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Dominance Aggression

By: Dr. Alice Moon-Fanelli and Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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The two primary cornerstones of therapy for the dominant dog are to avoid confrontations and ensure that your dog earns every valued resource by responding properly to a command that is issued. This attitude will, in time, cultivate your dog's dependence, respect and reliance, and thus your leadership and influence.

Avoiding Aggression

This is an essential component of the program and if not employed, will undermine all your other efforts. Dominant dogs usually win confrontations because they either growl and the owners back down or they don't back down and the dog bites. Constant aggressive interactions will cause your dog to always be on guard and ready for the next challenge to his perceived social rank.

  • Make a list. Complete a list of circumstances that elicit aggression from your dog, including those situations that induce growling and lip lifts as well as snaps and bites. Once you have compiled your list, you need to devise ways to avoid these negative interactions. As benevolent as avoidance sounds, this really is not a lenient technique. For example, if your dog growls when you pet him on top of his head, don't do it. Instead, pet him in a way that he enjoys by, say, scratching his chest or stroking the side of his face or neck. It is a good idea to avoid petting your dog when he is eating, resting, or otherwise engaged, or when your attention may not be appreciated. If your dog tries to guard specific toys or delicious food treats, you can prevent this problem by removing all possessions that trigger possessive aggression, including toys, bones, and rawhides. Your dog should not have access to anything he tries to guard from you. If your dog steals an object, ignore him if the object is harmless and not valuable. If you need to retrieve the object, distract your dog with a command and offer a more interesting alternative such as going for a walk.

    If your dog threatens you during grooming or nail trims, take him to a groomer instead. A common situation in which dominant dogs bite their owners occurs when the dog is prevented from achieving some objective by being grasped by the collar or scruff. To avoid such problems it is essential that your dog be trained to respond to the basic obedience commands. If necessary, you can also leave a lightweight indoor leash attached to your dog's buckle collar so that you can control him from a distance. You may need to consult with a specialist behaviorist to develop safe and effective ways to avoid confrontations with your dog if simple avoidance is does not seem possible.

    Don't allow your dog on furniture if such luxury incites him to challenge you. Being on the same level, either because the dog is on furniture or the owner is on the floor, can increase dogs' sense of authority and in this situation aggressive encounters are more likely.

  • Don't give in. Demanding what they want, and getting it, is another way that dominant dogs exercise control over compliant owners. Constantly responding to your dog's demands will undermine your authority and create an atmosphere favorable for the expression of aggression. Completely ignore all demanding behavior from your dog. Having said that, going against a dominant dog's will can also get you bitten so you need to use good judgment to keep yourself safe.

  • Teach basic commands. In order to begin the "Nothing in Life is Free" portion of the program, your dog must understand a few basic commands such as "come," "sit," "down," and "stay." In the early stages of training, it is not imperative that your dog obeys every command at first, as long as you feel sure your dog understands the commands issued and is in a position to obey if he chooses to do so. Once your dog understands the ground rules, you should work toward a speedier and more compliant response. If your dog does not obey a command, he should be ignored for at least 5 minutes. Don't give him a second chance by issuing an additional command and don't turn the situation into a battle by trying to make him obey. If your dog sits before you issue the command, ask for a different response.

  • Give rewards. Remind yourself that your dog can have anything he wants if he is prepared to work for it. Remember to reward all spontaneous good behavior. Your dog must learn that nothing in life is free and that you control all valued resources. From now on, your dog will have to respond to a command (work) before he receives food, attention, toys, exercise, and freedom. Consistent training is essential. In order for your dog to be motivated, everyone in the family should follow the program and ration the various resources your dog receives. The person the dog is least likely to growl at or bite should train the dog first, and then the training should be generalized to all members of the family, including children.

  • Control the food supply. Since food is such a valued commodity, it is imperative to make your dog realize you control this valuable asset. Your dog must earn all food (including treats) from you by responding positively to a command given by you. Your dog may hold out for a while before he will obey a command to receive food at first, but most dogs fold early on. Once your dog has earned his food he should be allowed 15 minutes to eat, after which any surplus food should be picked up. To avoid a confrontation, do not pick up the food in your dog's presence.

  • Ration petting. Petting, and the acknowledgment that goes with it, is a powerful reward for most dogs and as such should be rationed in the same way as food. Petting of any description and at any time has to be on your terms to send a clear signal of your leadership. Do not submit to your dog's demands for petting. Ask that the dog "say please" by sitting in response to a command in order to receive the petting he desires. However, petting can also become an annoyance for some dogs if it is improperly performed, rendered by the wrong person at the wrong time, or if it continues beyond a certain welcome period. In the latter instances, petting may actually trigger aggression. Petting sessions should be brief enough to leave your dog wanting more although, be warned, some dogs will bite if you shortchange them. The appropriate duration of petting is a judgment call. If in doubt, do not pet your dog at all for several weeks until other aspects of the dominance control program are in place.

  • Ration praise. Praise can be another highly valued asset for which dominant dogs should be required to work. Praising a dog continuously dilutes the value of this otherwise much appreciated acknowledgment. Praise (and petting) can be thought of as money for a dog and can be used to command the same kind of respect. If you control and ration both praise and petting, your dog will view you in a more authoritative light.

  • Use toys as rewards. The provision of toys is a privilege for which dominant dogs must work. After you have picked up all the toys, store them in an assigned drawer or cabinet. Supply a toy only after your dog obeys a command.

  • Ration games. Games are fun, and as such should be rationed. You need to initiate all activities and you decide when they are over. Rough games like slap boxing, wrestling, tickling, and tug-o-war may promote aggression and should be avoided.

  • Let your dog earn freedom. Freedom is one of life's privileges and with privilege comes the need for social responsibility and respect. If your dog barks at you or paws at the door to communicate that he wants to go out, ignore him at first. In order to obtain freedom, your dog must conform to new house rules by sitting or lying down when instructed to do so in order to earn the opportunity to cavort, chaperone-free in your fenced-in yard. Given a dominant dog's potential for aggression, if you do not have a fenced yard then your dog should always be escorted on lead.

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