~ ABC Dog School ~
Dealing With Aggression
Copyright 2005 Carole J Sulser
   If you have read J.D.'s story, you know how aggressive a dog can get.  On a scale of 1-10, his aggression level is about 15.  And it's a double whammy for him ~ fear and dominance, both!
     Maybe you live with an aggressive dog.  Dog training books usually advise you to seek professional help.  These authors do not want to be held accountable if they offer training advice and someone gets hurt.  And if you have an aggressive dog, it's almost a given that eventually someone will get hurt.
     There are different kinds of aggression, and different causes.  Until I got J.D., I was only dealing with dog-to-dog aggression.  Although I have dogs with an active defense reflex ~ they're ready to use their teeth when feeling threatened ~ I've never had one always in attack mode.  With normal dogs, one can usually defuse the tension by changing one's tactics, or by laughter. 
     Laughter works great, even with J.D.  It doesn't mean that a stranger can come into the room laughing and not get bit, but I use it when I must do something with him that he may find a bit frightening, like picking him up.  He has a need for rough play, and none of the other dogs will play with him at all, so I do it myself, and whooping it up lets him know that I'm not trying to harm him.
     Roughhousing with an aggressive dog is not something I would advise, especially one larger than J.D., who weighs about 12 pounds.  I'm sure someone will be appalled that I do it, but my purpose was to desensitize him, so that he doesn't take every sudden move as a reason to defend himself.  He has learned that when my hand comes at him, there might be some fun involved, and he's also learned that if he grabs me too hard, the fun will stop.
     With dominance aggression, the place to start is obedience training.  I'm the alpha wolf around here, or maybe that's wishful thinking, but at any rate, I usually get my way.  Being alpha involves being in control of food, space, movements, the good sleeping places.  From the start, J.D. was not allowed in my bedroom.  When I bought a new comforter, I was even more cautious.  And I was right.  The two or three times J.D. managed to sneak into my bedroom, he peed on my bed, his way of laying claim not only to my bed, but to me.
     When it comes to food, the dogs get it twice a day, and when I'm establishing the pecking order, the dog has to sit before he gets it.  When he's learned to do that, I add the wait command, and then okay!  Dogs eat by permission and by doing something to earn it.  Like the wolf who helps bring down the prey and then has to wait his turn to partake. 
     Since J.D. was eating in his crate, we had skipped this step, but I learned the folly of that one day when I tried to return a piece of kibble that had bounced out of the bowl, and J.D. felt the need to defend it.  For some time after that, I held his bowl in my hand the whole time he was eating.  When the weather warmed up, I started feeding him on the deck, using the sit and wait commands.  Another tactic I need to use is placing more food in his bowl while he is eating.  Wearing my heavy leather gloves, of course.
     At bedtime, the dogs make one last trip outdoors, and when they come in, they all sit for a treat, J.D. among them.  If there is more than one dog, and I have six upstairs (main floor) one should follow the pecking order.  That means, the dominant dog gets his first, the most submissive one, last.  Otherwise, the dominant dog gets all bent out of shape and goes around reasserting his leadership.  In J.D.'s case, I never could bring myself to let him be first because it seemed that he needed to come down a few pegs.  Since he has no control over his dominance level, that is wrong thinking.
     When dealing with dominance aggression, it is necessary not to cater to the dog.  That means, never allow the dog to get the idea that he's running things.  With severe cases like J.D., it's a good idea to begin by removing all of his privileges, returning them one by one as his rehabilitated behavior warrants.  The dog should not be sleeping on your bed, on your furniture, or even in a bed of his own.  No toys, no treats.  Nothing.  Drastic measures for a drastic situation.
     Obedience training is a must, and when he has learned who is in charge, he may begin to reap the rewards of his compliance.  I regret that I have not done this with J.D.  Oh, there's been some training.  For instance, he learned early on that when I call him, he will come, or else.  The else involves having something lobbed at him, like a bean bag.  Works great!  One day while he was harrassing Tobie and she was trying to get away from him, I yelled at him to leave her alone.  He ignored me.  I was truly amazed at how good my aim was!  The bean bag skimmed over Tobie's back and got J.D. on the rump, and they were running at the time!
     Because J.D.'s dominance has disrupted the serenity of the pack, I eventually had to make a decision to remove him.  It just wasn't fair to the other dogs.  The day he lit into Ozzy was the day I put the plan into action.  J.D. and Squeak traded spaces.  Squeakie is now happily snoozing on the couch, while J.D. is crated in the basement, or in the outdoor pen.  He has, effectively, lost his privileges.  He's getting lots of practice letting me manage his movements as he goes from crate to pen, as he'd rather run around the yard.  Sometimes I let him.  But when it's time, he must go to the pen. 
     So this might be a good thing.  I hope so.  It is certainly a better arrangement when I get company!  J.D. has a long way to go, but I think he can do it.  We need to get down to business with the obedience training. He needs leash work, and teaching him the down and the stay will be highly beneficial.  I'll keep you posted on our progress.
     If you have an aggressive dog, I highly recommend you get your hands on a book called
Final Hope. You will find it listed on my books page.  If you have a question or comment about anything I've said here, please email me.  If you've done something that worked, I'd be glad to know about it.
More on aggression
  Since I created this page, I have discovered Cesar Millan, and encourage anyone with an aggressive dog to avail themselves of Cesar's philosophy. I've become a big fan!