Life with an aggressive Labrador can be extremely stressful and upsetting. In this article expert Behaviorist Sian Ryan looks at what causes dogs to become reactive, and how you as an owner can help to improve their behavior.
Your Aggressive Labrador
If you love Labradors partly because of their reputation as sociable and easy going dogs, then acknowledging that your own Labrador doesn’t neatly fit that image and is reactive around other dogs, or people, can be very difficult.
It can be made much harder by other people’s responses. They simply don’t believe you when you ask them to call their off-lead dog away from yours on lead because he doesn’t like other dogs: ‘But he’s a Labrador! They love everyone. Just let him off and he’ll be fine; it’ll do my dog good to get told off by yours’. Sound familiar?
The Reactive Labrador
The reality is that there are individual Labradors who are reactive and use aggressive behavior at times. The reasons or motivations for their behavior will vary, but one thing is true of all of them: aggressive behavior is totally normal. All dogs can use aggression to a greater or lesser extent depending on their individual temperament and experiences. Just like every person can lose their temper or slam the occasional door in frustration.
When working with aggressive and reactive dogs the aim is not to suppress the aggressive behavior. Instead it is to improve the dog’s self control and remove the dog’s need to react aggressively by changing their emotional and behavioral responses to the trigger situations. How we do that varies depending on the likely emotion underlying the reactive behavior.
Warning Signs of Reactivity in Labradors
Generally canine social etiquette is ritualised and aimed at diffusing tension and avoiding conflict; aggressive behavior carries a risk of injury and is therefore a last resort. Dogs will show early warning signs that they are feeling uncomfortable in a situation, such as turning or moving away, yawning, nose licking, and their pupils will dilate. If nothing changes, or if they are prevented from moving away, then they are likely to increase the intensity of their signals by growling or barking.
When these more obvious indications are ignored, or worse punished because they are ‘unacceptable’ to humans, then dogs can feel they have no choice but to escalate to snapping and biting to get their point across. If the dog learns that the smaller signals are ignored, or if the intensity of the trigger is too high, then they will respond with the more overt behavior such as barking, rushing towards in an attempt to drive the trigger away, snapping and biting.
The aggressive behavior in the image below is cued by the handler. Note the lack of tension across the dog’s forehead and around the whiskers, and the wide C of the dog’s mouth rather than shortened lips. These are a couple of the indications that this is a learned response. I wouldn’t advise ignoring the warning though!
At the root of aggressive behavior in this context, and probably the most common motivation, is fear: fear of a dog or person approaching; fear of what the consequences might be for their own safety or of losing something they are holding; fear that this is going to hurt.
To reduce the dog’s need to behave aggressively we focus on changing the dog’s feelings about the situation: moving from fear to tolerance and aiming for enjoyment or positive anticipation. If the dog may be in pain then providing suitable pain relief is essential.
Reactivity From Frustration
Another common motivation for aggression, but one that is often mistaken or forgotten, is frustration. A frustrated dog is likely to show fewer of the lower level signals of discomfort, although lip or nose licks are common in times of conflicted emotions such as wanting to greet but not being able do because of the lead, or a fence.
If your Labrador is bouncing on the end of the lead, weight forward, ears pricked, tail up, and barking with a high pitch then they are likely to be a frustrated greeter, who may behave more appropriately off lead when they can greet as they like. Many frustrated greeters, however, are socially inappropriate – rushing at other dogs and ignoring any signs from them that they are less than enthusiastic about the approach of 30kg of happy Labrador – and may well end up being snapped at, or worse, by the dogs they bounce on.
It is not uncommon for dogs whose reactivity manifests first as frustration to develop elements of fear-based aggression after being told off by other dogs for their social ineptitude, leading to considerable conflict of emotions around other dogs.
Dogs who become extremely frustrated around other dogs, or when denied things that they want, may well redirect their frustration on to the nearest object they can find: the lead, the person or dog standing next to them, or a toy if one is available. Providing a suitable outlet for frustration-related aggression – such as a tug toy – is one way to manage the situation in an emergency.
Does Predation Cause Reactivity In Dogs?
It is worth mentioning that predation is also a common motivation for aggressive behavior. Labradors are not traditionally associated with catching and killing prey. But actually it is not unusual to meet dogs who are aroused by fast moving objects. Such as bicycles, running people and the more obvious small furry animals and birds in our fields and hedgerows.
Again, if the desire to chase is thwarted then any resulting aggressive behavior may well be frustration-related, despite predation being the initial motivation for the behavior.
Is It Reactivity in Dogs Medical?
There are several techniques that can be used to modify aggressive responses. Before considering any of them it is essential to rule out any underlying medical issue which may be contributing to the aggressive behavior.
Pain is the most obvious cause, so if your dog appears stiff, reluctant to move or uncomfortable at times then discuss this with your vet. It can help to take video of the movement, gait, or situations that concern you, so that your vet can see exactly what is happening, in a way that they cannot re-create in the clinic. Even if a clinical exam does not identify a source of potential pain it can be beneficial to trial a short course of pain relief and note any changes in behavior or movement.
Pain which occurs when playing with other dogs can often be at the root of the onset of dog:dog aggression; equally aggression towards people can be triggered by pain (or the fear of pain) on being stroked, or moved from a resting spot.
As well as pain there are medical issues which in themselves increase the likelihood of aggressive behavior so a thorough vet check is essential, especially in cases where the aggressive behavior has developed suddenly.
What Do You Do About Reactive Dogs?
In the short term, and to ensure everyone’s safety, the most important thing for a reactive dog is to avoid or change the situations where the dog feels the need to use aggression. This helps them relax, improves their general welfare – because they are no longer on edge anticipating something which scares or arouses them – and also stops them practising the behavior that we want to change.
Every time your Labrador reacts aggressively they are strengthening the neural pathway that makes that behavior more likely and harder to change; it becomes their default and may well be used in situations away from the initial trigger in the future. Aggressive behavior which has generalised in this way is much harder to change.
If your Labrador is reactive towards other dogs on walks, whatever the underlying emotion behind the reaction, then try to find alternative places with fewer dogs and keep your distance by turning around calmly before your dog can react, or look for a local space such as a riding school or dog training centre you may be able to hire for safe and secure walks.
Reacting To Reactivity
It is important to note that if your dog does react aggressively, whatever the situation, scolding them or correcting them will not help them learn what you do want them to do instead, and may well make things worse as they then become concerned about your reaction as well as the thing that triggered their behavior in the first place.
Instead, calmly move them further away from the situation until they are at a distance where they can be calm themselves. If possible let the dog look at the scary, or frustrating, thing and reward them with tasty treats for being calm. This also helps them start to change their emotional response; so that the dog that scared them is now associated with tasty treats instead.
Changing your Labrador’s behavior to reduce their reactivity requires time and patience; the longer the behavior has been going on the harder it will be to introduce new, more acceptable, behaviors. We will next take a look at ways of changing emotions and behavior in the medium to longer term.
Why Is My Dog Reactive?
Aggressive behavior is a normal part of social interaction. However, when considering your dog’s responses and looking for ways to reduce their likelihood of using aggression, it is also important to understand the potential your dog has to change their behavior.
In some cases the genetic tendency of a dog to be fearful, anxious or easily frustrated, or the length of time they have been practising their aggressive behavior, will limit the progress you can make with them.
You will need patience, and a willingness to accept that their needs are different from those you might have expected when you brought them home. This does not mean that you can’t have fun together; just that your life may be structured differently.
Know Your Dog
There is an increasing understanding of the needs of sensitive dogs, and many more trainers and dog places offer activities that are perfectly suited to dogs who do not wish to run and play with other dogs, or who would rather have a bit more space around people.
Scentwork and tracking are ideal, as are activity classes which offer lots of different options, from trick training to fun rally.
Changing Reactive Behavior by Changing Emotions
The aim of any technique should be to reduce your Labrador’s need to choose aggressive behavior over a more acceptable (to us) response, such as moving away or performing a different behavior. This should involve acknowledging and working to change their underlying emotional response, not simply suppressing the aggression using punishment.
There should also be a focus on enabling them to manage themselves in arousing situations, so that, in time, they can make the right choice without needing direction for you. Many dogs will also need help to learn the correct social skills around other dogs. Your Labrador is an individual, with individual experiences and genetics that make them unique; their behavior modification plan should be as individual as they are.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help
Working with aggressive behavior requires expert help to assess, design and support you through the process. Even if you are able to manage the day to day behavior modification training alone, the benefits of working alongside someone who can provide objective feedback, advice on the next steps and support are invaluable.
You may have heard of several popular techniques for changing aggressive behavior, including desensitisation and counter conditioning (DS/CC), differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior (DRI), Behavior Adjustment Therapy (BAT), Constructional Aggression Treatment (CAT), ‘teaching dogs’ and flooding.
There are ethical arguments, claims of efficacy (or otherwise), and debate around all of them, although the least controversial and most widely regarded as effective is DS/CC, combined with DRI.
Desensitisation & Counter Conditioning for Reactive Dogs
Using DS/CC for your fearful Labrador means he will come to associate the presence of other dogs (or people if that is his concern) with the arrival of something he really wants. High value food is usually the obvious choice. This can quickly change his emotions from wanting the other dog to go away to wanting them to be around so that he gets the really yummy treat.
This is usually done in conjunction with DRI so that he can start to learn how to behave appropriately and be reinforced for polite behavior around other dogs. At all times your Labrador should be working at a distance where they are not reactive, and gradually moving closer to their trigger when they are ready to do so.
Any signs of low-level fear or anxiety should be respected and the distance between the dogs increased until the fearful dog is comfortable. To continue working with a dog above threshold is stressful for your dog, counter-productive and risks an aggressive response.
Options for Helping your Reactive Dog
One of the main criticisms of BAT is that it relies on your Labrador feeling empowered, or relieved, by the other dog moving away in response to calm behavior from your dog.
In learning theory terms this is negative reinforcement (i.e. the removal of something unpleasant to increase the likelihood of the behavior happening again) of the calm behavior; if your Labrador continues to offer calm behavior in the presence of the other dog he must have found it reinforcing when the dog moved away. This suggests that he was uncomfortable beforehand, even if only marginally. CAT and flooding are far more extreme in their use of relief as a reinforcer and should be avoided.
Helping Him to Help Himself
In all cases of aggressive behavior improving your dog’s ability to manage their own behavior through impulse control exercises and by creating default calm behaviors, can be beneficial. It helps to reduce their reactions and teaches them to switch from the default ‘bark at other dogs’ to a default of ‘turn away from other dogs’.
Examples of this include sitting automatically before their lead goes on, or waiting calmly without being told when you open the boot of the car.
This is particularly useful with frustration-related aggression where learning to stay calm when denied access to things he wants is the key skill your Labrador will need to learn before you can work on his manners around other dogs.
As with any kind of training or behavior modification, finding a trainer whose skills and knowledge are suitable for your reactive Labrador is key. You must have confidence that they have a range of appropriate tools available to them, that they are able to accurately assess and respond to your dog and that you would like to work with them.
Slow & Steady Wins The Race
Most cases of reactive behavior take time to improve so you may be spending a lot of time with them and you must trust that they are competent. This article has only scratched the surface of the options and techniques that are available to help you and your reactive Labrador, but good help is out there.
Sian Ryan is an expert Animal Behaviorist based in Cambridgeshire.
With several years of training experience and after completing her MSc, Sian worked as a behavior counsellor and trainer in the University of Lincoln Animal Behavior Clinic, where she was able to apply her MSc research in to Self Control in Pet Dogs to her behavior and training work.
Sian owns and runs the Developing Dogs Training and Behavior Centre in Cambridgeshire, as well as giving seminars and workshops nationally and internationally. Her first book, No Walks? No Worries! with advice on how to maintain wellbeing in dogs whose exercise is restricted, will be published in September.
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