Here are 10 things you need to know about implementing an effective behavior modification training plan for any dog that exhibits fearful, anxious, impulsive, or aggressive behaviors.
#1 Track Progress in Months (not days or weeks):
The first thing you need to know about behavioral training for dogs that are anxious, fearful, aggressive or hyper-active is that you need to track progress in months - not days or weeks. Don't get carried away by day to day, or week to week, successes or failures - both can interfere with the consistency with which we follow training protocol. Keep a behavior log so that you can objectively analyze changes in behavior long term.
#2 Avoid Suppressing Symptomatic Behavior:
Barking is one way that a dog can express frustration, fear or anxiety, but it's not the only way. Look at body language, facial expressions and other more subtle behavioral patterns to develop a better understanding of your dog's underlying stress level. A quiet dog is not necessarily experiencing less stress than a barking dog.
#3 Be Aware of How Stress Accumulatess:
One trigger vs. many triggers. Sometimes our dog's reactive behavior is easily linked to one specific environmental trigger and sometimes, it's not. Stress accumulates. The better you are at reading and responding to subtle signs of stress, the more effective you will be in training. You don't always have to know what causes the stress in order to help your dog work through it.
#4 Have A Good Management Plan:
A good management plan is just as important as a good training plan. The more often your dog practices certain undesirable behaviors, the more habitual those behaviors will become. Changing the environment or your dog's daily routine is sometimes 100% necessary in setting the stage for successful behavior modification.
#5 Make Sure it's Not Only the Squeaky Wheel That Gets the Oil :
There are two ways that a dog can respond to a stressful situation; they can either behave in an active manner or a passive manner. Their response might change depending on the context of the situation. Dogs that have a tendency to actively respond to stress triggers (barking, growling, charging) are more likely to receive training attention, while passive stress responses (those dogs that shut down or exhibit more subtle stress signals) usually go unnoticed or are dismissed as being "just fine." Both require the same level of attention and understanding.
#6 Working "Under-Threshold":
Excessive barking, sudden loss of appetite, ADHD type behavior, stress whining, clinginess (wanting to be picked up, demand barking, jumping or pawing for attention) are just some of the symptoms that your dog has hit their stress threshold. Giving your dog more space away from the stress trigger, or removing your dog from a stressful environment, is the best way to help meet your dog's needs and prevent regression in training.
#7 Predict, Prevent, Practice:
Assess your dog's behavioral responses and then use that information to predict and prevent undesirable behavior. Once the initial assessment is conducted you should no longer be testing your dog, you should be training your dog. This means that you should be setting them up to practice the behaviors that you do want to see, while minimizing the probability that they will fall back to less desirable tendencies.
#8 Capture Calm Behavior:
Don't let your dogs good behavior go unnoticed, reinforce it. Sometimes we only train with our dogs when we are seeing the problem behavior. Successful training is about being pro-active. Make training a part of your daily routine so that you are routinely reinforcing your dog for behaviors that you love, instead of solely reacting to problem behaviors.
#9 Be Prepared for Spontaneous Training Opportunities:
You don't always know when a teachable moment will present itself, don't be caught off guard. Have the necessary tools at hand to help set the stage for success: high value treats, harness, leash and training pouch are a few functional training tools to have at hand in a moment's notice.
#10 Choose Your Reinforcement Wisely:
The value of the reinforcement you use, relative to the level of distraction in your training environment, will determine the efficacy of your training program. Consistent, reliable responses require a high value reinforcer. You'll get the most traction from a training food that is moist, meaty, aromatic, and easy to break into small pieces without crumbling. A tennis ball or a good tug toy might be worth its weight in gold if your dog has high toy drive. Conversely, giving a dog a dry biscuit, a pat on the head or a "good boy" is generally not significant enough to yield solid, reliable training results.
Article written by Alyssa Rose (Lapinel), CPDT-KA. Alyssa is the founder and head trainer at Legends Dog Training based in San Diego, CA. Alyssa works creates and implements customized behavior modification plans for dogs that exhibit fearful, anxious, impulsive or aggressive behavior. Check out Alyssa's new online program for behavior modification: http://basetrainingmethod.com
This article is intended to help dogs that bark, growl, lunge, charge, snap or bite when interacting with people or dogs. Stress, generalized anxiety, chronic stress, frustration, pain or underlying medical conditions can all contribute to aggressive responses. Address any potential medical issues with your veterinarian and read through these tips and recommendations before creating and implementing a behavior modification plan for aggressive behavior.
1. The Importance of Management With Aggression in Dogs
Solid management strategies is a critical component of an effective behavior modification plan. The more a dog practices undesirable behavior, the more habitual those behaviors become. Create visual barricades to reduce the intensity and frequency with which your dog barks at people or dogs through windows or fences. Walk your dog at times and in areas that are quiet. Help your dog relax in a safe space in your house when you have visitors come over. These strategies will facilitate progress when paired with an effective training plan.
2. Keep a Behavior Log of Aggressive Responses
In order to work through aggressive behavior, we first need to get really good at predicting when it will occur, so that we can minimize the number of times our dogs rehearse aggressive responses. Keep a behavior log and use it to write down concerning behavior when it occurs. Write down:
3. Suppressing Symptomatic Behavior
Verbally or physically reprimanding a dog for growling, barking or snapping can easily teach a dog to suppress warning signs of aggression. When people say, "the dog bit without warning" this is usually because the dog was "trained" not to give warning. Respect warning signs and create space by moving your dog away from a person, dog or event that is triggering aggressive behavior. Do not use verbal or physical reprimands/corrections to suppress warning signs of aggression, like hard stares, growling, barking or air snapping.
4. What should I do if my dog delivers a bite?
If a dog delivers a bite you should neutralize the situation by moving the dog away on a secure leash and harness. Avoid restraining the dog by the collar, isolating a dog, yelling or hitting the dog in such a situation. All of these responses can intensify the underlying emotional response. Instead, focus on redirecting the dog to an activity that is inherently calming. For example, go for a walk or stand or sit with the dog in a calm environment.
5. Ambiguous Behaviors
Know that wagging tails, licking faces, sniffing or rolling over to expose a belly are ambiguous behaviors. Many people mistakenly assume that these are indications that the dog is friendly, and wants to be pet or that they want to be "friends" with another dog. Sometimes that's true, and sometimes this is actually an "appeasement gesture" that the dog is displaying to express stress or discomfort. Forcing unwanted interactions is a fast way to teach a dog to express discomfort in a less ambiguous manner, for instance, biting. If a dog has history of being nervous, or has a history of aggressive behavior, err on the side of caution, and give the dog space.
6. The Importance of Neutral Body Language
Petting, talking to, or staring at a dog that is uncertain can trigger an aggressive response. It may take several meetings for a dog to become comfortable. Some dogs never warm up to certain people, and will always need space. Neutral body language and patience are the most effective ways to generate trust with a nervous dog.
7. Avoid having Strangers Feed Your Nervous Dog
High value food can be a great way to condition a dog to have a "feel good" response to the presence of people that may otherwise generate stress. However, food should always be delivered by a trusted caregiver, not from the hand of a stranger. Coaxing a dog to interact with or approach a person they are uncomfortable with can create a conflict of interest that could result in an escalation of stress, and could lead to a bite.
8. Fences and Tight Leashes Can Fuel Aggressive Impulses
Trainers that train police or protection dogs use barriers and tight leashes to generate aggressive behavior. Leaving dogs outside in a fenced yard or walking your dog on a short, tight leash can have a similar effect. This behavior can generalize to other social situations, like greeting guests or people that they see on walks. If you live in urban or suburban environments do these four things to minimize the amount that your dog practices barking at people or dogs:
1. Keep your dog in a central area of your home when you are leave the house. Avoid leaving your dog in a yard unsupervised for extended periods of time.
2. Create visual barriers to windows or fences to minimize exposure to environmental triggers, like people or dogs.
3. Walk your dog on a six foot leash, as short leashes will exacerbate reactive behavior, like barking and lunging.
4. Enroll in a training program that uses positive reinforcement training to minimize stress and/or arousal that would otherwise fuel your dog's aggressive responses.
9. Avoid Aversive Methods, Training Tools and "Techniques"
Avoid trainers or training recommendations that promote the use of aversive training tools to "fix" or "rehabilitate" dogs with aggressive behavior. Slip collars, choke chains, throw chains, shaker cans, remote electronic collars, bark collars and alpha rolls are likely to suppress behavior in the short term, but can exacerbate the underlying issue long term. There is only so long that you can keep a lid on a boiling pot of water before it pops!
10. Learn About Canine Stress Signals
Learn about canine stress signals and the manner in which they present in your individual dog. Recognizing early signs of stress can afford us the opportunity to give our dog the space they need when they are overwhelmed by a person, dog, or activity. Dogs will escalate to more intense aggressive behavior when early warning signs are unnoticed, dismissed or suppressed.
Alyssa Rose, CPDT-KA
Certified by the Council for Professional Dog Trainers