Rommel is a 2 1/2 year old neutered male
American Staffordshire Terrier (commonly referred to as a
Aggressive displays towards other dogs.
Rommel was brought into the client's home
as a puppy by her adult son. The son moved out; the puppy
stayed. The owner, concerned about the breed's reputation
for aggression, began training immediately. Rommel has completed
3 obedience classes (2 of those were clicker-based classes)
and 3 agility classes. He is very friendly with people and
seems to enjoy training.
The client reports that Rommel has "roared"
at other dogs in classes (both obedience and agility), especially
when dogs move towards him or make eye contact. In agility
classes, several loose dogs have approached Rommel while he
was on leash and he has growled and "roared". Rommel
has also run towards other dogs while he was off-leash at
the end of his agility run and "roared" at them.
He has never made actual physical contact with any other dog.
In one of his earliest obedience classes
the instructor used a pinch collar on Rommel (who was 5 months
old at that time) and corrected him with collar jerks for
showing any interest in other dogs. The owner reports that
Rommel seemed afraid of the instructor.
Rommel's owner has been diligent about keeping
him restrained on a short leash during classes and in any
other place where he may interact with other dogs (at the
park or on neighborhood walks). Rommel was fitted with a Gentle
Leader headcollar and the owner reports feeling much more
secure when she uses it. Rommel, however, tries to avoid wearing
the headcollar and rubs and paws at his nose while it is on.
When a dog approaches Rommel his owner tightens
the leash and holds his head still, preventing him from moving
in any direction.
In one agility class the instructor insisted
that Rommel be kept on his headcollar and a leash while he
worked. This requirement on the instructor's part is completely
understandable. The safety, well-being and comfort of the
entire class should be the overriding concern for an instructor.
However, the owner reported that Rommel seemed unwilling to
work while the headcollar was on and she did not return to
Rommel is currently in another agility class
and works off-lead, but his owner is very concerned that he
might become aggressive and harm a dog.
Because this was one of my own clients,
I was able to observe the dog's behavior as well as interview
the owner. This is very helpful as sometimes the owner's reports
and the dog's actual behavior differ. It is very difficult
for the owner to give a truly objective description of his
or her own dog's problem behavior. It's a function of being
too close to the problem and too emotionally involved.
In this case I was able to observe Rommel's
behavior when other dogs were present. When another dog entered
the room Rommel's body language changed noticeably. His tail
dropped, his ears went back, and he became slightly nervous,
quickly glancing back and forth between his owner and the
The owner was visibly nervous when the other
dog entered the room and reports being very tense when she
and Rommel are around other dogs. Rommel seemed very concerned
about his owner's change in demeanor, continually 'checking
in' with her and making eye contact, then glancing back to
the other dog.
At another training session Rommel's owner
was playing with him when another dog was brought into the
room. Rommel immediately turned and "roared" as
he lunged towards the dog. The owner had to drag him away.
My diagnosis of Rommel is aggressive displays
based on a mixture of protective tendencies, fear, and overstimulation.
I believe that this behavior is the result of a number of
factors. These include:
1) A lack of socialization with other dogs
(and consequently no understanding of how to behave appropriately
in their presence).
2) A response to his owner's tense and fearful
behavior in the presence of other dogs.
3) A result of excessive physical excitement
Rather than having the intent to cause physical
harm, aggressive displays (growling & "roaring")
serve the purpose of scaring away the potential threat using
a loud and frightening warning. True aggression usually occurs
quickly and quietly. In Rommel's case, the threat is other
dogs. While aggressive displays are an attempt to scare away
the feared objects, not necessarily to physically harm them,
the displays would likely escalate to actual aggression if
the threatening stimulus is not removed.
I believe that Rommel's behavior has a fearful
component because he has been corrected and restrained in
the presence of other dogs; so the appearance of other dogs
now signals that "bad things are going to happen".
Rommel has made the connection between the sight of other
dogs and unpleasant events such as corrections or restraint.
This connection is a type of learning known as classical conditioning.
The responses learned through classical conditioning become
very strong and appear almost automatically.
His owner's nervous response to other dogs
is also feeding into Rommel's concern. He seems very aware
of his owner and her emotional state. Rommel is picking up
many cues that his owner is nervous, including her tense body
language, change in breathing patterns, the application of
a tight short leash, and her attempts at physical restraint.
All of these cues are telling Rommel that "my mommy needs
protection from that threatening creature who is approaching
The aggressive displays that his owner has
reported at the end of his agility runs are likely the result
of overexcitement and stimulation. Coming off an agility course
Rommel is in a state of high physical arousal that is similar
to that felt during aggressive displays. The physical processes
of heartrate and respiration increases, along with the release
of adrenaline and other stress-related hormones, is the same
in states of physical excitement and emotional distress. Once
in the state Rommel looks to the first external stimulus he
sees (another dog) as an outlet for that arousal and excitement.
This process also explains Rommel's aggressive response when
playing with his owner, then catching sight of another dog.
The unfortunate characteristic of aggressive
displays is that they usually do have the desired effect;
they scare away the threat. In most cases either the other
dog is moved away or the aggressor is removed from the situation.
Because the display works for the dog, it is likely to be
repeated and will probably increase in both frequency and
ferocity. This becomes a negative cycle in which the dog is
being reinforced (through removal of the threat) for signs
of aggression and therefore increases his or her aggressive
The good news is that Rommel has never actually
made physical contact with another dog. Even though his displays
are quite fierce and impressive, they have not resulted in
an actual fight. Even with his owner's restraint and vigilance,
if Rommel truly wanted to make contact with another dog he
could. He is an exceedingly strong and powerful animal. This
suggests to me that we have a good chance of teaching Rommel
more appropriate and acceptable behaviors, as he truly does
not want to fight.
1. Leash handling.
One of the first things I wanted to change
in this case was the way that the owner handled the leash,
and the dog, when other dogs entered the area. Certainly,
it is important for the owner to continue her vigilance when
around other dogs, especially until we have gotten the aggressive
displays to decrease. However, overreaction is causing Rommel's
behavior to worsen. Rather than tightening up on the leash
around other dogs the owner has been instructed to keep a
short, but loose lead. A tight leash signals danger to Rommel
and needs to be avoided. The leash can be held as short as
the owner desires as long as there is slack between her hand
and the clasp on the collar. I also demonstrated for the owner
how to put the loop of the lead over her hand between fingers
and thumb, then to gather the excess in her palm (as opposed
to wrapping the leash around her hand). This allows her to
play the leash in and out as needed. Keeping the leash loose
by moving away, encouraging the dog to follow, and praising
were also used to good effect in this case.
As Rommel reacted poorly to the Gentle Leader
we decided to decrease its use and alternate it with the use
of a Premier collar (limited slip martingale). In particularly
overwhelming or stressful situations the owner can use the
Gentle Leader, then switch to the Premier for calmer situations.
The Gentle Leader has the advantage of complete control which
makes the owner feel more secure. However, the Premier also
offers reasonable control while allowing Rommel more freedom
to move his head.
In cases where Rommel has already moved
into full-fledged aggressive display, the owner was instructed
to move off to one side or the other and give a slight leash
tug (NOT a jerk or pop, much milder), rather than pull straight
back on the leash and lock herself into position with an unmoving
stance. Moving to one side puts the dog slightly off balance
and gives the handler more control. It also moves the dog's
head slightly away from the intended target and gives the
handler a chance to catch his eye and his attention much more
easily than if she is directly behind him. As the dog turns
towards her the handler praises him and continues to move
backwards, praising him for moving towards her.
NOTE: Praise is used often as a reward
for this particular dog because it is very important to him
and he responds well to it. You may have to use other reinforcers
such as food or toys for other dogs.
2. Owner/dog interaction.
An old technique recommended by William
Campbell is called the 'jolly routine'. A version of this
could be effective here. Rather than becoming tense and nervous
when other dogs are in the vicinity, the owner needs to behave
in a happy, upbeat manner. This requires the owner to become
more relaxed in order to be convincing to her dog. Dogs can
tell when we're being honest and when we are not so the behavior
has to be real. Laughing, being silly, playing, and giving
the dog treats are all part of the 'jolly routine'. Instead
of conveying danger signals to the dog, the owner needs to
display a carefree and positive attitude. Rommel is a very
physical dog and he enjoys pushing, vigorous patting, and
One thing to note here is that too much
excitement or arousal can trigger the aggressive displays
we're trying to avoid. The owner needs to experiment to find
the right balance between fun and control.
We also taught Rommel to play the 'touch'
game and he took to this quite readily. This game serves the
purpose of keeping Rommel focused on his handler while giving
him a fun and easy activity to earn rewards. It also keeps
the owner busy and keeps her more relaxed.
We taught Rommel to touch his owner's open
palm using a clicker and treats. For the first few trials
the owner held a treat on her palm using her thumb to hold
it in place and showed it to Rommel. When he moved towards
her hand and touched it with his nose she would click and
release the treat. Then we moved the treat out of her hand
and had her hold the hand out as a target. Rommel had to touch
the empty hand for a click and a treat. Finally, the owner
would move her hands to different positions (out to the side,
up high, down low, etc.) and Rommel would have to move to
touch her hand for reinforcement. Rommel displayed great enthusiasm
for this game and it quickly became a preferred activity for
3. Elevator behavior (desensitization).
The term desensitization refers to the process
of decreasing a response (usually an emotional reaction) to
a particular stimulus. In this case we want to desensitize
Rommel so that he no longer responds aggressively at the sight
of other dogs.
I picked up the term elevator behavior from
a trainer named Chris Bach and I love it because it is so
accurate. In describing the behavior of many conformation
dogs Chris said that they have excellent elevator behavior.
They can remain in close quarters with a mixture of intact
males and females (some in season) with very few problems.
Imagine humans packed into an elevator; no eye contact or
interaction occurs. Everyone waits calmly and patiently. That's
an ideal we'd like to have with our own dogs. They don't have
to like each other, or even interact, they simply need to
tolerate the physical nearness of others calmly and quietly.
We started practicing elevator behavior
with Rommel by first determining a comfortable distance between
him and other dogs. We would introduce a calm, quiet dog at
that distance and simply relax (with Rommel on a loose lead)
and observe Rommel's body language. When he seemed relatively
relaxed we would reward him with praise and treats, then move
him slightly closer to the other dog.
If an aggressive display occurs during this
process that means we have moved too close too fast and we
need to back off to a more comfortable distance and start
again. It's important to work within the dog's comfort zone
and not push ahead too quickly.
In one session Rommel was able to relax
and lie down quietly about 3 feet away from a dog who was
also lying quietly on the other side of a baby gate. We didn't
ask him to lie down, he did it voluntarily. Rommel must learn
how to deal with the presence of other dogs on his own, not
through responses to commands. Once he discovers that it is
safe to ignore other dogs, he will relax and do so.
When we use counterconditioning we are attempting
to replace the existing response to a stimulus with a different,
more desirable, one.
In a controlled and secure setting, we will
practice the 'bar is open, bar is closed' technique. This
is a great method for decreasing aggressive displays by changing
the dog's reaction to other dogs.
We start by having the owner hold the dog
on a loose leash. Then we move into view with another dog.
When the second dog comes into view the owner is instructed
to continuously feed her dog treats while praising him. After
a minute or so we leave with the second dog and the owner
is instructed to ignore her dog completely. This is repeated
over and over. When the other dog comes into view the bar
is open and the dog receives lots of goodies. When the other
dog leaves the bar is closed and nothing interesting happens.
The second dog should be non-threatening
and remain at enough distance so that the client's dog does
not respond inappropriately. Over time as we are successful
we move the second dog closer and closer to the first.
The purpose of this technique is to make
the appearance of other dogs a signal that good things, rather
than bad ones, are about to happen.
5. Class management.
It would be ideal to initially work Rommel
in small classes and with other dogs who are relatively calm.
The excitement of larger classes with more active dogs may
be enough to trigger an inappropriate response.
In larger classes and more exciting environments
Rommel should be crated away from the ring between his agility
runs when he seems to be getting overexcited. When he is moving
back and forth between the ring and his crate the owner should
play with Rommel and use the touch game to keep him focused
on her. She can also work on reinforcing eye contact. This
can be done by clicking and treating whenever he voluntarily
looks towards his handler. Again, this eye contact is not
in response to a command. Rommel should learn that looking
at his owner is a great way to earn rewards.
6. Reinforcing alternate behaviors.
One way to handle the possibility of Rommel
lunging towards other dogs at the end of his agility runs
is to teach him an alternate acceptable behavior for those
situations. It would be fun to teach him a trick like spin
or wave or high 5 that is then followed by a great reinforcer
once on leash and out of the ring. Once the trick has been
taught the sequence of 'last agility obstacle, trick, leash,
treat' can be practiced. Then you can back chain the sequence
of events to 'last two agility obstacles, trick, leash, treat'.
Continue adding the obstacles on the front of the chain as
the dog remains successful.
The trick I taught my Papillon to keep him
in the ring and focused on me at the end of our runs is to
jump in my arms. However, I wouldn't recommend that with a
dog as large as Rommel!
This was an interesting case for me because
of the breed stereotyping that was involved. Because of Rommel's
breed and looks, it was expected by most instructors and by
other students in group classes that he was aggressive. Even
his owner treated him as if aggression was inevitable. Unfortunately,
this perception has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. By
treating Rommel as if he would become aggressive, he began
to act as if he were aggressive. However, the aggressive displays
were in response to his environment and experiences rather
than a result of inborn temperament.
Stereotyping is a natural human cognitive
process. It allows us to make quick decisions based on a small
amount of information. In fact, there is usually a 'kernel
of truth' in most stereotypes. Stereotypes can be correct
sometimes. Some 'pit bulls' are aggressive, some Border Collies
are obsessive compulsive, some Labrador Retrievers are orally
fixated. However, stereotypes can also be very wrong for any
particular individual. They lead us to assume that all members
of a specific group will behave in the same way. If Rommel
were a Beagle or a Golden Retriever his behavior would have
been interpreted very differently. One of the most important
things that a behaviorist learns is to look at the dog's actions
free from any biases or preconceptions.
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