Dog-Dog Aggression

When you have a dog who is dog aggressive, you need to find out WHY he is aggressing. Is he afraid? Does he want to dominate every dog he sees? Is it prey drive that is causing the behavior? Does he have something against that particular dog, and not all dogs in general? Is it worse with certain profiles of dogs? Does this cause him to actually want to hurt the other dog, or just scare him away?  These are all important questions that need to be addressed before choosing what method to use with your dog. When you are dealing with complex issues such as aggression, choosing the right dog trainer can make the difference between your dog having a healthy recovery from this issue and a happy life, to the behavior either not getting better, or more likely, getting much worse, as well as other behavioral issues cropping up from the iladvised methods used by inexperienced trainers.  It is very important that you talk to an experienced dog trainer who has worked through all kinds of dog aggression, and understands how different the approach needs to be depending on the motivation behind the behavior. Training methods can be much like choosing a medication for a complex health issue. You try one that your doctor thinks may work for you, if it does not, you move on to something else until you find the one that works for YOU. It is important to talk to an experienced dog trainer about which method, of the many that are out there, is best for your dog.  This article is intended to educate the public on the general theory of dog-dog fear aggression. No dog training regime should be implemented without consulting a dog training professional. 

Fear aggression: Which method is best?

To get a dog from reacting very strongly to a stimulus, no matter what it is, it takes time and patience. You cannot push the dog, or punish the dog, to 
"get over it".

Lets see if we can see it from the dog's point of view: 

You have a severe fear big, black rats. Every time you see one, even if it is all the way on the other side of the room, you scream, your heart starts racing, and you run out of the room.  Meanwhile, your spouse has decided that it is time for you to get over this fear of rats, and so he is going to get you around them so much that you would just have to "get over it", and shout at you at the top of his lungs if you screamed or ran from the room. So he decided to put a rat in your bed every morning when you woke up.  Well, you can probably imagine that you would not only not get better, but you would most likely get worse. Not to mention the marital discord!

Not only do you wake up every morning to a rat in your bed, but every time you went outside of your house, random people would walk up to you and put a rat on your head! Can you imagine your response to THAT? You would freak out! No matter where you went, you would be looking around, trying to figure out who had a rat and how you would get away from them. So now not only do you have an even more severe fear of rats, you also have a nervous complex, because of a damaging method a loved one used to try to help you. 

While this scenario could be considered humorous, unfortunately, this method is all too common in the dog training world, and there is nothing funny about this dog training method growing more and more popular. It is called flooding, and the idea is to get the dog around what it is reacting to so much that it has no choice but to "get over it". It is inhumane, and not only that, but you can end up causing much worse psychological damage than you had before you started this kind of training. This is NOT the industry standard for treating reactive dogs, and anyone who is instructed to use this type of training for anything should be very very careful, and I strongly suggest you get a second opinion from a trainer not associated with the first.

 Now, back to our story.

Thankfully, your spouse hears about desensitization, and counter conditioning, and decides to try it. So he gets a cage and puts a very small baby rat in it, then he puts it outside, about 10ft from your window. Then he puts a bag of your favorite chocolate in the window sill with a letter that says "every time you look at this baby rat, please eat a piece of chocolate. When you walk away, please leave the bag here. I will refill it if it ever gets empty. Oh, and they have no calories".  You can bet that I would be over there looking at that rat! So now you feel safe, and you have a choice whether or not to go look at it. You have not gotten to that place where your heart is beating and you are scared, so you can actually think about what you want to do (this is called being sub-threshold). You are able to get away from it, and you can give yourself more space if you need to.

Your spouse also gives a baby rat to your best friend, and asks that any time she comes over, she bring the baby rat with her, in a cage. Now something great (your best friend) is paired with the feared item (the rat), but the feared item is being controlled to keep you from reacting (using a baby rat and keeping it in a cage). Pretty soon you would get used to the baby rat, the fact that your friend always brings it would not be a big deal, and you would probably even start talking to it through the glass.

All of this time, your spouse has been very careful to make sure that no big black rats come into the house. This gives you a chance to slowly work up to something more similar to the actual trigger event (big black rat who is free in your house). The husband now goes to the store and buys a domesticated gray and white large rat to keep as a pet. He will take care of it, but it will be in the house. Since it is domesticated and really sweet, and you have already gotten on talking terms with the black baby mouse, you come around pretty quickly and soon the rat is actually your pet.

The next time you see a big black rat across the room, you say "oh my gosh! Look at that rat! Ralph, please put him back outside, but don't hurt him!" in a very calm and collected tone.  

How did you get here? You had looked at rats with no feelings of fear/anxiety for a months, so when you saw a new one, you did not overreact. You have changed your emotional response to the sight of a rat. This is called working sub-threshold, and it is how we are going to help our dogs be okay about being around other dogs.

This content is owned by Amanda Miller and should not be copied or altered without the explicit consent of the owner.

This is an outline of how I deal with reactivity in my own dogs, my foster dogs, and my clients' dogs. I have read many books and talked with many other trainers on this topic, but while my method has many parts that stand on its own, my method goes along most closely to the one listed in Ali Brown's book Scaredy Dog! (2004). 

Understanding Dog Reactivity:

Glucocorticoids are stress hormones that are left in the body after an adrenaline rush, and according to Brown (2004), they stay with you for 2-7 days afterward. This lag in the hormones dissipating makes you more alert than usual, enabling you to "be ready" if it were to happen again. If, within that 2-7 day time period something else happens to give another rush of adrenaline, you now have two helpings of glucocorticoids, which will now take twice as long to dissipate, and make you twice as jumpy. So, if you almost hit someone in your car, and the adrenaline really kicks in, you will most likely be a little jumpy for the next few days. If the next day someone almost hits you when pulling out into the road infront of you, you will be even more on-edge. And if the day after that you are riding in the car with a friend who does not give the car length gap between herself and the car in front of her, you would most likely overreact by screaming out “STOP!!!!!!!”. Now, your friend does not know what you have recently been through, she just knows that you just really overreacted.  By this time you are so jumpy that it takes very little for something to push you over the edge and get that adrenaline pumping again, making you even more jumpy than you were before. Not only that, but since you are adding a fresh batch of glucorticoids to the ones you already had, they will stick around and keep you jumpy for that much longer. This is what is called Chronic Stress (Brown, 2004), and it is what many of our dogs suffer, when they live their lives with daily bursts of adrenaline. This overreaction is what is called reactivity. It is often labeled as aggression, but it in fact is based in fear, not actually wanting to hurt the other dog / person / car etc. Not only does it make your dog’s life, and your life miserable with him always on the edge of a reaction, it is also very bad for his health. So, stopping this destructive cycle is the first and most important step in your reactive dog’s rehabilitation.


How to stop the cycle:

You need to do whatever you have to, to keep your dog from reacting for 2 weeks. You also need to make sure that your dog gets enough exercise to help “work out” the glucorticoids from his system (Brown, 2004). So, what is considered a “reaction”?  Any behavior that causes extreme tense in the dog’s body: intense barking, stiff body and/or growling, scanning, staring a dog (cat, person, bicicle, etc.) down, running in real fright (not play running), or any other behavior where the dog is exhibiting the behaviors of flight fight or freeze. Basically, try to keep your dog calm and relaxed with bouts of play where the dog is not stressed.


During these two weeks, you should also be trying to “work out” the glucorticoids by using a calming touch daily on your dog (Brown, 2004). This is to help the dog learn how to relax his muscles and release a lot of the tension in his body.


You also need to be making a few lists:

What is your dog’s treat hierarchy? Example: Dog Biscuits (1) Carrots (2) Dog Food (2) Brussel Sprouts (3) Dog Tooth Past (3) Beef (4) Turkey/Oat treats (5) Boiled Chicken w garlic (6). 


What are your dog’s triggers? Example: The sound of a dog bark, the sight of any unknown dog within 100ft, the sight of any unknown dog moving within 300ft, a dog lifting his head above her shoulders within 100ft, the sight of any dog being on the other side of a fence moving, the sight of a cat within 100ft, the sight of a cat moving within 300ft, the sound of a cat meowing, the sight of a cow within 100ft, the sound of a cow mooing, the sight of a cow moving within 300ft. Try to be as specific as possible. The statement “small dogs within 100ft moving” is better than “dogs”, because the first lets us know that we could get a big dog near without the dog reacting, or a small dog beyond 100ft. Therefore, you are not only listing what causes your dog to react, are also listing options for what will not cause your dog to react.


During this time you will also need to start playing around with the clicker. You want to use your dog’s kibble to teach the dog to offer behaviors to earn his dinner. This becomes a very fun time for the two of you to spend together. You will begin to build a common language between the two of you, as well as deepen your bond by working together as a team to figure out one behavior or another. You are in this together, and there is bound to be frustration on both of your parts, but just remember, you are doing this for your dog, and it is supposed to be fun! If you or your dog are having issues with something, just go back to a basic command or action that your dog knows well, and jackpot that! Feed him the rest of his food telling him what a good boy he is. What all of the food is gone, put your hands up and say “all done” and walk away.


Good behaviors to start with:

Hand touch

Walk with me

Name Game

Stay (you don’t actually use the clicker for this one, but it is a very  important command).


Once your dog is no longer in the chronic stress stage, than you are ready to move on to the next stage: moving out into the real world.

Please feel free to contact us if you would like more information on dog reactivity training at


Brown, Ali. (2004). Scaredy Dog! Understanding and rehabilitating your reactive dog. Allentown, PA: Tanacacia Press.



This content is owned by Amanda Miller and should not be copied or altered without the explicit consent of the owner.