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How do I properly socialize a dog-aggressive dog?
October 18, 2004 12:34 PM   Subscribe

How do I properly socialize a dog-aggressive dog?

My wife and I adopted a dog from the humane society a few weeks ago. They had picked him up off the street as a stray. He's about a year old, 20 pounds or so, and neutered. Though he's great with people (even strangers), he gets seriously anxious whenever we're walking him and he notices another dog. This weekend, we decided to see just how bad his dog anxiety is, and we took him over to a friend's house to meet their dog. On leash, he was clearly very nervous and aggressive; thinking that this might be so-called leash aggression, we let him lose in the back yard, and a fight immediately commenced, entirely on our dog's instigation. Both dogs and all people were fine, but it was pretty damn scary.

Now, we're worried that we might have a vicious animal on our hands. We would really like to get our guy properly socialized: there are a lot of dogs in our neighborhood. What's more, we start obedience classes on Thursday, with nine other dogs in the class. I've already let the instructor know that our dog is aggressive, at least on leash, and she didn't seem to think it was a big deal. Now I'm thinking we should cancel the class, or at least buy a muzzle so he can't fight. Any ideas?
posted by mr_roboto to Pets & Animals (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
(loose, not lose)
posted by mr_roboto at 12:36 PM on October 18, 2004


Distract, defuse, disarm. Obedience class is a great place to be with your new dog. You'll learn how to read him well, to get and keep his attention on you and not on staring down other dogs, etc. And the class will be socialization in a controlled environment (if your instructor knows what she's doing). I've been in obedience classes with my male terrier and his litter brother who despise each other with a blinding fury, yet they can do long downs right next to each other. Even still, I would not trust them together under any circumstances other than strict supervision. Thus, in some cases it is the expectation that changes more so than the dog himself. However with the confidence that obedience teamwork provides, you may find your pooch less inclined to 'proving himself' with every dog he meets. Similarly, he will draw strength from your confidence and skill as pack leader, again relieving him from 'guard duty.'
posted by cairnish at 1:02 PM on October 18, 2004


he's young enough to be trained out of his aggression to other dogs, but cannot be if he is not exposed to other dogs. that said, i don't know how reputable/experienced/intensive this obedience course you are going to is, and those would be the deciding factors (for me) in whether or not to pull the dog from the class. i've been in obedience classes which would have been complete disasters, had any one of the dogs been aggressive.

the ways i know of to to eliminate aggression toward other dogs require basic leash skills (heel, sit and stay) as a starting point. parallel leash training is an excellent means of reducing this aggression. basically, you leash your dog and make him heel; a second trainer leashes her dog and makes him heel, and the four of you walk parallel to one another. you're in the alpha dog position (the dog is heeling) and he becomes accustomed to the other dog. periodic sit/stay commands during the parallel walking reinforces your alpha position. then you parallel walk the dogs with one trainer holding both leashes. each dog should be praised/rewarded appropriately, but neither should be rewarded in excess of the other.

excessive soothing of a nervous dog only makes him more nervous, just as hitting a dog makes him more nervous. (and, of course, you shouldn't ever hit a dog in the first place) the best posture to take with an aggressive dog is "in charge and fearless". an aggressive dog can never ever be allowed to think it's even got a shot at being alpha dog. the sit/stay command, as well as regular requiring the dog to expose its soft underbelly to you, reminds him just who the alpha is.
posted by crush-onastick at 1:06 PM on October 18, 2004


excessive soothing of a nervous dog only makes him more nervous, just as hitting a dog makes him more nervous. (and, of course, you shouldn't ever hit a dog in the first place) the best posture to take with an aggressive dog is "in charge and fearless". an aggressive dog can never ever be allowed to think it's even got a shot at being alpha dog. the sit/stay command, as well as regular requiring the dog to expose its soft underbelly to you, reminds him just who the alpha is.

Yeah, my strategy on walks has been to get him to sit whenever we see another dog, thereby forcing him into a submissive position. This can be tricky, though. We only have a couple weeks of training with him, and we were really counting on this obedience class to help get him under voice control. He has "sit", but only when you can force him to pay attention (with treats, typically).

Another question: is aggression necessarily and indication of a drive for dominance? Can't it also come from fear or anxiety? He's a very submissive dog with people, at least: he'll go belly-up in an instant during play.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:23 PM on October 18, 2004


I second obedience training (you want positive reinforcement, ideally clicker training, since punishment-based training can often make aggression problems worse unless it's being meted out by an expert with extremely good timing), but I strongly suggest you find a behaviourist or trainer who specializes in dog aggression first. Understand that aggression is almost always based on fear (I've heard it described as aggression and fear being opposite sides of the same coin), even though this might seem counterintuitive, and it needs to be dealt with from this standpoint. "Dominance" is not really a useful concept when dealing with dogs, since it's not as simple as people like to think (it's extremely fluid, and very hard for most people to read). Also you should know that many cases of dog aggression are related to thyroid disorders, it would be advisable to have blood drawn and send it off to Dr. Jean Dodds, who is a research pioneer in the link between hypothyroidism and behaviour problems. Even a low-normal finding can be a cause of aggression.

I also suggest you do some reading: Jean Donaldson's Fight! is a great place to start, Brenda Aloff's Aggression In Dogs, Ian Dunbar's Preventing Aggression, Barbara Sykes' Understanding and Handling Dog Aggression and Gwen Bohnenkamp's Help! My Dog Has an Attitude are other suggestions. I also suggest you get Patricia McConnell's How To Be the Leader of the Pack and follow it - this is a dog-friendly program which will help your dog learn where it fits - insecure dogs are often aggressive.

regular requiring the dog to expose its soft underbelly to you, reminds him just who the alpha is.

Assuming I'm reading you correctly, please do not do this, this merely serves to make an already fearful dog even more fearful, and is a great way to get bitten in many cases. Ideas like this are based on seriously outdated "training methods" based on completely inaccurate interpretations of wild canid behaviour, they are simply not useful for dog-human interactions, can seriously harm your dog's trust in you and trainers who continue to suggest them are very out of touch with modern animal behaviour data. Obedience training, done correctly, in association with a "nothing in life is free" plan, like the on in the McConnell book above, should be all that you need. Your dog will see you as its leader if you act like a leader: if you are trustworthy, reasonable and consistent - dogs who are actually alphas do not need to go around harrassing their subordinates, their attitude is enough. It's the insecure dogs who do not know where they fit and who are jockeying for position who do most of the inaccurately-named "alpha rolling" (inaccurate because the alphas very rarely do it). Also, I feel that once you start using dog-dog interaction methods with your dog, you open up the door to your dog looking to move up in the world. You are a person, your dog should not see you as a dog, find ways to interact with your dog which make sense in a human-dog context, do not pretend to be a dog, we do not have the skills, physiology or knowledge to "speak dog" properly.
posted by biscotti at 1:33 PM on October 18, 2004 [2 favorites]


Obedience training, done correctly, in association with a "nothing in life is free" plan, like the on in the McConnell book above, should be all that you need.

(oops) Should be: "...all that you need to have your dog see you as leader." Dealing with the aggression issues will take a concerted effort - you'll want to use classical conditioning and operant conditioning in combination. See here for more information.
posted by biscotti at 1:38 PM on October 18, 2004


aggression (IME) in pet dogs is mostly nerves, which is what the positioning of yourself as "dominant" (or alpha or leader or whatever word you want to use) addresses because you reassure the dog by remaining fearless and in charge while he is nervous. the parallel leash training thing addresses the nerves by placing you firmly in charge of the situation (which makes him nervous) and showing him that you're calm (which helps him relax).

can you arrange to observe the trainer and her class first? that should give you some idea whether or not it's a good idea for getting your dog used to other dogs.
posted by crush-onastick at 2:03 PM on October 18, 2004


Biscotti again has very good advice. Besides obedience classes, read, read, read.

Finding out if the aggression is motivated by fear, or because the dog is a social-climbing beta, or if it's same-sexed aggression will help you to figure out how to deal with it. Visiting an off-leash dog park without your dog can be a good way to learn about dog behavior, language, what play-fighting looks like, etc. It can also be a good place to talk to people about dog issues, find a good trainer, etc. It looks like there aren't any in your zipcode, but this lists some nearby.

Your dog is still settling in and adjusting to life with you, being inside, being on a leash, getting fed regularly, being protected by you, etc. As it adjusts, some of this behavior may decrease.

You might also want to try a Gentle Leader or a Halti. They aren't muzzles, but will give you more control of the dog and will make it easier for you to get and keep it's attention. It's not for yanking the dog or anything like that. We use a Gentle Leader and I've heard trainers and owners who think it's better than the Halti.
posted by lobakgo at 5:39 PM on October 18, 2004


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