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We hear this misconception often: my dog is showing aggression, so I need to bring him to class so he can socialize. Will putting an aggressive dog in general obedience class help? Well maybe, but likely, no.
It's entirely dependent on the knowledge on the other end of the leash.
An adult dog who is reacting aggressively needs a behaviour modification program that is designed to change their emotional response. General socialization will not do that.
Let's explore a bit about the purpose and definition of socialization.
What is Socialization
Socialization is meant to be pre-emptive exposure to things that dogs will encounter throughout their lives. It is widely accepted as a means of acclimatizing young dogs so that they can be comfortable in our world. It is not a good way of solving a behavioural issue.
With behaviour modification, in order to progress dogs needs to be kept sub-threshold, meaning non-reactive and humans need to be able to accurately read their dog so that they can adjust their approach in order to help, rather than hinder progress. If the human is not educated properly, or they don't have a good plan in place, things will go awry in a hurry. These are just a few of the reasons that socialization is not the magical solution to solve the problem and in fact, it could make things exponentially worse.
The Fallout from Negative Exposure
The biggest problem with the idea of socialization is that there are too many factors beyond our control in the outside world. If we could guarantee that everything would go perfectly for the dog in question, and there was never any rehearsal of the wrong behaviours, socialization would be the easy answer. However, every time a dog has an association, it builds on behaviour. If the association is positive, it improves things. If the association is negative, it makes things worse. So, for example, let's say you are dealing with a dog who is fear aggressive with other dogs. With the good intentions of helping the dog, you allow a new dog into their space for socialization. Your dog reacts by lunging and barking and the new dog is moved away.
To the fear aggressive dog, this tactic worked! He was worried about the dog approaching, he reacted and the other dog was removed. There is nothing beneficial for the dog from this experience. It actually strengthened the behaviour we're trying to stop through rehearsal. Always remember the theory that "practise makes perfect." That's because the more you rehearse something, the stronger that thing becomes. This is true of us rehearsing a speach or a dog rehearsing aggression.
Repeat this scenario where the new dog was not moved away, this can cause issue too. If the fearful dog has learned that barking and lunging usually works and this time, it's not working, he'll likely try to make himself bigger, bolder and more frightening. Again, this is a fast way to increase the severity of the undesirable behaviour.
Most exposure, without the proper knowledge and follow through, has the potential to turn out this way.
Other fallout from well-intentioned socialization is that the dog could lose confidence in their human's ability to keep them safe. Picture yourself, as a child, frightened of clowns. You find yourself being approached by a clown and your parents, instead of making you feel safe, start pushing you to go see so that you can find out that the clown is actually fun and friendly. You're very quickly going to lose faith in their abilities to keep you safe from the clown, aren't you?!? Likely, this lack of trust will spill over into other situations as well.
The same is true for your dog. In order to help them successfully through a behaviour modification program, it's crucial that they look to you for guidance rather than taking the situation into their own hands. That means, they must trust that you, their handler, will keep them from harm.
What's missing with general socialization is proper interpretation and modification. With socialization, you're asking the dog to figure it out on their own based on the situation that's presented. Chances are, if your dog developed a behaviour problem such as aggression with normal happenstance, the same means will only serve to make things worse. The logic of socialization fixing the problem is akin to trying to clean a messy room by throwing more trash into it.
You need to alter your dog's emotional response to the situations that previously alarmed them. That means reading their reactions and keeping them sub-threshold so they are not rehearsing the undesirable behaviour. At the same time, you'll need to find something that the dog has a pleasant emotional response to, like food, toys or play, and transfer the associated value to the offending situation - such as the presence of another dog.
How to Help an Aggressive Dog
First: Take stock of what the problem is and be honest with yourself. Making excuses does not serve you or your dog. Guilt is a wasted emotion in these situations. We all do the best we can, but as we know, life can be messy. Nobody wants a dog with aggression issues, but sometimes, through no fault of our own, it turns out that way. Take an honest inventory of the problem so that you can do your best to move forward and help the dog work through it.
Second: Seek the advice of a qualified professional to help you read the problem. It amazes me how many times we hear anthropomorphic reasoning from people about why their dog's are acting aggressively. If you are making your decisions based on erroneous information, you're not likely to be able to solve the problem. Find a good dog behaviourist to work with and put faith in their abilities to help you learn to read the dog accurately.
Third: Come up with a training plan that works for the moment. I say for the moment because we all know that, "The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry." This is never better applied than when working with animals. For example, on Monday morning, you bring your fear aggressive dog out for a controlled lesson with another dog 50 feet away. He is successful in remaining calm and not reacting. It's a great training session and you leave feeling like you've accomplished your goal. On Wednesday, you bring him into the same situation with hopes of moving to 40 feet, but your dog reacts at a distance of 60 feet. That's just how life goes some days. Be ready to adjust your training plan and be happy with the success at 70 feet that day.
In the end, it will take patience, time and dedication to help the dog. Some dogs will require behaviour modification and management for the entirety of their lives. There are no quick fixes and no magic pills. In the end, it will be work for both you and the dog, and some days will seem hopeless, but remember that that is rarely the case. Bank on and celebrate small successes and remember that our dogs are worth it!
As always, Happy Training!
Hi! I'm Shannon and I joined the McCann team in 1999 while training Quincey, my wonderful and spirited Rottweiler, to have good listening skills. I'm the Director of Online Training and Content for McCann Professional Dog Trainers and I enjoy writing about dogs and dog training for the McCann blog. I currently share my life with 2 Tollers (Reggie & Ned) and I love helping people develop the best possible relationship with their 4-legged family members.