Aggression or Spatially Sensitive, Does it Really Matter?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Sorry all, that I have been away from the blog. I have had lots to say, but life has gotten in the way. I wanted to comment on the issue of dog:dog aggression. I think the run of spatially sensitive dogs we have had at our camps recently warrants the mention of solutions on this blog. First of all please don’t wait until you have a full-blow “issue” before you seek out help with your dog. I was approached recently by someone  with a reactive dog and when I asked “how many times has your dog put a salvia trail on a dog” her answer was “four times that were quite bad.”  I probed further, as I hadn’t asked about “bad” incidents and found out that her dog had jumped other dogs 6 or 7 times at a minimum.  The last one, which was the night before the dog was to work in camp, opened another dog’s throat up for what looked like 10-15 stitches.  It is unfair to both your dog and the poor unsuspecting dog he jumps, for you to allow more than one rehearsal of such an unacceptable behaviour.

To on-lookers the easy answer is to call the dog an ass—- and suggest euthanasia. Even though I have suggested this for more than one dog, that really is the easy way out, to blame the dog. I am in no way an expert in aggression. But I do know true “organic aggression” stemming from an imbalance is rare. Most aggression is learn, based in fear that is not properly addressed. I have helped people with dogs with issues, but more often then not I refer them on to one of many CERTIFIED  behavourist that I know and respect (there are many).  The thing that irratates me about aggressive dogs is that their issues do not crop up over night.  Your dog will show you signs very, very early on. Your dog will shy behind your legs, pin his ears, errect the hair of his bursa and of course possibly growl. A dog showing any of these signs alone or in combination is communicating to both the other dog and to you that “I am uncomfortable in this environment and I need your help to cope.  Sadly, the owners reaction to their dog’s plea for help is to collar correct him, calling him an ‘evil dog.’   How sad for the dog. What this teaches the dog is to stop growling at other dogs, but it does not alter the fact that he lacks confidence in those situations. What may happen next time is that rather than growling your dog may just lunge and bite the dog! When your dog gives you his feedback, you need to evaluate it and act on it.  Pack yourself  loads of great treats in order to dole out the cookies when other dogs are near by.  Please don’t think this is the extend of my suggestions.  The truth is that a dog that has a history of reactivity around other dogs should never be put in a position to hurt a dog or even be allowed to lunge at his crate door or fence run with the neighbour dog. The dog at our place that had torn up the throat of that Sheltie was a dog that constantly fence fought with the dog next door. Any guess what breed that was?? Yes, it was a Sheltie. Years of pent up aggression that was never fulfilled with the neighbour’s dog was taken out on an unsuspecting other. You need to stop reherasals of undesirable behaviour in your dog. Practice makes perfect, so the more rehearsals of aggression your dog is allowed, the better he gets at being aggressive. Intimidation and blame is not the answer. Such a dog must always be on a head halter. There are some games that I have outlined in Shaping Success that I used with Buzzy to help him with is dog:dog issues.  When Buzz was a three year old, we were at an agility trial in the crowded walkway between the two rings.  I had bend over to tie my shoe and Buzz went over my head at an intact male German Shepherd. Luckily for me, in that vulnerable position, it was a very stable GSD that did not retaliate!  Not long after that Buzz made it clear he would hurt my, at that time ‘new puppy,’ DeCaff. That is when I listened to what he had been trying to tell me all along and I and started counter conditioning his fear of other dogs. Today Buzzy actually seeks out other dogs, he loves everyone.  Even if your dog is a happy go lucky dog that loves all other dogs, don’t allow the opportunity to give him treats around other dogs pass you buy. Check out the video clip in my last blog when the 6 month old puppy starts sniffing Buzz’s man parts. Buzz instantly seeks out my face to be told what a good boy he is. Once again the power of the “R” word. Reinforcement really does build behaviour!

Today I am grateful to be home for a staggering 4 1/2 weeks in a row! 



  1. Can you indicate how you handle instances in a class/workshop where you know/see the dog is reactive? Do you allow these dogs to continue or wait to show you something that you can ask them to leave? I’m thinking of how best to handle my own students (mostly pet owners) that come to me with dogs they know are reactive on leash. (many times, they are already working with a behaviorist on the issue) I’d welcome any suggestions on how to handle as an instructor. Thanks!

  2. Thank you thank you thank you! Dog-dog reactivity and aggression issues are all-too-commonly ignored, put on the back burner, or made worse through “corrections” in the agility world (not to mention the rest of the world), and it’s great to hear someone as successful as yourself speak on the issue.

  3. Thank you so much for posting this. I have worked very hard and very carefully with my genetically “shy” dog.

    Luckily for both of us, when she joined my household four years ago as a nine week old nervous pup, I had the knowledge behind me not to set her up to fail. Our crowning achievement last year was going to the Nationals and having no problem working in such a busy environment – we may not have been in the ribbons but we won big time in my mind.

    Nell has never rehearsed lunging, barking or any other idiotic behaviour and is secure in the knowledge that she will not be expected to “cope” with interactions she can’t handle.

    It is very hard for me to watch people at trials and seminars repeatedly put their fearful dogs into situations that they can not cope with. In my own tiny classes, I stress giving dogs lots of space, reinforcing great behaviour and keeping arousal rates down.

    I think that many of the situations people get themselves into with “agressive dogs” can be addressed by following a couple of the mantras I have learned from you – foundation, foundation, foundation, by paying constant unrelenting attention to a transfer of value and by keeping the dog safe.
    Really enjoying the blog,

  4. This is such a perfect post for us. I love it when that happens!

    We rescued a 11 month old aussie 2 weeks ago and he’s sweet as pie. AND he lunges and barks at strangers and dogs. He doesn’t bite at all when he gets to them, but he’s tentative with people and his bursa spikes up – he’s clearly uncomfortable.

    I’ve been working with him this week having him sit and not bark when strangers come while I dole out cookies and working on recalls when the neighbor dogs start fence running. “Normal” treats haven’t been as effective as super tasty, smelly chicken hot dogs. 🙂

    We recognize that he is a potentially future aggressive dog if we don’t nip this in the bud now and reinforce the behaviors we want around strangers and other dogs. Thanks Susan for posting about this – I’m SO happy to have a new post to read this morning!

  5. Thank you for this post. As a person who shares her life with a reactive dog I appreciate your blog and hope others will take your suggestions to heart.

    When my boy was a puppy I felt like I did everything “right”. We socialized, exposed, and rewarded confidence. Then when he was just over a year old, he was attacked from behind twice and our world has changed.

    I brought Baylor into our lives to be my agility dog but with his reactivity I felt forced to go on a different journey. I did not want anyone to go through what Baylor and I were going through. I no longer see our journey as being forced but one in which I was able to grow and mature in my training.

    The blessing from our journey is I have learned how to build a relationship, found new ways to train, never take our time together for granted, and appreciate the dog Baylor is at this minute.

    I would never trade the expereinces or the bond Baylor and I have, nor the teacher he continues to be to me.

    Blessings~ Angela and Baylor

  6. I too have a border collie pup that started out very nervous and didn”t understand how to “deal” with strange and mostly dogs who appeared to me to be frantic and maybe seemed “out of control” to her. The biggest help to her was CRATE GAMES. I figured her instinct to lunge was simply an impulse control issue and what better place to start working on her impusle to grab at the tail feathers of other dogs but in crate games.

    So we started with basic crate games and worked up to having the door open and all the dogs she found “stressful” playing, running at and around her crate. Now if she worries or barks in the crate I simply open the door so she can “choose” how she would like to deal with it.

    Once she could handle all that stuff in the crate we just moved her outside the crate on her gentle leader and she understood “how” to choose to be right and the dogs that stressed her out could run right over her tail chasing a toy and she was fine.

    I also had great help with her being worried about people during our 10 days with Susan at the seminar in Vancouver. In the motorhome, Susan just put cookies on top of the crate and everytime someone came in and out they fed her.

    I am happy to say she is basically a bug now and is pretty willing to jump on anyone new! She also spent 2 weeks socializing with 20 dogs at friends place in California and has developed some really nice skills that she didn’t have before. She has learned to move away if she is uncomfortable and if the dog does not ‘get the message’ she has learned to air snap to get the point across, she used to just grab their cheek with no warning ( she never left a mark but I still didn’t like it and could see it turning into something nasty later if we didn’t help her quickly, she was 10 weeks when she first grabbed one of my adult dogs!).

    She tolerates a LOT now before she has to make her point and I prefer the air snap and have never corrected her for that since she always gives the other dog plenty of time to get out of her face. The air snap only happens if she can’t get away.She always chooses to leave if she can now.

    Will I always be careful with her, yes, but I always watch for opportunity to reward her when she makes a good choice in a stressful situation.


  7. I own one of those happy go lucky dogs that loves all other dogs (lucky me!) THANK YOU for the reminder not to take this blessing for granted…and to keep rewarding this good behaviour.

    Anita and Zoot

  8. Thank you for posting this. My Border Collie Faith is a confident dog but not all confident in new places recently when you were in Florida I was showing at a show we both we at and I couldnt believe Faith barked at a friend of mine not aware that she wasnt confortable at the show grounds so you gave me advise to put my gentle leader back on so I did and kept it on for all shows I was at and everywhere and now I am happy to say she is happy with her tail up and high saying hi to everyone and no more barking thanks Susan for thinking of us when we needed it.

  9. thanks so much for posting this susan and opening the door for people to talk about it on your blog.

    i am the owner of a highly reactive “owner created” border collie. i say owner created because i take full responsibilty for his dog:dog behavior/agression. when i got him he was not only my first BC but he was a super confident and pushy puppy. when he started going after other dogs i didn’t have anyone to go to about what i might do about it. my only solution seemed to be the dreaded pinch collar, so that when he would lung at least he would think twice. i was even told that he shouldn’t be allowed to live…..thats what made me wake up and look for help.

    it took me a year before i found help with him. christine has been his blessing. i learned that its not about what is around and not to look for trouble, but to make sure that i focus on him and set him up to succeed. too many people/trainers out there think physical punishment is always the answer. with a dog like this it did nothing but amplify his reactivness. i am glad to say that i can now have him in a full crowd of dogs and as long as i am engaged with him and asking him to be the gentlman i know he can be, i am all that matters.luckly i have always made sure that i don’t give him the chance to hurt an unsuspecting dog. i am aware of his issues and make sure that i manage him at all times in social situations.

    hard work pays off, but you need to put the time in. its a long road back if you start off in the wrong direction.


  10. I completely agree with Kim that crate games is a great tool for reactive dogs. I believe dogs internalize the self-control they learn from crate games and can then draw on it in stressful situations.

    Crate games worked so well for my young dog that I actually have trouble convincing other people to try it. They just don’t believe that calm dog waiting patiently in a down stay ever had impulse control or reactivity problems!

    I’d love to see you write a little more about the value of crate games for behaviour modification/ prevention and relationship building. I think it’s a tool with value that extends well beyond agility training. I learned as much from it as my dog did, and I always return to the training principles I learned in crate games as I develop training plans for other skills.


    • Great insight Christine, Crate Games is a model that I build all of my dog’s behaviours around.

  11. Your blog this week is timely (as usual). I had written off Magnum’s reactivity as normal for the breed. I had info from a different source that suggested that off leash interaction would take care of the problem. At camp, I discovered (to my great chagrin) that he wasn’t ‘normal’ and other members of his breed do NOT always react (thanks Linda). He was put on a halti the second day. He still doesn’t like it but I’ve gained a mile more control and I’ve learned to anticipate and be pro-active rather than reactive. I’ve always been told that I’m too slow with my corrections but I find that I don’t need to correct if I can change his frame of view. We’re still backing up 12 – 18 feet but I think the point is slowly being made – both to him and to me. Thank you.

  12. Hi Susan,
    I found it interesting that you commented that the dog feels uncomfortable in that situation and needs help coping. I have a “reactive” border collie and she will only react if mommy is not taking care of the situation…ie moving a dog, moving her, getting her attention, etc. Basically, not all people are cognizant to the fact that there are spatially sensitive dogs out there and I all too often hear ” but my dog is just being friendly”. Recently at a rehab vet visit for chiropractic, accupuncture, ultrasound, and laser – she is injured right now – A very large black lab came bounding out of the rehab clinic door right towards my little girl. The owner of course commented “Oh, she’s just friendly” and countered, well, Meg is not. I felt horrible but actually had to put myself between my Meg and the dog to keep some distance there. Meg was fine…because mommy took care of the situation at hand.
    Thanks for bringing that up, we have to be our dogs protector and advocate!
    Kathy Price

  13. Thank you for acknowledging a problem in the agility world. I also have a fearful little guy, age 6. Not knowing better, I followed the local trainer’s (only one around)advice using jerk/pull/submit/etc, when he began showing signs around 2,resulting increased dog reactivity. I have practiced CU for the past year with really visble results but can never relax with him and his agility career is in jeopardy.

  14. Thanks for this great article. I’m just dumbfounded, though, that in the year 2009 that we are still having to convince people that collar corrections don’t work. How quickly people will pop their dogs – are they not making the connection between training (the good dog stewardship kind) and training (the superstar Agility dog kind) ? Apparently not.

    Susan comes to Washington !!!!!!!!!!
    For this I am grateful !!

  16. Good points here!

    I took on a rescue BC about two years ago; he had what seemed to be no dog socialization and minimum person socialization…needles to say he was very reactive…

    Your book shaping for success rang in my mind; Buzz’s reactions were playing out before me in my pup! How helpful your book was and how helpful my trainer was as well….always using positive training and shaping for the behavior we wanted (“check in with the mama if you get startled”)

    ….2 years later we have begun competing (would not be possible without him settling in and being okay with the commotion at trials – in fact I often receive comments about how quite he is in his crate, how calm around other dogs…makes me smile inside!), 2 years later he actual is my social dog full body wages are in order if someone gives him attention, or another dog comes by,. He now comes to me when another dog gets pushy in play as if to say “didn’t you tell him that’s rude”, then off again he will go to playing…it’s great to see him relaxed in our world.

    Anyway, your book was the catalyst, I recommend it to all!

    Thank you for sharing your lessons, providing guidance and continuing to remind us of the work we owe to our canine partners 🙂

  17. Reading this post and everyone’s comments is so informative. A special thanks to Ann J,
    sounds so much like my story! I’m grateful for Crate games and CU, both have been such a help for me. Seeing my dog master these little things bit by bit has given me immense confidence.
    Best wishes for flu recovery…

  18. Thank you so much Susan, for this post, and all your others. I purchased your Crate Games DVD in December, with the great hope of developing self-control and confidence in my reactive 2 year old rescue mix. But much to my disappointment I have been unable to shape her into the crate at all, even as soon as I try just the tray as you suggest at the end of the DVD, she totally shuts down, no matter what I am offering. I am so utterly convinced of the power of these foundation exercises, and hoping you might be able to provide some other tips for getting a dog interested in Crate Games.

  19. Hi Susan – your blog is so true. My Finnegan, now an 8 year old (wheaten terrier) was reactive from the day he started puppy class. We have worked with a great trainer and we have all made great progress. No Finn can not interact with other dogs but we can and do keep him and other dogs safe. He has done agility classes but, as my trainer says, if he ever went to a trial his head would explode. It took 6 weeks before he and our pup Maggie (now 4 years old) could be off leash together when she came to us at 9 weeks of age. Finn is on Prozac and it has helped. He is a challenging dog and as a result life is not as easy as we would always like. But he is our dog and we love him and would not trade him for anything. My first two wheatens I lost at age 9 from kidney disease. I’m pretty sure that Finn will live a much longer life and despite the challenges we are grateful for that.

  20. Hi Susan, your post struck a chord with me too…..I’ve been working with my nervous/reactive BC to help her cope around other dogs and people, it’s been hard work; finding a local trainer who understood fearful dog behaviour was almost impossible (we got reactions from “you’re too soft on her” to “you need to work her through it” to “Cesar Millan would sort her out” to “she’ll grow out of it” – the last from her breeder!) so we’ve had to work alone a lot, but we’re finally beginning to show results. So much so that at her first agility show a couple of weeks ago she achieved a clear round (a Q?) at a UKA show…..I’m over the moon, there have been times when I thought I’d never be able to compete with her. She’s still a work in progress, and she tends to veer between over-reacting and shutting down, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel!

  21. Hi Susan:
    Thank you for sharing our troublesome aggression story on your blog. I hope by sharing our experiences, your readers, especially the inexperienced ones like me will take heed and make better choices for their dog than I did. Although my mistakes were borne of uninformed ignorance, the result for my dog is a difficult one. I had no idea at the time that things started to happen, what disastrous results would ultimately occur. The worst was yet to come, as during the evening after the end of Skills Camp, while walking along a quiet country road, my already extremely reactive dog got a little of her own medicine, when she was attacked and bitten by a large loose dog. Probably hasn’t helped our situation, but there’s only one direction to go – forward! What’s done is done.

    A heartfelt thanks to Susan, Tracy, Linda, and Penny for your support and encouragement at Skills Camp. I heeded every word you all said and we are now living that advice. Crate games are the joy of our existance right now and we play every single day, sometimes several times. We are 100% dedicated to the Ruff Love program and have refocussed all efforts to helping Addie and Tag learn to “look to mama” in every situation, no matter what, and to feel safe and unthreatened in all environments. Unfortunately, Addie has had repeated rehearsals, so we have a long road ahead of us, but I am extremely hopeful that somewhere along our new path we will reach a better place. Whether Addie will ever overcome enough of what has happened to return to agility and compete remains to be seen, but she is first and foremost my pet and if performing agility is not in her best interests, so be it.

    A word of advice to any readers who have noticed even the smallest tendencies that may at some point translate into aggression. ACT NOW! Learn the signs, understand their huge importance and the horrible impact that ignoring them may have, and get the proper assistance to help your dog feel comfortable and understand that they don’t need to protect themselves with aggression. It is the best gift you can give a potential reactive dog! AND PLAY CRATE GAMES…. it’s fun and it works!

    Susan has a wealth of information and resource material that has already helped us enormously, even if only by providing the confidence to put together a plan and stick to it religiously to it’s conclusion.

    Thanks again to all the extra help we received while at Say Yes!!!

  22. Hi Susan – another excellent post, followed by an interesting discussion. I wanted to add a dimension that was not mentioned above: health. While many of the reactive behaviours we see in dogs may be caused and certainly enhanced by inappropriate handler responses and other environmental factors, a dog who develops dog-dog or dog-human aggression issues often has underlying health imbalances. These health imbalances are much, much more common than many believe. This can range from easily diagnosed problems such as low thyroid to more challenging to pin-point issues such as dietary reactions, chronic pain or vaccinosis. While training can work through many of these issues, training + working on health can often make faster (and sometimes further) progress towards stability.

    I have worked with many rescues and currently have four border collies I train in agility and herding. Of my crew, I have one with dog-dog aggression, and one who used to be reactive to all other living creatures, and a lot of inanimate objects as well!

    The first dog, a rescue, definitely had a horrible start to life that no doubt created many of his problems, but when training didn’t make the progress I had expected, I started to look into alternative causes. Bloodwork revealed that he was hypothyroid, which frequently causes aggression in dogs. And contrary to popular belief, can be found in quite young dogs (he was 10 months when his thyroid went off-line). Hypothyroidism is the #1 medical problem in dogs today and should always be considered a possibility in an aggressive dog. Jean Dodds (www.hemopet.com) does very sensitive testing that picks up imbalances often missed by most labs.

    With my boy, thyroid supplements, chiropractics and homeopathy made a universe of difference over a few months, at which point his training started to sink in much more effectively as well. I am his fourth (and final!) known home, the previous three having relinquished him for his aggression issues. Today – age 6.5 – he lives with three other dogs, can be off-leash in public areas and politely meet other dogs. Oh, and he’s no longer on the thyroid meds either!

    My girl suffers from what my holistic vet has diagnosed to be ‘vaccinosis’ and it was also discovered that her spine was out of alignment, likely due to her exceptionally wild puppy antics. I got her to be my next trial dog and had done considerable training with her, with limited progress. It was only when I had her treated with chiropractics and homeopathy that we really made headway. Today she still has some quirks, but is calm and focused around adults and other dogs (she still doesn’t like children but is much less reactive around them) and she no longer freaks out at strange objects we encounter when out and about.

    Other factors can also lead to aggression, including certain preservatives in food or reactions to other chemicals in the dog’s environment.

    All this to say, while training is extremely important, health factors should always be considered, and well beyond just having some bloodwork done. Taking a holistic look at your dog’s overall health picture and exploring alternative health options such as raw feeding, homeopathy and chiropractics (to mention but a few) can really help make inroads with a reactive dog. In my experience, combining the two approaches – health + training – is the fastest way to a socially stable dog!

    Thanks for a great blog – I am enjoying it immensely!

  23. Hi Susan,
    I have a next-door neighbor with a dog exactly as you described, and his take on his Lab’s aggression through my fence at my Bedlingtons was “He just wants to play”. -argh- I told him I didn’t think that looked like a dog that wanted to play with hackles raised and lunging through the fence. This fellow is exactly the type of dog owner that fosters aggression in a dog. The dog is shy and fearful of people and other dogs, yet he does nothing to train him except tell him he’s bad and he keeps on trying to introduce him to my dogs through the fence thinking they’ll ‘get used’ to each other (I told him it wasn’t likely). His previous dog was the same way, only I didn’t have a fence before and he’d let his Lab come over and bully my 2 Bedlingtons, hackles raised and threatening.
    I wish I could talk some sense into him but he thinks he’s a great trainer. It’s so sad, he has kids too and they can’t do much with this dog, they pet mine when they can through the fence…. His other neighbor has a well-adjusted Wheaten and they’re of the same opinion as I of that Lab…

    Thanks for a great post!
    Sandy (keeping a sharp watch on that dog)

  24. Hi Susan! (First time commenter here, and total agility noob, so… yeah, take this with a grain of salt.)

    I teach a class based on Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed curriculum, and have owned a really reactive dog myself (a Cardigan), who passed away in February. Counterconditioning and behavioral work is definitely important, and the owner of a reactive dog has their work cut out for them in desensitizing their dog- and I am NOT excusing them from working on that.

    But at the same time, I’m seeing a HUGE common thread in that 95% of the dogs in my class who are reactive are ones who have repeatedly been exposed to other dogs running up and pouncing or playing roughly on leash and been unable to escape from stressful situations. Most of those interactions have occured in the context of classes! While it’s important for reactive dog owners to work on their dog’s issue, it’s EQUALLY important for instructors to stress how unacceptable allowing your ‘friendly’ dog to accost others! If he can’t remain focused on the handler and ignore the temptation to go play, he’s not ready for an agility class any more than a dog who snarks when dogs are NOT in his space is! Even if he’s friendly, the handler has a responsibility to keep their dog from distracting or bothering others!

    We had an instructor in the past who blamed my (very small, 4 pounds- she was 12 weeks old at the time) dog for being afraid of a “friendly” giant breed – she would get between my feet and bark at the top of her lungs as this dog tried to paw at her and playbounced off me. (No tail tucked and it was definitely defensive barking- she’s FINE with giant breeds if they approach her slwoly but I also don’t think her reaction is unreasonable given the dog weighed over 25x her bodyweight!) *I* was corrected for allowing her to react; not a word was said to the owner of the large dog for letting her dog have time to run away from her and scare my dog!

  25. Susan,
    Thank you for making a difference – today is the first day in the rest of my, my husband’s and my dog’s life. After reading this blog I consulted a Certieifed behaviourist and today was our assessment. Much like an addiction, the first step is the most difficult – admitting that yes, there is an problem.

    • That is awesome Trish, I know all of you will enjoy your journey more fully with a better understanding of each other.

  26. I have a border collie that is very aggressive with other dogs at agility. Any other time he plays very nice with no snapping or any other issues. At agility it is like he owns all the equipment and the other dog should stay our of his way. The other border collie in the class won’t tolerate his behavior so they get along fine. But my dog seems to be a total bully with the more submissive dogs. The trainer seems to think that just a quick snap of the collar should be enough to correct this behavior but I do not think this doing the trick. He is really good at agility but I can not risk him hurting another dog. He is almost 15 months old and has been in agility since he was 8 months old. This is not fear aggression. It is more like a possessive behavior. Any ideas how to stop this?

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