Q: Does positive training work for an aggressive dog?

A: In a word, yes. However, a DVD or book alone will not handle an aggression problem. But educational materials may help you understand why positive training is so effective, less stressful and safer for both you and your dog.

The first and most important tenet of positive dog training is safety. Avoiding confrontations is extremely important in the training process and especially important in order to prevent injuries to humans and dogs. And, of course, there are also liability issues. Keep everyone safe!

Now let’s address the behavioral issues. First of all, please have your veterinarian do a check-up to make sure your dog is healthy and not being bothered by some nagging health problem. A comprehensive blood panel is suggested to make sure there are no physical problems, especially with the thyroid and liver. This test costs about $100.

With problems of aggression, professional help is mandatory. Contact a dog trainer in your area who is well versed in positive, nonviolent methods. No hitting, kicking, shocking or shaking methods should ever be used. No choke, prong or shock collars should ever be used.

Search the websites of Association of Pet Dog Trainers (www.apdt.com) and The National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors (www.nadoi.org). They both list trainers by city and state. Interview each trainer until you feel confident the person you hire is competent. You can expect to spend between $100 and $250 for the first visit.

A professional dog trainer will do a complete evaluation and determine the type of aggression involved. Aggression can be fear-induced, territorial, and/or resource based (food, toys, people), among other types. The trainer will then be able set you up on a behavior modification program. There are no quick fixes.

Although I can’t offer a complete program here, I can offer a bird’s-eye view of what needs to be done. First, it’s important that you set up your dog’s environment so she can’t get into trouble or get hurt—and so she can’t hurt a person or another dog. Use management tools such as a tether, baby gates, a dog run or a kennel to assist in managing your dog. Make sure that you give positive reinforcements such as food treats when you use one of these management tools so your dog will associate being tethered or put in the kennel, for instance, with positive associations.

Then, two steps are necessary. You have to change the way your dog feels about the situation and increase her behavioral reliability by repeated training so she achieves rock-solid “stays,” “come-when-called” and/or “leave-it.”

Let’s use the example of a dog who is aggressive toward other people. Classical conditioning is used to change the way she feels about the situation so she enjoys the encounter rather than feeling threatened. This is done following a strict step-by-step protocol in which you associate a primary reinforcer (such as a tasty food treat) with something else (such as the appearance of another person). With enough repetitions, the person takes on a new meaning. To better illustrate, imagine a killer whale on one side of a pool being thrown a fish just as a dolphin appears on the other side of the pool. After 10,000 or so repetitions, the killer whale will change the way he feels about the dolphin (wanting to chase and eat him) and say “I love that little guy! Every time he shows up, I get a fish!”

Let’s say your dog is aggressive and wants to protect your house from the mail carrier. First, you have to take her job away (being a house protector) and secondly change the way she feels about the mail carrier. With tasty treats in hand, offer them whenever the mail carrier appears. Give her as many treats as you can as quickly as you can. Eventually she will look at the mail carrier in a whole new light. A professional dog trainer can show you how this is done.

Positive dog training is all about what you want your dog to do rather than what you want your dog to stop doing. For instance, rather than saying, “How do I get my dog to stop chasing, pulling, jumping, etc.” … what would you like your dog to do? Lie down and stay perhaps? If your dog is lying down in a relaxed position, he can’t chase, jump or pull when a person appears.

By teaching a relaxed down, you have substituted what you want for behaviors you don’t want. This is done in baby steps. Always start where your dog is successful and gradually build more and more reliability.

Until the training takes hold, here are some other safety suggestions:

  • Wake up earlier to take your dog for a walk.
  • Keep a safe distance (cross the street) from people while on walks. See if your dog will take treats from you as the person appears (keep safe distance).
  • Use a no-pull harness or collar for better control and safety.
  • Try to stay confident and upbeat if a person appears and quickly walk the other way.

No corrections are necessary as long as these steps are followed. In thirty years I have helped thousands of dogs using these methods. They work.

As you can see, just like educating a child or yourself, reliability takes time, consistency and compassion. In the meantime, err on the side of safety. You should never “ignore” unwanted behavior. Instead, set your dog up so the unwanted behavior doesn’t manifest. And in the meantime, teach her what you want her to do instead. Set her up to succeed rather than having to correct her. For example, what do you want her to do when another dog appears? Once you know exactly the behavior you want, set up a program to accomplish it, starting in easy, simple steps. Gradually add more challenges and before you know it, you’ll have her doing what you want rather than trying to suppress (correcting) the behaviors you don’t want.

I wish you and your dog safety and success!

Recommended Resource:

The Dog Whisperer DVD, Vol. 2 for Puppies and Dogs focuses on solving many problem dog behaviors.