A Corgi who barks, spins, leaps and sometimes bites when anyone in her house stands up or moves around. A German Shepherd-Husky cross who barks, lunges and charges at dogs walking by her house. A Poodle who growls at other dogs when on leash. A mixed breed who is terrified of visitors and barks at them nonstop. A Papillon puppy who bites his elderly Labrador Retriever housemate when the older dog doesn’t want to play with him. What do these aggressive dogs have in common? All of them had their behavior improved through the use of play.
About a decade ago, I began to regularly incorporate play into programs for aggressive dogs. Play is a powerful tool when working with such dogs, including those who are behaving badly because of frustration, arousal, lack of impulse control, boredom or fear. It has a positive effect on emotions, which is why play-motivated fearful dogs often respond better to play than to treats, even if they are also highly treat-motivated — fear decreases faster and more thoroughly in response to the former than to the latter. There are many different ways that play can help aggressive dogs to behave better.
Theoretically, you can stop a behavior by teaching an action incompatible with that behavior — for example, counteracting a dog’s habit of jumping on people by teaching him to sit in their presence. But when a dog struggles with high arousal (which many aggressive dogs do), you’re more likely to have success by teaching the dog to perform an active behavior. Trying to teach a dog to lie down, stay or another static, controlled behavior is more challenging and generally less effective.
In the case of the Corgi who was aggressive when people moved around, the more aroused she was, the more reactive and out of control she became. My goal was to transfer that energy; for her, I chose fetch, her favorite game. Now, when people are active, she brings a ball to her guardians, who then play fetch with her. By itself, the act of getting a toy can have an inhibitory effect, but it’s even better to teach the dog to get a toy in order to initiate a game. The anticipation gave the Corgi a happy feeling: “Oh boy! Somebody moved! That means playtime.”
The German Shepherd-Husky cross who reacted to dogs passing by was easily aroused and struggled with impulse control. Her guardians, who had already tried calling her away and using treats to capture her attention, were convinced that she would never be able to focus on anything with another dog in sight. Compounding the problem, she was not just beyond her guardians’ control, but actually beyond her own control.
However, she loved to play tug, and no matter how high her arousal was or what distractions were present, she was captivated by her tug rope. Therefore, this game was the perfect way to redirect her attention. Once she learned that when a dog came into view, she would be given an opportunity to play tug, she stopped going crazy at the sight of a dog and instead, turned immediately and joyfully to her guardians. Tug helped her control herself.
Tug has many advantages when working with an aggressive dog, as long as tug does not incite the aggression. It not only keeps the dog near you and her mouth occupied, it also allows you to direct the dog’s line of sight, which can be especially useful if the dog is visually stimulated. Dogs who tug usually love to play the game, which makes it a compelling option.
The Poodle who was reactive to other dogs when on leash is one of the most playful dogs I have ever known, and also one of the smartest. His training was excellent, and he could perform many behaviors on cue, even in the presence of another dog. But if he saw the dog first, he would bark, lunge and pull so hard on the leash that he had more than once caused his guardian to fall.
All of that changed when I started reinforcing him with play. If he controlled himself when he saw another dog — performing any behavior other than reacting — he was allowed to play. He was willing to work for play, but the play had to be the “right” kind: running after his guardian. Once this reinforcement system was established, when he saw another dog, he would look at her as if to say, “Well, don’t you have some running to do?” and then happily give chase.