Right now I’m working a lot with a dog named Barney. Barney came to us, for training in Salt Lake City, all the way from Virginia. It’s a long journey—across the country—but Barney needs serious work with his aggression problem. His owners have tried a lot of different things and been unsuccessful, so I’m trying to work him through this difficult issue.
When I’m thinking about how to solve dog aggression, I’m really considering two different time frames. The first is when the dog is actually displaying aggressive behavior, and the second is all of the other times. Between these two times is one hundred percent of the dog’s life. Most of the dogs with aggression that I see have a very lopsided life. Their aggression to nonaggression ratio is probably around 90/10 or 80/20, which means that most of the time the dog isn’t being aggressive at all. But of course, it’s the times when he is being aggressive that are the most troubling and the most difficult to handle. As we can see, those issues often lead to drastic measures—like sending your dog halfway across the country for training.
So we need to be concerned with both what we do when he’s being aggressive and what we do when he isn’t. Surprisingly, the latter tends to be more important than the former. Many people come to me wondering how they should handle their aggressive dog, and I always tell them that they actually need to pay a lot of attention to what they’re doing when he is not being aggressive. It seems counterintuitive, but it’s true.
Why is this the case? Put simply, it’s because aggressive dogs have baseline problems. Right now, Barney struggles with focus. He pulls on his leash, he goes in every direction, and he can’t decide where he wants to be. When I look at Barney, I usually don’t see a dog who’s being aggressive. Instead, I just see a dog who doesn’t know how to think calmly and pay attention to what’s around him. Solving that issue is 95% of my job. I want to give Barney a new baseline and teach him how to live a relaxed lifestyle, so that when he’s faced with another dog his calmer mind doesn’t immediately jump to aggressive behavior.
What you do when your dog isn’t being aggressive is therefore very important. You need to set his baseline by establishing healthy habits, reliable obedience patterns, and good focus. Sadly, many owners don’t operate from this perspective. They want a dog that they can share space with, a walking partner or a companion when it suits their schedule. But they just aren’t willing to provide the consistent leadership their dog needs in order to make those special moments a reality. Your dog needs instruction from you in order to know how to be calm and focused during the day.
Often, if we can establish a good baseline, we don’t even need to deal with the aggression problems independently—they will resolve themselves on their own. If they don’t, then of course we need to examine how we behave when the dog is being aggressive. I’ve written and spoken about those techniques at length elsewhere, so I won’t get into them here.
If you’re dealing with aggression, anxiety, or destructive behavior, then understand that most of the solution is in what you do in other moments. Pay attention to your dog when he isn’t displaying behavior problems, and you’ll be better poised to help him succeed.