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.


17 thoughts on “Practice Makes Perfect–Aggression, That Is

  1. Amy S

    Hello. I've been watching It's Me or the Dog, and I've seen a harness several times. I've been trying to find one, and I'm not able to. What is the brand name of the no pull harness that has padding underneath and a slide leading to the top and to the lead, and please, where can I find one? I have a min. Schnauzer who needs one.

    thanks for sharing your expertise with us.


  2. Emily

    hi Victoria, after reading this, i have a question

    my boyfriends dog Luca, a four year old belgian shepard cross, has a history of aggression with some male dogs. i hasten to add that its not all male dogs and there seems to be no clue as to why he attacks some dogs and not others.

    however he has many friends, both male and female than he gets on well with and he likes to play fight with them. the play fights are boisterous as Luca friends are all big, sturdy dogs, but they never progress into real fights.

    Luca's behaviour has improved but he still does attack other dogs, i was just the play fighting behaviour exacerbate the actual aggressive behaviour?

  3. Kari Richardson

    Victoria, my mom and I love you! I have a 4 year old cockapoo and she barks at anything that moves and is sometimes aggressive towards strangers. I've tried teaching her the Stop command to stop barking and she does but then once she gets her treat she goes back to barking. What am I doing wrong? How do I try and lessen her aggression? I want to help her but don't know how.

  4. Jennifer

    I have a Bearded Collie mix we rescued from a shelter. I also have a Lhasa mix, a Bichon and a Chihuahua. Albus (my Beardie) loves them like a father and I never worry about him around little dogs. Recently we rescued a dog from next door that had been tied to a cage and left out in the heat (I live in Las Vegas, NV, and the day we saved him it was 118!) 24/7. He nearly died of heat stroke! We convinced the owners to release him to us, and they agreed, so now we are fostering him until we can find him a good home. He's a Doberman/Shepard mix with a very sweet disposition. I've been trying to integrate them for three weeks now, but every time Albus sees him, he attacks. The last time resulting in a trip to the vet and nasty injuries. Albus was severely abused prior to coming to us and has scars all over his body. I don't know how long the Dobi mix will be staying with us and I can't just keep him locked up in a room all the time. The poor guy has bowed tendons from being locked in a cage most of his life. He needs to run around to get better and I can't adopt him out until he is. I'm very frustrated. Is there a chance that Albus will ever get over his aggression? The vet believes Albus might have been used as a "bait" dog to train fighting dogs. We don't know what his story is, but to humans and small dogs, he really is the definition of "best friend", but big dogs (male or female) are in danger anywhere I take him. Any advice? Thanks!

  5. Leslie

    @Amy S-- The harness is from a company called "Canine Concepts," although it also says "Yuppie Puppy" on the packaging and harness. I found mine at PetCo, but it may be available at other pet stores as well. I absolutely love it for my 50 lb. lab/border collie mix, and my mom got one for her dog as well! Good luck!

  6. Dani Citti

    I have an unusual problem with my dog Tu. He seems to be the policeman of 'dog manners' and whenever another dog 'sniffs' him in a fashion he considers rude - he lets them know in a very aggressive way. He has amazing bite inhabition and never really hurt another dog, but it is unsettling and is bad behavior, of course. My previous dog trainer feels that Tu is not an agressive dog, he just gets a little enthusiastic about correcting what he finds to be rude dog behavior. In addition, he is not so good around other large dogs. This is my fault. We used to live in a town in TX where a lot of large dogs are let out or abandonded by their owners - including pits used for fighting. I walked Tu every day and carried a stun baton and a cell phone. Whenever an unattended large dog come near us I would set off the baton, don't worry, I've NEVER stunned a dog, the sound alone was enough to scar them off. So, now Tu thinks all large dogs are a threat. I really had no other choice - sometimes these dogs were really dangerous, but Tu loved his walks. In hindshight I regret it, but now what do I do? Tu LOVES to play with other dogs - when we go for our walks and see other dogs, he immediately goes into a play bow and starts barking. Sometimes it just makes me cry. IS there anything I can do for him? We never go to the off leash park when other dogs are around -- and when other dogs show up, I remove him from the park right away.

  7. Alex

    i have a lab-pit mix that likes to bark at the neighbors when they walk bye the yard. Don't get me wrong, once they come close he is the sweetest dog your ever going to meet. He does do hard staring though. Is this leading to aggression issues? I do believe he is barking out of territory, but if someone enters the yard he stops barking and his tail starts wagging with no hard stare.

  8. Gail

    but..what are the steps? I admit there's a problem and have been to many different trainers and used many different technigues, still every once in a while....when you least expect it...snap, and you feel you lost all progress, my high energy BC seems to get so excited when he cannot do what he wants on leash and will take out his high energy on whatever is next to him for a release...even the dog he was just playing with. Can you ever fix that?

  9. JEANA

    On May 27th, I brought home an 8 week old Shar Pei Female puppy to blend into a 4 dog household. The dogs accepted her just fine. I have a 2 year old male boxer who played really rough with my nuetered male chihuahua. The chiuahua would lie on his back and submit to the boxer which made a lot of aggressive noise as he slobbered on the chihuahua's belly. The Shar Pei baby watched this behavior day after day. She LOVES the boxer and soon became aggreseive to the chihuahua too, as if to try to "please" or "impress" the boxer. However, she is not playing. She is out to "kill" the chihuahua! She is now 4 months old...I can't let her near the chihuahua or she immediately tears into him. I understand the imprint that took place with the boxer dominating the chihuahua. How do I reverse this behavior? Again the Shar Pei is ONLY 4 months old. I LOVE EVERYTHING ELSE ABOUT THIS PUPPY...HELP1

  10. Kelly


    I have a Border Collie too. She's called Sadie and she's 10 now, so getting a bit slow now poor thing. She's a bit unpredictable around other dogs too. I've tried lots of things to solve this over the years but found the only thing that works is avoidance of other dogs.

    She's awesome off the lead and is happiest when she is, so I've trained her to stay by my side at all times unless I tell her she can walk on. I keep a sharp eye out and if I see another dog approaching I call her back, put her lead on (which hopefully gives a sign to the other owner unless they're irresponsible or stupid like I find some are!) and then we stand to one side of the path of the other dog with Sadie sitting by my side. If the other dog comes close, I'm calm and say 'good girl' and 'stay' give lots of praise. I look for signs that she might turn and say 'leave'. She's really good now, she'll ignore all dogs that she doesn't know and most of the time other owners understand the message of puuting the lead on her and keep their dogs away from her.

  11. kayla

    my dog hates other dogs. i just got him a few months ago and he is three years old. he will attack dogs for no reason. the other day he got in a fight with my next door niehgbors dog. my neighbors dog has never been in a dog fight before. how can i help my dog like other dogs.

  12. Jesse the Dog Travel Advisor

    Very informative post with some useful suggestions! I can't say that I agree with everything you have suggested here, but there are several critical recommendations you have highlighted that can be very usable on dog training and related topics. Definitely keep offering more ideas on this topic and related issues, as there are quite a few folks who are attempting to understand the costs and benefits.

  13. Jeannette Gentry

    Thank you for all that you do in educating pet owners on good, positive training. Here's my dilemma, My sister in law and her daughter own 2 poodles and 2 Chihuahua's. I must tell you that this household is full of unhappiness ans turmoil. Alot of yelling between the members in this home as well as at the dogs. The daughter goes to college and took one of the Chihuahua's with her. These dogs have not been socialized properly, they bark out of control when someone knocks and come in. their solution is to pick the dog up and say shut-up or spat em on the rear. They are scared of everything, the daughter, who is my niece has told me her dog follows her room to room, shakes uncontrollably and has bitten her mother ,but, her mother was teasing Lexie , so, then after that her mother continues to tease .Lexi did draw blood .My niece tries to explain to her mother not to do that, but, she wont listen. I hope this all makes sense, She only comes home on the weekends and Lexi is with her at school through the week. Shes trying to explain to her family the damage their actions are causing. She want to train and help her dog to be happier and not so fearful, but, unless she has everyones support,I dont see this happening. What should her first step be? She brought her dog over so she could play with mine as I own a toy poodle named Chloe who is very outgoing and confident, suoer friendly, but, her dog wanted nothing to do with her, actually growled at mone. Please help!

  14. Vera

    Hi. I read your post/article and I find myself agreeing with it 100%. I live in greece, where dog parks are not... well, common. But there are some places you can take your dog and those are precious cause they are not many. In "our" park, there is an AM Staf that is now a bit over a year old. We've known him since he was a pup - a very happy, playful pup at that, never going angry and very, VERY submissive to older/bigger dogs. But then, as he neared his 1st b-day, he started snapping at other dogs (mostly other male dogs). And then, he started creating fights - if a male dog was playing with a female he wanted to play with, if a male dog had a ball he wanted to chew on, if another male dog that he didn't like was around. And he started drawing blood. Mind you, I own a half-breed pitbul and have NOTHING against the breed. But I do think, Charlie has a problem. He was NEVER corrected in any way, other than being pulled off the other dog and being held down for a few minutes afterwards. But he draws blood, everytime. Then he got bit once, too, and it got worse - there is hardly ever a time we see him at the park that he doesn't viciously attack at least one dog. Each time it takes longer to separate the dogs, each time it gets bloodier each time it is worse... But he is never punished in any way. Owners do believe it is natural for dogs to get in fights (I think they are proud of him) and that well, if they take him on a walk a few times after a fight, it will eventually stop. But it won't, will it. So what should we do? How can we protect our dogs? Mine is a female, not an immediate target, but what he does with females is he chases them around and hamps them relentlessly even if they are not in heat or if they are spayed, like mine (he can go non-stop for an hour or more with the same dog), ending up in female dogs not being able to run around and play and have the fun they are supposed to be having. Once again, owners believe that is only natural and even get ungry when we try to pul the dog away. I'll print your article out and hand it to the dog owners, but is there something more that I can say or do? Thank you for your time.

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