Dog Training & Behaviour Blog

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    My Dog Wants To Socialise, So Why Does He Become Aggressive?

    aggression Not the dog in the article. Display purposes only.

    I had a discussion with a dog owner last week. His dog will unexpectedly display unprovoked aggression towards dogs and people, if he is allowed to approach them. 

    Client: "He looks like he wants to go and be friendly with the dog and will go up behind it and sniff it, but as soon as the dog turns and looks at him, he becomes aggressive, so we have to take him away". He will also walk up to people and sniff them like he wants to meet them, he looks friendly, and yet if the person then tries to look directly at him or reach down to pet him, he will growl, back away or snap at the person. I just want him to be friendly with other dogs and people". 

    We can never truly understand what is going on inside a dogs head. We can only assume. However, if a dog tends to react anti-socially around people or other dogs, it's usually a sign that the dog is feeling unsure, and therefore anxious when approaching another dog or stranger. Just because a dog will approach another dog, or a stranger, it doesn't necessarily mean the dog is ready for full on social interaction. And by placing an insecure and anxious dog like this in these situations is only compounding the dogs distrust around other dogs and people. 

    This dog should not be allowed to approach other dogs or other dogs approach him whilst on the lead. This dog needs to be in a controlled environment where he can be around other dogs, but not have them interact with each other. It can take some dogs time to settle down and to build trust in another dog, especially if in the past the dog has had negative experiences when approaching the "wrong" dog. Dogs that want to socialise but are cautious and feeling a little anxious when approaching strange dogs, may react defensively by any sudden movement or even eye contact from the other dog. 

    Should this particular dog be allowed to approach people? Having spent time with this dog, I suggested yes. However, its important that strangers do not try to interact with the dog. If people just totally ignore this dog, he would come over for a sniff, and then walk off. This particular dog wasn't an aggressive dog towards people, he only reacts to invasion of his own personal space, when being cautious and therefore feeling anxious. These types of dogs can usually build up confidence around other people, if people just ignore them. Every time we place a dog such as this in a position that it feels it needs to protect itself because a stranger is invading its personal space when it isn't ready for this type of interaction, we are reinforcing the dogs need to feel unsure and anxious whenever approaching people. Dogs will either fight, flee or freeze when feeling threatened.  However, if young children are around, then this type of dog should not be allowed to approach the child unless the child is old enough to understand to totally ignore the dog, and that an adult is supervising and is in full control of the interaction. The ideal situation is to have this dog on lead, and inform the child/children to totally ignore the dog. Allow the dog time to understand that these little humans are no threat. This could mean many repeated exposures over a period of time.

    We need to understand that dogs are situational learners. The current situation will always dictate a dogs response/reaction. For example, whilst going through a learning period, or behaviour modification period, we need to ensure that we always control the situation so that we are not conditioning the dog to 2 or more responses to the same situation. For example, people that ignore me, they are OK. People that try to invade my personal space are a threat, and therefore I need to react in a way that works to make me feel safe. Whilst the dog is going through the learning phase, then there should only be one situation presented to the dog, and that is, people are never considered a threat. So if every stranger the dog meets just ignores the dog, eventually the dog perceives people as non threatening. Gradually we can build confidence by ensuring every interaction is firstly neutral, and then slowly building to positive interaction. But only at a pace the dog can handle.

    This particular dog is fine around other dogs that ignore him, and will even approach them. But unlike humans, whom we can ask to please ignore the dog, we cannot do the same with other dogs. Try and ask a strange dog to ignore your dog when your dog approaches it. Not going to happen. So again, we need to understand situational awareness. Dogs that ignore me pose no threat. Those that try to interact with me, are a perceived threat.

    This type of behaviour is usually an indication that this dog when young possibly approached the "wrong" dogs, which resulted in unpredictable unpleasant experiences. It can also be an indication of incorrect (or a lack of proper) socialisation when young.  This then places the dog in a position of not knowing if any dog or person can be trusted. The dog is then always "on guard" when approaching another dog or strange person.

    Some dogs may never become social around other dogs, due to the owner not being able to control the interaction between the 2 dogs, unlike with dog to human interaction. The best we can hope for in some cases is that the dog does not feel threatened by other dogs that just ignore him. This particular dog was fine around other dogs, as long as they ignored him. So why push him to accept other dogs interacting with him, when the dog is quiet happy to just ignore them? A dog does not "need" to socialise with other dogs.

    So please, if you have a dog that is insecure, cautious or unsure around other dogs, or strangers, please don't force them to interact. Do not allow your dog to approach another strange dog, if you you cannot control the response or actions of the other dog. Social interaction needs to be carried out in stages, and this can take time.

    These dogs need to work through these issues by counter-conditioning, systematic desensitisation. This means we should commence with each exposure the dog has with a human or dog is a neutral experience. No direct interaction from the person or dog. We need to be 100% consistent with this. This could even mean exposing the dog to other people and dogs 200 times, with no direct social interaction from the other dogs or people.This allows the dog to eventually perceive no dog or human as a threat. We can then start to incorporate positive interactions, whether that be a stranger offering the dog a high value treat, or playing a game of fetch with the dog if its prey drive is strong enough. Or allowing calm interaction with another calm social dog, and slowly building from there.

    Remember, a dogs emotional state will be the driving force on how it will react to a given situation. There is no quick fix when we are dealing with emotional states, it's a process of being careful not to trigger negative emotional states to given situations, and building from there, at a pace the dog can handle.

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