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  • John Whittaker

Fixing Dog Aggression

Updated: Feb 29

Dog aggression, whether directed towards people or other dogs, can have different root causes dependent on whether a dog shows aggression as a way of dealing with a perceived threat, protecting resources such as food and toys, or as a way to establish dominance. Understanding the root cause of a dog showing aggression is important. Knowing how to control aggression has it’s benefits but the real key is helping a dog change their experience and inner process in dealing with triggers (people or dogs).


The Challenges to Addressing Dog Aggression


Nervous System


In most cases the cause of dog aggression involves their nervous system. Think of their nervous system as their hard wiring. A strong or stable nervous system enables a dog to manage stressful events. A weaker nervous system often causes the opposite. Everyday events like; guests, strangers on the street, or a new dog in the neighborhood gets interpreted as a threat.


We can never improve a dog’s nervous system. What we can do is desensitize a dog to certain stimuli or triggers so as to avoid a negative reaction.


The Associative Mind


Dogs have an associative memory. What that means is their response to a stimuli or trigger (new person, dog, a broom, a bicycle, cars, etc) is based on whatever peak experience they had in the past with the same or similar trigger. They could have previously had both positive and negative experiences. Whichever experience was the greatest in intensity, their associative mind will associate it with that stimuli or trigger.


Let’s say when you were six years old you met a horse and he tried to bite you. You were young, and terrified. You’ve never put yourself in that situation again. Naturally, you have a negative association towards horses. The process that takes place in your mind when you see a horse can be similar to what happens to a dog. You see the horse and feel terrified. It’s just an instantaneous association.


Fortunately, you have a episodic mind capable of much more than just associations. You can remember back to that actual event with the horse. Maybe you remember being told “that horse is aggressive” but you went up to him anyway. Maybe you were told the horse is friendly yet he tried to bite you. In either case, you now begin to remember enjoying horses prior to that experience. You also reason in the present that children and adults thoroughly enjoy relationships with horses. Obviously, it’s doubtful they would enjoy horses if they were being bitten. You can overcome your negative association. Unfortunately, a dog is not so lucky. Their mind only produces the peak experience that stands out the most. That’s their forever association. At least without a resourceful intervention.


Suppressing Dog Aggression versus Creating Change


Most functional dog trainers address aggression by increasing tolerance of triggers, or by suppressing aggression through negative reinforcement. What the two approaches have in common is they leave the dog with the same peak association, and subsequent inner strategies including using aggression. The only difference is in the case of suppressing aggression, the dog stops acting out. The feelings, desires, and inner strategy remains the same. It just lays dormant beneath the surface. To create long-term change requires getting beneath the surface of controlling behavior.


Approaches to Dog Aggression


In dog training, dealing with dog aggression is a large market. Aggression is second only to housebreaking. Genetics play a large role in this today. Insecure pets breeding to insecure pets, often produce even more insecure pets. First, what approach not to take. No amount of clicker training, or a positive only approach, will resolve dog aggression. A dog can’t be clicked, or rewarded with treats, into changing. This becomes more understandable once you understand their associative mind.


The first approach among functional dog trainers is to use a high level of control (obedience) around triggers to increase tolerance. This is usually combined with teaching owners to keep their dogs calm at all times, so they don’t get triggered. The first part of this approach has benefits, but never addresses aggression. It seeks to avoid it. Ultimately, most dogs will show aggression once their owner’s stop maintaining tolerance training. Or are caught off guard.


The second approach is avoiding aggression by using obedience to keep a dog in a constant state of calm. This approach also avoids aggression through what we call, “zombie training”. For the life of us, we will never understand an owner wanting to see their dog’s personality, energy, and drive subdued.


The third, and least common, approach is to address aggression head on. Unfortunately, while the aggression is suppressed, all too often so is their personality as well. As soon as the owner stops maintaining pressure to suppress, aggression it typically rears it’s ugly head. It’s a useful approach, just as long as it’s skillfully performed while addressing thoughts, experiences and peak associations.  


Our Approach to Dog Aggression


For most dogs, we have a multilayered approach made up of three phases of training:


1.     Non-negociable Absolutes: Aggression is No Longer allowed. Depending on the dog so may other behaviors which precede aggression. This training must be done at exactly the right time in the training process, otherwise the opportunity to “get in the gap” is lost. That’s where profound change can happen.


2.     Getting in the Gap: When dogs experience peak associations, that association sets-in-motion an inner strategy. For instance, if seeing another dog causes aggression, and the dog appears to be defensive (showing defensive aggression), we can assume the association is to feel threatened. This association sets off an inner strategy or process: as the feelings escalate the behavior keeps pace. It might look something like: tense muscles, up on toes, hackles up, growling, teeth showing and then forward movement.


To create deep change we need to interact with this process at very specific moments, and in precise ways, in order to change associations and processes. We call this “getting in the gaps”. The gaps between peak association and the last step in strategy; then the second to the last step in strategy, etc. Ultimately we can create tremendous change that would normally never be possible by just correcting behavior and building tolerance of triggers.


3.     Habitual Positive Experiences: This is building on the new foundation. The more times a dog can experience old triggers, with new experiences, and use the new processes, the less likely the old ones return.


Resourceful Interventions


We see training aggressive dogs as really interventions. It’s a process of using our multilayered approach to create change. What owner’s usually refer to as us having “fixed” their dog is really rehabilitation. They may have learned the old response of aggression is forbidden. In actuality, once a dog learns they have aggression as a resource within them it’s always there. They now have a better association, better strategies and skills in responding to the trigger. In the right situation, under the right circumstance, a dog’s former peak experience can cause aggression. As an example: let’s say we successfully rehabilitate an aggressive 50 lbs Goldendoodle to the point where he not only doesn’t show aggression but now enjoys other dogs. That doesn’t mean a 120 lbs male Rottweiler can run up, jump on top of him and try to have his “way”. The Goldendoodle would be wise to use aggression to say “hell no”!


Your Dog's Aggression


The first step is to schedule an evaluation. This will enable us to understand your dog, and his or her aggression. This will include your dog's history, make-up in everyday life, interactions at home and in public. This will begin to paint a picture of their nervous system, what drives their behavior and what may be possible for outcomes.

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