Dog-dog aggression: a self-help guide

Treatment protocol for dog-dog on-leash aggression
By Laure-Anne Viselé, August 2010

Introduction

A friend of mine wrote to me from Thailand recently. She’d adopted a starving street dog who is  hopelessly dog-dog aggressive. Given the distance involved, I could only help her educate herself on some specific topics and point her in the right direction. In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought. I might as well publish what I wrote to her in case it can of use to somebody else without access to a behaviour therapist.

I know it’s not ideal and does not show a lot of respect for the profession to assume that a ‘civilian’ can do this on their own, but truth is, we have to make do with what we have, and behaviour therapists are extremely rare in countries other than the UK, US and Australia. So I am hoping that a little help is better than none. Time will tell.

Books to read

First of all, I would check out these books:

– SCAREDY DOG! – UNDERSTANDING AND REHABILITATING YOUR REACTIVE DOG (Ali Brown). She explains in super clear terms.

– FEISTY FIDO – HELP FOR THE LEASH AGGRESSIVE DOG (Patricia McConnell). She explains the protocol of desensitisation really nicely, but I would do ‘look at that’ (see book below) instead of the ‘look away’ in this book.

– CONTROL UNLEASHED – McDevitt-Learn, Leslie (only the bits about reactivity. The “look at that” game)

– CANINE BODY LANGUAGE – Brenda Aloff

Some more explanations

Sorry I can’t be more specific/long in my answer, but it’s really pointless as I would need to see how he responds to whatever you’re trying. The essential thing to remember is to keep things sub-threshold and learn to read his stress signals (check out Brenda Aloff’s book) and never flood him (confront him with what makes him uncomfortable to the point that he panicks).

Basically, it’s all about counterconditionning (making what he used to find awful really nice) and desensitisation (making what he used to find awful boring/irrelevant).

Tips and pointers

Some isolated tips to bear in mind when you design your method:

  • Make sure that he never has a reason to find another dog stressful. Meaning, do not ever let another dog scare him, get in his face, bite him, etc. Get in between if you must, but it could destroy all your previous work and set you back months.
  • Protect him from negative dog-dog encounters at all costs. What’s negative for him could be very subtle (see Brenda Aloff book for reading signs of stress). If you see him sniff the floor but not look at the floor, for example, or lick his lips. Those are signs of discomfort. The better you are at reading these, the furthest away the dog will be from being ‘above threshold’ (i.e. no longer comfortable, above his stress tolerance, thus adding this negative encounter to his association with dogs).
  • Once you’ve read the books, before you get started on your theapy, write down every detailed situation where you’d like improvement, and work on the easiest, most basic first. The easiest will take weeks, then the rest will follow more easily.
  • Think of when he’s worst (e.g. on the leash and close to a barking, male dog), and make sure you don’t confront him to that situation until very late in your programme (could be months from now). It’s all about gradation and keeping the dog sub-threshold. Every single dog-dog encounter must be from very far at the beginning, and your dog can show no sign of stress.
  • You’ll be using lots of treats for this. To stop him getting fat, divide up his ration at the start of the day and take that wherever you go so you can distribute it appropriately.
  • It’s perfectly OK to avoid other dogs for the time being. It’s not a sign of failure. They call it “management” in behaviour therapy. And is absolutely essential for the therapy to work. Depending on how successful you are, you may not need any management at all towards the end (your dog is offleash close to other dogs and no problem at all).
  • Remember, make every encounter with a dog (at the beginning, from very far away) really pleasant. Always immediately follow it with treats and never push him too far.

Good luck!

Let me know if you hit a snag on the way and I’ll try to help.

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