Canine aggression: Getting to a good walk

Canine aggression: Getting to a good walk

When the nightly walk becomes a nightmare for pet owners and their dogs, it's time for veterinary technicians to intervene.

What does canine aggression on a walk look like? For Bella, her tail drops and her ears fall back. She licks her lips, squints her eyes, and growls. In Buddy's case, his hackles rise, his ears go erect and back, his body tenses, and he lunges forward barking. Both of these dogs may be demonstrating signs of fearfulness and aggression toward a trigger. These behaviors can make it difficult or impossible for pet owners to manage and enjoy walks with their dogs.

Aggression toward unfamiliar pets or people generally arises from fear and anxiety, perhaps because of inadequate socialization, genetic factors, or previous unpleasant experiences. Regardless of the initial cause, the problem is further aggravated by each further exposure if a positive outcome is not achieved. If the owner is angry, upset, or uses corrective training, fear and anxiety are increased. If the person or pet that approaches is aggressive or fearful, fear is aggravated. And if aggression successfully removes the threat, the behavior is rewarded.

While a similar treatment approach can be used for most cases, the level of improvement that can be achieved will vary with the environment, the owner, and the dog's temperament. The approach should include:

  • Developing safe, effective management of the problem through preventive measures
  • Implementing a program of positive training to achieve focused and calm behaviors in the absence of any stimuli
  • Using humane control products such as head halters or chest attachment body harnesses to maintain physical control
  • Using drugs or other therapeutics to reduce fear, anxiety, and impulsivity where indicated.

Gradually, the pet might then be exposed to increased intensity of stimuli and given high-value rewards during each successful exposure. Using this form of desensitization and counter-conditioning can result in more pleasant walks, ideally eliminating unpleasant outcomes. This will be discussed in more detail later in the article.

As a technician, you can play an important role in the following ways. If you work in a clinic that offers behavior consulting with the veterinarian, you are central to identifying cases and advising clients that help is available in your practice. During the consultation, you can play an important role in working with the veterinarian to demonstrate reward-based training, the fitting and use of control products such as head halters, and techniques such as clicker training and shaping. You can also serve as the point person for follow up, supporting and clarifying where necessary for the client and liaising with the veterinarian. In addition, if you have sufficient training in reward-based behavioral modification, it might be practical to schedule follow-up visits at the clinic or in the home (if legally permitted) to help guide the owner with the implementation of the program.

If you work in a practice that does not provide behavior consultations, your role should be to work with your veterinarian to help identify pets with problems, provide advice and guidance on training strategies and management, and encourage referral to a veterinary behaviorist if recommended by the veterinarian. So it's important to know the qualified behaviorists and appropriate trainers in your area that your veterinary practice prefers. After the behavior referral, you may also serve as liaison with the specialist to ensure adequate follow up and client support.