By Anthony De Marinis, CDBC, ADT, LFDM, FFCP
Most of my work is with dogs who have behavior issues, most of those being aggression. Some owners knowingly adopt or purchase a dog who displays aggressive behavior (growling, lunging, biting), while other dog owners have no idea until problems start to manifest or until an incident happens.
In both situations, dog owners genuinely want to help their dog. There are no “cures” for issues such as aggression, but we can implement behavior modification protocols and strategies, training skills and management techniques to help modify the issue(s) of concern to make things better for the dog and their owner. (Learn more about behavior modification.)
In order to keep everyone safe, the first step of a well-structured behavior modification program is MANAGEMENT.
What Is Management?
One of my favorite descriptions of management is from the book “Behavior Adjustment Training 2.0: New Practical Techniques for Fear, Frustration and Aggression in Dogs,” by Grisha Stewart, MA. In the book, Grisha describes management as “Changing your dog’s environment to make it impossible or unlikely that he’ll do behavior you do not want him to do.”
So, your goal is to manage triggering events (things that cause your dog to display the behaviors of concern) so that you can prevent reactions and incidents from occurring as much as possible. This will help modify the dog’s behavior(s). Here are some further descriptions of management.
- Setting up the environment so that your dog can’t practice unwanted behaviors. For example, if your dog looks out the window and barks all day long, then block the windows so your dog does not have access to them.
- Giving your dog the opportunity to be successful by removing triggers or creating distance between the dog and her triggers.
- Avoiding placing your dog in situations that can cause aggressive behavior, reactive behavior, fear, anxiety or stress.
- Taking control of situations in order to help your dog be successful.
- Using specific equipment and tools to ensure safety such as:
- A leash or multiple leashes
- A secure harness and/or head halter
- A muzzle
- Safety barriers like secure baby gates and/or a physical fence.
So now that I have explained what management is, let’s jump into some helpful tips!
- Identify the triggers. Figuring out what causes your dog to display aggressive behavior will be crucial. Triggers can be the sight of a person or dog, a visitor entering the home, someone reaching toward the dog’s food bowl while she is eating, etc. An easy way to identify the trigger(s) is to write down all the incidents that have occurred. Be as specific as you can. Think about the details: How the incident began, what occurred and how it ended. Working with a behavior consultant, you will be able to identify triggers so that you can implement an appropriate behavior modification plan and management strategies.
- Set up time to work with and train your dog. Make time to practice your behavior modification exercises and/or training skills with your dog. These practice sessions should be positive and enjoyable learning experiences for your dog. Your goal should be to keep your dog below threshold so that no reactions occur. The purpose of practice sessions is to give your dog the opportunity to learn and process everything in order to be successful. Practice sessions do not need to be long; a few minutes is often enough.
- Don’t expose your dog to situations in which she is likely to display aggressive or reactive behavior. Exposing your dog to triggering situations can make behavior issues worse. Instead, come up with a list of new things to do with your dog in those situations, or avoid them entirely. This could mean placing your dog in a secure area of the house when visitors are over or keeping your dog on a leash during a hike. Your behavior consultant will be able to advise you about how to modify your routine to keep your dog below threshold.
- Avoid punishing your dog, as this could potentially worsen behaviors such as fear, anxiety, stress, reactivity and aggression. Punishment should only be used when using a LIMA based approach and with the guidance of a qualified professional. It is important to note that punishment comes in many forms, and unfortunately it can increase and/or cause behavior issues to occur.
- Do not use unsafe training equipment. Your behavior consultant should choose equipment based on your individual dog, for her safety as well as others’. In general, you should to stay away from tools that you do not have experience with when your dog displays reactive or aggressive behavior. In particular, a retractable leash can be difficult to grasp on to, and it can be hard to pull your dog closer. Keep everyone safe by using equipment such as a 6-foot leash and a secure harness such as the Freedom Harness or Balance Harness. Other safety equipment that can be considered includes a martingale collar, head halter such as Heather’s Hero Sidekick Head Halter, or even a muzzle. Your behavior consultant can help make specific recommendations based on your dog and situation.
- A word about Prong Collars & Electric Collars: Some dog owners choose to use a prong collar or an electric collar as they may feel that they are able to have better physical control of their dog. In other situations, these tools may have been recommended by their dog training and behavior professional. Unless these tools are causing or increasing behavior issues, I do not remove these tools until I get to know my client, their dog and the reasons they are using these tools. It is important to mention that prong collars and electric collars can cause or increase behavior issues, especially if used incorrectly. It is also important to mention that all tools, whether it be a head halter, harness, prong collar etc. can be aversive if the dog finds those tools to be aversive. Remember, it is not about what you feel is aversive, but what the individual dog feels. Please consult with a professional to decide what will be best for you and your dog.
- Do not go to the dog park or allow your dog off leash if your dog is aggressive, reactive or fearful. Instead play with your dog in a securely fenced area such as a back yard, a sports court at a park that has a lock, or any other private area that is secure so that your dog and others are safe. I often recommend my clients use an app called Sniffspot, which allows dog owners to rent people’s back yards for a small fee. It is like Airbnb for dogs! Many of these yards are fenced, which can be a great option for those who need a safe, secure location. Before renting a space, make sure it is fully fenced. When inquiring, you should also ask how tall the fence is, as some medium and large breeds can climb or jump fences, believe it or not.
- Pay attention to the environment and your dog. Do not talk on the phone, listen to music or stop and chat with others. Instead, pay attention to your environment and your dog. Observe your dog’s behavior and body language. Look for signals that your dog might react. Is your dog becoming aroused, hypervigilant, stressed or anxious? If so, adjust your plan: Go to a less populated area, do an activity that you know your dog finds calming, or leave altogether.
- Do not ask your dog to participate in interactions she does not enjoy. Avoid places and situations that may be problematic for your dog, such as family gatherings, a busy trail or walking in town. And if your dog does not like being greeted by other dogs, do not allow that either. It can make things worse for your dog and it can cause harm to the greeter, be it a person or dog.
- Two layers of safety is always better! This is one of the most important take-home pieces of information. Two layers of safety means literally having twice as much safety! If one layer of safety fails, then there is another in place. How you implement this will depend on the specific aggression issues you are dealing with. Examples can include using a crate, locking doors, putting up secure bolting baby gates, using a muzzle, attaching your dog to a tether, etc.
- Home Entrances: If your dog displays aggressive behavior when people enter the home, make sure to keep your doors locked so that friends, family and other visitors do not walk in unannounced, allowing an accident to occur.
- Give Visitors Instructions: Have a sign posted on your front door with instructions to call or text you when they have arrived so that you can have your dog safely managed and so that you are prepared. Prior to the visitors’ arrival, give them these same instructions to increase the chance that everything goes exactly as you’ve planned.
- Baby Gates and Barriers: When using baby gates and barriers, make sure they are securely bolted into the wall or door frame. Pressurized gates are typically not strong enough to keep a dog contained. Also make sure the baby gate or barrier is tall enough that your dog cannot climb or jump over it. I always recommend getting extra-tall metal baby gates, which are usually 4 feet tall. In some cases, you may need to place a second baby gate above the first one so that it is double the height. In other cases, it is advisable to have a contractor custom build a sturdy gate or barrier that can be bolted on hinges with a secure lock.
- Muzzle Training: There is a stigma about dogs wearing muzzles. However, muzzles are safety tools that are necessary in many situations to prevent people and/or other animals from getting injured. First, learn about the different types of muzzles on the market so that you have one that is safe, secure and comfortable for your dog. Most behavior professionals recommend basket muzzles or similar styles that do not restrict your dog from drinking, eating or panting. Learn more about the importance of muzzles. Below in the “Helpful Resources” section you will find information about muzzle training and the different types of muzzles.
- Tethering: Tethering a dog can be used as a layer of safety to keep your dog secure. I do not suggest just randomly tethering your dog without training her to be comfortable with the tether. If you skip this step, the tether could add additional stress and discomfort. Your behavior professional can help you determine if tethering is a good idea and, if so, how to properly train your dog to be comfortable with the tether. There are a few ways to tether, all of which share the goal of affixing your dog to a spot that is secure. For large or powerful dogs, I suggest bolting an i-hook to a stud in the wall. Most people bolt the i-hook to the base or floor molding. There are also tethers called “Door Stop Tethers,” which are designed to slip under a door.
- Schedule Fun Time with Your Dog. Do not solely focus on your dog’s behavior modification program. Come up with a list of things your dog enjoys so that you can provide daily quality time with your dog. This can be cuddling together, physical exercise, training time or even a dog sport. Providing enjoyable activities with your dog is very important for your relationship as a team.
- Additional Safety Equipment and “Safety Stations”: Discuss with your behavior consultant what types of emergency or safety equipment you might need to have on hand to prevent or handle an incident. You may also want to discuss having what I call “Safety Stations” with this equipment readily available around the home, back yard or attached to you on a walk in the event something happens.
To help you further I have complied a few helpful resources below. Based on your specific situation your behavior consultant will be able to advise you with additional helpful materials.
Here are a few helpful resources. Based on your specific situation your behavior consultant will be able to provide you with additional helpful materials.
- What Is Aggressive Behavior in Dogs?
- Muzzle Up Project: How to choose the correct muzzle for your dog
- Everything you need to know about muzzles
- How to train your dog to wear a muzzle
- How to feed your dog through a muzzle
- How to prepare for your aggression consultation
- Understanding Canine Body Language
- Canine Body Language Webinar Series by ASPCA
- Keeping your dog safe on a walk
- Dog bite prevention in your home
- Dog training tips for success
Canine Body Language Links:
- ASPCA Canine Body Language Webinar
- Understanding Canine Body Language- Positively.com
- How to Speak Dog- i-speak dog
Videos on Canine Body Language and Communication Signals:
- Understanding Canine Body Language Part 1- Modern Canine
- Understanding Canine Body Language Part 2- Modern Canine
- Dog Body Language 101- Fear Free Happy Homes
- Dog Body Language- The Family Dog
How Should You Choose a Qualified Professional?
The dog training and behavior industry is not regulated in the United States. This makes it very hard for dog owners, rescues, veterinarians and others to find help from qualified professionals. There are, however, credible sources and organizations out there spreading the word about how to find a qualified behavior consultant and how to get help. Here are a couple of helpful links from credible sources on how to choose a professional behavior consultant.
If you live near me on Long Island and you would like help with your dog’s aggressive behavior, feel free to contact me! If you do not live near me, but would still like my help, I provide virtual dog training and behavior consultations as well.
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About Anthony De Marinis
Anthony De Marinis specializes in working with dogs with severe behavior issues, specifically with aggressive behavior. He provides comprehensive in-home and virtual behavior consultations, as well as dog training services across Long Island, NY. (Online Virtual Consultations for aggression and behavior modification are also available for clients who are local and out of state.) Anthony has several professional certifications which include: Certified Dog Behavior Consultant from the International Association for Animal Behavior Consultants, Accredited Dog Trainer by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, Licensed Family Dog Mediator (LFDM), Fear Free Certified Training Professional (FFCP), Certified Graduate of distinction from the Victoria Stilwell Academy for Dog Training & Behavior, and The Third Way Certified Trainer. Anthony currently has an interest in training and behavior modification in Working & Sport bred dogs. He is also learning about and currently competing in agility and sheep herding. Anthony has two Australian Kelpies, Journey and Quest, both of which are training in agility and sheep herding.