Case file: Lexie, fear aggression

A few months back I had a dog with fairly severe fear aggression stay with me. I started out just taking videos for her mom, but decided they’d be good for the blog, too! Some of the narration starts out very quiet, as I was trying not to distract the dogs. Most of the time, I get louder. Sorry about that!

Lexie is a four-year-old yellow lab who was attacked by a jack Russel at about a year of age. Her fear aggression started after that, and got worse over time until her owner reached the point of crossing the street to avoid other dogs. Lexie would approach another dog submissively, and then when she got close, attack with panicked intent. While Lexie and her mom still have a lot of work to do, we’re making progress!

Lexie had stayed with me once before, last year, so she had some memory of Cash and Lily. However, I had Brady there as well, so she stayed in her crate the first night for about three hours. When she came out, I kept Brady on leash (to keep him away from Lexie), or kept Lexie on leash (to keep her near me). The first video picks up the next morning, after more leash and crate time to get used to each other.

If you just want to see a heart-warming change, watch the first and last videos. More dogs were added as the week went on; no dogs were harmed in the making of this film!



Narrator: Jenna
Lexie: lab, “fearful pup”
Cash: king shepherd, “dad”
Lily: pit bull, “grandma”
Brady: golden retriever, “happy brother”
Frances: Australian shepherd, “timid sister”
Obi: pit bull x boxer, “fearless bff”


FAQ: How do I teach my dog to defend itself against another dog?

One of the most common searches that get people here is, “How do I teach my dog to defend itself?” There’s already a post on how to teach your dog to defend itself against people, but I have people ask me, frequently, how to teach their dogs to defend themselves against other dogs. Time to talk about that!

There are two things we’ll look at here: 1. Dogs defending themselves from annoying dogs at dog parks, and 2. Dogs defending themselves in dog fights.

1. Dogs defending themselves from annoying dogs at dog parks (etc)

I was at the dog park not too long ago, and someone’s perfectly friendly dog was trying to get another dog to play. We’ll call the friendly dog Friendly and the other dog Worried.

Friendly’s owner wasn’t calling him off because he was, clearly, friendly. Worried’s owner wasn’t doing anything, either because he didn’t know that there was a problem, or because he wanted his dog to defend itself. After circling away, rolling over, and trying to escape, Worried finally turned around and snapped at Friendly. Worried’s owner said, “That’s right, just tell him to back off,” and Friendly’s owner said, “Sorry about that,” but glared at Worried and his owner while taking her dog away.

What did the dogs just learn from this? Did Friendly learn to leave dogs alone when they look frightened? Did Worried learn that he can stand his ground, gain confidence, and get another dog to stop being a bully? No.

Friendly learned that this one dog is unpredictable and nasty. At best, Friendly is now going to be rude to some other dogs who might tolerate it, might be traumatized by it and never tell him to back off, might encourage it, or might attack him. There are enough dogs who will tolerate it or encourage it that he’s not going to learn to stop his behavior; he’s only going to learn that some dogs are unpredictable. At worst, Friendly learned that some dogs are unpredictable, he’s now going to be nervous which is going to bring out the other bullies and he’ll either be bullied and traumatized himself, or he’ll turn aggressive to keep the bullies at bay.

Meanwhile, Worried learned that meeting other dogs is scary and that he cannot trust his pack — his human — to help him. Dog packs work together and protect each other. When your dog is being bullied and you don’t step in, they learn that you either will abandon them to monsters and they can’t trust you (worst case), or that you’re useless, and they can’t trust you (best case). Worried also learned that attacking dogs will work. Next time a dog comes up to him he’s more likely to snap sooner and with more violence to get the dog to leave him alone. The next time it happens, he’ll up the ante again. Soon he’s dog aggressive.

This is the method most people use to teach their dogs to “defend themselves.” Now let me show you how dogs actually work.

One of my clients was having a problem with his young dog, A, mounting and playing too rough with more submissive dogs. We brought him to my house along with a submissive dog, Ike. Now, A is like Friendly, above: very friendly, very playful, but just getting full of himself. He could become a bully if we let him. I’ve spent a lot of time working with Cash and Lily so that they have excellent socialization skills, and neither overcorrect nor undercorrect a young dog. They each have different ways of dealing with a bully (Lily leaves the area and ignores them, while Cash plays “dad” and corrects them), but they are both appropriate.

We let A and Ike together. A started harassing Ike, playing too rough and trying to mount him. Ike did all the appropriate things; he tried to duck away when A was too rough, he tried to leave, he tried to lay down and request gentler play. A, being young, was oblivious.

Then we brought Cash in. Cash stood up tall (to say, “I’m not playing, here”) and went trotting after A as A went running after Ike. When A and Ike collided, Cash stood and watched for a moment. When it became clear that Ike wasn’t enjoying himself, Cash made a loud, open-mouthed noise and shouldered A away. He then proceeded to sniff A all over, essentially saying, “stay here and behave yourself.” After a minute, A eased himself away and went for Ike again.

Once again, Cash shouldered him away with a loud noise and they repeated the sniffing/licking/grooming ritual, with it increasing in time as Cash settled into his father role, and A settled into being a younger dog. When A eased away, he went more carefully to Ike. After a minute, he started getting pushy again; once again, Cash stepped in. This went on for about forty minutes before A got the idea and started playing nicely with Ike (who, realizing he was protected by Cash, agreed to play instead of running away), and rougher with Cash (who doesn’t mind playing rough).

What just happened in our pseudo-dog pack? Rather than teaching Ike to defend himself, Cash taught A to have good manners. Ike grew in confidence seeing that he was protected, and came out to play, meeting A halfway.

So in our dog park scenario above, someone should have come to Worried’s rescue, and taught Friendly firmly and persistently that he couldn’t play rough. Simply pushing him gently away from Worried would suffice.

Note also that if your dog is confident and knows that aggression isn’t okay, but they can’t get away from the annoying dog, they’re going to correct another dog appropriately. With a little noise, a shoulder away, and maybe a bark to say, “Hey! Enough!” They’re going to be Cash.

2. Dogs defending themselves in dog fights.

“Okay,” I hear you cry, “that’s all well and fine for dogs who are friendly but rude. What about a dog fight?”

Okay! Here we go.

Lily was doing zoomies around a ranch one day, when the ranch dog, who had some aggression issues, decided she’d had enough. She came charging over to Lily and attacked. I was much too far away to do anything, though I started running over. This was before I started using Lily for aggressive dogs, back when she’d been willing to fight other dogs, which was something we’d been working on. As I ran I yelled, “Lily! Down!”

Lily dropped under the much larger akita like a sack of bricks. The akita continued to stand over her, jaws clamped around Lily’s throat, snarling. When I got there, I grabbed it by the scruff until it let go, then I pulled it off and freed Lily. No one was injured.

If Lily had fought back against that dog, it would have escalated the situation. The dog weighed twice what Lily did, and had a thick coat to protect her from bites. Lily would have been injured, possibly both dogs would have been injured, and since Lily is a pit it’s possible the owner could have claimed that Lily started it. Lily, given society’s current feeling about pits, could have paid a very high price. Should she have defended herself at the risk of her life? No.

Here’s another scenario. I had Cash at a dog park, and a smaller dog started attacking him. Cash yelped repeatedly and ran to me while I was running to him. I grabbed Cash’s collar and pushed the other dog away, continuing to push him away. When the owner reached me, she scolded me for not letting Cash defend himself. Here’s the thing: that dog weighed maybe 40 pounds. Cash weighed 110. If Cash had defended himself against the smaller dog, he could have badly hurt the smaller dog without even meaning to. Cash would have ended up paying that price, too, at best being banned from dog parks and forced to wear a muzzle outdoors (at worst being put down). I’d have been liable to pay that dog’s vet bills and would have a dog on the federal “dangerous dog” list (which means an official sign, increased renter’s insurance or unable to get renter’s insurance at all), all because my dog defended himself. Instead, Cash learned that I will protect him, and when it happened again he was more willing to tolerate the bad behavior, less frightened by it, and grew in confidence. Now, that sort of minor aggression doesn’t both him; he swings out of the range of teeth and avoids it. (For major aggression, he’s still smart enough to run!)

It takes two dogs to be in a dog fight. If one of them refuses to fight, the likelihood of an injury drops significantly.

So… how do you teach your dog to defend itself against another dog? Don’t protect it. Consequently, you will:

1. Have a dog who doesn’t trust you
2. Run a far greater risk of injury to your dog and others’ dogs
3. Run a far greater risk of dog fights ending in having to give your dog up or put them down
4. Run a far greater risk of being unable to get or pay for insurance
5. Go against a dog’s nature, which is to work as a team and be protected

Given all this, why would you teach your dog to defend itself? If you want a confident, safe dog, teach them to ignore or walk away from aggression and dog fights, and that you’ll protect them so they feel safe enough to try new things, try playing with new dogs, and tolerate worse behavior than they might otherwise — because they know you’ll have their back.



*Edit: This post has created a surprising, to me, amount of controversy. People with opposing opinions are welcome to express them politely; anyone name calling will have their comment deleted.

Barking: when it’s a problem

Barking has been cropping up recently, so I thought I’d give it a go here.

There are three general types of barking: alarm barking, annoyance or nuisance barking, and play barking.

Alarm barking is what your dog does to let you know something’s wrong. Ideally, this is the type of barking we want. When someone comes to my door, Cash gives out several big, booming barks. He does this until I tell him I’ve heard him and I’ll take care of it. (I might say, “Enough,” or “it’s fine,” or “I got it,” or “Cash, knock it off,” depending on my mood. In every case, that’s his cue that I heard him and he can stop.) Note that he stops. That’s the big clue that your dog is alarm barking.

Alarm barking is really handy. It lets you know when someone’s at the door. It lets you know when a burglar is getting in. It lets you know when something unusual is happening — like a deer in the yard or a stray wandering about. It’s almost impossible to train a dog not to alarm bark, but you can train them that they shouldn’t be alarmed by things like squirrels,  joggers, cars, etc, which they probably see all the time.

The more common type of barking is annoyance or nuisance barking. This is the barking that happens when someone’s at the door, and the dog won’t stop. It also happens for things they shouldn’t be alarmed about: squirrels, cars, joggers, etc. This can be annoying for family, friends, and neighbors, and it stops you from knowing when there is a problem. Remember the boy who cried wolf? Exactly.

Nuisance barking starts typically when a dog is just growing up. Around 8 months to a year of age, dogs would start exploring outside their little living area. They would see something new — “Oh my gosh! Those leaves are blowing!” — and bark to let the other dogs know. The other dogs would look at the leaves, look at the barking pup, and say, “You fool. Those are leaves. Knock it off.” In this way, the pup learns what actually is a problem, and what isn’t a problem.

We can do the same thing. When your dog enters his or her barking phase, there are various things you can do about it.  In no particular order, you can:

  • Let them drag a leash around, and tug on it when they start barking.
  • Call them over and offer them a treat for coming, instead of reprimanding them for barking. (I find this has only limited usefulness.)
  • Put pennies or rocks in a can or bottle (or a chain in a pillowcase) and make a loud noise when they bark, escalating to throwing the bag/bottle/can against the wall near your dog if you need to. (Don’t do this with highly anxious dogs.) (Just because your dog barks doesn’t mean they’re anxious. Most of the time, they aren’t.)
  • Give them a quick poke after you’ve checked out the window.
  • Go to where they are, make sure it’s nothing, then ask them to sit. Give them a treat for sitting. (I find this works much better than calling them, especially for answering the door.)
  • Use a squirt bottle to squirt them when they bark.

Note that in each of these cases, you should see why your dog is barking, then tell them to stop, THEN act out the consequence/distraction.

This will teach them that they should bark at unusual things, but stop when you ask them to. If your dog persists at barking at normal things, then cut out the bit where you look at what they’re barking at, and just start fixing it as soon as they start barking. Interestingly, this makes for calmer dogs: even though they may get in trouble for barking, now they know that all those things in the world are no big deal, and they don’t need to grow into anxiety.

Finally, we have play barking. Play barking is what (mostly young and herding) dogs do when they want to play or want you to engage with them. Some of this is natural; if you’re playing with your dog and they’re barking, try not to worry about it. (If you HAVE to stop it because you live in a condo or something, then stop playing, wait for your dog to settle down, and start again.)

If, however, your dog is barking to get you to play and you can’t, then it’s time to break out the squirt bottle. Very seriously, tell them, “No,” or, “Not right now,” or, “I’m busy,” or, “Get a toy,” or anything you’d like to tell them. When they start barking again, do any of the following:

  • Squirt them with a squirt bottle.
  • Put them in time-out until they calm down in their crate or another room.
  • Ask them to lay down and stay.

In each case, provide a more appropriate toy that they can entertain themselves with. Young dogs especially have to learn how to entertain themselves, and the way they do that is by you re-directing their energy to an appropriate thing.

In all barking situations, make sure you don’t get frustrated or raise your voice: if you do, your dog will think you’re barking back!

Now go, enjoy, and have a quiet household!


Tango is now 13.5 weeks old, and taking his/her time weaning. That’s fine: it means s/he’ll be calm and confident when I do get him/her! These pictures are from last Friday. Tango and Quin, and Tango with his/her sibling!




Puppies and stairs

I saw this super cute video, and had a good laugh — especially since I’ve boarded quite a few puppies lately who are still struggling with stairs!

(I cannot seem to embed the video, but click here to see it!)

The girl filming, by the way, does a phenomenal job of encouragement and praise. Just FYI. 😉

Now, if you don’t have a dog to teach your puppy how to use the stairs, here’s one method:

1. Pick your puppy up and carry her down the stairs.

2. Set her on the very last step.

3. Praise and treat and cuddle and love when she hops off.

4. Repeat, this time starting two steps from the bottom.

When you’re at a point where your puppy is being cautious, stay at that level until they’re comfortable going down the steps. Then add another.

The steeper and more narrow your stairs, the longer it will take your puppy to learn. They’re growing so fast that they can barely remember where their feet are, much less navigate down a flight of stairs! Have patience, and enjoy the cuteness while it lasts. Soon enough they’ll be barreling up and down them at full speed!


Dog behavior – puppies at play

Well, recently I boarded a couple of dogs who were kind enough to act distinctly pack-ish, and display awesome pack behavior! And then they did it on video. Woo hoo!

Before we move on to the video, let’s talk about the dogs involved, from youngest to oldest. First we have Captain. Captain is an 11-12 week old black lab, and firmly in the throes of puppyhood! He’s the baby.

Next we have Bella. Bella is a 1-1.5 year old labradoodle. She’s in adolescence, coming up on adulthood. While physically she’s able to have puppies, it would be like a 17 or 18 year old human having puppies: they could make it work, yes, but ideally they’re still baby sitting other peoples’ kids and learning how to be an adult and then, eventually, how to be a parent.

Cash (a king shepherd) is next in the age range. At 4-coming-on-5, he’s shifting out of the ideal parenting age. Between about 2 and 5 dogs are at their strongest and most resilient, in many ways. They are the equivalent of our 20-40 year old humans. The younger the dogs are, the more of a playful parent they are. The older, the less playful, but still with the patience and wisdom needed to be a good parent. That’s the stage Cash is in: he’s no longer super playful with the puppies, but he’s still a good “dad”!

Finally, we have Lily. Lily turned 8 this summer, and she’s never been overly interested in puppies to begin with. Add to that the fact that she’s eight. While pit bulls generally live to be around 14, in the wild 8 would be elderly! She’s grandmother age, now, and is about as interested in dealing with pups as an elderly human would be. Fun for a little while, and then handed back to the parents!

You see these four stages in packs of dogs quite frequently (with the grandmother age being the rarest to see, given death rates in the wild). The adults — Cash — teach the puppies and adolescents manners, the adolescents babysit the puppies, and the grandparents do whatever they feel like doing. Ready to witness? Excellent!


Forestalling Leash Aggression

One of the most common problems I’m called for is something of a mystery to owners. It’s termed “leash aggression” among dog trainers, and it’s the case of a dog being aggressive toward other dogs only when on leash.

Leash aggression typically starts when dogs are still young. They’re bouncing around at the end of their leash, wanting to meet every dog they pass. Then three things happen:

1. They aren’t allowed to meet every dog they pass, and they aren’t re-directed into something more positive. Instead, they bounce along yelling out, “Hey! Dog! Over here! You want to come play?! I totally would, but dang this leash is stopping me!” Eventually they get frustrated at never being able to get to the other dog (and constantly obsessing on it) and then start to associate seeing other dogs with frustration. Aggression builds.

2. They are allowed to meet every dog they pass (or many dogs they pass) and/or are jumped at/snapped at/lunged at. Not every dog wants to meet your dog, sadly.

3. They start seeing dogs who are also leash aggressive, and become intimidated by another dog essentially cursing them out. Since the best defense is a good offense, and since those who are bullied, bully… you can follow this to its end!


If you have a young dog, there are some things you can do to mediate this effect.

1. Keep your dog from getting obsessed with other dogs. YOU are your dog’s best friend; they really don’t need to meet everyone they see. When they start bouncing around and wanting to go see the other dog, get their attention with a kind word, a pet, a treat, anything that will turn their focus back to you. This way we break the obsession and keep them from getting frustrated.

2. They really don’t need to meet every — or most — dogs they pass. Imagine you’re walking through the shopping center. Do you say hello and shake hands with everyone you pass? No? Why would your dog do the same? If you did do that, would people get annoyed and start avoiding you? Probably! Our children, like our dogs, don’t know better and want to meet everyone. Do we curtail this as possible, or allow it? Puppies are like children. They aren’t aware that there are other dogs in the world who don’t want to deal with them (which, honestly, is most dogs over the age of 7 and many dogs of a younger age), and we have to teach them when and where it’s appropriate to meet other dogs. This will keep them from being jumped at/lunged at/snapped at.

3. There’s not much we can do about this one, except bolster our dogs, praise them and give them treats when they ignore a bully. We can also call their attention to us, helping them to ignore the bully. You can’t stop the other dog, but you can teach yours to turn the other cheek!


Following these steps will give you the best shot at keeping your young dog or puppy from becoming leash aggressive. If your dog is already leash aggressive, you can start on these steps and see if they help; sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t. (If they don’t, then you need to call a dog trainer!) Either way, at least now you understand why your dog is only aggressive on leash!


Dogs on Leash

The other day I was sitting at the coffee shop watching the world go by. There were people there, as usual (my clients with dog-aggressive dogs call it “the gauntlet”), and one woman with a small terrier on a leash. She was walking briskly past, talking on the phone. Her dog wasn’t causing any problems.

The crowd surged, and she found herself partially blocked and had to slow to a near stop. In front of her, a gentleman with an Australian shepherd blocked her path (on accident, I’m sure) and instead of continuing on his way, he stopped and allowed his dog to approach. The little dog cowered back against the woman’s legs. She gave the man a wide-eyed, “call your dog back” look (which she couldn’t say, because she was on the phone), which he didn’t see because he was smiling down at his dog. She couldn’t get past him, he wasn’t moving, and the whole situation was bad.

Now as it happened, it all worked out. The woman squeeeeezed past the gentleman, got her dog out, and kept going. But I felt really bad for her. (I probably should have said something, but I was busy reminding my lab-in-training to ignore them no matter what happened.)

I see this, or this sort of thing happen all the time. My clients with dog-aggressive dogs under control (so they know better than to have an outburst, and instead walk calmly past other dogs, but we still don’t let them associate with other dogs because they aren’t trustworthy) say their greatest fear is constantly those owners who say, “But my dog is friendly!” and allow their dogs to come charging up, instead of leaving a respectful amount of space.

There’s a lot more to say about letting your dog greet properly, but for right now I’m more interested in owners. Owners! Give other dogs space! Don’t assume that just because your dog is friendly, the other dogs are friendly, fearless, and confident. They only have to be missing one of those for it to be a miserable experience for them, even if nothing bad happens. We don’t want that. 😦 Here, have a cartoon by Lili Chen, who clearly knows what I’m talking about!

Space Etiquette For Dogs