I believe aggression and shyness most often stem from insecurity in both the human person and the dog person. Let us keep in mind that although we are quite different as animals we are psychologically and comparably parallel. I prefer to accept the dog’s actions in showing unwarranted aggression or unwarranted shyness as being necessary for her at the time. Even though I’ve been called a male chauvinist, at times justifiably, I am quite oriented towards females and enjoy using the term “her.”
In working with dog behavior problems over the past 30 years the small amount of success I have had has been mostly in the area of aggression and shyness (especially shyness). It has taken me most of the time to realize I am an alien in the dog’s world, and I must go to her for help and ask where her attitude is coming from. I have learned that what may appear to me as unwarranted action, is a necessary reaction on the part of the dog to protect her inner-self. Dogs do have an inner-self, you know.
I will, at this time, address my remarks to aggression only – that is, unwarranted aggression towards other dogs, not an uncommon situation. I have tried more systems than I can remember and some I don’t care to admit to. I like to try to understand where the attitude is coming from that she and I must deal with. When I decide to modify her behavior, it then becomes my problem too. I usually have three problems – the dog, the owner and myself. As you know, the second one is the most difficult. I try to learn what the dog is saying – is it fear, fight, flight, submissiveness, or what. I would like to go into that in detail, but much of the important material must be left out in a short article. I recommend that you read, Understanding Your Dog by Michael W. Fox. It is a very good, scientific work put into language for the layperson. I recommend reading it, studying it and then putting it to use. Since the problem most likely stems from insecurity, I prefer to try to use confidence and security in our new learning experience. If she felt secure, the other dog would not be a threat and she is not likely to fight anything but a threat.
I no longer approve of facing the dog with an unnecessary stress situation. She would be under stress simply by being made to “heel” up to the problem and be made to stand there, in what I call a “stalemate.” I have seen this system cause more problems than any other system I have used. Why force myself into a stress situation let alone her. Instead, because she has no one to trust but me, her “pack leader”, I prefer to relieve the stress for both of us. Imagine her feelings: my poor “pack leader” is under stress too. It feels good to me knowing I do not have to use any punishment at all. I start walking and talking (no heeling, no commands). I would like to add here that I do not use the command “heel” in helping the dog learn to want to be with me. I can’t teach her – I can only make it available for her to learn. So we start just walking and talking with lots of confidence and no praise. I have her on my left and the other dog on my right as we walk past the problem, who is standing (or sitting depending on how I read the situation) at a right angle to us. No stress for me, no stress for her, and I say “you’re OK!” as a matter of confidence, but without praise.
Next time we walk past, she is next to the problem and I am on the outside. Remember we are just walking and talking – no praise, just confidence. By now I will be feeling confident too, because there is a lot of difference between praise and confidence. Now, at the very first sign of stress from her, I suddenly make a quick right angle turn away from the problem. I use a very quick (not hard) collar correction that is well-timed to a sudden burst of praise. I would be saying, “You did a good job and I’m sorry you weren’t watching me when I made a sudden turn, and I think you are just great.” If the stress would not lessen after a few tries, I would let it “sink in” and come back later. I have, so far, never had to do that. I find it important to have her become alert to me (her leader) because she respects me and finds I’m good company. After we arrive at a comfortable decision for her, which may take time and patience, I would try the “head on” approach but not before. Many times with this method, I have had dogs go up to the problem and turn to me with a pleased look (not frightened or submissive) and follow me as though saying, “Hey, look what I’ve done – how about a little praise.” And they sure get it! The “head on” is much the same. I use the same general approach, the same “accidental” correction, the same “I’m sorry you weren’t ready when I made that sudden turn”, the same confidence first, then switch to praise.
Of course there are exceptions and I would like to dwell more on the trainer’s perception towards the dog, but that is a study in itself. I find most of us who work with dog behavior need to develop more ability in this direction. I believe it is the most important thing in being able to communicate with or work with dogs.