Tense encounters between dogs are not unusual. In fact, dog-to-dog aggression is one of the most common problematic behavior challenges that owners, breeders, trainers, shelter staff, and rescue volunteers consistently face.
Many expert behavior specialists believe that one of the main reasons is that puppies are not well socialized with other dogs who are stable and dog-friendly. This often results in adult dogs who are “socially awkward” and uncomfortable with other dogs. The severity of the problem varies as do the behaviors displayed. It also causes a communication gap between them and other dogs who are well-socialized early on in life. They are not able to “read” other dogs and exchange common, subtle communication signals with them.
If puppies miss out on positive socialization experiences with other stable and playful playmates, they are more at risk of developing fear-based aggressive behaviors toward other dogs. These dogs tend to be kept more isolated than dogs who have good social skills, which exacerbates the problem and the behavior only gets worse as they mature. This is not something they “grow out of” but rather something they “grow in to.”
Of course, lack of socialization is not the only cause of dog-dog aggressive behavior. Other causes include negative experiences with other dogs, i.e., being attacked or being born to a mother that belongs to a breeder that never allows her to socialize with people or other dogs. Puppies learn much of their socialization and trust or mistrust of humans during the highly developmental stage that they are with their mother.
If you happen to own a dog that doesn’t work and play well with others, the good news is that there are many training techniques, some still being developed, that can help you teach your dog socialization skills even after they reach adulthood. Taking your dog to obedience classes, with a trainer who is also experienced in behavior modification, can improve your dog’s manners so that you can feel comfortable handling him in public again.
The work you will do in these classes will be geared mostly to teach your dog to associate other dogs with positive things, and to teach your dog that good behavior in the presence of other dogs will be rewarded. It will also focus on teaching your dog to look to you for the information as to whether the situation is safe for them.
The first method commonly used in these classes involves simple classical conditioning – the dog learns that the presence of another dog predicts a food treat, much as Pavlov’s dogs learned to associate the sound of a bell with dinner coming.
Operant conditioning is also used to teach the dog that his own actions can earn positive reinforcement in the form of treats, praise, and play. Both types of conditioning attempt to change the underlying emotional state of the dog that leads to aggression (CER – conditioned emotional response – which if you have been to any of my classes or worked one on one with me you have heard me talk about often. This is much more effective than just suppressing the outward symptoms.
In the past and, sadly, still used by some, were punishment techniques such as a hard “pop” (yank) on the leash which is attached to a prong collar. Punishment results in additional negative side effects. A dog who has been punished is left feeling more stress than before, thus making it more difficult for him to calm down. Also, when punished for growling or showing signs of unease with other dogs, a dog may simply learn to suppress his growling and visual signals of discomfort, which can often result in the dog instead just suddenly striking out with little or no warning.
These are some of the reasons that behaviorists like Ian Dunbar and Jean Donaldson believe that it is absolutely necessary to eliminate all punishment and reprimands from aggression rehabilitation programs.
In the most effective aggression-retraining programs, unpleasant or punishing training methods are avoided as much as possible. Control over the dog’s behavior is obtained by putting the dog on what is known as the “Nothing in Life is Free” regimen. The basic premise is that the dog must respond to an obedience cue in order to earn every right, freedom, and privilege. These include meals, treats, toys, play, games, walks, and even attention and petting. The goal is to teach the dog to appreciate his owner as the provider of all good things in his life.