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)

Why Did Their Dog Bite a Child

In truth, the little Shih tzu has snapped at two grandchildren and one of their friends this last week. Her teeth caught the nose of the last child.

There is absolutely no way she can be called an aggressive dog. She is beautiful and friendly. It is clear that at times things simply get too much for her. Too much noise, too many people and too much pulling about by children.


Boy learning to touch Asha so she feels comfortable

On each occasion the atmosphere was charged with excitement so her arousal and stress levels will have been getting higher and higher until she, literally snapped. On a couple of occasions she had taken herself off to lie down in peace, and the child had gone and disturbed her.

As you can imagine, the family are deeply upset to the extent they were even fearing losing Asha. They adore their little dog but they can’t have their grandchildren or their friends bitten.

We need to look into why would their dog bite a child, and deal with that.

Having questioned the very helpful nine-year-old boy in detail who had been present on each occasion and he himself one of the victims, the reason this has escalated so fast became clear. They simply did not recognise the signs that Asha was sending out, trying to communicate that she was uncomfortable and had had enough and she was almost forced into taking things further. Some breeds’ faces are more inscrutable than others, but there probably was some yawning or looking away. The boy told me she licked her nose.

Unaware of what the little dog was trying to tell him he carried on touching her, so she now growled. Unfortunately he took no notice of that either. So, she snapped. The child recoiled and, bingo, Asha succeeded in what she had been trying to achieve from the start, which was to be left alone.

The second time it sounds like she gave just a quick growl that was ignored before snapping. The child backed off. Job done. The final time, she went straight to the snapping stage, leaping at the child’s face with no prior warning.

Asha had, in the space of just one week, learnt what worked.

Three things need to be done straight away.

Firstly, the opportunity to rehearse this behaviour ever again has to be removed. Each time snapping succeeds in giving her the space she needs, the more of a learned response it will become.

If the atmosphere is highly charged or several children come to play – they have a swimming pool so things get noisy – then the dog should be shut away (something she is perfectly happy with).

Secondly, all children coming to their house must be taught ‘the rules’ and how to ‘read Asha’. The grandson who helped me so well is going to be her ‘Protector’ and teach the other children. I have sent a couple of videos for them to watch. The dog’s ‘den’ – an area under the stairs – must be isolated and totally out-of-bounds to kids. The boy is going to make a poster!

Here are their Golden Rules:

Don’t approach and touch Asha when she’s lying down, particularly when asleep.
Let Asha choose. Wait till she comes over to you. Don’t go over to her.
Don’t go near a dog that is eating anything.
Dogs don’t like hands going over their heads. Chest is best.
If you want to run around and have noisy fun, do it away from the dogs
If you see lip-licking, yawning or if you see the whites of her eyes. STOP. Move away.
If the dog keeps looking away. STOP. Move away.
If the dog goes very still STOP. Move away.
If you hear a growl. STOP. Move away.

Because kids, being kids, may forget the ‘no touching unless she comes over to you’ rule,  I suggest when children are in the house that Asha wears something to remind them, maybe a yellow bandana or little jacket with ‘give me space’ or something similar.

The other thing in common between all three snapping incidents is that Asha was in a highly stressed state, so the third thing is helping to keep her stress levels down. There are quite a few trigger points in her life where things could be dealt with differently to help avoid stress accumulating which will mean she is a lot more tolerant and less ready to explode. I read somewhere a good saying: ‘Stress loads the gun’.

They fortunately are nipping this in the bud (no pun intended!) before it can develop further. I’m sure that with the children educated in ‘dog manners’, with any warnings heeded and things not allowed to get too exciting or overwhelming around her, Asha will feel no need to bite a child ever again.

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 Asha. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good particularly in cases involving aggression. One size does not fit all. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Get Help page).