumping up, scent marking me, sticking her nose wherever she chose and never standing still for longer than a few seconds. Meelo’s owner explained to me that the dog didn’t have any aggression issues until another dog attacked her at the dog park a few months before. Every since, Meelo has shown aggression anytime she see’s another dog.

One of the first things I do with my clients is sit down so that we can discuss the situation. It was only a few moments after I started the conversation with Meelo’s owner that her actions made it clear that she needed someone to add rules, boundaries and structure to her home life. While it was obvious that the dog loved her owner, it was equally clear that Meelo had zero respect for her owner’s authority. Meelo only listened or followed instructions when she felt like it. Its nearly impossible for a dog with aggression issues to become rehabilitated without first elevating and reinforcing the human’s leadership position in the dog’s eyes.

We moved into the basement which offered the largest space in the home for a leadership exercise I like to use. The goal of the exercise is to get the dog to focus on its owner and wait for the owner’s permission before getting a reward which builds up a dog’s ability to self restrain. Usually dogs protest at first, attempt to ignore the rules and try to go straight for the treat reward. When that didn’t work for Meelo, she decided to start circling the reward by walking around it. For this exercise, such activity is akin to a dog’s way of arguing so I cut off half the room and blocked Meelo from further circling.

The record for this exercise is 2 and a half hours before a very stubborn boxer “got-it” and surrendered. After about 15 minutes, I started to wonder if Meelo would go for the new record. Her attention span was so short that it took a good 30 minutes before she settled down and started to comprehend what I was asking of her. After reaping the exercise with positive results a few times, I coached her owner through it as well.

Because of Meelo’s high energy / short attention span combination, it is crucial that Meelo’s owner practice this exercise with her daily, ramping up the level of difficulty until Meelo is able to focus and wait for her owner’s command or instruction. Not only will this teach the dog to respect her owner’s leadership, it will allow Meelo to practice self restraint, a key skill for dogs who are developing dog aggression.

Next I fitted Meelo up with a Martingale collar so we could go out for a walk. Because of Meelo’ intense reaction to other dogs, her owner had started to avoid any location or situation where she may encounter them. While this can help prevent another fight, it doesn’t allow the dog to learn to be non reactive to other dogs. Additionally, a nervous dog owner can provoke aggressive behaviors from their dog. When a dog senses that its owner is uneasy or nervous, most dogs go into a protective mode. When you have a dog who is aggressive to begin with, adding in a nervous owner is like throwing gasoline on a fire.

Before we started the walk, I had Meelo’s owner assign the dog a position. By giving Meelo a fixed position (on the right or on the left), the dog knows where its supposed to be in the walking formation. Next I demonstrated the proper leash length, hand position, correction and pace setting before we started the walk.

As many dogs do, Meelo got excited as soon as we brought out the leash. Once we got to the front door, her energy level had gone up considerably to the point where she was almost bouncing up and down. Over excitement is the cause of or escalating factor for many dog issues. For this reason, I always advise my clients to stop whenever their dog gets too excited. By giving it a time out and not continuing (just stand their with the dog until it calms down), the dog learns that the only way to move forward is to be calm. It can take some time, but if the human ALWAYS stops or pauses when the dog gets over stimulated, it will start to stay calm under stressful or exciting circumstances.

Keeping your dog calm and focused is really important for higher energy dogs or dogs with aggression or behavioral issues. Dogs can only focus on or do one thing at a time. When they are over excited, they jump around from one thing to the next and go on sensory overload. One of the best things we can do in situations like this is help the dog learn and practice staying calm.

Once Meelo had settled down, i asked her to sit right in front of the front door to the home, then I swung the door wide open. As soon as I did, Meelo instantly stood up and started to move forward. I corrected her and once she was sitting, I swung the door open again. The sudden sweeping motion of a door opening (or really any movement or motion) is often a trigger to dogs. By repeatedly swinging open the door until Meelo sat without getting up, I was communicating that we will only move when the leader (in this situation, myself) was ready. Since we let dogs out of doors thousands of times, getting into a habit of having a dog and sit at the door until we give permission is a great, and easy to practice, leadership exercise.

Once we got outside, I demonstrated the proper positioning again and walked Meelo a bit to show how to correct her when she walked to far in front. After Meelo was walking at a nice heel, i passed the leash to her owner. It took a block or so before her corrections and leadership had Meelo in a follower position, but once that happened, her owner said the Martingale made it much easier to control her.

On the way back from the walk, we passed a house with two dogs in the yard. Meelo saw them and reverted to her aggressive ways; lowering her head, barking, pulling on the leash in lunges, raising her tail and hackles. I had her owner stop and showed how to correct Meelo. Because we were too close to these other dogs, Meelo completely ignored her owner so I took he leash. I was able to get some control, but she was still lunging so I finally turned her so she was facing away from the other dogs and asked her to sit. I made her stay in that position until she completely relaxed. She still turned and attempted to stare at the other dogs, but her intensity level was much lower.

We practiced walking Meelo back and forth in front of the home with the dogs watching as she reacted to them less and less until she stopped reacting to them at all. For dogs with dog aggression issues, we need to practice being with other dogs in a safe controlled way. Usually there is a distance threshold that is the dog’s limit. Once we identify that, we can practice with the dog farther away than the threshold until the dog learns to relax and not react to the dogs at that distance. Once that happens regularly, we can slowly and gradually decrease the distance (again in a controlled way) so the dog is able to practice being near other dogs while in a calm and balanced frame of mind.

Because Meelo was able to sit and not react to these other dogs in such a short period of time, it proves that she can change. Mastering the leadership exercises inside the home will give Meelo and her owner the tools they both need to change. It will take time, practice and patience from her owner (along with her owner maintaining a calm balanced frame of mind) before Meelo is ready to become a dog friendly pooch. But the calm balanced frame of mind she displayed sitting only a few feet away from these other dogs prove that Meelo can get over her dog aggression issues.

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This post was written by: David Codr

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