Canine aggression: Getting to a good walk - Firstline
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Canine aggression: Getting to a good walk
When the nightly walk becomes a nightmare for pet owners and their dogs, it's time for veterinary technicians to intervene.


Prevention and safety

Leave out the punishment
Before instituting behavior modification, the owner must first put in place a preventive management program. This is essential not only to prevent potential injuries but also to avoid further learning that would perpetuate and aggravate the problem. When aggression is successful at removing the threat, the behavior is reinforced, further increasing the problem. This may also lead to a decrease in threats and posturing as the pet gains confidence that aggression will be successful. Therefore, evaluation of the case from the first incident might be necessary to be able to use body language as a primary diagnostic tool. Another consequence of each aggressive interaction is that if the owner is anxious or upset or uses punishment (corrections) to suppress the behavior, or if the stimulus (person or pet) is fearful or threatening in any way, the association with the stimulus becomes increasingly more unpleasant. In addition, when owners punish pets that are displaying aggressive signals, they might suppress the warning threats that precede the aggression.

For dogs that are aggressive to people or other pets on walks, stimulus avoidance can be achieved by avoiding walks and limiting play, exercise, and training to the home or yard. Alternatively, it might be possible to walk the dog at times or in locations where stimuli can be avoided or at sufficient distance from the stimulus that the dog does not react. Pet owners might even drive their dogs to a location where they can walk their dogs without exposure to any fear-evoking stimuli. Some dogs can be walked when they are focused on a positive activity, such as jogging or cycling, or when they are together with people or other dogs that keep them distracted or help calm them. Pet owners can also practice stimulus avoidance by keeping their dogs away from doors or windows or running free in the yard, if fear and aggression might be incited.

Since safety is the first concern, a leash and head halter, an easy walk harness (front control), a basket muzzle, or physical confinement (e.g., to a room, crate, or secure yard or kennel) will most likely be required during parts of the program. Control devices such as the leash and head halter or front-control harness also allow the owner to immediately but calmly redirect the pet away from a situation should problems begin to arise. Owners should be taught how to monitor, read, and communicate with their dogs to identify any body language or signals that precede threats or aggression and to immediately remove their dogs should any of these signs arise.

During the preventive program, the owners will also need to work on the foundation exercises that will be used to control the dog and achieve desired outcomes (response substitution) during future exposure. This can only be accomplished when the pet is in a sufficiently low state of arousal that allows it to focus and learn. Pets in a high state will react reflexively and without the ability to consciously assess and respond to situations. Pets that cannot be effectively calmed during this early training may need to have some one-on-one sessions with a trainer or revisit the behavioral specialist. Various medications to help reduce anxiety can also be recommended in this situation or if the aggressive behavior is excessive, prolonged, or out of control.



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