Helping An Insecure Bulldog Overcome His Fears to Stop His Aggression

By: David Codr

Published Date: October 15, 2015


Walter is a three-year-old English Bulldog who is territorially aggressive in some situations like when new people come over. He often reacts by barking, lunging and nipping new arrivals and sometimes his guardians.

Knowing that he had an issue with strangers, I wanted to record my initial greeting but as I was calling the client from their driveway he saw me and came out which alerted Walter to my presence.

I wanted to see how intense Walter’s reaction was to a guest knocking at the front door so I had him go back inside and I waited a few moments before knocking on the door myself.

Prior to this session, his guardians dealt with Walter’s door problem by holding the dog back by his collar when answering the door. While this seems like a logical way to keep the dog from biting the guests, it can also increase the intensity of its reaction. When a dog is in an excited state reacting to something and we restrain them, the energy the dog puts forth to break free transfers to the intensity of their original reaction. In many cases, holding a dog back only makes matters worse.

By having the guardian get in between me and the dog, turning to face the dog then marching at him until Walter backed away, he was able to communicate that I was an invited guest and not to be objected to. I suggested that the guardian repeat this technique when answering the door in the future.

Once I was inside, I had Walter’s guardian place him on a leash to ensure that he could stop him if he decided to lunge at me. Fortunately Walter’s energy abated quite quickly. But instead of remaining with us in a relaxed state, Walter tried to go into the next room. His guardian’s told me this was normal behavior for him, but dogs are normally social creatures who prefer to be with the group than isolated.

After several pulls on the leash to leave the room, I had Walter’s guardian wrap the leash around the leg of the couch close to his dog bed and away from myself so that he was forced to stay in the room with us.

I avoided giving Walter any direct eye contact as he had already displayed an aggressive reaction to it when I arrived. I also avoided talking to him or trying to pet him. His guardians had used this approach with guests that Walter reacted to, but when a dog is anxious or upset, its best to give them space and ignore them until they relax and get comfortable.

By blocking Walter from running away, I was forcing him to develop a new way of dealing with a new person being in the house.

Essentially I wanted Walter to “practice” being in the same room with a stranger without the stranger doing anything but being there. Dogs are very much creatures of habit and once they practice something enough, it becomes second nature to them justice for humans.

It took about five minutes, but eventually Walter figured out he couldn’t use his normal method of coping; running away from the problem. Once he settled in his breathing returned to normal, his body language was more relaxed and he eventually moved to his dog bed.

I offered his guardians a number of suggestions to help improve the quality of Walter’s life and in the course of that discussion, I discovered that Walter had such a negative reaction to the leash and leaving the house that they stopped walking him.

Many people mistakenly think that Bulldogs are a low energy breed, including Walter’s guardians. While they aren’t going to be running in any marathons, Bulldogs are surprisingly athletic. But in more of a sprinter sort of capacity.

Because he is is still young, I wanted to make sure that his guardians would be able to take him out for a short walk every day. I fitted him up with a Martingale collar and showed the guardians how to add the special twist to the leash.

Usually I use a Martingale to stop a dog from pulling in front, but Walter had developed an infection in his tail a few weeks before our session requiring it to be amputated and with the stitches still in, I knew the area would be sensitive. I was concerned that Walter’s reluctance with the leash may result in his pulling and struggling away and I wanted more control to prevent him from bumping his bottom on anything.

It took some doing just to get him out the door as Walter had no intention of going easily. I used a pull and relax approach with the leash rather than simply dragging him out the door. Each time Walter moved forward, I relaxed the leash. By consistently relaxing the leash when the dog moves forward, we can help it learn that moving forward equals a relaxed leash.

The stairs outside the door were challenging for him, but easier than going through the door way itself. Once we were in the lawn, it was slightly easier to get Walter moving forward. I repeated the pull and relax method until we were on the neighbor’s lawn. Once there, Walter started moving forward several steps in a row on his own. Progress.

I kept at it until Walter was starting to walk several steps forward on his own before handing the leash to his guardians so I could guide them through the technique with the same results.

I told his guardians to lead him loosely, but as long as he was moving forward, to pretty much let him go where he wanted. At this stage, all we want is the dog to move forward and ensure that nothing bad happens on the walks. By stacking up a number of experiences that go well, the dog will grow more comfortable with the activity and eventually learn to enjoy it.

After a few moments, Walter was walking much better, seemed more relaxed and was even checking out his surroundings a bit. This was big for him as his exposure to the outside world was limited to the back yard or occasional trips to the vet.

I suggested that his guardians repeat this short walking exercise daily; extending it one house farther down the street each day until they can walk around the block. This exercise will help Walter drain excess energy which will help keep him from getting all worked up.

The walks will also stimulate him mentally as he is exposed to new sights, sounds, smells, animals and people. These experiences will help Walter feel more confident in himself and his guardians for leading him through them.

Walter’s insecurity was the origin of his apparent aggression. But it was more likely a defense mechanism that helped him ward off people and things he didn’t know. Early socialization would have prevented this from happening, but when it comes to dog behavior, its never too late.

By walking Walter daily, enforcing some rules and boundaries and blocking him from running away when guests arrive, Walter’s world view will increase which will have a positive impact on his behavior in situations he isn’t practiced or experienced in. With enough exposure and practice, Walter will learn to simply be in new situations rather than trying to act aggressive to make them go away.

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This post was written by: David Codr

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