Using avoidance and passive behavior modification to treat canine dominance aggression

By avoiding certain situations and teaching their dogs to defer to them for attention, owners can break the cycle of aggressive behavior. The author discusses how and why this process works and provides detailed instructions for your clients.


Department of Clinical Studies School of Veterinary Medicine University of Pennsylvania Philadelphia, PA 19104-6010

THE FIRST STEPS in treating dominance aggression in a dog are to avoid circumstances known to provoke the dog and, by using passive behavior modification techniques, to teach the dog to defer to its owner. This article describes these two steps. Next month's symposium will discuss two additional steps in treating dominance aggression: active behavior modification and drug therapy.


A clients willingness to treat a dominantly aggressive dog depends on the likelihood of injury and on whether the client can predict when the dog will be aggressive. If an owner thinks that his or her dog's aggression is unpredictable, euthanasia is a frequent outcome.' For this reason, obtain a detailed behavior history at the patient's first examination.' This history will indicate the circumstances in which the dog reacts aggressively. Advise your client to avoid such situations. For example, if a dog growls when hugged, tell its owner to avoid hugging the dog. If a dog growls when stared at, tell your client to avoid staring at the dog. Although this advice contradicts recommendations found in several training manuals, consider the following: By staring at a dog, the owner is asking the dog to respond to a challenge (the stare) with a challenge. This will likely only intensify the dog's aggression. By looking away from the dog, the owner is not giving in but is avoiding a situation in which the dog can manipulate him or her. The client information handout on page 983 lists other common situations owners of dominantly aggressive dogs should avoid. Avoidance alone will likely improve an affected dog's behavior because the dog will no longer be rewarded for inappropriate behavior.

Passive behavior modification

Passive behavior modification, which teaches a dog to defer to its owner, is an underused tool. It works because it incorporates signals that dogs use to communicate about their relative roles in their natural social systems. The techniques described here are directed toward the owners of dominantly aggressive dogs and are similar to those of other passive behavior modification programs.

Giving a dog the right cues

Dogs have social systems similar to those of people. They live in extended family groups; have extensive parental care; work as a group or a family to help care for offspring; nurse their young before feeding them semisolid, then solid food; use play as one form of developing social skills; communicate extensively vocally and nonvocally; and, most important, have a social system based on deference to others.

All social animals create some form of rule structure, which allows them to communicate effectively with each other. Because dogs are similar to us in many ways and frequently look like they are hanging on our every word, we assume they are complying with our rule structure. But puppies and problem dogs need to have a consistent and humane rule structure made clear to them. Because dogs are receptive to guidance, they will take cues about the appropriateness of their behavior from their owners. Passive behavior modification is one way to teach dogs appropriate behavior.

Passive behavior modification is a form of discipline that does not involve physical punishment. Discipline is not synonymous with violence or abuse. For most dogs, withdrawal of attention is a far more undesirable correction than is physical abuse. Abused dogs, or those consistently mismanaged with physical punishment, will either learn to override the punishment or learn to seek it since it may be the only attention they get. Abuse includes inappropriate physical punishment such as beating (e.g. with bats, plastic soda bottles, chains, leashes, whips, towels, sticks), extreme physical restraint such as stepping on a dog's toes, kneeing or kicking dogs, and using devices such as cattle prods. People are horrified when I run through this list, but my clients have cited all these techniques as methods they have tried or methods recommended to them to correct their dogs' behavior.

Basic techniques

The intent of passive behavior modification is to set a baseline of good behavioral interaction between an owner and a pet and to teach the dog that it must consistently defer to its owner to get attention. This is done in a safe, kind, passive manner. First, owners have to break their own patterns of response, which often involve fear, anger, or both. Second, owners must be consistently aware of their interactions with their pets. For example, if an owner is talking, reading, or watching television and the dog comes up and rubs, paws, or leans against him or her, the owner usually passively reaches out and touches or pets the dog. The owner isn't aware that the dog engineered this situation so that it was in complete control-the dog demanded attention and the owner gave it.

Owners should not touch, pat, or otherwise interact with their dogs unless the dogs are calm and await their attention. This is done by having the dog sit still for a few seconds before it is allowed to do or receive what it wants. Though they may not perfect this behavior because they are rambunctious, puppies as young as 5 weeks of age can learn to sit and pay attention to an owner (look at the owner for cues, make eye contact, look happy and attentive while being quiet) in exchange for a food treat. As soon as a dog sits, the owner should say "Good dog!" and give the dog a treat while petting it. The owner is not rewarding the dog for sitting but is rewarding its calm, attentive behavior.

For a more detailed, step-by-step approach that shows owners how to teach deferential behavior to their dogs, see Deferential Behavior Article. But keep in mind that you can't just rely on this handout. You or one of your team members should also demonstrate the behavior modification techniques for the client. Optimally, this teaching takes place in the client's home. For difficult cases, you may need to consult a behavior specialist. Once a dog has successfully learned this behavior, a more trusting and less destructive relationship will form between the dog and its owner.


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