Q&A: How to get my dog to stop being aggressive towards people and other dogs?

barkingI have an elderly dog (around 11 years), and she’s always been the kind of dog to do what she wants no matter what I say. I have tried everything I can think of. If I walk her she is constantly pulling on the leash, jumping towards people and either attacking or overwhelmingly jumping up on other dogs. I have tried making her lie down every time a dog passes with a stern “stay” or “no”. I should clarify that she is one of the few dogs that responds to “no” decently. Anyways, even when I’m holding her down, she continues to wiggle and try to get to the person/dog. I know I’m doing something wrong, because a dog really can’t be that bad.. So I was hoping you’d be able to help me out with ideas? ~Brooke

Greetings, and thank you for reaching out,

The most common problems owners face in training dogs are lack of consistency and giving up when things are starting to get better, even if it doesn’t look that way.. When this happens, this causes the bad behavior to resurface even stronger than before. It often starts like this: one day you decide to not let your dog pull on the leash, so you may make the leash shorter and perhaps even give a correction under the form of a leash pop every time your dogs pulls. (I am not an advocate for delivering leash pops, just making an example) You do this several times, then you notice that it’s not working because your dog is trying to pull more than before, so you give up or you may try something different. This is the most common scenario I encounter when people consult me and tell me that they have tried almost everything. There are two main problems occurring when this happens:

1) inconsistency makes behavior problems worse. So if 2 out of 10 attempts to pull, your dog gets to meet a dog, your dog will take advantage of that because trying to pull yields results. It’s sort of like playing the lottery, if you win every now and then, you’ll soon become addicted to playing.

2) the extinction burst phenomenon. It’s often easy to give up when something seems like it’s not working, when in reality it’s really starting to work , but it doesn’t look that way. To better understand this phenomenon, you must learn about extinction bursts. So let’s say your dog is pulling, you decide to stop your dog from pulling, but then your dog pulls more than before, why does this happen? It happens because your dog has pulled pretty much all her life, so after you start making a change, your dog will pull more than before because she has always been used to you allowing her to pull. It’s as if your dog was thinking “this is really odd, usually when I pull, my owners just follows and I get to meet another dogs, maybe I should try pulling even stronger than before.” For sake of a comparison, think of a child who cries at the store to get candy. Mom gives candy always to keep the child quiet.

The day mom doesn’t buy candy, what happens? The child starts screaming, throwing a fit. If mom stays strong and doesn’t give in, chances are eventually the child will learn to stop crying and asking candy. If mom gives in though, mom will have more problems than before and you’ll bet the candy-asking behavior will never stop and only get worse and worse. In dogs, the same thing happens. So keep in mind that behaviors with a history of reinforcement tend to get worse before they get better.

So the ultimate secret is to not give up when the behaviors worsens. If your dog has pretty much always done what she wants for all her life, and now you would try to make a change in that, consider that you will encounter resistance. Lots of it. But if you ignore the extinction burst and keep up with the rules, you will see results. Gradually, you will see less pulling mixed with some pulling still, but you will notice a difference. Keep it up and your training will yield results.

Here are a few tips I want to share with you on how to deal with this situation:

1) Invest in a no-pull harness that has a leash that attaches to a ring in the front.

2) Arm yourself with the tastiest treats

3) Start walking your dog in a quiet road first.

4) Stick to the rule that every time your dog pulls, you will stop in your tracks.

5) Call your dog back to your side, reward and resume walking.

6) Repeat over and over and over, until your dog gets the idea that pulling makes you stop and staying next to you makes you walk. To make it clear: a tense leash is your brake, a loose leash is your accelerator.

7) Only after your dog has attained enough improvement, may you introduce distractions such as other people or dogs.

8) I suggest that you look into “LAT, look at that training”, where every time your dog sees a person or dog she is fed tasty treats. There are some videos on You Tube depicting the exercise. Also is handy to teach your dog to do attention heeling as you walk by distractions.

9) Also look into keeping a “dog under threshold.” That means not exposing your dog to overwhelming situations where your dog cannot control herself. When you say you put your dog in a down, it sounds like your dog is too overwhelmed to be able to listen. You need to work at farther distances where the exercise is much easier.

10) Also, not sure what breed your dog is, but at 11 years old you may start seeing a bit of cognitive decline some dogs. Yes, you can train a dog new tricks and many elderly dogs can be trained, but consider that at this age, some dogs may be a bit slower to follow commands and they may have a harder time coping with certain situation, so the golden rule to be a splitter and not a lumper comes particularly handy here. Don’t ask too much at once, split your goals into smaller attainable steps and reward for compliance. I hope this helps!

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2 Responses to Q&A: How to get my dog to stop being aggressive towards people and other dogs?

  1. Donald December 11, 2015 at 2:49 pm #

    Thank you for sharing the invaluable tips. The key to making sure that your dog behaves is also to provide adequate basic obedience training so that your dog will listen to you.

    It takes a long time for some dogs to understand that they need to behave. They can ignore the rewards, walk away from you during training but you got to be patient.

  2. Chris January 3, 2017 at 8:18 am #

    Another article which just shows how important dog training is. Thanks for sharing!

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