The process is step-by-step. There is no magic bullet. You are replicating missed puppy skills so proceed with caution and precision. Re-socializing an already reactive or aggressive dog that has missed the key first sixteen weeks of proper social contact with humans or other dogs is a step-by-step process. These dogs will play catch up for the rest of their lives.
Dogs showing aggressive tendencies (growling, snarling, biting, and snapping) require the assistance of a highly qualified trainer IN PERSON. This article addresses how to proceed, but it is easier and more effective with someone knowledgeable to guide you and to provide the controlled contexts your dog will need to be successful.
Since each dog is a unique individual with differing challenges there is no recipe that works for all. However, by following a few guidelines you can be well on your way in the re-socialization process and to diminishing or completely modifying unacceptable behaviors.
Below are ten things you’ll need to get you started.
1. Write down all your dog’s triggers, in detail. What types of people are they uncomfortable around? What types of dogs are they uncomfortable around? Suggested reading is Aggression in Dogs by James O’Heare a technical workbook, and Pam Dennison’s How to Right a Dog Gone Wrong and Bringing Light to Shadow.
2. Write down your dog’s behavior, what in exact in detail are they doing? What does your dog do BEFORE they react, while they are reacting, what did they get out of the reaction and what happens afterwords?
3. What happens before your dog reacts? What do you do? What is the distance of the person or the dog? What does your dog do? What signals or body language messages do they send?
4. How does your dog react or aggress, what does it look like and can you define exactly what they reacted to? What did you do when they reacted, meaning “during” the reaction?
5. What exactly happens AFTER the reaction occurs? What did you do? What did the person do? What did the dog do? What did your dog do? NOTE HERE: Simply by removing what happens BEFORE your dog reacts and what reinforcement they get AFTER they react, you can influence and change your dog’s behavior.
6. What changes in your household environment can YOU make to assure your dog is calmer, more relaxed and more focused on you when encountering triggers? Call in a professional if you are not having success in your home. Outdoors: Can you put up a fence, close access to potential reactive areas, mask outdoor sounds, put up a safe place where your dog spends an hour a day without any distractions, increase exercise, provide better nutrition, get medical tests done to rule out behavior challenges
7. Make an effort to find safe places to walk your dog on or off leash. While you are re-socializing and re-training your dog, you’ll need to strive for zero reactivity and keep them safe. To move them slowly past the safe places will take a concentrated and committed effort with a professional behavioral trainer and positive associations with your dog’s triggers. This is why distance and duration of exposure needs to be minimal while slowly increasing duration and slowly decreasing distance without reactivity or aggression.
8. Find a trainer who is knowledgeable in reactive and aggressive dog behavior; a behavior consultant who focuses on reactive and aggressive dog modification and/or a veterinarian behaviorist. Start your dog out right with positive reward-based training methods so they can re-socialize to their capacity.
9. If your dog is reactive to other dogs, then teacher dogs with excellent doggie communication skills will be needed to help your dog re-socialize. If human reactive, people who know exactly what they are doing will be required (i.e. professionals) to re-socialize your dog. There are a lot of books written on the subject and are well worth the dollars spent, but a professional will see things you won’t and will know what technique to apply and which to stay away from for your particular dog. Pair pleasant things like treats, toy play with the dog’s triggers, so they begin to equate the trigger with good things happening.
10. Most of all, commit yourself to the process. This means to practice daily with your dog, keep a log and set realistic criteria. Keep distance to zero reactivity and proof your dog occasionally to see where their threshold might fall. Keep your dog always below threshold when training as this creates a long history of keeping them safe and finally makes scary stimuli irrelevant. Your sub-threshold will increase incrementally.