How to Be a Stress Buffer for Your Dog!
Updated: Oct 23, 2020
Step One: Make the Dog Feel Safe.
Originally published in slightly different form on May 1, 2012 at PsychologyToday.com.
Understanding Aggression for What It Is and What It Isn’t Rescue dogs have two primary problems that need to be addressed: fear and aggression. However, in my view almost all aggression is based on fear.  As a result, one of the first steps in creating a therapeutic, healing environment for aggressive rescue dogs is to see them primarily as being scared and nervous, not mean or vicious.
It’s also important to realize that there’s a spectrum of aggressive--type behaviors, but that real aggression involves actual biting of another dog, pet animal, or person. Lunging, barking, growling, etc., are signs of aggression. But true, outright aggression is generally defined as actual biting. There’s also a huge difference between aggressive behavior and dominance. Personally, I don’t think the urge to dominate others is ever a real impulse in canine behavior. In fact, in nature dominance seems primarily to be a by-product of stress. In wolves, particularly, there seems to be a strong correlation between environmental stressors and dominant behaviors.  The same is true for many of the dogs I’ve worked with. I’ve known quite a few who’ve been saddled with the “dominant” label, but found that if they’re given an outlet for their internal stress, their dominant tendencies quickly disappear. That said, moving to a new home is third or fourth on the list of most stressful experiences for human beings (after the death of a loved one, a divorce, and losing a job). So imagine how stressed a rescue dog—who’s either been dropped off at a shelter or abandoned by the side of the road—must be. Dominance and Aggression Are Not the Same Thing Since there’s a great deal of confusion about dominance, both in the popular media and even in the rarified realm of scientific inquiry, it’s probably important to deal with one of the more popular proponents of this mistaken idea, Cesar Millan.
In a recent post here at PsychologyToday.com, Dr. Marc Bekoff rightly expressed his objections to a video showing Cesar Millan using a harsh technique to “rehabilitate” an aggressive Siberian husky. Often called “hanging” by those who oppose it, this old-school technique is actually just a matter of lifting up on the dog’s collar with enough pressure to raise the dog’s front paws off the ground because without the stability of all four paws planted firmly beneath him, the dog has less force at his disposal when trying to bite his owner or handler. Granted, this is not a training technique, nor is it therapeutic. It’s only a management tool, one that in my opinion should never be used except in an emergency, and even then only briefly, and solely to prevent injury, and never as a form of punishment. “Would you do this to a child?” some have asked. The way I described it, yes. If a small child were about to step off the curb in front of an oncoming car, you might have to grab him by the collar to prevent him from being hurt, though you wouldn’t keep the pressure on his collar once the danger had passed Besides the fact that, in the video, Cesar Millan keeps stringing up the husky, repeatedly, the real problem for me is Millan’s belief that the dog was acting dominant and had to be taught who’s the pack leader, an unfortunate yet common outgrowth of the idea that dogs and wolves form social hierarchies. Because Millan firmly believes in this outdated idea, he didn’t use this technique in the way it was originally designed. To review: Dominant and submissive behaviors are by-products of stress. Rescue dogs are often stressed to the max due to feelings of displacement and having to constantly adjust to new environments. So when you see what is often perceived as dominance in a rescue dog, it is, without question, stress-related. This means that the best way to deal with such dogs is to act in as non-threatening (i.e., submissive) a way as possible. Safety First! So now that we’ve outlined what aggression is and isn’t, how do you start working towards a cure? I think there are 5 basic steps.
Management: Human safety trumps the dog’s safety. This means that if a dog’s behavior is pegging the meter more toward the aggressive side of things, you need to use management tools to prevent him or her from harming another dog or a human being.3 Routine: All dogs like knowing “the skinny,” having a routine. Rescue dogs are no different. Your dog’s routine should include lots of outdoor exercise, preferably hard, vigorous outdoor play in a secure location.4 Hand Feeding: Every rescue dog should be hand fed all his meals outdoors, using what’s called The Pushing Exercise. (Follow the instructions carefully for best results.) Impulse Control: Use the pushing exercise to teach your dog to jump up on command, then teach him by contrast to only jump up when the command is given first.5 “The Eyes” exercise, developed by veteran police-dog trainer Kevin Behan in the late 1980s, is also a good impulse-control game. Slowly teaching the dog to hold a long down/stay is another good impulse-control task. Outlets: Your dog will need some sort of outlet for his aggression in order to heal emotionally. Tug-of-war, fetch, and any games that satisfy some aspect of your dog’s predatory sequence are the best outlets. Please obey the rules concerning tug-of-war. If the dog won’t play with you, don’t worry. Keep doing “The Pushing Exercise” and his reluctance to should start to slowly fade away. Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day As you work with your dog, and develop a trusting relationship, there may be long stretches of emotionally sunny days when things seem to be going amazingly well, and you start to think the dog might be getting close to being cured. But then come those other days, the days and weeks of doom and gloom when you feel like you haven’t made any progress at all. This is normal.
Just keep four things in mind during these ups and downs.
First, Rome wasn’t built in a day. This means that the relationship with your dog will last a lifetime. And, in all likelihood, things will be very different than what you might see happening on a 30-minute TV show. Second, truly aggressive dogs are dangerous. Don’t let the affection you have for your dog, and that she has for you, blind you to this fact. No amount of affection is likely to cure aggression on its own. The dog needs structure, a predictable routine, the ability to learn impulse control, and to be given a safe and acceptable outlet for his or her aggression. A little physical affection is fine. But if overused it can get in the way of the healing process. The third thing is that except in extreme cases, no matter how aggressive a dog is, there’s usually a calm, stable, friendly dog inside who’s just longing to be let out to play. Finally, remember that all dogs are good dogs at heart. And act accordingly. LCK “Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”
Footnotes: 1) “In Praise of Aggression” 2) David Mech, for example, wrote in 1999 that in 13 summers of studying the wolves at Ellesmere Island he saw no dominance displays. Yet in studying the Ellesmere wolves in the winter he seems to have reversed himself, saying now that dominance is a common characteristic of pack behavior. The packs he observed during those 13 summers were small, organic family units. The wolves he’s been observing recently, in the winter months, are much bigger in size, with up to 20 wolves in one pack. Perhaps too large to sustain their size, creating more stress on the individual pack members. 3) Management tools include a crate, a sturdy leash and collar, perhaps even a prong collar in some cases, depending on the dog’s size. (You should never use a head halter on any dog for any reason.) If it’s necessary, a good sturdy muzzle may also be in order. Make sure it’s the “basket” kind. Another management tool is what’s been called the NILIF program, short for Nothing In Life Is Free. However, this structured routine was either invented or at least popularized by William Campbell in his book Behavior Problems in Dogs. Campbell called it the No-Free-Lunch Program, and one of his rationals for using it was to prove the unscientific nature and ineffectiveness of the dominance paradigm.