Over-Reactive vs. Aggressive Dogs

Categories: Dog Behavior
By Laura Yurchak

Do you have a dog that barks and lunges at dogs, people or other objects when on leash? This is very frustrating and depressing to the owner. People tell me that they schedule their walks either early in the morning or when it is dark. Some say that they just stop taking their dogs for walks.

Many of these dogs begin with good intentions. When they see another dog they get excited. Their hormones begin to rise; their adrenaline sky rockets… a dog, oh boy oh boy….. I wanta see the dog….can’t get close, gotta get closer….. oh boy, oh boy, a dog, a dog!!!!!! They want to see that dog so badly that they pull and bark out of sheer excitement. At that time, the owner corrects the dog for their awful behavior. If you interviewed the dog they would say “What’s up with this human? Can’t they see that I want to check out this other dog?” As time goes by, the owner’s corrections escalate and the dog associates the corrections to the site of the dog. This is when the leash aggression really begins. Other dogs are over-reactive to movement and sound. Cars, bikes, motor cycles, Oh My! Squirrels are raining from the sky! There are so many things in the environment that excites our dogs. They get sucked into the environment and are no longer on planet earth. They go to Doggieville. Humans don’t exist in Doggieville. We know this because the dogs don’t hear a word we are saying even though the neighbors down the block can hear you loud and clear. Try calling a Beagle off of a scent. Go ahead. I dare you. You’ll see what I mean.

Many of you know Harley, my Border Collie, the new love of my life. In the beginning, he was highly overreactive when he saw other dogs. The first few times I took him to the Hiking Club he wouldn’t stop barking and lunging at the dogs. I knew he wasn’t aggressive; he was over-reactive. I admit, at times it was hard for me to deal with, but I told myself, this is not his fault and he needs my help. We moved away from the group many times to help Harley calm down. Once I knew he was ready we would meet up with the group again. There were times that we would walk with just one, two or three dogs as they branched away from the group.

In the mean time, my husband took Harley to classes where he also learned the skills he needed to succeed. Harley has conquered his over-reactivity and now walks with his buddies for the entire hike. Aggressive dogs differ from over-reactive dogs.  Aggressive dogs intend to do harm. The Random House College Dictionary says aggression is “the practice of making assaults or attacks.” Genetics, past experiences, lack of socialization or a combination of some of all of these can be the cause of this type of behavior. The dogs that injure someone or another dog must be handled differently. Some may never change. Some may be able to be stay under stimulus control when in a challenging environment. Some may be able to change completely. I have been contemplating exactly how I want to run our aggressive dog class. Jennifer, Amy, Stephanie and I recently went to a two-day seminar on aggressive dogs. The key points that I felt were important is that not all dogs will be able to attend a class with other dogs. You must keep an aggressive dog under threshold at all times. In other words, you must control the dog and the environment so the dog doesn’t exhibit any aggressive behavior. You must also teach them incompatible behaviors at
a competition obedience level.

These skills must be in place before the dog attends a class with other dogs. The owner must be committed to the program and understand that this may be a lifetime commitment.  Unlike what you see on TV, dogs don’t change overnight. It takes time, patience and commitment on the owner’s part. Before starting our aggressive dog class, I require that the dogs have a complete physical including CBC, chemistry and complete thyroid panel. You must also attend at least one or more private sessions. Accepting a dog into the aggressive dog class depends on the dog’s skill level and severity of the aggression. If you have a dog that may be over-reactive or aggressive, you can do one of two things. You can manage the situation as you do now or you can seek help. I would be happy to discuss your options.