Aggressive Towards Dogs. A Not-So-Brave New World

‘Aggressive towards other dogs but a perfect dog at home’. How many times do I hear that.

Aggressive is only a word. It can mean a lot of things. In Lottie’s case it’s probably a belief that if she reacts quickly and strongly enough, she will remain safe. It looks like she’s never learnt the right way to interact with other dogs. It’s not a desire to attack or do harm.

Aggressive towards other dogs?

With Lottie it’s all about feeling unsafe. Self-preservation.

aggressive towards other dogsShe has never actually hurt a dog but she can sound and look pretty fierce. This is hard to believe when you meet the quiet and affectionate dog at home.

It’s a problem they didn’t know about when they picked up the four-year-old Staffie mix from a rescue five months ago.

It began with a sudden encounter with a little dog in a narrow alleyway. She pinned it down but did no damage beyond frightening it.

This was on her very first day with them. It was a totally new world.

From the kind of things she reacts to, it’s doubtful she had encountered many other dogs, nor bikes, scooters, pushchairs and so on. The things she doesn’t react to are surprising. She loves running beside their ride-on mower – very likely she had met one of these before. Off-lead in a field of horses she will ignore them completely, like she’s very used to horses.

Left to do her own thing?

It’s an educated guess that Lottie will have previously lived in a country environment with plenty of space to run free. What she loves best is to hunt. She is kind of uneducated in how to behave towards other dogs and those she has been allowed to get to she will ‘run into exhaustion’. Very likely dogs haven’t been part of her previous life.

At home she hates any shut doors. Leave all doors in the house open and she’s happy. This all suggests she’s unused to any physical boundaries indoors or outside.

The bottom line is that she seems really happy in her new home but she doesn’t feel safe when out – unless free in the open countryside and off-lead. Then she comes into her own.

Many people think the way to solve a dog’s problems with something is to expose them to lots. They did this with bikes by taking her to a cycle pathway. She went mental. If not handled right, too-close encounters with things that scare the dog will actually sensitise her rather than desensitise her. This is the way in which things go downhill.

People seldom think to call a behaviourist until later on and they can no longer cope, so it’s not nipped in the bud and unknowingly they are continuing to further sensitise the dog. So often they are not warned by the rescue to take introducing the dog to his or her new world very slowly.

A large, living teddy bear.

The other issue is that they are constantly having to watch the little girl, age three, who treats Lottie like a large teddy bear. She squeezes her in hugs and sits on her. Lottie will take herself off upstairs to keep out of the way.

There are too many stories of dogs that are gentle and good-natured just like Lottie, one day turning on the child. Children often get bitten in their faces as usually the child has his or her face in the dog’s face.

A picture by another little girl of her dog in his bubble

and a bubble by a little girl called Molly, showing herself smiling outside the bubble

They already are using reward stickers with the little girl. Now Lottie will live in her ‘bubble’ that the little girl will learn not to burst. Mum will draw pictures of Lottie and the little girl can draw bubbles around her. Then they can stick them round the house as reminders.

When the child remembers Lottie’s bubble, she will get a reward. Positive reinforcement for the little girl as well as for Lottie.

Going back to the beginning.

Very fortunately they have access to a paddock and another dog, a Labrador, that Lottie gets on with. She can still have her runs in safety.

Road walking in her new world away from the open countryside is the challenge. They will go back to the beginning and work on loose lead walking, desensitising her to bicycles, scooters, buggies – and helping her with other dogs. Walks will be slow with a lot of standing about. They will build up positive associations with the scary things whilst keeping sufficient distance.

If these things had been part of her daily life from a very young age, she would ignore bikes and scooters just as she does horses and not feel the need to appear aggressive towards dogs.

They will now be playing catch-up. Lottie’s a lucky dog to be living with such conscientious people in her new world. I’m sure she will ultimately have other playmates like the Labrador if they are introduced correctly.


NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Lottie and because neither dog nor situation will ever be exactly the same. If you listen to ‘other people’ or find instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog, you can do more harm than good as the case needs to be assessed correctly. One size does not fit all so accurate assessment is important, particularly where fear or aggression is concerned. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Help page)

Importance of Early Socialisation

Canaan puppies

The other three ears should come up soon!

I have just been to two five-month-old siblings. Before the family picked them up about four weeks ago, despite being brother and sister each puppy had had a very different life.

They are Canaans, a rare and ancient breed. Lapidos is confident and friendly, Leah is afraid of everything – of people and anything new, noisy or sudden.

Lapidos had been bullied by the other puppies in the kennel, so was brought into the house to live with the family.

Leah had remained outside with the other puppies. All her physical needs were met but I would guess she had little interaction with the normal things of daily life at that very crucial time before about thirteen weeks old when the ‘fear period’ kicks in. She is such a clear demonstration of the importance of early socialisation.

These puppies are are settling in well with a lovely family with four very young little children in a well-organised environment. Leah has made considerable progress thanks to the love and patience of her new family so far as relaxing with them is concerned.

But she is very scared of anyone new.

She is often too frightened to go out into the garden, particularly during the day – but strangely she is more courageous outside after dark. She shies at gusts of wind, sounds, anything moving, anything new or sudden.

Leah lying where she feels safe

The two pups lived exclusively in the utility room which is off their large kitchen and they had not been allowed into the house. They are quite content to be in there without crying to come out and join the family, probably because that’s how it’s been from the start. All their encounters with the little children and other people have either been in that room, out in the garden or on walks.

There are downsides to this. When friends and even the children go into their utility room Leah, in particular, has nowhere to escape to if scared unless the back door is open which she is sometimes too anxious to go through anyway. When I came I was immediately introduced to the dogs in the utility room and Leah ran to the furthest bed, the best she could do to hide. Other people who don’t know better will no doubt try to approach and befriend her.

After I had been there a while they opened the gate so the dogs could join us in the kitchen. Lapidos was in with us straight away, friendly, curious and testing new boundaries. Leah ventured in and kept running back out again. I rolled food to her which she ate and at one stage she dared come near to me as I sat still and looked the other way.

I suggested that the dogs now have monitored sessions in the kitchen, both separately and together, where they can begin to learn a few cues and interact with their humans and with new people in a calmer environment than the garden and in a less trapped environment than the utility room.

The kids should be taught to read how the dogs are feeling and whether, at any particular moment, they want to be touched or approached. From what I saw from their body language with the very little girl who joined us, both dogs, even Leah, welcomed her proximity. Dogs and children should never be left alone together unsupervised.

Leah with the dog food they will be returning

If Leah can’t gradually socialise with new people in an environment where she feels safe, it will make things very difficult for them all as she grows older. Now that they understand the way to deal with a fearful dog, they will no longer make her go anywhere she doesn’t want to go but give her time and always an escape route.

When out, these unusual and beautiful puppies are like a magnets to people and Leah can’t escape the scary attention. It’s the owners’ job to protect her as they would their children.

If something scary happens to a dog when one of their humans happens to be present, the dog can associate the person with the fear even though they had nothing to do with it. There was an incident where a child tied Lapidos’ lead to a chair in the garden and went away. The pup pulled the chair over which terrified him and the lady was nearby and rescued him. For the following week he tried to avoid her.

We looked at all aspects of the puppies’ lives to make sure they get off to the best start, including diet. In the picture is Leah, venturing out of the utility room and past a new large pack of Baker’s Complete dog food. Diet affects the dogs both physically and mentally, and food like this is made to be tasty and pretty, but contains little proper nutrition and even some harmful stuff and additives. They will return it.

So, we have made a start. The purpose of having me to help are for the humans to be able to teach the pups basic training cues, to walk nicely on lead and for the beautiful Leah to gradually grow in confidence. Finally, and understandably with such young children playing outside, they would like the dogs to toilet in one area only in the garden.