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What to do with a dog aggressive senior?

1086 Views 4 Replies 4 Participants Last post by  CachetheBC
So I rescued an 8 year old cattle dog/pitbull mix not too long ago. He’s an absolute sweetheart, until there’s another dog around. I was misled by the rescue agency about how badly he reacts to other dogs and how unsocialized he is.
Whenever he’s able to see another dog he loses his mind; if it’s through a window or from the car he barks and growls excessively, if it’s up close he snarls, barks, growls, and chokes himself out on the leash trying to get to the other dog.
He grew up on a 60 acre ranch able to do as he pleased day and night, spoiled as a dog could be but he was only ever around his sister so he’s completely unsocialized as far as other dogs are concerned. I was told he was attacked by a pack of dogs at 2 years old as well.
I’m really desperate here, I know he’s a good dog and would really benefit from less anxiety and aggression but I don’t know how to go about helping him. He’s never bitten anyone or any other dog, but I’m scared there might come an unavoidable situation that causes it to escalate. Does anyone have similar experience/any advice for helping to correct this?
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This is actually not uncommon but very few dogs really want to get into a fight. All of their instincts tell them not to - in the wild, the risk of injury is simply too great. In fact, aggressive behaviour is almost always rooted in fear.

By putting on a big display, your dog is trying to frighten off the other dog, his body language is saying 'I'm loud and big and scary, don't come close to me if you know what's good for you'. And almost always the other dog will retreat, or be taken away by his owner, so your dog's behaviour becomes reinforced. It worked, so he knows he can do it again.

This sort of behaviour also often happens when your dog is on lead, which means that he has found himself closer to the other dog than he would have chosen if he had been able to.

He will have an invisible radius of space around him where he feels secure. It's called flight distance, anything within that space triggers his fight or flight stress response, which you may have heard of. Find out what that is and keep him far enough away from other dogs that he is aware of them, but relaxed. Your goal is to train that he doesn't need to react; not to stop a reaction in progress.

Reward him for being calm with something fabulous, like frankfurter sausage or a very special toy. The aim of this is to change your dog’s emotional response to the stressful thing (the other dog) by repeatedly pairing it with something good. In time, your dog will learn that scary dogs mean sausages appear and this creates something called a positive conditioned emotional response (+CER).

This website explains it in more detail - Care for Reactive Dogs

Gradually, over weeks and months rather than days, you can work on reducing the distance. This may mean you have to be selective where you walk - choose places with good visibility so you can give other dogs a wide berth, or where you can turn and walk away easily. But - be aware that if your dog has had a stressful episode the stress hormone cortisol can stay in the body for some time. Studies in dogs are inconclusive but it may be several days. The distance he was comfortable with on one day might be too close on another day. So the safe distance can change, watch his body language.

Alongside that you could train a 'watch me'. As your dog looks at you, mark and reward the behaviour. Ask for longer periods of watching. Then if a dog approaches, after you have worked on the distance issue, you can get your dog to focus on you and not the other dog. BUT - some dogs find this scary as they cannot see the thing they are anxious about so you need to judge your dog. And importantly, don't ask your dog to watch you if it is the other dog that is reactive. Your dog should never be in a situation where he could be at risk while she is complying with something you have asked him to do.

Trainers describe behaviour like this with reference to the three Ds. Distance, as above but also be aware of Duration - your dog might be tolerant for 10 seconds, but not 15; and Distraction - how distracting the stimulus is, a calm dog might not trigger any reaction at a given distance but a bouncy one might.

In addition, the conformation (shape) or even colour of some dogs can trigger a reaction. Very broad fronted dogs (such as mastiffs or bulldogs) create the impression of 'facing up' just because of their shape, which can be intimidating even if their temperament is perfect. And black dogs are thought to have facial body language that is harder to read. Some dogs will be more reactive to un-neutered males, or particular breeds for no apparent reason. Learn what triggers reactions in your dog so that you can give him the extra support he needs.
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You really can't let this behaviour continue - it is not fair to other dogs. He may one day pick on one who is old, unwell, injured or in recovery and the owner will justifiably be furious.

Grabbing him and saying no is likely to do more harm than good because he now also has another unpleasant association with other dogs. So, I'd still recommend the approach above including the linked site. And you will need to have him on lead while you work on it.

It really isn't necessary for him to be playful with other dogs, if he doesn't know them. Fine to have a couple of friends whose size and play match his, but other than that, you should focus on you, not other dogs, being his focus.
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