When I speak to students and clients about aggression, I often like to put them in the place of their dogs. It’s not a fun exercise but I feel that it’s a needed one because when we start to work with aggressive dogs we need to approach the work with compassion rather than as an inconvenience. I’d like to play the same game with you now. I warned you: it’s not much fun, but it serves an important purpose in helping you help your dog.

I want you to think about the top three things that scare you. Now, I want you to imagine yourself in the picture below. You’re taking a walk and enjoying yourself, when all of a sudden the third-scariest thing appears at a distance and is approaching you. As much as the space around you allows, I want you to imagine yourself trying to get away. As you run, you see the second-scariest thing that scares you and you turn the other direction, only to see that the scariest thing of all is getting closer and closer and closer.

Take a deep breath.

Now, imagine yourself in the second picture, and re-run the scenario. (Really. Run it all through your mind again. Try to escape, given the space available. I’ll wait.)

Now take a few deep breaths, because we’re going to do this again. Imagine yourself in the third picture, and run through the same scenario—you’re presented with scary stimuli and you need to get away as much as the space around you allows.

I’m pretty sure you’re not having much fun with this game, but good for you for sticking with it. You’ve made it to the final round!

Lastly, imagine yourself in the position of the dog shown below. You’re out for that same walk, presented with those same scary things, and your job is to get away from the scary things as much as you can. In a busy urban environment, it can feel like every time you turn around there’s another fearful stimulus.

How did that feel? Not good, right? Well that’s how aggressive dogs felt early in their lives. Like any living organism, a dog’s main goal in life is to survive, and to do that they have to avoid danger. Dogs first avoid danger (rather than confronting it), because a big part of survival is knowing how to conserve energy, and it takes less energy to run away than to engage in a battle. It is also, of course, far less risky—you might get maimed, or even die, in a fight, but you are unlikely to be harmed by running away. This stage is often label the timid stage. When dogs behave in a timid way, they are really in flight mode. However, the more your dog finds itself in the same position (being frightened and not being able to flee to safety), the sooner your dog is likely to realize that “flight” isn’t an available option. That’s especially true in cramped conditions, as we saw in the photographs. Smaller spaces take away flight options: think narrow hallways; elevators; city sidewalks; big, long buildings (which create giant solid walls blocking off one side of the sidewalk); long rows of bumper-to-bumper parked cars; and busy streets. All of these locations limit your dog’s ability to flee.

So what happens next?

If flight will not work, then it’s time to stand my ground and lean forward, bare my teeth, growl, bark, lunge, and even bite.

When dogs react in this way, either (or both) of two things happen: The scary thing moves away, and/or you remove your dog from the situation. Either way, your dog gets the message that reacting works—it made the fearful stimuli go away. The “fighting” behavior just got reinforced. Seriously: No one just stands there saying, “Oh, your dog is so cute, growling and trying to bite me!” As you imagine yourself in the elevator, scared and trying to get away but feeling cornered, didn’t you feel an urge to then fight for your life? If I were in trapped in an elevator with a spider coming at me, I would have no other choice but to become aggressive and try to scare it away. Some might even step on it to kill it.

In the city, dogs find themselves in similar situations a lot more frequently. How many times—in each block, each walk, each day, each week—do you see a dog? A stranger? A bike? A skateboard? A loud bus? A runner? Many times! When you pictured yourself in three locations surrounded by your nightmare, I only asked you to do it once. Now try picturing it every 5 minutes—well, actually, don’t do that, because your body will begin to panic. In the city, fearful stimuli are constantly present and your dog encounters them often. This makes reactions frequent and intense.

When it comes fearful stimuli, dogs do not habituate, they escalate their reactions. Sometimes their reactions escalate to the point that the dogs become tense and alert in certain locations where something scary or uncomfortable happened, even without the fearful stimulus present. Once the fearful stimulus presents itself, the dogs will start to react with the behavior that worked for them in the past. Learning theory states that a behavior that is rewarded is more likely to happen again. Many times the behavior is lunging, and the reward was relief or feeling safe again. There is nothing more rewarding than security.

If you have a dog who is timid, reactive, or aggressive, think of the moments that make your dog react. Behavior is very predictable, but many times we fail to see the signs because we are focusing elsewhere or believe we already “know” what’s going on with our dogs. Think about the last couple of times your dog has reacted to something in these ways. For each of those events, consider the following:

  • What made your dog scared? A stranger? Another dog?
  • What did the fearful stimuli do that made your dog notice it? Did it make eye contact, turn its head towards your dog, approach your dog or into your dog’s space? Reach over?
  • How big was the fearful stimuli, and what energy level did it have?
  • Where did this happen? At home? Outside? On the sidewalk? In an elevator?
  • What was the size of the space around your dog? Was your dog against a wall, in a corner, on a leash, in a crate, being restrained, hiding behind your legs, or under the bed?

Comment to share your experiences or with questions. In the next post, I will share why these questions are important and what to make of the answers. We’ll look at what’s going on in your dog’s mind and body as it prepares to flee or fight. What can you, the handler, do to build trust again, and how can you respond to these events without making things worse?