Understanding a Dog's Opposition Reflex

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

What's a Dog's Opposition Reflex?

You may have heard that dogs have an opposition reflex, but may be wondering what it's all about. No, it's not a canine political party nor is it a dog's way of opposing your views. To better understand this, let's take a trip back in history. The discovery of the opposition reflex is attributed to Ivan Pavlov (yes, the Russian scientist who discovered classical conditioning). Back then, the discovery was known as the "Freedom Reflex."

According to Pavlov, "We started off with a very simple experiment. The dog was placed in a stand. It stood quietly enough at first, but as time went on, it became excited and struggled to get out of the stand, scratching at the floor, gnawing the supports, and so on. For a long time we remained puzzled over the unusual behavior of this animal, until it occurred to us at last that it might be the expression of a special freedom reflex, and that the dog simply could not remain quiet when it was constrained in the stand." (1927, Vol. I, Ch. XXVIII)

If you watch your dog, you may have noticed that when you pull him towards you, he'll instinctively pull away. In the same way, if you pull him when on the leash in a specific direction, you'll notice he'll pull more in the opposite direction. You can't blame him; this behavior is a reflex. But what causes it exactly?

For starters, consider that this reflex stems from the dog's predatory instinct. Tension causes a dog to instinctively revert to a fight, freeze, or flight mode. When you pull your dog in a certain direction, he may, therefore, freeze (stop), pull more (flight), or fight back (fight).

Add on top of that, the fact that some dog owners unknowingly encourage this reflex to bloom. When they get a puppy, they just put on a collar and leash and allow the puppy to practice the opposition reflex over and over. Then, as the puppy grows, 100 pounds later, the puppy has become a pro at this. Add on top of that, that other than the opposition reflex at play, pulling is rewarding on its own if by pulling your dog gets to meet another dog or gets to sniff that bush full of interesting smells. Soon' you'll have the perfect recipe for a dog that pulls and has learned that the more he pulls, the more he'll gain freedom and will never ultimately learn how it feels to walk on a loose leash. This means that, through experience, a dog will come to believe that a tight leash is normal, even if it entails gasping for air.

So what can be done to reduce this opposition reflex when a dog pulls on the leash? Skip the choke collar, prong collar and shock collar as these deliver pain, and skip the regular harness and retractable leash too since both of these encourage to pull. Following are some helpful techniques I have come up with...

An opposition reflex beefed up by selective breeding results in dogs like Huskies and Malamutes who really, really love pulling in harness. It is intrinsically reinforcing quite apart from getting where they’re going.

— Jean Donaldson, Culture Clash

Learn My "Sticky Feet" Method to Stop Dogs From Pulling

I came up with the "Sticky Feet ©" method about a year ago when I was assigned challenging cases of dogs pulling relentlessly on the leash. At that point, I learned that humans can have an opposition reflex too and can use it to their advantage! This is how I play the game. The goal is to train a dog that a loose leash is what gets you out of the "sticky feet" spell.

  1. Arm yourself with some tasty treats. These should be very high-value treats that dogs drool for. Not the average kibble, boring biscuits or dry cookies that take a while to chew. You want small bite-sized treats that are soft and fast to eat.
  2. Find an area that is free of over stimulating distractions. A yard, quiet road may do. Definitively avoid areas where there are other dogs, loads of noises, people and other distractions. You want your dog to be under threshold, so he'll be able to eat and listen.
  3. Grab several small treats and keep them in your hand or pocket so they're easy to deliver quickly.
  4. Walk normally. The moment your dog starts pulling drag your feet on the ground as if your feet are getting really heavy. If your dog continues to pull, suddenly stop walking and imagine your feet are glued to the ground.
  5. At this point, your dog will most likely look at you, to see what happened. Make smacking noises with your mouth (Read my article on COR training© to learn how to condition your dog to the smacking noises) and lure your dog with a treat to come back to your side. (See my "come to heel" video below, for some fancy ways to accomplish this.) Once your dog is next to you and the leash is loose, your dog has released you from the "Sticky Feet" spell.
  6. Repeat several times. The first walks will take forever, but training to walk on a loose leash is a great investment.
  7. At some point, something wonderful happens: your dog will start paying attention to your heavy steps by relying on the noise of your feet being dragged (announcing that you are about to get "Sticky Feet" and eventually stop) so he may start slowing down as well or may come by your side to release you from the spell and resume walking again.

The rules of this game are the following:

  • Never walk when the leash is tense and the dog is pulling. Doing so is rewarding the dog by giving him more freedom to walk ahead. Doing so reinforces the pulling. This explains why dogs on retractable leashes pull all the time; basically, they learn that pulling gives them more and more freedom.
  • Always make heavy steps when your dog starts walking faster and pulling before coming to a complete stop. This way your dog learns that steps are a cue that you're about to stop and starts paying attention to your pace. This helps set him for success as it gives him an opportunity to start slowing down.
  • If you want to get into some fancy, training, watch my video below on how to train "come to heel". You can train this is two ways: by having the dog go around you and then sitting in heel position, or by having the dog follow an imaginary "U".
  • Your final goal is to have a dog that no longer pulls and that walks on a loose leash. Some people have different preferences. Some are OK with having the dog walk slightly ahead of them as long as the dog is not actively pulling, others prefer having the dog next to them.
  • A leash hanging down as if forming a letter "U" is a good sign you are successfully loose-leash walking.
  • A no-pull harness can help you get started on loose leash walking. I usually use it for a couple of weeks and then wean the dogs I'm training off of it and resume using a buckle collar. Happy training!

Two Different Methods to Train "Come to Heel"

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 07, 2013:

Thanks Monis Mas, I am happy you found the article informative, thanks for stopping by!

Agnes on July 06, 2013:

Great video, very informative hub. I love the "sticky feet" trick!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 16, 2013:

Looks like she needs a bit of coaxing, and the person provided enough reinforcement to make it worthy to start walking. A high-value treat, often tossed ahead may work and if she's toy motivated, you can get her perhaps revved up in a game. Some behaviors are habit forming. And if they helped a dog feel safe or had some other function, they often repeat. God luck!

Shay Marie from California on June 16, 2013:

I just got back from a walk with the dog today. She always stops at the very beginning of the walk - I'm talking two steps off our front lawn. Often times, what motivates her to finally move forward is some random person in front of us. This time, it was a neighbor. She ran up and greeted him, then we moved on and she was fine. She's such a nutty little dog.

I'll be trying the treat thing next time we go out. Thank you for your help!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 13, 2013:

Try to evaluate why she is stopping. If there are dogs nearby, stopping may be calming signal. Does she stop to do something like sniff? Does she seem concerned about noises, surrounding stimuli? Is she stopping to listen to sounds/evaluate surroundings? Have you tried to bring along some high-value treats? These should help her catch up, if you make a smacking noise with your mouth followed by a treat to coax her to follow you. Then give the treat once she's in heel position. Practice this exercise at home. Walk around the home and when she is lagging a bit behind, make the smacking noise and then use the treat as a lure to get her to catch up. Repeat several times. Then practice with more distractions, such as in your yard. You can also add a cue such as "heel". At some point, when she's good at this, stop showing the treat , keep it in a pocket and then pull it out once she automatically responds to your smacking noise to catch up by your side. Practice makes perfect.

Shay Marie from California on June 13, 2013:

I have a similar problem with my dog where she will stop on a walk, and firmly resist moving forward. I call it her "stubborn mule" trick. She'll usually do it once at the beginning of the walk, then 3-4 times (and sometimes more) throughout the walk. If I switch up the side of the street we are walking on, it will often stop the behavior, but not always. Any advice?

How to Train a Dog

Okay, we all know a wagging tail means a dog is friendly, right? Not necessarily. Dogs say lots of things with their tails -- and not all of them are nice. A dog who is wagging her tail might be happy, interested, or confident, but she also may be scared, confused, or ready for a fight. In this section, we'll tell you how to understand a dog's body language. If you learn this skill, it will make communicating with a dog much easier. And that, in turn, will make training a dog much easier.

When you see a dog whose tail is wagging wide and fast, the message is almost always, "Glad to see you!" This is a happy, excited dog. On the other hand, a dog holding her tail loosely but horizontally wants to know a bit more about you. She might not be ready to welcome you with a big lick, but she's not going to challenge you either. The same is true of a dog whose tail is wagging slowly. She's still deciding whether you are a friend or foe. Watch out, though, for a dog whose tail is bristling or is held high and stiff, wagging fast. This dog is agitated and probably aggressive -- and boy, does she mean business.

The position of a dog's tail tells a lot about her, too. A dog with her tail erect is confident and in control. The exact opposite is the dog with her tail tucked between her legs. Whether she's talking to you or to another dog, the message is the same: "I give up!" Just because a dog's tail is down doesn't mean she's frightened, though. A relaxed dog may keep her tail lowered, although not between her legs.

Dogs communicate with both ends of their bodies. A cock of the head or twitch of the ears indicates interest or alertness but sometimes fear. When a dog hears or sees something new or exciting, her ears will go up or forward. Because the canine sense of hearing is so sharp, your dog often knows about the approach of a person or car long before you do. That's what makes her such a great alarm system. Her ears are built in such a way that they can be pointed in different directions, allowing the dog to quickly figure out where a sound is coming from.

Is a dog's head down and her ears back? She's scared or submissive. Sometimes, the fur along the neck and back of a frightened or submissive dog will bristle, too. Be especially careful approaching a dog in this mood. She might be timid or shy, but if she feels cornered, she's capable of launching an attack in self-defense.

A dog's pack instinct makes her a good observer who pays close attention to everybody and everything around her. You might not realize it, but your dog watches and listens to you all the time and learns your patterns of behavior. Sometimes it seems as if she can read your mind, but her ability to predict your every move is really just good observation skills at work.

Watch your dog's facial expression for more clues on how she's feeling. You might even catch her smiling -- pulling the corners of her mouth back to show the teeth. Don't confuse this look with the snarl, a raised upper lip and bared teeth. A snarl is a definite threat gesture, but dogs probably smile for the same reason we do: to let folks -- or other dogs -- know they don't mean any harm.

Sometimes a dog uses her entire body to deliver her message. Rolling belly-up, exposing her neck and genitals, means "You're the boss!" An especially submissive dog may also urinate to express her deference to you or to another dog. The play bow is the classic canine invitation to fun and games: down on the front paws, rear end in the air, tail wagging. She may even paw the ground or bark in the attempt to lure you or another dog into play. The best response is to play bow back and then pull out her favorite toy or ball.

Body language is one thing. A dog's barks, yelps, growls, and other noises are yet another -- full of meaningful messages for dog owners. We explain what these messages mean in the next section.


Aggression is the most common and most serious behavior problem in dogs. It’s also the number-one reason why pet parents seek professional help from behaviorists, trainers and veterinarians.

What Is Aggression?

The term “aggression” refers to a wide variety of behaviors that occur for a multitude of reasons in various circumstances. Virtually all wild animals are aggressive when guarding their territories, defending their offspring and protecting themselves. Species that live in groups, including people and dogs, also use aggression and the threat of aggression to keep the peace and to negotiate social interactions.

To say that a dog is “aggressive” can mean a whole host of things. Aggression encompasses a range of behaviors that usually begins with warnings and can culminate in an attack. Dogs may abort their efforts at any point during an aggressive encounter. A dog that shows aggression to people usually exhibits some part of the following sequence of increasingly intense behaviors:

  • Becoming very still and rigid
  • Guttural bark that sounds threatening
  • Lunging forward or charging at the person with no contact
  • Mouthing, as though to move or control the person, without applying significant pressure
  • “Muzzle punch” (the dog literally punches the person with her nose)
  • Growl
  • Showing teeth
  • Snarl (a combination of growling and showing teeth)
  • Snap
  • Quick nip that leaves no mark
  • Quick bite that tears the skin
  • Bite with enough pressure to cause a bruise
  • Bite that causes puncture wounds
  • Repeated bites in rapid succession
  • Bite and shake

Dogs don’t always follow this sequence, and they often do several of the behaviors above simultaneously. Many times, pet parents don’t recognize the warning signs before a bite, so they perceive their dogs as suddenly flying off the handle. However, that’s rarely the case. It can be just milliseconds between a warning and a bite, but dogs rarely bite without giving some type of warning beforehand.

Classification of Aggressive Behavior

If your dog has been aggressive in the past or you suspect she could become aggressive, take time to evaluate the situations that have upset her. Who bore the brunt of her aggression? When and where did it happen? What else was going on at the time? What had just happened or was about to happen to your dog? What seemed to stop her aggression? Learning the answers to these questions can clarify the circumstances that trigger your dog’s aggressive reaction and provide insight into the reasons for her behavior. You need an accurate diagnosis before you can hope to help your dog.

Aggressive behavior problems in dogs can be classified in different ways. A beneficial scheme for understanding why your dog is aggressive is based on the function or purpose of the aggression. If you think of aggression this way, you can determine what motivates your dog to behave aggressively and identify what she hopes to gain from her behavior.

Territorial Aggression

Some dogs will attack and bite an intruder, whether the intruder is friend or foe.

Dogs’ wild relatives are territorial.They live in certain area, and they defend this area from intruders. Wolves are highly territorial. If a coyote or a wolf who’s not part of a pack invades their territory, the resident wolves will attack and drive off the intruder. Some dogs display the same tendencies. They bark and charge at people or other animals encroaching on their home turf. Dogs are often valued for this level of territorial behavior. However, some dogs will attack and bite an intruder, whether the intruder is friend or foe. Territorial aggression can occur along the boundary regularly patrolled by a dog or at the boundaries of her pet parents’ property. Other dogs show territorial aggression only toward people or other animals coming into the home. Male and female dogs are equally prone to territorial aggression. Puppies are rarely territorial. Territorial behavior usually appears as puppies mature into adolescence or adulthood, at one to three years of age.

Protective Aggression

Dogs may show aggressive behavior when they think that one of their family members or friends is in peril.

Dogs are a social species. If they were left on their own, they would live together in small groups, or packs, of family and friends. If one member of a pack is in danger, the others typically rush in to help defend that individual. This is classified as protective aggression because the dogs are protecting one of their own. Pet dogs may show the same type of aggressive behavior when they think that one of their family members or friends (human or animal) is in peril. Sometimes dogs reserve protective aggression for individuals they consider particularly vulnerable. A dog who has never shown aggression to strangers in the past might start behaving aggressively when she has a litter of puppies. Likewise, a dog might first show protective aggression when her pet parents bring a human child into the family. While this behavior sounds appealing at first glance, problems arise when the protective dog starts to treat everyone outside the family, including friends and relatives, as threats to the baby’s safety. Both male and female dogs are equally prone to protective aggression. Puppies are rarely protective. Like territorial behavior, protective aggression usually appears as puppies mature into an adolescence or adulthood, at one to three years of age.

Possessive Aggression

Many dogs show the tendency to guard their possessions from others, whether they need to or not.

Dogs evolved from wild ancestors who had to compete for food, nesting sites and mates to survive. Even though our pet dogs no longer face such harsh realities, many still show the tendency to guard their possessions from others, whether they need to or not. Some dogs only care about their food. These dogs might react aggressively when a person or another animal comes near their food bowl or approaches them while they’re eating. Other dogs guard their chew bones, their toys or things they’ve stolen. Still others guard their favorite resting spots, their crates or their beds (Often, these dogs also guard their pet parents’ beds!). Less common are dogs who guard water bowls. Usually a possessive dog is easy to identify because she’s only aggressive when she has something she covets. But some dogs will hide their cherished things around the house and guard them from unsuspecting people or animals who have no idea that they’re anywhere near a valued object. Male and female dogs are equally prone to possessive aggression, and this type of aggression is common in both puppies and adults. For more detailed information about food-related possessive aggression and how to treat it, please see our article, Food Guarding.

Fear Aggression

A fearful dog may become aggressive if cornered or trapped.

When animals and people are afraid of something, they prefer to get away from that thing. This is called the flight response. But if escaping isn’t an option, most animals will switch to a fight response. They try to defend themselves from the scary thing. So a dog can be afraid of a person or another animal but still attack if she thinks this is her only recourse. A fearful dog will normally adopt fearful postures and retreat, but she may become aggressive if cornered or trapped. Some dogs will cower at the prospect of physical punishment but attack when a threatening person reaches for them. Fearful dogs sometimes run away from a person or animal who frightens them, but if the person or animal turns to leave, they come up from behind and nip. This is why it’s a good idea to avoid turning your back on a fearful dog. Fear aggression is characterized by rapid nips or bites because a fearful dog is motivated to bite and then run away. Sometimes the aggression doesn’t begin with clear threats. A fearful dog might not show her teeth or growl to warn the victim off. In this kind of situation, the only warning is the dog’s fearful posture and her attempts to retreat. Male and female dogs are equally prone to fear aggression, and this type of aggression is common in both puppies and adults.

Defensive Aggression

Motivated by fear, defensively aggressive dogs decide that the best defense is a good offense.

Closely related to fear aggression is defensive aggression. The primary difference is the strategy adopted by the dog. Defensively aggressive dogs are still motivated by fear, but instead of trying to retreat, they decide that the best defense is a good offense. Dogs who are defensively aggressive exhibit a mixture of fearful and offensive postures. They may initially charge at a person or another dog who frightens them, barking and growling. Regardless of whether the victim freezes or advances, the defensively aggressive dog often delivers the first strike. Only if the victim retreats is the defensively aggressive dog likely to abort an attack. Male and female dogs are equally prone to defensive aggression. It’s slightly more common in adults than in puppies simply because dogs need to have some confidence to use this defensive strategy, and puppies are usually less confident than adults.

Social Aggression

A dog who perceives herself as high in status may show aggression toward family members.

Animals who live in social groups, like people and dogs, typically live by certain rules in order to minimize conflict between group members. Canid species, including the dog, adopt a type of hierarchical order that influences which group members get first crack at food, the best resting spots and opportunities to mate. So rather than having to fight for access to valued things each and every time, those lower down on the totem pole know to wait until the higher-ups have had their share before taking their turn. These ordered relationships are frequently reinforced by displays of ritualized aggression. Individuals of high status use aggressive threats to remind the others of their place in the pack. The relationships between people and dogs who live together are certainly more complex than this simplified description, but it’s still important to know that a dog who perceives herself as high in status may show aggression toward family members. (This kind of behavior is sometimes called dominance or status-seeking aggression). This is why a dog might be perfectly trustworthy with one pet parent but react aggressively toward the other or toward young children in the family. Such dogs are often described as “Jekyll and Hyde” because, most of the time, they’re happy-go-lucky, friendly dogs. But if they feel that someone in the pack has overstepped his or her bounds, these dogs can quickly resort to aggression. An aggressive response is usually provoked by things that a dog perceives as threatening or unpleasant, such as:

  • Taking food away
  • Taking a chew bone, toy or stolen object away
  • Disturbing the dog while she’s sleeping
  • Physically moving the dog while she’s resting
  • Hugging or kissing the dog
  • Bending or reaching over the dog
  • Manipulating the dog into a submissive posture (a down or a belly-up position)
  • Lifting or trying to pick up the dog
  • Holding the dog back from something she wants
  • Grooming, bathing, towelling or wiping the dog’s face
  • Touching the dog’s ears or feet
  • Trimming the dog’s nails
  • Jerking or pulling on the dog’s leash, handling her collar or putting on a harness
  • Verbally scolding the dog
  • Threatening the dog with a pointed finger or rolled-up newspaper
  • Hitting or trying to hit the dog
  • Going through a door at same time as the dog or bumping into the dog

Social aggression is somewhat more common in males than in females and more common in purebreds than in mixed breeds. Puppies are rarely socially aggressive with people, but they can be with other dogs, particularly littermates. Social aggression usually develops in dogs between one to three years of age.

It’s important to realize that the complexities involved in social aggression are poorly understood and hotly debated by behavior experts. Some believe that all social aggression is rooted in fear and anxiety, while others believe that it’s motivated by anger and the desire for control. When consulting a professional, make sure you’re comfortable with her treatment recommendations. If the professional’s suggestions consist of techniques for instilling fear and respect in your dog, such as alpha rolls, scruff shakes and hanging, there’s a very good chance that your dog will get worse rather than better—and you might get bitten in the process. Punishment may be appropriate, but only when it’s well planned and limited in application. The judicious use of punishment should always be embedded in a program that’s based on positive reinforcement and trust.

Frustration-Elicited Aggression

A dog who’s excited or aroused by something but is held back from approaching it can become aggressive.

Dogs can be like human children in that when they get frustrated, they sometimes lash out with aggression. A dog who’s excited or aroused by something but is held back from approaching it can become aggressive, particularly toward the person or thing holding her back. For instance, a frustrated dog might turn around and bite at her leash or bite at the hand holding her leash or collar. Over time, the dog can learn to associate restraint with feelings of frustration so that even when there’s nothing to be excited about, she tends to react aggressively when restrained. This explains why some normally friendly dogs become aggressive when put behind a gate, in a cage or crate, in a car, or on a leash. Likewise, a dog who loves people can still show surprising levels of aggression when her pet parent lifts her up so that guests can enter or leave the home. Male and female dogs are equally prone to frustration-elicited aggression, and this type of aggression occurs in both puppies and adults.

Redirected Aggression

Redirected aggression occurs when a dog is aroused by or displays aggression toward a person or animal, and someone else interferes.

Redirected aggression is a lot like frustration-elicited aggression with the exception that the dog need not be frustrated. Redirected aggression occurs when a dog is aroused by or displays aggression toward a person or animal, and someone else interferes. The dog redirects her aggression from the source that triggered it to the person or animal who has interfered. This is why people are often bitten when they try to break up dog fights. When a person grabs or pushes a fighting dog, the dog might suddenly turn and bite. Another example is when two dogs are barking at someone from behind a fence. Sometimes one will turn and attack the other. Male and female dogs are equally prone to redirected aggression, and this type of aggression occurs in both puppies and adults.

Pain-Elicited Aggression

An otherwise gentle, friendly dog can behave aggressively when in pain.

An otherwise gentle, friendly dog can behave aggressively when in pain. That’s why it’s so crucial to take precautions when handling an injured dog, even if she’s your own. A dog with a painful orthopedic condition or an infection might bite with little warning, even if the reason you’re touching her is to treat her. The improper use of certain pieces of training equipment, such as the pinch (or prong) collar or the shock collar, can inflict pain on a dog and prompt a pain-elicited bite to her pet parent. Male and female dogs are equally prone to pain-elicited aggression, and this type of aggression can occur in both puppies and adults.

Sex-Related Aggression

Intact male dogs will still vie for the attention of females in heat, and females will still compete for access to a male.

Even though pet dogs rarely have the opportunity to reproduce, intact male dogs will still vie for the attention of females in heat, and females will still compete for access to a male. Intact male dogs sometimes challenge and fight with other male dogs, even when no females are present. Fighting can also erupt between males living together in the same household. In the wild, this is adaptive because the strongest males are more likely to attract females for breeding. Likewise, females living together in the same household might compete to establish which female gets access to a male for breeding. This type of aggression is rare. It’s observed most often in reproductively intact males and less often in intact females. Dogs who were neutered or spayed as adults may still show this type of aggression. If sex-related aggression happens, the dogs involved are usually at least one to three years of age.

Predatory Aggression

Some pet dogs show classic canine predatory behaviors, including chasing and grabbing fast-moving things.

Dogs are closely related to wolves and coyotes, both of whom are large predators, and pet dogs still show some classic canine predatory behaviors, including chasing and grabbing fast-moving things. Many dogs love to chase running people, people on bicycles and inline skates, and cars. They might also chase pets, wildlife and livestock. Some dogs bite and even kill if they manage to catch the thing they’re chasing. Predatory aggression is very different from other classifications of aggression because there’s rarely any warning before an attack. A predatory dog doesn’t growl or show her teeth first to warn her victim, so predatory aggression can seem to come out of the blue. Predatory behavior can be especially disturbing if it’s directed toward a human baby. Sometimes the sound of a baby crying or the movement of lifting a baby out of a crib can trigger a lightening-fast reaction from a predatory dog. Fortunately, predatory aggression directed toward people or other dogs is extremely rare in pet dogs.

Family Members, Strangers or Other Animals

Determining whom your dog is aggressive toward is essential to understanding her behavior. It’s common for dogs to behave aggressively toward unfamiliar people. Some studies report that as many as 60 to 70% of all pet dogs bark threateningly at strangers and act unfriendly when around them. Aggression toward unfamiliar dogs is also widespread. It’s less common for dogs to direct aggression toward family members or other pets in the home. Most problematic are dogs who are aggressive toward children, especially children in the family. Not only is aggression toward children exceedingly difficult to treat because of safety concerns, the likelihood that a dog with this problem will ever become trustworthy is slim.

Some dogs are aggressive only to a certain category of people. A dog might be aggressive only with the veterinarian or groomer, or with the postal carrier, or with people in wheelchairs or individuals using canes and walkers. In some cases, it’s easy to limit a dog’s access to the people that upset her. For instance, if your short-haired dog dislikes the groomer, you can just groom her yourself at home. But in other cases, the targeted people are impossible to avoid. For example, if you have a dog who dislikes children and you live in a densely populated urban apartment building next to a preschool, it will be difficult to avoid exposing your dog to children.

Aggression toward people, aggression toward dogs and aggression toward other animals are relatively independent patterns of behavior. If your dog is aggressive toward other dogs, for example, that doesn’t mean she’s any more or less likely to be aggressive toward people.

Risk Factors

If you’re deciding whether to live with and treat your aggressive dog, there are several factors to consider because you, as the pet parent, are ultimately responsible for your dog’s behavior. These factors involve the level of risk in living with your dog and the likelihood of changing her behavior:

  • Size. Regardless of other factors, large dogs are more frightening and can inflict more damage than small dogs.
  • Age. Young dogs with an aggression problem are believed to be more malleable and easier to treat than older dogs.
  • Bite history. Dogs who have already bitten are a known risk and an insurance liability.
  • Severity. Dogs who stop their aggression at showing teeth, growling or snapping are significantly safer to live and work with than dogs who bite. Likewise, dogs who have delivered minor bruises, scratches and small punctures are less risky than dogs who have inflicted serious wounds.
  • Predictability. Dogs at the highest risk of being euthanized for aggression are those who give little or no warning before they bite and who are inconsistently, unpredictably aggressive. Dogs who give warning before they bite allow people and other animals time to retreat and avoid getting hurt. As counterintuitive as it might seem, it’s easier to live with a dog who always reacts aggressively when, for instance, every time you push him off the bed than a dog who does so only sporadically.
  • Targets. How often your dog is exposed to the targets of her aggression can affect how easy it is to manage and resolve her behavior. A dog who’s aggressive to strangers is relatively easy to control if you live in a rural environment with a securely fenced yard. A dog who’s aggressive to children can be managed if her pet parents are childless and have no friends or relatives with children. A dog who is aggressive to unfamiliar dogs poses little difficulty for pet parents who dislike dog parks and prefer to exercise their dog on isolated hiking trails. In contrast, living with a dog who has recurring ear infections and bites family members when they try to medicate her can be stressful and unpleasant.
  • Triggers. Are the circumstances that prompt your dog to behave aggressively easy or impossible to avoid? If your dog only guards her food while she’s eating, the solution is straightforward: Keep away from her while she’s eating. If no one can safely enter the kitchen when your dog’s there because she guards her empty food bowl in the cupboard, that’s another story. If your dog bites any stranger within reach, she’s a lot more dangerous than a dog who bites strangers only if they try to kiss her.
  • Ease of motivating your dog. The final consideration is how easy it is to motivate your dog during retraining. The safest and most effective way to treat an aggression problem is to implement behavior modification under the guidance of a qualified professional. Modifying a dog’s behavior involves rewarding her for good behavior—so you’ll likely be more successful if your dog enjoys praise, treats and toys. Dogs who aren’t particularly motivated by the usual rewards can be especially challenging to work with, and the likelihood of such a dog getting better is small.

Always Work with Your Veterinarian

Some aggressive dogs behave the way they do because of a medical condition or complication. In addition to acute painful conditions, dogs with orthopedic problems, thyroid abnormality, adrenal dysfunction, cognitive dysfunction, seizure disorders and sensory deficits can exhibit changes in irritability and aggression. Geriatric dogs can suffer confusion and insecurity, which may prompt aggressive behavior. Certain medications can alter mood and affect your dog’s susceptibility to aggression. Even diet has been implicated as a potential contributing factor. If your dog has an aggression problem, it’s crucial to take her to a veterinarian, before you do anything else, to rule out medical issues that could cause or worsen her behavior. If the veterinarian discovers a medical problem, you’ll need to work closely with her to give your dog the best chance at improving.

Always Work with a Professional Behavior Expert

Aggression can be a dangerous behavior problem. It’s complex to diagnose and can be tricky to treat. Many behavior modification techniques have detrimental effects if misapplied. Even highly experienced professionals get bitten from time to time, so living with and treating an aggressive dog is inherently risky. A qualified professional can develop a treatment plan customized to your dog’s temperament and your family’s unique situation, and she can coach you through its implementation. She can monitor your dog’s progress and make modifications to the plan as required. If appropriate, she can also help you decide when your dog’s quality of life is too poor or the risks of living with your dog are too high and euthanasia is warranted. Please see our article, Finding Professional Behavior Help, to learn how to find a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB), a veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB) or a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) in your area. If you choose to employ a CPDT, be sure that the trainer is qualified to help you. Determine whether she has education and experience in treating canine aggression, as this expertise isn’t required for CPDT certification.

Can Aggression Be Cured?

Pet parents of aggressive dogs often ask whether they can ever be sure that their dog is “cured.” Taking into account the behavior modification techniques that affect aggression, our current understanding is that the incidence and frequency of some types of aggression can be reduced and sometimes eliminated. However, there’s no guarantee that an aggressive dog can be completely cured. In many cases, the only solution is to manage the problem by limiting a dog’s exposure to the situations, people or things that trigger her aggression. There’s always risk when dealing with an aggressive dog. Pet parents are responsible for their dogs’ behavior and must take precautions to ensure that no one’s harmed. Even if a dog has been well behaved for years, it’s not possible to predict when all the necessary circumstances might come together to create “the perfect storm” that triggers her aggression. Dogs who have a history of resorting to aggression as a way of dealing with stressful situations can fall back on that strategy. Pet parents of aggressive dogs should be prudent and always assume that their dog is NOT cured so that they never let down their guard.

Are Some Breeds More Aggressive Than Others?

It’s true that some breeds might be more likely to bite if we look at statistics gathered on biting and aggression. There are many reasons for this. One likely reason is that most dog breeds once served specific functions for humans. Some were highly prized for their guarding and protective tendencies, others for their hunting prowess, others for their fighting skills, and others for their “gameness” and tenacity. Even though pet dogs of these breeds rarely fulfill their original purposes these days, individuals still carry their ancestors’ DNA in their genes, which means that members of a particular breed might be predisposed to certain types of aggression. Despite this, it’s neither accurate nor wise to judge a dog by her breed. Far better predictors of aggressive behavior problems are a dog’s individual temperament and her history of interacting with people and other animals. You should always research breeds to be sure that the breed or breed mix you’re interested in is a good fit for you and your lifestyle. However, the best insurance policies against aggression problems are to select the best individual dog for you.

Brachycephalic literally means "short-headed," explains the American College of Veterinary Surgeons. This term refers to dogs and dog breeds with shortened snouts. Popular brachycephalic breeds include English and French bulldogs, bull mastiffs, Boston terriers, boxers, pugs, shih tzus, Lhasa apsos and Pekingese, among others. The term can also be applied to mixed breed dogs that inherited this trait from brachycephalic ancestors. Brachycephalic dogs tend to have extremely shortened snouts that make them almost appear flat-faced, which differentiates them from some breeds that simply have shorter snouts.

While not all of these dogs have associated health problems, the shape of the nose and head of a brachycephalic dog can place them at risk for a condition called brachycephalic airway syndrome, says Dr. Cheryl Yuill for Veterinary Centers of America. VCA Hospitals. There are four distinct upper airway abnormalities that can cause this condition, and a brachycephalic dog can have one or more of these abnormalities.

  • Stenotic nares: Small or narrow nostrils, which can restrict the airflow into the nostrils when the dog breathes through his nose.
  • Elongated soft palate: The soft palate — the soft tissue on the roof of the mouth — is too long and extends into the back of the throat, which causes blockage to the trachea.
  • Hypoplastic trachea: The windpipe, or trachea, is narrower in diameter than what is normal.
  • Everted laryngeal saccules: Laryngeal saccules are small sacs located just inside the dog's larynx. These can become everted, or turned outwards, when a dog struggles to breathe through narrowed nostrils or an elongated soft palate. Although this abnormality is typically caused by one of the above abnormalities, it can lead to additional obstruction of a dog's airway.

Dogs that suffer from this syndrome typically have a history of loud snoring and noisy breathing. They may also have a sensitive gag reflex, or be prone to reverse sneezing or tracheal collapse. The gums or tongue can sometimes turn blue from lack of oxygen, and overexertion or over-excitement can lead to collapse. Because of their breathing difficulties, these dogs tend to have a low tolerance for vigorous exercise and are highly susceptible to heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Because these conditions and their symptoms are exacerbated by obesity, the first line of treatment for an overweight dog with this condition is usually to be put on a weight-loss meal plan. Mild cases can usually be managed by controlling the dog's weight, monitoring exercise levels, keeping the dog out of heat and humidity, and reducing or avoiding stress. For short-term treatment of flare-ups that cause respiratory distress, veterinarians might prescribe corticosteroids to reduce inflammation and/or treat the dog with oxygen. More severe cases may require surgery to improve airflow.

Leash Pulling

Does your dog practically pull your arm off when you take him for a walk? Has it become so unpleasant that you no longer want to walk him? Well, you’re not alone. Many dogs that have never been taught to walk on a loose leash pull their owners down the street. There are ways to change this annoying behavior, however, and we have a few suggestions.

Dogs have what we call “opposition reflex”, which means they pull against pressure. When a dog feels pressure on the front of his throat from his collar, he actually pulls against it. This is why choke collars only make the problem worse. The tighter the collar gets, the more he will pull. It’s a vicious cycle. In addition, choke chain collars and prong or pinch collars are painful and can actually damage your dog’s trachea. There is no need to hurt your dog because he is doing what comes naturally.

If you want a dog who walks politely on a loose leash you must teach him that this is what you want. Get out some really yummy treats. Put the dog on the leash (starting in the house), hold your hand containing a treat at your waist, and begin to walk. He will be interested in the treat so he will stick by you. Walk around and every once in a while praise him and give him a treat. Then move your practice sessions outside. Practice having him walk by your side in non-distracting environments before going to the park. Start in the backyard and then move to the sidewalk in front of the house. Build the behavior through praise and treats. He will want to stay by your side if you are the most interesting thing in the picture.

Another method is to “become a tree” when your dog pulls you. Start walking, and whenever the leash becomes tight, you simply stop, plant yourself like a tree, and don’t say a word. Your dog will eventually look back at you to say, “hey, why aren’t we moving?”. When he does this he will most likely move slightly toward you, loosening the leash. When there is slack in the leash, start walking again. He will eventually learn that when he feels tension on the leash, he doesn’t go anywhere, but when the leash is slack he is allowed to walk.

The Gentle Leader head halter is a wonderful training tool for pulling dogs. The Gentle Leader was designed to work like a horse halter. Head halters work because if you control the head of an animal, you control its entire body. When a dog is wearing a Gentle Leader head halter he is prevented from pulling because as he does, his head is brought around towards you, making it impossible for him to pull you down the street.

Watch the video: Puppy Class Lesson: Pre Loose Leash Walking Tips

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