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Play-Training Helps with Aggression in Dogs
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The mixed breed who was terrified of visitors loved fetch, and she warmed up fast to anyone who would play it with her. To take advantage of this, I used classical counterconditioning to change her emotional response to visitors. Specifically, I taught her to associate them with fetch; I wanted her to feel the same joy when someone unfamiliar to her arrived as she felt when playing fetch. Thus, everyone who entered her home threw a ball for her. Eventually, the appearance of a visitor became the cue that a game of fetch was about to happen. Instead of responding with fear because a stranger had entered, she now responds with enthusiasm.

Frustration and boredom were the root causes in the case of the Papillon puppy who was aggressive to the Labrador Retriever. The older dog was interested in playing with the puppy for no more than two to three minutes at a time, but the puppy wanted to frolic morning, noon and night. When the Lab called a halt, the puppy would growl, leap on the Lab and bite him, sometimes causing injuries.

It was essential to find other ways to engage the Papillon in play, ways that would provide him with enough fun, mental and physical exercise, and other stimulation to keep him happy. The first step was to determine which toys, games and activities appealed to him. Never has my job been easier, because this dog loved everything. I imagined him thinking, Plush toys? I love them, they’re my favorite! Tug toys? I love them, they’re my favorite! Balls? I love them, they’re my favorite!

Every single thing I tried was a success — puzzle toys, squeaky toys, bouncy toys, rope toys, balls, disks, Kongs. He liked them all. Discovering a variety of new games and either learning or inventing ways to play with different toys satisfied his intense need for play. He played fetch, tug, chase and hide-and-seek with people. When people weren’t available, he learned to enjoy throwing objects in the air and catching them, puzzles of all sorts, dribbling a ball around like a soccer star, and rolling balls down ramps and then chasing after them. Between the variety of toys and the multiple “play stations” we set up around his house, he learned to entertain himself for long stretches at a time.

Once I showed his guardians new ways to play with their puppy, they interacted with him much more, which took a lot of pressure off the older dog. Now, the Papillon plays appropriately and brief ly with the Lab a few times a day, and when the Lab is done, the puppy chooses a different way to play. Providing additional options was essential in helping this puppy behave in an acceptable manner around the other dog in his family.

There are many ways to change aggressive behavior, and an important part of my work is deciding which one will work best for a particular dog. While play is not part of the solution for every dog, it can help many of them, and increasingly, I find that I can help people and their dogs succeed by incorporating play into their programs. Yes, play is fun, but when working with aggressive dogs, it can be so much more.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 72: Nov/Dec 2012

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

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