Positive Reinforcement and Aggressive Dog Training



Most folks just want their aggressive dog to stop. Stop barking. Stop lunging and charging at people. Stop biting. They want that most of all, for the biting to stop. I get it.

But, here’s the deal. When we think in terms of stopping a behavior our mind tends to shift into confrontation mode. We want to suppress and block our dog’s behavior. Worse yet, we get sucked into ideas of dominating our dog and devices to control our dog. At first we may feel like we’re making progress. Punishment tends to reinforce the punisher in the short-term. The trouble is punishment-based dog training and even balanced dog training almost always has side effects. (see Coercion and Its Fallout). In other words, it might feel good to us, but it’s not. Punishment training is flawed, deeply flawed.

Okay, then. How do we make aggressive behavior stop without confronting, suppressing, or dominating? Here’s what I do. Instead of focusing on behavior-stop, I suggest we focus on behavior-change. We set our dog up to succeed rather than lash out. We decide what we want our dogs to do instead of bark, lunge, and bite.  And, maybe most importantly, we help our dog feel differently about his world and the people (and other animals) in it. When we change our focus in this way, we naturally shift from confrontation to collaboration. We start working with our dog rather than working on him. That shift leads us away from punishment and squarely toward positive reinforcement dog training.

Set your dog up to succeed. Dogs who behave aggressively are under pressure. They are emotional. The barking, lunging, and biting is about making that person or other animal go away or stop. See the irony? They are using violence or the threat of violence to make something stop, and it’s not working long-term. It’s up to us to help our dogs in these situations by giving them a break. Make the scene a bit more suited for learning. Often this means training with the person or other animal farther away. Sometimes we start in a setting in which there are no stressors at all. Regardless, create an environment where your dog can get it right over and over. When it’s time we will raise the challenge level gradually, and put his new skills to the test.

Teach this instead of that. Here’s an example of how we train a new behavior to replace an old (aggressive) behavior pattern. Imagine a dog who barks at people who ring the doorbell. A lot of us can relate to this one. The doorbell is the cue that starts the whole thing. The dog charges the door, barks, and gets all worked up. We can actually change the meaning of the doorbell and make it a cue, let’s say, to run to another room where he can wait behind a baby gate. Positive reinforcement in this case would include happy talk from the human (praise) and food – probably a lot of food over time – the good stuff (think: chicken). We’d start easy, when no one is really at the door. Maybe we’d even start by just leading him to the room over and over. Then we’d add the doorbell or a doorbell sound effect on our smartphone. Over time we’d progress to the real deal, reinforcing the new behavior pattern generously every time.

Teach new emotions. Because we are using happy talk, food, and movement (going to the other room) we are actually influencing our dog’s emotions. Specifically, we are affecting a change in how he feels about the doorbell. Think about it. If the doorbell results in a happy human feeding chicken over and over and over again, then that doorbell is going to become pretty good news for the dog. He will know what to do: run to the room. And, he will also be happy about it. Imagine how your dog acts when you take out the leash. It’s the same thing. We trainers call this a conditioned emotional response.

(The flip side of this phenomenon is a nightmare. The dog hears the doorbell and gets a shock on his shock collar (for barking) over and over and over again. In a rather short time that dog’s behavior could actually devolve as the doorbell becomes a predictor of pain, an enemy).

Here’s the win-win of positive reinforcement dog training when it comes to aggressive behavior. The aggression does stop. That offensive behavior pattern gets replaced with one that is calmer and functionally better for the dog and the people involved. More importantly, we are addressing the underlying emotions that fuel the aggressive behavior. Our dog learns to relax a bit around the thing that was scaring him or making him angry. Over time this can lead to what we call behavioral flexibility, the ability to take on other experiences with less rigidity. We get a dog who can go with the flow a bit more.

I think that’s something we can all wish for, a bit more flexibility, not just for our dogs but for ourselves and each other.


Michael Baugh specializes in aggressive dog training. He lives in Houston, TX where he works daily on his own behavioral flexibility.