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Dealing with Aggression or Reactive responses

JJ Barrs - Market Harborough Dog Trainer & Behaviourist

Reactivity and aggression are two different behavioral responses in dogs, although they can sometimes be related or overlap to some extent. Here's an explanation of the difference between the two:

Reactivity: Reactivity refers to an exaggerated or heightened response to certain stimuli, such as other dogs, people, or specific triggers. Reactive behavior can manifest as barking, lunging, growling, or pulling on the leash when the dog encounters the trigger.

Reactive behavior is often driven by fear, anxiety, or frustration. It is important to note that reactivity does not necessarily involve a desire to harm or attack; it is more of a defensive or self-protective response.

husky dog looking intently and meaningfully

Aggression: Aggression, on the other hand, refers to behavior intended to cause harm or inflict injury on another dog, person, or animal. Aggressive behavior may include biting, snarling, snapping, or charging towards the target. Aggression can be caused by various factors, such as fear, territoriality, possessiveness, or resource guarding.

Aggression is a serious behavioral issue that requires careful management and professional intervention.

While reactivity is a more generalized response to specific triggers, aggression is a specific behavioral display with the intent to harm. It's important to differentiate between the two because the training and management approaches can vary depending on whether the dog is exhibiting reactive or aggressive behavior.

Please do keep in mind some breeds will show aggressive behaviours but are just doing what they have been bred for such as a Belgian Malinois, these dogs have been bred for police work and find great enjoyment in playing Tug-Of-War with your clothes or arm... the dog is most likely not intending on acting aggressively but do so by nature because they are playing rough with you. this is another reason its very important to seek a professionals advice because there is also the possibility they are just trying to play.

If your dog is displaying reactivity or aggression, it's advisable to seek guidance from a professional registered behaviorist who can assess the behavior, provide an accurate diagnosis, and develop a behavior modification plan tailored to your dog's needs. They can help you understand the underlying causes of the behavior and provide effective strategies for reconditioning and managing the issues at hand.

Reconditioning a dog who displays aggression or reactivity towards other dogs or people using positive reinforcement techniques requires patience, consistency, and a structured approach.

black labrador looking up cutely

Here's a step-by-step guide to help you get started:

  1. Consult with a Professional: It's important to work with a professional registered dog behaviorist who specializes in aggression cases. They can assess your dog's behavior and provide personalized guidance tailored to your specific situation. You can check for registered behaviourists on the Institute of Modern Dog Trainers list for behaviourists (

  2. Create a Safe Environment: Ensure that your dog is in a secure environment during the reconditioning process. Use a sturdy leash, a properly fitting collar or harness, and consider using a basket muzzle for added safety when necessary.

  3. Identify Triggers: Determine the specific triggers that cause your dog's aggressive behavior. It could be certain types of dogs, specific people, or particular situations. Understanding the triggers will help you manage the training process more effectively.

  4. Counterconditioning: Counterconditioning involves changing your dog's emotional response to the trigger from negative to positive. Start by exposing your dog to the trigger at a distance that doesn't provoke aggression, and pair it with something your dog loves, such as treats or playtime. Gradually decrease the distance over time, always rewarding calm and non-aggressive behavior.

  5. Playing a game of 'see then look at me'this involves the dog seeing the trigger from a non reactive distance then looking at you for a treat rather then reacting negatively. You may need to start this with regular treats being given without willing eye contact and withdraw the treat for an extra second or 2 and reward when your dog looks at you wondering where their treat is.

  6. Desensitization: Desensitization involves gradually exposing your dog to the trigger in a controlled and calm manner. Start at a distance where your dog remains relaxed and gradually decrease the distance over time. Always provide rewards and praise for calm behavior during the process.

  7. Focus on Basic Obedience: Teach your dog basic obedience commands like "sit," "stay," and "leave it." These commands will help redirect their attention and provide an alternative behavior to focus on when faced with triggers. There are 3 things you must master... Recall, Leave & watch me! This is so you can say 'leave that dog, come with me, & watch for my next command' - this is great leadership if all done with positive reinforcement and dogs choice

  8. Use Positive Reinforcement: Reward your dog generously for displaying calm and non-aggressive behavior. Use treats, praise, and play as positive reinforcement. This approach helps create a positive association and motivates your dog to behave appropriately.

  9. Do not punish your dog or use adverse methods like prong collars or harsh lead jerks or pulling, if anyone you work with suggests these methods Run the other way! it can damage your relationship and have lasting effects on behaviour without fixing the issues at hand. The dog sadly wont learn a different way and will just be uncomfortable knowing you are causing them this upset.

  10. Tools like mussels and head collars are not cruel when introduced properly and can change your whole game easily.

Take a look at this dog below -

french bull dog sitting with a basket mussel on.

Your thinking 'Savage!' or 'poor thing' but what if i said this dog was muzzled because he was snuffling up everything in sight and ingested some harmful substance on a walk resulting in a very costly vets bill! So his owners used a basket muzzle to create a barrier between his mouth and the floor for his own safety while they work on the scavenging issue.

and look at this dog -

pit bull, staffy dog laying on the grass with a basket mussel on

You wouldn't like to meet this one in a confined space right?.... think again, this lovely lady had very scared owners... they where petrified of other dogs, other people and how their dogs will interact with theirs so by using a mussel we are capitalizing on the automatic assumption and people will give you the space you need to work with your dog. there are less harsh looking visual signs like lead slips that say 'in training' or yellow leads and harnesses but i find nothing works better then a mussel. training tools can be great if used correctly and introduced with time and positivity there is no reason to assume your dog will feel adversely about a mussel.

11. Gradual Exposure and Controlled Socialization: Once your dog is more comfortable and responsive during the reconditioning process, you can gradually expose them to controlled socialization situations. Arrange controlled meetings with well-behaved, calm dogs or individuals who are experienced in handling dogs with aggression issues. Reward your dog for calm behavior and provide a safe and positive experience.

12. Consistency and Persistence: Training and reconditioning take time and consistent effort. Be patient and persistent, as progress may be gradual with some set backs and that's ok. Stick to the training plan and avoid situations that could trigger aggressive behavior while focusing on reinforcing positive experiences.

13. If reactions happen (which they will) remember your exit stratagy or carry on with what you where doing before i.e if you where walking then carry on walking, if your dog was sat by your side, have them sit by your side again. think SPACE - TIME - FOCUS - REWARD! create space between your dog and their trigger, allow for some time so they can calm down enough to focus on you and test if they are listening by asking them to perform a simple test for you then reward them or carry on with your walk or coffee etc... doing something about your dogs behaviour is much better then not!

14. When you have been working on behaviour around your triggers with great success you may need to move onto greetings, that's allowing your dog to say hello to their trigger... this is not always possible and you may never get to this stage but in the simple case of frustration aggression or over excited reactions this could come around quickly. you will need to focus on keeping your dog calm while they say hello, try to facilitate safe and controlled greetings with the help of professionals so you can correctly learn whats best for you and your dog.

If your wondering weather its worth it or if you should just reside in the fact that your dog isn't that social, think about how it would feel to shout at someone and have to fight to defend yourself every time you left your home.... im not saying its like that for your dog but it wouldn't be pleasent. Now imagine leaving your home and taking a moment to sniff the flowers and watch the birds.... a much better experience.

It is possible to teach an old dog new tricks and change the way a dog feels about their world but it does come down to your motivation and that's OK! we have to be realistic and if your not that bothered or perhaps the reaction isn't that bad right now or life is just a lot right now, then perhaps the behaviour should be managed until your ready to go the distance and really make some changes and that is OK too, you have to be realistic, manage your expectations and be willing to make a difference long term to benefit you and your pup.

collie dog laying down calmly with 1 ear up and one down

Remember, it's crucial to work closely with a professional throughout this process to ensure the safety of both your dog and others. Aggression issues can be complex, and a professional can provide tailored advice based on your dog's specific needs. Remember some trainers may be excellent but could lack in fundamental knowledge that allow for safety and efficiency in these techniques, you can however seek the advice of a behaviourist and attend with a trainer or have the ongoing support of a training in implementing your behavioural correction plan with your behaviourist. We all want the same end goal for you and your dog....

if your local to market Harborough, leics UK have a look at our behavioural assessment option where we would put all of this into practice for you and give you that tailored advice. Although we specialise in puppy training around market Harborough we also deal with older dogs and aggression issues.

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