Teaching Ripley to Believe in His Pack Leaders to Stop His Aggression

By: David Codr

Published Date: September 5, 2013

Gabby and Ripley

Ripley is a two-year-old male, pictured here on the left with Gabby an eight-year-old multicolored female who is also a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel.

 I was called in specifically to work with Ripley who had started to show some aggressive behavior: growling, barking and nipping.

 When I arrived for the session Riplee barked at me excitedly while spinning in circles and darting around the entryway to the home. He moved in such a way that I suspected him of being insecure or lacking confidence.

 When I sat down with the family to discuss the situation, Ripley repeatedly jumped up on me. When a dog jumps up on a new arrival or guest, it’s usually attempting to claim that person as their own.

 We started to discuss the dog’s day-to-day life and I asked what rules, boundaries and limitations the dog was expected to follow. As is usually the case, the dogs had no rules in their lives. When dogs have no rules are structure in their life, they usually do not recognize the authority of their human owners.

 And really, why should they? With no rules in place or consequences, the dogs do anything that they like. They have no impulse control, no moderation or practice at self control.

 After suggesting a few rules to incorporate, I demonstrated a leadership exercise with Ripley. It’s a two-part exercise that helps the dog see the human as an authority figure, introduces the concept of rules and boundaries and teaches the dog how to self-restrain.

 I placed a tasty high-value treat between my feet and stood over it in a guarding position. This is how dogs will claim ownership of items and communicate to other dogs that the item is theirs.

 At first Ripley attempted to get the treat, but I immediately stepped forward to block him and placed the treat behind me in a protected position. When he stopped advancing, I did the same. After he remained still for a moment I took one step directly backwards so that I was standing behind the treat. Ripley remained in place so I took another step backwards and repeated process, pausing between each step to ensure that Ripley stayed in place.

 As soon as Ripley laid down, I immediately walked over to the treat, turned to my side and tapped the floor next to the treat to communicate that he was allowed to have it. However Ripley was having none of that. He stayed far away from me and the treat, almost hiding behind his owner.

 Usually dogs are a little bit trepidations about retrieving the treat at the end of the leadership exercise. They approach it very slowly, their heads are down, they’re avoiding any eye contact and they pause frequently as if asking or waiting for somebody to object of their attempt to take the treat.

 Not Ripley. He stayed as far away from the treat as he possibly could. No amount of encouragement made a difference. Because it was clear that Ripley’s confidence level was so low that he couldn’t understand what I was asking of him, I rolled the treat over so that it was only a few feet away from him. Only then did he very slowly take the treat.

 So that I could better demonstrate the exercise, we brought in Gabby and placed Ripley outside. Gabby got the exercise and what i was asking from her instantly. In fact she caught on so quickly that I repeated the exercise a few times just to make sure. Then I coached all the members the family through the exercise with her.

 The mother the family continually repeated that she couldn’t believe her eyes watching Ripley then Gabby sit on the floor a few feet away from a tasty treat while we communicated that he could not have it from across the room.

 By practicing this leadership exercise daily with all the dogs in the home, the family will quickly change the authority dynamic and the dogs will see the humans as their pack leaders.

 Because Ripley considered the mother his property, he growled, barked at and nipped anyone who came close to her. In his mind, he was defending what was his. But when a dog tries to get between a husband and his wife, the dog is going to lose. To help Ripley understand that this guarding or territorial behavior is unwanted, I showed the mother a few corrective techniques and consequences to incorporate any time Ripley showed possessiveness or aggression.

 In the course of the session, the mother started to use these corrections with more and more confidence. It was fascinating for me to watch his behavior change in conjunction with her confidence and enthusiasm in applying the corrections. At first they had only a small effect. But by the end of the session, he was responding immediately whenever she objected or corrected him.

 Next I suggested that we incorporate some structure to the dog’s mealtime. For dogs, the order in which they eat has a direct correlation to their status in the pack. Because their owners had not been eating before they fed them, they were inadvertently communicating to the dogs that they had more authority than the human’s did.

 By simply eating before we feed our dogs and blocking or preventing them from eating until we give permission, we are able to communicate to the dogs that we are in the leadership position. This change alone will help the dogs better respect their human counterparts, but I took things one step further.

 I suggested that they put food in all of the dogs bowls, then not allow any of them to eat it until specifically getting permission. In addition to the two spaniels the family also has a 10-year-old yellow lab female. Prior to the session, either of the spaniels would eat their food until after the lab had finished eating first. But because some dogs were also trying to take the food of other dogs, there was definitely some tension and rivalry behaviors that were going on during meal time.

 After placing food in all the dog’s bowls, the members of the family guarded the food from the dogs, then ate a light snack in front of them. Only after the humans finished eating did we move on to feeding the dogs.

 While the humans were eating, the dogs would try to sneak past to get to the bowl of food. Each time they did a human would immediately march toward the dog, taking away that territory and backing them away from the food. The yellow lab was the most persistent by far and needed about a dozen or so corrections before she finally surrendered and laid down outside of the kitchen.

 Once she did that, I had her owner invite her in to eat her food. While we allowed the lab to eat, we prevented the other dogs from coming anywhere near her. This gives the dog the ability to eat in peace and not have to worry about another dog trying to snatch their food away.

 After she finished, we asked her to leave the feeding area and then invited in Gabby. Gabby went over to her bowl and ate it without hesitation, finishing it completely. She attempted to go in take Ripleys food, but her humans corrected her and asked her to leave the area.

 Ripley was then invited in to do the same, but he refused. Often times dogs that lack confidence shut down and don’t know how to react when new leadership is demonstrated. It just takes them a little bit longer to adjust. But because the other dogs would take his food, I had the humans empty the bowl of food back into the bag and place the empty bowl back on the floor as soon as Ripley walked away from it. Ripley may be stubborn and refuse to eat for a meal or two, but eventually hunger kicks in.

 At the end of mealtime the dogs were all sitting or lying on the floor peacefully. The family’s mother commented again saying “I can’t believe these are my dogs.” I always love hearing that. Obviously it’s a little bit of an ego stroke for myself, but it’s more due to the fact that dogs can change so quickly If we communicate to them in a way that they understand.

 By practicing the leadership exercise, enforcing the new rules and maintaining the structure at mealtime these dogs will quickly see all three of their humans as their pack leaders. Dogs do not growl bark or snap at their pack leaders. Now that a clear foundation of leadership and hierarchy amongst the pack is been communicated, these dog’s behavior should continue to evolve into a deep respect for their humans.

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