Calm or closed down?

Posted Sunday, 29 May 2016

Aggressive dog rehabilitation

When working to rehabilitate dogs it’s essential that the trainer and dog owner are aware of how to read dog body language.

Example. A dog that has shown aggression towards other dogs is barking aggressively at the other dogs when out on walks. He attends socialisation sessions with a trainer and her dog. During these sessions the rehab dog barks manically at the other teaching dog for half the session. After half an hour this dog is eventually quiet and stops barking. He walks at a distance of about 6 feet from the teaching dog. Once or twice the rehab dog has lunged at the teaching dog who then lunged and growled back. Both dogs by the end of the session are walking side by side, neither looking at the other but all barking and lunging has stopped. The trainer books a follow up appointment with the client. Both client and trainer are confident that this session has been successful and that if they keep doing this the dog will improve and will no longer bark and lunge at other dogs.

Each time they meet this process is repeated but after daily sessions for four weeks the rehab dog barks for less time. The dogs spend more time walking closer together but neither one acknowledges the other for the entire session. Both dogs walk side by side facing forward with never even a glance at the other dog. If they walk towards each other, they do not look at each other. Although it is not warm and they have not been running around, both dogs are panting at the end of the session. The rehab dog pulls a bit further away from the teaching dog whilst walking towards. The dog walks very purposefully pulling very hard forward when walking parallel. It is thought this the rehab dog is pushing the boundaries so extra lead walking training sessions are booked. At the end of the sessions both dogs perform an all over body shake off. The rehab dog seems relaxed and sleeps for the rest of the day.

The sessions appear to be going well. However, when out on walks the rehab dog is still barking aggressively at other dogs. 


1. The rehab dog has learned that barking changes nothing. He barks initially as he is very stressed and is attempting to ensure the other dog doesn't come close. When this doesn't work he stops barking. This is called "learned helplessness" also known as "closed down". But out on walks he learns that barking makes the other dogs go away so in these contexts barking is still successful.

2. Neither dog acknowledges the other. This does not mean that the dogs are happy with each other. In fact, they are avoiding making eye contact with each other indicating that neither dog feels safe. This is a conflict avoidance strategy by both dogs. Both dogs are likely to be stressed.

3. The rehab dog pulls away from the direction of the teaching dog during close work in rehab and it is assumed he just had bad leash manners. No, he is trying to avoid close proximity to the other dog. However, he is being forced back in close proximity to the other dog. The rehab dog is actually doing the right thing here; he is avoiding close contact rather than trying to show aggression. However, sadly, this still is not working. Going forward it could be predicted that this dog may go on to show more dramatic behaviour in an effort to avoid dogs until he finds a successful strategy.

4. Walking very purposefully, digging in and marching forward whilst pulling on the lead is likely to be symptomatic of the dog's emotional state rather than boundary pushing. This dog is actually trying to run away unsuccessfully whilst on the lead to avoid the other dog. 

When you work to rehabilitate aggressive/nervous dogs it is important to make sure the dog is not pushed beyond what he can cope with. To do this you must be able to read canine body language. 

Watch out for tongue flicking, clamped ears, tense muzzles, excessive sniffing, furrowed brows, bulging eyes, averting gaze, staring, blinking, panting, hunched body shape, parallelogram body shapes, stiff "planted" legs, "long dog" (front half approaching, back half running away). There are more subtle signs but most of the above signs are quite obvious when explained to dog owners. If you are seeing these signs, then move your dog further away.

Exposure therapy only works if the subject is not experiencing fear when exposed and is prepared to to look at the stimulus. The more the dog continues to experience fear in exposure therapy (or in daily life) the deeper the neural pathway for that response becomes. This kind of training activity can make the behaviour worse not better. Successful exposure therapy depends on the dog looking at the stimulus and forming new positive associations with this stimulus.

So, when you are working on exposure therapy with your dog, ask yourself the question. Is my dog calm or closed down?