My small dog has turned into Napoleon. What can I do?
January 5, 2013 9:13 PM   Subscribe

My small dog has turned progressively aggressive, mostly towards bigger dogs. What could have caused this and what can I do? Halp!

I adopted Junebug three months ago. The vet tells me she's about a year and a half and Wisdom Panel says she's half Boston Terrier and half Large Munsterlander. She's very active, smart, feisty, athletic, and affectionate. She does well in a crate and doesn't bark much at all at home. But over the past month or so she's gotten really aggressive towards dogs - mostly bigger ones. I used to bring her to the dog park several times a week but it's gotten so bad that I don't feel it's safe for her or the other dogs. As soon as we get inside the gate and I let her loose she bolts at top speed into the middle of the pack. She starts nipping and jumping around the other dogs like she's establishing that she's not to be messed with. This doesn't go over well at all. It's mostly the big dogs that she has a problem with; she's gentle and playful with puppies and doesn't bother much with the smaller dogs.

For the first couple of months she was fine. I'd take her out for a walk and she would basically ignore any other dog walking by. Now she lunges and snarls and barks. We go to obedience classes once a week and she did so well for the first month that the instructor bumped her from beginner to intermediate, but she's now devolved into a barking, lunging, Napoleonic mess.

What could have caused this and what can I do? The obedience instructor suggested that something could have happened at the dog park that I didn't notice, or that she's not getting enough activity. I wonder if she's being protective or territorial... she barks at new people when they come into the house, but out in public she's friendly and great with kids and adults.

I got a Gentle Leader to help address her issues with pulling on the lead but it hasn't been fully tested yet. She'll do anything for treats and a clicker but acts like the commands are a foreign language when I'm empty-handed. She goes to doggie daycare twice a week and I thought all was fine there. I asked them on Thursday if they noticed any behavior problems with her and that's when I was told that she has been aggressive towards bigger dogs and has been given several time outs because of it.

One other note - on Thanksgiving we were walking by a park (not a dog park) when we were ambushed by a pit bull and another big dog who were off-leash in the park. I had to pull Junebug up from the ground by her leash and she was shaken and scared but physically she was fine. I didn't notice any immediate change in behavior and only recently have wondered if this might be the cause.

Sorry for the wall of text. Any help with ideas on desensitizing her or training tips would be most appreciated.

Bonus pic of Junebug flying
posted by Sal and Richard to Pets & Animals (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I have a friend who has a little dog who is doing the same thing and she can't figure out why, but I think I know. The little dog's name is Teddy. My friend is an elderly lady and she's a little nervous around some strangers. One day a strange man, who was pretty scruffy-looking and a bit loud, reached down to pet Teddy and Teddy nipped him on the hand - put a fair-sized hole in his hand, really. My friend panicked - she was afraid she'd have to get rid of Teddy because the man lives in the same apartment building she does and they'd never let her keep a dog that bites, etc. As it turned out, the man was very nice about it and healed up just fine and made no problems with the apartment management, but here's the thing: My friend is so frightened now that Teddy will bite people that she tightens up with fear every time someone wants to pet him, and Teddy is the sweetest little dog in the world who just loves to get some lovin'. I was with them both the other day when a nice man got off the elevator and went to pet Teddy and Gail just reacted with such fear and tension that it made the very air thick. Teddy looked confused, glanced back at Gail, then at the man, and wasn't sure what to do. I jumped in and said, "Ooooh look, Teddy - a new friend - wonderful!" or something similar and then Teddy went ahead and wagged his tail and jumped up to be petted.

The problem is, you see, Teddy is reacting to Gail's fear. He doesn't know why, but he picks up on the fact that Gail is frightened when a stranger approaches, so he feels he has to be aggressive to chase away the "bad" stranger. It's very sad, because he isn't aggressive by nature at all, but my friend is going to have big trouble if she can't unlearn her fear reaction to strangers.

Maybe your sweet little Junebug is picking up on your own nervousness and trying to defend you from the "bad" dogs. It's just a thought, but your dog will be very sensitive to the "vibes" you give off and will react accordingly.

Junebug's a cutie!
posted by aryma at 9:56 PM on January 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

when i got my rescue at 10 months, a minipoodle, he was usually friendly with other dogs including big dogs. he had a couple of bad experiences with large dogs, got nipped by one and another loose dog started to jump on him aggressively. well, ever since then he goes a bit beserk at big dogs but is good with dogs smaller than he. i wouldn't be surprised if something similar happened to your little girl. oh, i just read the part about your dog getting ambushed. yeah, that is probably it. i really need to work with a trainer one day and maybe asking yours what to do about this will help junebug.
posted by wildflower at 10:18 PM on January 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

A year and a half is around dog adolescence. It could be that your dog was predisposed towards aggression or anxiety, and is only now showing it.

I'd talk to a vet and a trainer to see if anything is up, and work out a plan of action.

Also, don't be afraid to muzzle her. Better some stigma (as a result of acknowledging an issue) than a lot of worry on every walk.
posted by zippy at 12:52 AM on January 6, 2013

Here is an article that might help Dog Parks, the Good the Bad and the Ugly.

It might be helpful to limit her time in dog parks, and instead focus on calm walks and playtime with dogs that she is friends with. You can help her make friends with other dogs of all sizes if you introduce them correctly in a lower anxiety situation- for instance walking around with both dogs on leash while chatting with the other owner until the dogs are used to each other. Always make sure that she feels safe and calm, and don't force her to interact with dogs that she is afraid of. For now, don't put her in situations where there are lots of strange dogs that are running free around her (dog park, doggie day care, etc.)

You can reward her for keeping calm when she walks by other dogs. If you are walking too close, try to widen the distance until you get no reaction and then reward her for not barking/lunging. Ditch the clicker if you want and just tell her "yes" when she does the right thing and immediately give her a little treat.

Try not to put her into any situation where she might be afraid for awhile. If the obedience class is too much, take a break and work with her on your own. You are her protector and she is telling you something with her behavior. It's not that she is a bad dog, but something has caused her to be afraid and you can help her by letting her feel safe. After awhile you can reintroduce dog parks maybe, but you know what? You don't have to!

Here are some more good links: training tips, reading list. These links are from an excellent dog trainer in Chicago.
posted by catrae at 2:14 AM on January 6, 2013 [5 favorites]

My dog also became more aggressive toward certain dogs after we had her for some months. I know the main reason: she was attacked by two smallish dogs when we were on a street, passing in front of someone's house while out walking, and the person opened their door to leave, and their two dogs rushed the door and attacked my dog on the street.

She's now somewhat unpredictable with other dogs, but especially more so towards smaller dogs similar to the ones that attacked her. But she will occasionally get into it with a larger dog, too. This almost always has to do with a) dogs rushing up to her, or b) her feeling trapped (a kind of leash aggression, I guess) with another dog too close for too long.

Here are some of my thoughts about the possibilities involved:

* Our dog was a rescue, and extremely submissive when we first got her, rolling over on her back for any human or dog. But this was not her real personality, which is a lot more self-confident and even snippy or snappy with some other dogs when they crowd her. This was her fearful personality upon leaving a foster home with lots and lots of other dogs, and entering a completely foreign and unknown situation and setting. Her real personality is much more assertive, and she began being more herself after we had her a couple of months.

* I think our dog is a lot braver (and unfortunately sometimes more aggressive) now because she believes she's in a pack (me, husband) and we've got her back.

* She never displays "guarding" behavior, so I know she isn't worried about other dogs being a danger to me... she just thinks she's sort of invincible because she's with me/us, and we are clearly masters of the universe.

We don't let her go free at the dog park now, and when meeting another dog on the street, if she seems eager to greet them and her body language seems okay, we use the three second rule.

"Known dogs" that she's met before without trouble are okay. She doesn't ever get aggressive with them. She's most comfortable and friendly with confident adult males that have a casual, laid-back attitude.
posted by taz at 5:08 AM on January 6, 2013

Find a certified dog trainer who specializes in dog aggression and does either group reactive dog classes or private sessions. There's no one method that works best for all dogs, but what catrae said is about as close as you can get to the right answer for most. A trainer will be able to help you work with your dog safely, and can provide insight that will speed up your training and prevent you from making mistakes that could make the problem worse.

You can find a trainer at or try googling for reactive dog classes in your area, but always make sure they're certified-- CPDT-KA and CPDT-KSA are the only independent certifications for pet dog trainers in the US, and you will want a certified trainer. There are a lot of quacks out there who will use punishment methods or "whisper" or do any other number of things that are likely to make the situation worse.

Feel free to send me a message if I can help you find a trainer in your area or give you some quick pointers.
posted by picapica at 7:42 AM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Talk to your trainer to find another trainer that can help if they can't. It sounds a lot like fear aggression to me from the Thanksgiving incident, if not other unseen ones at the park. One of our rescues hates large dogs with a passion so we assume something similar happened to him at one point. What has worked for us is working with a trainer. There are lots of exercises you can do to help them gain their confidence.

In our case, and yours may be different which is why you will need to see a trainer , his aggression was worse when he was on a lead as he felt trapped.

We worked really hard on the "lets go" command, if we have to pass a large dog on the footpath say I put myself casually between the dogs and at the first sign of interest in the other dog, way before we get close enough for him to start barking I go "Lets go" to call his attention back to me with a light tug on the lead and walk briskly in a nothing to see here we have better things to do attitude. "Let's Go" has basically become, with some training and practice our, that isn't an important thing we are just going to walk past it command (also works with squirrels and cats). It's not fool proof but it has worked for us as it made my dog realize I wasn't going to make him have to interact with the big scary dog so he didn't have to show it how tough he was. You said your dog responds to clicker training well, this is a great time to use it, as your dog approaches near a new dog and doesn't react click the correct behaviour, the being calm and not reacting, or even just lots of "Good Giiiiiirl, Goood Girrl" if you feel her tensing up a brisk and business like "let's Go" and walk briskly then another "Good Girl" as she does it.

Oh and when walking toward a strange dog on a footpath try to circle out wide if you can, dogs that approach each other face to face are giving each other aggression signals even if they don't mean it and if they are being made to approach each other like that due to leads and narrow footpaths it doesn't help a nervous dog. Watch how dogs off lead approach a stranger, they sort of circle around and oh so casually as if by accident end up sniffing each other, so go wide around any dogs walking towards you when on lead can help too.

Honestly I'd just avoid the dog park until you get the problem sorted out more with a trainer, things that happen there could just make the problems worse and if she's having to be so aggressive to feel safe how much fun could she really be having? Maybe arrange play dates with friendly dogs she knows already instead to reinforce the whole other dogs are good thing. While the problem may never be 100% fixable, she may never like large dogs again, you can make going for walk less a case of wrangling a crazed dog on a lead acting as if it want's to kill every dog it sees and more a normal experience.

Our dog went from doing a weird howling death yodel every time he saw a strange dog, which made people thing we were beating or killing him when all we were doing was standing there going WTF dude. To a dog we took to the latest dog day event in our town with hundreds of other dogs and he walked around on his lead, like a perfect gentleman ignoring them all because we never forced him to interact with any of them and kept him focused on us. It took almost 2 years of work to get him to that point. Though he did embarrass us by sitting in the water trough while other dogs were trying to drink.

TL;DR. Find a good trainer. Do what they say. Your dog may never go loose at a dog park again, but you can get going for a walk on lead to be easier.
posted by wwax at 8:51 AM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thank you all for the responses. Catrae, great article on dog parks. And picapica, that site is really helpful. My obedience class teacher is on the list. She's very good, so I may have to enlist her privately for this new issue. Thanks!
posted by Sal and Richard at 3:53 PM on January 6, 2013

Junebug is so darling! Like the others, kudos to you for seeking out private help to work on these issues of barking at people who enter your home, as well as aggression towards dogs at doggie day care, the dog park, and while out on walks.

I had to wonder why your doggie day care only told you this past week that she has needed "time outs". Our doggie cay care has a strict policy that if "time outs" are needed multiple times, they will ask us to discontinue day care, at least temporarily. Junebug should feel safe and stress-free at day care; the time-outs indicate that isn't the case.

Also, in our city of Minneapolis, the Animal Care & Control department keeps a short list of trained animal behaviorists that they trust to evaluate and remediate aggression issues; would you want to check for a similar recommendation list with your local city (or animal behavior department at the local Veterinary School)? Most dog trainers - even top ones - are not fully qualified to help provide positive, personalized behavior modification programs for dogs showing aggression.
posted by apennington at 5:23 PM on January 6, 2013

My dog had the same experience. Used to be dog-friendly, now dog-reactive, probably because of a bad experience. This is super-common. I took him to a class that helped me manage the problem (these classes are often called "Growl" or "Reactive Rover"). Now I always carry treats on walks and play "Look at the puppy!," rewarding him for looking calmly at another dog and then looking back at me for a treat. This turns seeing other dogs from a stressful omg omg situation into a fun game. Now when he sees another dog out on walks, he looks at me right away for a treat instead of freaking out. It's worked wonders.

I used to worry about always rewarding him before he reacted, but then I saw this video by trainer Sophia Yin, which suggests that giving treats for fearful behavior does not reinforce fear. Now I worry less about that, and still treat him even if he reacts. Things have improved even more with this method.

My dog is particularly sensitive and fearful, and I don't think he'll ever be able to play with other dogs again (except for his "sister," who he's known since he was a puppy). But he's infinitely more manageable on walks and around other dogs. Unfortunately, with these problems, "cures" are often out of reach and management is the answer.
posted by walla at 6:57 AM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

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