How to stop a dog's aggressive behavior during walks?
August 31, 2007 7:46 PM   Subscribe

My 3.5-year-old, 12 pound dog has been displaying aggression on our walks, and I'm not sure how to fix it.

When my dog was about 4 months old, she started barking at a few of the people we would pass on our nighttime walks. Despite my efforts to discourage the behavior, it continued until about a year ago, when it started getting worse. Now she barks and growls at many of the people she sees on our walks. She is more aggressive at night or near the entrance to my building or apartment; at those times she has started lunging while barking and growling. Otherwise, she doesn't show any signs of dominance or aggression towards me or anyone else she knows (including people she's met for only a few minutes). She knows all the usual commands and obeys, although if she's very distracted or has something really good in her mouth, it takes repeating the command once or twice.

I was careful about trying to socialize her when she was a puppy, including a puppy class and regular walks, although I'm sure I could have done more in that area. She has always been a fearful dog that startles easily. She was the puppy that preferred sitting on my lap rather than playing with the other small puppies in the puppy class. She's always been tenative about meeting new people, and she still doesn't like to play with other dogs, even though she's been around them regularly most of her life.

I have a feeling that positive reinforcement would the best approach due to her fearful nature, but I'm not sure exactly how to go about it. I'm open to other possible solutions as well. Please help!
posted by pitseleh to Pets & Animals (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
What I was taught was that, on walks, when you and your dog are approaching a person that is likely to trigger the behavior, you distract the dog with a treat. (I've used a combination of a "clicker", to get the dog's attention, combined with a treat and, when the dog behaves well, approval.) This serves two purposes: in the short term, the dog is distracted and stops the aggressive behavior. In the longer term, the dog comes to associate the encounters with a positive outcome.

The keys are consistency and catching the behavior at the onset (that is, you do not reward the dog after he or she starts growling).
posted by SPrintF at 8:25 PM on August 31, 2007

Treats, the smellier the better, we use canned sardines or string cheese when we really need attention. Changing the experience as SprinF mentions is the key.

The best thing you can do is keep working on it, continued socialization is going to be a big deal. If you have a friendly dog park near by you can usually find some people to help you work on training out of the behavior.
posted by iamabot at 9:35 PM on August 31, 2007

The way you use positive reinforcement to discourage barking is that when you see someone approaching, you say "quiet! good girl!" and give her a treat if she is quiet. if she starts to bark, you say "no!" in a low voice and ask her to sit and get her quiet and then give her a treat. Don't try to calm her with "it's ok, shh" sorts of things, because that will reward the barking. Just keep reinforcing that people approaching + quiet = treat and she'll get it. As SPrintF mentions above, a clicker can be great for that because it catches the exact moment she's behaving, more directly than you can with a treat.
posted by judith at 11:22 PM on August 31, 2007

My friend was having this problem with his dog and consulted a trainer about it. She went on a walk with him and the dog, and pointed out that every time they were approaching other people/other dogs, my friend would get a death grip on the leash and start pulling on his dog to restrain him in anticipation of the upcoming lunge/barking. She said what he was actually doing was inadvertently signalling to the dog, "Hey! Something really exciting is going to happen soon! Get ready to lunge and bark!" even though he was trying to do the opposite. So he had to re-train himself to relax his grip on the leash and act like nothing was out of the ordinary, ho-hum, here come some people but it's nothing to get too excited about. I think this, combined with the treat-giving ideas above, could really help.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:30 AM on September 1, 2007 [2 favorites]

If this is only happening at night, there could be something medical going on like vision problems. Also, leashes make aggressive behaviour more likely because the dog feels trapped, which in a fearful dog, can cause a pretty fast escalation from being merely concerned about something to being terrified.

In terms of clicker training, you do not use a clicker to get a dog's attention, you use a clicker to mark a behaviour for reward. So you would ask for attention, click when you get it, then reward.

Assuming there is no medical issue, I would start using classical conditioning, as soon as you see someone but before your dog reacts to them, you start feeding yummy treats, one right after the other, as soon as the person is out of sight, you stop. Eventually, if you do it properly, the dog starts to associate the person with the food, which changes the way the dog feels about the person. There are many good books on this subject, including Patricia McConnell's "The Cautious Canine", which gives step by step instructions and explanations. I lso suggest you find a class for reactive dogs (sometimes called "feisty fido" or "reactive rover" class), failing that, a regular positive-methods obedience class will help a lot with your ability to communicate and manage your dog.

And what hurdy gurdy girl says is definitely true, all kinds of messages pass down the leash to the dog, whether you're consciously aware of them or not.
posted by biscotti at 5:54 AM on September 1, 2007

What hurdy gurdy girl said is really important - you will have to train yourself to not tense up. And then give her a treat for NOT barking in the presence of other walkers.

You might try learning some tricks you can do for distraction and to keep your dog's attention on you. What those tricks are will be up to you and your dog, but even a down or sit-stay could be a good start. Alternately, if this is a good idea for you, the dog, and the terrain, you could practice breaking into a jog on command, and then you guys could jog when there's another dog around. Alternately, do some sprints as soon as you first go out so she's a little more tired and mellow for the rest of the walk.

If you need big guns, take some deli ham or cheese with you. Show it to her but don't let her have it until the "threat" has passed and she's been fairly good about it.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:57 AM on September 1, 2007

If you need big guns, take some deli ham or cheese with you. Show it to her but don't let her have it until the "threat" has passed and she's been fairly good about it.

Except that doing it this way reinforces the dog feeling better after the threat has gone, which you don't need or want (especially since it will happen anyway with a fearful dog), what you are essentially doing by feeding after the threat has gone is reinforcing the fact that the world is better for the dog when what it's worried about is not there, what you want is for the dog to feel better while the threat is there, which is where classical conditioning comes in.
posted by biscotti at 7:14 AM on September 1, 2007

biscotti is completely right (of course!) although I haven't figured out the trick to dealing with fear (not aggression) in my dog because when she's afraid she refuses all food. If your dog is like that too you'll have to work with a professional trainer in controlled situations and it will take much longer.

If the food trick works -- and you must keep giving the world's best treats in rapid succession without stopping -- I wouldn't be surprised if this behavior clears up in a matter of a few weeks.
posted by nev at 8:06 AM on September 1, 2007

(Actually, I forgot about The Cautious Canine although I've read other books by McConnell. Ordering now!)
posted by nev at 8:09 AM on September 1, 2007

Thanks for the great advice everyone! I think the piece of the puzzle I was missing was feeding the treats to her continuously when people are around, rather than giving her one treat and expecting her to remain calm. I tried this technique this morning on our walk, and it worked beautifully. We'll keep it up! Thanks!
posted by pitseleh at 9:11 AM on September 1, 2007

Good work! Remember that the treats should be tiny, so you can individually feed a ton of them without the dog getting full or sick of them. The size of a pea or smaller is plenty big enough, you're not feeding her a meal, she just needs to get a taste. And don't slow down until she is actually looking to you for treats as soon as she sees a stranger, moving ahead too quickly will mean you have to go back and redo the first step again, so give her a long time just doing what you're doing now: see a stranger, feed a ton of treats, as soon as the stranger goes, so do the treats (or at least the extra-good ones should be contingent on the presence of strangers).
posted by biscotti at 1:39 PM on September 1, 2007

Congratulations! Sounds like things are off to a good start.

Seconding biscotti's advice about many tiny treats. My boyfriend uses jerky-strip type treats with his dog; he can keep one strip in his pocket and then break off tiny pieces as needed rather than carrying around a lot of little treats.

Good luck! It takes time, patience, and consistency, but the change can and will happen.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:56 PM on September 1, 2007

Hi everyone,

The advice posted is pretty spot on. I am glad nobody here is talking about horrible thigns like choke collars or screaming at the dog etc.

May I suggest that you also pay for a behavioralist/trainer who uses positive methods (distraction/treats/counter-conditioning) to help you with some hands on work as well? You can read these great posts here but unless someone who has done it many times shows you or coaches you, its tough to get the timing right.

I waited 4 months before calling in help and I really regret it. After a single 3 hour consultation/hands-on training session we got all we needed to know to help our dog get over his on-leash aggression. I recently blogged about our experience here if you want to read some more.

Baying Beagle
posted by beaglor at 9:37 AM on September 12, 2007

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