Practice Makes Perfect–Aggression, That Is

Sierra and I had a pleasant play date at the park this morning with a friend and her adorable Corgi. We arrived early and had the place to ourselves, as is our habit, but after thirty minutes, other dogs began to arrive. Sierra loves to play. She was soon happily racing around with an Australian Shepherd, and then wrestling with a Lab puppy. The Corgi, however, loves to get in other dogs’ faces and bark, particularly when they are engaged in play with their buddies. As you might imagine, this sometimes has the unfortunate effect of escalating the playing dogs’ arousal, somewhat like schoolyard kids chanting, “Fight! Fight!” On this occasion, the Corgi even snapped at one of the other dogs, and a fight ensued.

I suggested we leave the park and instead walk around the larger outer maze of pathways. As we strolled, my friend asked whether I thought her dog’s behavior would improve with time. He’s two now, and I told her that simply exposing him to the other dogs in an unstructured environment over and over would probably result in the opposite of what she’s hoping for—he’ll get better at what he’s doing, given that he’s getting so much practice.

There are many owners who don’t realize that aggressive behavior is not something that can be fixed simply through habituation. I know, because I see them at the dog park. Some of the dogs are even muzzled! The owners obviously realize the dogs are aggressive, but they figure as long as the dog can’t actually hurt another dog, it’s fine. What’s not so fine is that the muzzled dog is left defenseless if another dog attacks; because he feels vulnerable, he may actually take the offense; and besides, a muzzled dog can still cause some damage.

I told my friend that she’d be better off sticking to walks, and skipping the off-leash park entirely. She asked if there was any other alternative. I told her that if she absolutely insisted on taking him to off-leash dog parks, she needs to first instill a rock solid attention cue, where anytime she calls his name he looks at her, regardless of distractions. A reliable recall is also crucial. In a large enough park, at least with those skills in place she could keep him away from potential problems. Working on the barking issue is another must, and a solid “leave it” wouldn’t hurt, either. Still, the dog should not be off-leash around other dogs at this point.

Most canine aggression starts off fairly mild, and worsens over time. Dogs who start out by growling or hard staring may begin to air snap and lunge, and eventually, make contact. Giving them an arena to practice and get better at those behaviors is irresponsible; the wiser course is to admit there’s a problem and work through the steps to fix it, preferably with professional assistance.

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Positively Expert: Nicole Wilde

Nicole Wilde is the author of ten books and lectures worldwide on canine behavior. She is a columnist for Modern Dog magazine, and blogs for Positively, the Huffington Post, and her own blog, Wilde About Dogs. Nicole runs Gentle Guidance Dog Training in southern California.


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