Helping a Nervous Staffordshire Terrier Redirect its Attention to Stay Out of Trouble

By: David Codr

Published Date: September 17, 2018

For this Omaha dog training session, taught 6 year-old American Staffordshire Terrier mix Heck the target command to help his guardian redirect his attention around new people to stop him from acting aggressive or redirecting his aggression on his roomie Thel, a 5 year-old Irish Terrier mix.

Heck was pretty worked up when I knocked on the door for the session so I waited before entering the home. After barking at me and jumping on the door a few times, he turned around and lunged at Thel. We call this behavior re-directed aggression.

The guardian headed over to correct Heck for barking at me but I waved him off. When a dog is in an unbalanced state of mind like fear, stress or excitement, they’re not going to listen or hear what you’re saying. As a dog behavior expert, my preference is to try to wait the dog out. Now if Heck was going after Thel with more than a lunge, I would have directed the guardian to step in to stop it, but short of an attack, its best to wait and let the dog settle down itself whenever possible.

As soon as Heck’s energy dropped a little bit, I opened the door a crack and tossed in a high value treat. I did this for two reasons; first, a dog won’t eat when it’s above threshold so it’s a good indicator as to how worked up a dog actually is. Since Heck ate the treat, I knew he was calmer.

The other reason is pretty obvious, I want to create a positive association. Unlike “balanced trainers” who use a force and punishment based approach, Dog Behavior experts exclusively find ways to positively interact with the dog. It doesn’t matter if you are an American Staffordshire Terrier trainer or work with any other breed of dogs, positive dog training and behavior modification is the only way to go.

The treat worked wonders, as soon as Heck licked it up, he relaxed a bit and stopped barking. I opened the door a crack, maybe about 2 inches wide and braced it from the outside so he couldn’t push it open any further. Then I moved one of my legs up to the door so that he could give me a sniff without being able to bite. Dogs are scent animals who should meet with their nose, not their eyes.

It quickly became obvious that he had settled down and was no longer reactive so I opened the door wider so that he could sniff more of me and I could observe his behavior. He stayed calm and continued to sniff me, so I held still and waited for him to finish. As soon as he did I asked him to sit and popped a treat into his mouth.

I’d like the guardian to re-create this entry ritual a few times a week with friends and neighbors. This will help Heck develop a relaxed behavior when people come to the door.

When I sat down with the dogs and their guardian, I learned that the guardian’s retired parents lived with him. One of the parents walked the dogs frequently which is great. Unfortunately he used some very old-school dog training methods anytime Heck got out of line, occasionally giving him a little bit of a swat.

Anyone who follows us online knows we are exclusively positive reinforcement based so we spent a few minutes explaining that being physical when correcting a dog can often lead to lower self-esteem or confidence and can cause a dog to react aggressively. It can also introduce this behavior to the dog and influence it to become aggressive to those it perceives to have less authority, like guests.

I recommended that we set up some dog training in a few weeks with our lead trainer James so that we can teach Heck to walk next to the human without needing to punish or correct it. In the meantime it would be wise for the guardian to avoid having this person walk the dog.

After going over the importance of rules, structure and rewarding the dogs for desired actions and behaviors, I thought it would be a good idea to run through a leadership exercise that I developed a few years ago. But shortly after starting that exercise, Heck showed signs of insecurity that manifested in a little bit of aggressive behavior so we pulled the plug.

Instead, I showed the guardian how to train a dog to target a hand on command so that he can redirect Heck away from things that he is normally aggressive or reactive to.

You can watch me teach a dog to target your hand in the free dog training video below.

If the guardian practices this technique multiple times a day for the next week while practicing in progressively more challenging situations, he should be able to develop a strong hand targeting command. This is a powerful tool to use when you have a dog with aggression related behavior problems. Asking the dog to come and target your hand the instant you see warning signs can help the dog avoid showing aggressive behavior.

Although the primary issues were with Heck, I would recommend the guardian practice this hand targeting exercise with both dogs as its a nice way to call, redirect and more a dog around.

Heck caught onto this hand targeting exercise right away. He is a smart dog which is why I recommend his guardian try to teach him some new tricks or commands. Not only do this will this give the guardian the ability to redirect the dog, it will boost the dog’s confidence and self-esteem.

One of the tricks should be to teach Heck to catch. This simple trick can work wonders when a dog is fearful or anxious around new people as it lets the human and dog interact at a distance.

To help the guardian remember all of the behavior tips I shared in this in home dog training session, we shot a roadmap to success video.

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This post was written by: David Codr

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