Picture the following scenarios:
1. On a walk, you stop to say hello to a neighbor and her dog. Your new dog has been all wiggles and sniffs during on-leash dog greetings since you brought her home, but this time, “Rooooaaaarrrrr! Bark! Snarl!” You yank the leash sternly, saying “No, no, no!” while your neighbor swiftly walks away.
2. You take your growing puppy to a big family event. After multiple attempts to hide in a corner, your adolescent dog snaps at your niece, almost making contact with her well-intentioned hand. You grab your dog by the collar, shaking a finger in his face, yelling “Bad dog!” You then angrily put him in another room or his crate.
While aggression is not acceptable, the way you respond to these types of situations can unintentionally make bad behavior worse. Dogs can read human emotions and they are intellectually capable of interpreting threatening facial expressions, says a study conducted by the University of Helsinki. For some dogs, this elicits an appeasement response: the “guilty” look after an outburst. For other dogs, aggression hurled at aggression is the equivalent of throwing gasoline into a roaring fire. Dog emotions are too heightened during a behavioral explosion to learn a new, more acceptable behavior.
Here are some things to keep in mind when handling surprising or scary situations with your dog.
The most important action you can take when your dog becomes aggressive is to give her space from whatever is causing the fight response. The amount of space is different for every dog. For some, you need to cross the street, while for others, gently and calmly clasping the leash to the collar and leaving the situation may be enough. Giving your dog the physical distance to stop being aggressive allows her the opportunity to practice the behavior you prefer while soothing herself in a precarious moment.
Yelling is often a natural response to an aggressive display, but adding anger to aggression can cause some dogs to turn on you. Silently, and without moving your arms around wildly, remove your dog from the stressful situation. Dogs aren’t just extremely savvy in translating our emotions, they’re experts at decoding our body language. If you jerk on the leash or snatch at their collar you are showing your dog more fury. Aggression plus anger equals more aggression.
Once you have reigned in your emotions, it’s time to determine your dog’s capabilities. Was her body language wiggly and docile until the other dog sniffed her butt? Was your pup playful with your niece until he was cornered? Take some time to determine the exact details that brought about your dog’s gnarly behavior, then make a plan to prevent putting them in a situation where triggers are beyond their coping skills. A professional trainer may be vital to helping you determine tangible goals and specific exercises based on your dog’s response, recovery, threshold, and focus capabilities.
Too often pet parents who have experienced issues like the scenarios above choose to totally avoid other dogs or kids. Keeping everyone safe is critical, but without exposure your dog won’t learn how to deal with these types of encounters. Rewarding your dog for calm behavior from a distance when you see kids or dogs is a good place to start. Even if you aren’t sure your dog sees them, reward for good behavior anyway—dogs smell and hear from much further away than you may think. After a few repetitions, and while your dog’s body language is still very loose, give your dog plenty of space to prevent an aggressive display. For some dogs, this may mean crossing the street when the dog or child is two blocks away. You are teaching your dog the behavior you want to see, and rewarding him for it so he begins to make the connection.
Remember, the more volatile your emotional response to an aggressive display, the more you sabotage your training. Breathe, give space, and make a plan. Your dog will be much happier, and so will you.
Brandi Barker, MFA, CPDT, specializes in behavioral issues. She is the owner of Barker Behavior, Inc., an all-private, positive dog training company that has been serving Chicagoans for more than 10 years. Barker also co-owns Bark Pouch, LLC, a treat dispenser and preservative- free training treat—made with love in Chicago.