Aggressive Dog Training – Eliminating Triggers


Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

I teach several techniques related to aggressive dog training. They all help. However, none is as essential as preventing your dog from being triggered. Trainers call this managing your dog’s environment or, simply, management. Some add “just” before the word “manage.” We can just manage the problem. I think this dimunitzation is a mistake. Controlling and preventing environmental triggers is key to your dog’s success.

Here’s an example. Our dog consistently barks and lunges at guests we invite into our home. If the dog is in another room or in the backyard, our dog does not see the guest. Barking and lunging does not occur. It’s tempting to discount this technique by saying we are avoiding the problem. I get that. The technical term is actually antecedent control. We are preventing the problem one occurrence at a time.

Let’s say we have a broken pipe in our home. Our home is flooding. The first and most important step is to turn off the water. We can’t fix a pipe with water gushing out. Eliminating our dog’s triggers is like turning off the water. It’s the first fix. Our other positive training interventions are analogous to repairing the broken pipe. We do these with the trigger absent, muted, far away, or otherwise controlled. Staying with the plumbing analogy, the water is still off.

Remember our dog who barks and lunges at guests? We’ve stopped triggering him with unexpected strangers. Good. Now we can teach him some relaxation and other coping skills. We can even begin letting him see people in our home under controlled, non-triggering circumstances. I call these “controlled exposures.” All the while, we maintain our promise to protect our dog from surprises and his own hair-trigger responses. When we aren’t training, we are managing his environment. This is how we ease our dog into a new skill set of calm, confident behavior.

(Video: Your Dog’s Behavior Thresholds)

I frequently ask clients how long it’s been since their dog’s last aggressive incident. The longer the duration, the better off we are. Our dog needs a low-stress environment to learn new skills and new emotional self-regulation. They also need people and places that are consistently safe and stress-free. We can relate to this. It’s hard to work on our own anxiety or depression when stimuli keep coming at us. Overbooked calendars, traffic, loud noises, toxic people, distressing news reports. Any of those can disrupt our mental wellness. Two or three can derail us. We need people who will give us a soft place to land, a place where we can exhale.

Be that person for your dog.

Avoid this common mistake. Stop testing your dog. Too often, we intentionally expose our dogs to things we know upset them. We might think we are helping him get used to it. Pause and think about that for a minute. Does flying in a helicopter with the door off help us get over our fear of heights? No, of course it doesn’t. It’s worth repeating. Stop testing your dog. Let’s keep our promise to protect and help him. Let’s provide that safe place where scary things never happen. Be your dog’s safe person. Commit and stay committed.

I received an email recently from a client I hadn’t seen in a long while. She’d hired me back when she and her partner moved in together. They were and still are very much in love. Each of them had a dog. And, the dogs didn’t like each other. They fought. You can imagine the strain that puts on a relationship. We love each other. We love our dogs. Something’s got to give, or so the saying goes.

“They’ve progressed well over time with patience and not rushing it,” the email read. My clients had kept the dogs separate and controlled the environment. When everyone was together, it was in thoughtful and controlled exposures. “That has provided a lot of peace and happiness in the house,” she went on. They stayed the course, trusted the process, and never tested. “…thank you very much for your help,” she wrote before telling me about their new puppy.

The email ended with a photo. I stared at it for a long time. Two dogs curled on a bed, their backs pressed one to the other. Maybe they didn’t love one another like their humans did. Maybe they did. We don’t get to know those secrets. But the photo made this clear enough. They were safe. They were home. And “home” meant each other.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, Texas.

What if My Dog Attacks Me?


Michael Baugh CDBC, CPDT-KSA

Owner-directed dog aggression is fairly easy to address and also usually mild in severity. Aggression, as you probably know by now, is not a malady that lives inside our dogs. It’s certainly not a personality trait–some demon that needs to be exorcised. Aggressive behavior, in fact, is just like any other behavior. It’s a response to the dog’s environment, one that we can address and change with positive reinforcement training techniques. Owner-directed aggression usually resolves well because the owner is the primary player involved. They are both the trigger and the potential source of reinforcement. As a trainer and coach, this puts me in an enviable position. If I can influence the human’s behavior, I can help change the dog’s behavior.

In owner-directed cases, I’m able to help clients implement changes on the first visit that end bites immediately. I typed that last sentence after a great deal of reflection. If we know that human behavior A reliably elicits dog’s aggressive response B, then we can quickly end that pattern of behavior. Eliminate A, at least temporarily, while we address the bigger picture. If you were to ask “what do I do if the dog attacks me,” I could confidently say we’ve put some changes into immediate actions to prevent said attacks.

That said, it’s still a question worth answering.

Safety, of course, is always our priority. Owner-directed dog bites are quick single bites, a level one or two on the Dunbar Scale. Most times, the dog will snarl, growl, or air snap long before they will bite. This gives us ample time to stop or at least pause whatever is eliciting the response. Keep in mind, if we are the trigger, then we have a great deal of power to stop the unwanted behavior.

If a dog threatens to bite, or if he bites and then continues to charge, putting distance between the human and the dog is always our safest first choice. Many dogs return to baseline behavior quickly after an incident and will willingly respond to cues to isolate in a kennel or behind a baby gate. Where this is not possible, the person must be the one to increase distance. Move away. Do not let your ego or erroneous concerns about winning or losing impede your safety. You’re already a member of the most advanced species on the planet. You have nothing to prove to your dog.

On rare occasions in which a multiple-bite incident occurs or appears imminent, put a barrier between yourself and the dog. Think: solid door. A furniture cushion can even shield you long enough to get to safety. This is an emergency response. Extremely aggressive incidents are also extremely rare. When faced with imminent danger, people yell and attempt to physically protect themselves from an advancing dog. This kind of reaction is reflexive and normal. Our underlying goals remain: increase distance between us and the dog, and put a barrier between us, even as we attempt to push away from or ward off a dog. Keep in mind, though, our physical and verbal responses are not training.

Intentionally confronting or physically challenging a dog is dangerous. We risk significant physical injury. Dogs are fast and some bite very hard. Hitting, grabbing, tackling, rolling, or otherwise putting our hands and arms anywhere near the biting end of a dog is ill-advised and foolhardy. Further, there is well documented evidence that shows physical punishment as a cause of, not a solution for, aggressive dog behavior. “Dogs subjected to physical reprimands scored significantly higher on aggression sub-scales” (Hsu and Sun, 2010). “The use of positive punishment or negative reinforcement based training methods was associated with increased chance of aggression to family and unfamiliar people outside the house.” (Casey et al., 2013).

Here’s the rub. We think we need to show the dog who is the boss. It’s woven into our pop culture about dogs. How else will we show that their behavior is not acceptable? We want to punish our dogs because it makes us feel like we are doing something. Yes, there may be an immediate interruption of the behavior. No, there won’t be long-term benefit from it. The research is already very clear on this.

The fallacy is that our dogs are behaving aggressively 1) as a logic-driven choice and 2) as guided by some moral compass of right and wrong. Most aggressive outbursts in animals (including human animals) are impulsively driven from a very primitive part of the brain. Little thought goes into them. Add to that, there is no evidence at all that dogs engage in philosophical pondering of good versus evil or right versus wrong. Aggressive behavior in dogs is about making the target person (or other animal) go away or stop what it is doing. Fear drives aggression: fear of an unknown person, fear of a person’s erratic or aggressive behavior, or fear of losing a prized resource, to name just a few.

Cases of owner-directed aggression usually involve:

  • Guarding a resource: food, object, or place.
  • Resistance to physical handling (fear of being restrained or physically manipulated).
  • Conflict with the owner related to owner’s attempt to punish the dog for a perceived misbehavior (including behavior related to the above).

We can address these aggressive dog behavior triggers with positive reinforcement training. Most dog guardians want to resolve their dog’s behavior issues at the source, and rightly so. How can we teach our dogs to behave differently? How do we help him better self-regulate and more effectively navigate situations he used to see as frightening or threatening?

Reacting to an aggressive outburst is not training. If we do our jobs right, we address the issues at the core and eliminate the aggressive behavior altogether. In cases of an emergency, we behave with safety as our primary goal, creating distance and barriers between us and the threat of harm. We deescalate rather and inflame an already volatile situation. Any advice to the contrary would be ill-informed and dangerous.

Michael Baugh has worked with families with dogs since 1999. He specializes in aggressive dog training.





Protect Your Dog Training Investment


Michael Baugh CDBC CPTD-KSA

I like metaphors and analogies when I’m teaching folks about dog behavior change. Comparisons to money are my favorite since humans find it so reinforcing.

Here’s an example. Let’s says we have a dog who barks and charges at new people coming into his home. Every time we follow a predictable training protocol for introducing him to new people it’s like putting money in the bank. Behavior analyst Susan Friedman calls it her “trust account.” We are making an investment in building trust. On the flip side, every time we allow a person to set our dog off it’s like taking out a huge withdrawal from the account. The dog barks and charges and we lose part of our investment. The idea, of course, is to get rich earning lots of trust. Too many mishaps and we go broke, no more trust.

Just like with a financial investment, sometimes the best thing we can do with our dog training investment is to let it mature long-term on its own. Let’s look at that same dog who barks and charges at new people. We’ve put in a minimal effort with training. We have a good greeting protocol in place and the dog is actually getting comfortable with some of our friends. The returns on our training investment can build exponentially just by letting things be.  Here are some specific strategies for building compound interest on your training efforts:

  • Allow for zero uncontrolled greetings (e.g. person just walks in). That alone will build trust and confidence. Think of it as passive income on your investment.
  • Put more training in the account. Run controlled meetings that are easy. You don’t have to invest huge amounts of effort, just a little bit here and there adds up.
  • Don’t mess with your investment. We don’t want to withdrawal what we’ve put in for something that promises quick gains. We can lose everything that way and none of us wants to go broke or have to start over where we began.

Think for a moment how rich we’d all be if we started young. Puppies are prime training investment opportunities. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start with the dog you have now – you should. But, keep the puppy thing in mind. There’s nothing like a dog whose learned behavioral flexibility from day one. That kind of investment will pay dividends for a lifetime.


Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, TX. He specializes in fearful and aggressive dog training.