CASE STUDY: The Aggressive? Pit Bull
by Deborah Jones, Ph.D


Rommel is a 2 1/2 year old neutered male American Staffordshire Terrier (commonly referred to as a "pit bull").

Presenting Problem:

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.

Previous Episodes:

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.

Previous Treatments:

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 that class.

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 dog.

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 and arousal.

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 us."

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 behaviors.

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 wrestling-type games.

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 him.

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.

4. Counterconditioning.

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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