A dog that over-reacts to any stimuli he might come across by making a display of his anxiety or arousal by lunging, snapping or vocalizing is a dog with a low arousal threshold. For these dogs the slightest sound or smallest change in their environment is enough to cause a panic attack. Often dogs with low arousal threshholds who displace aggression onto people or dogs in their immediate vicinity are labelled as aggressive. In fact, they are probably fearful and anxious and “over threshhold”. Any rough handling such as shouting at them or hauling on the leash or worst of all beating them can only exacerbate the situation and only serve to make the dog more feaful or anxious and subsequently cause him to display more aggression.
With time and patience even the most reactive dog can be helped to raise his threshhold so that he can cope more easily with situations that trigger his undesirable behaviour.
The first thing you need to do as a handler is become aware of what triggers are present which are causing your dog to over-react, and also to read your dog’s body language which will indicate whether or not he is about to pop over-threshold. Once you have established what these triggers are and at what distance they kick in you can work at raising his threshold level so that he can cope with more triggering events before he has a negative response – lunging, barking, even biting.
Say, for example, his trigger is a stranger approaching him. There will be a point at which he reacts, either with a lunge or a bark or a snap. You must identify this point, and at the “safe” distance, that is, the distance at which there is attention, but not reaction, you can proceed in one of two ways.
If you are clicker training, you will click when he CALMLY and UNDER THRESHOLD looks at his trigger. He will (if he is under threshold) look back at you for his treat. In this way you are telling him (with the clicker) that looking at his trigger calmly is earning him a reward. It also changes the picture from one of which he is afraid to one which means you are going to play a game with him. Leslie McDevitt, in her book “Control Unleashed” calls this the “Look at That” game. If he does not acknowledge the click, it means that he is too close to his threshold. You need to increase the distance from the trigger and try again. Repeat the exercise at this “safe” distance until your dog is merely glancing at the trigger and then quickly back at you, clicking and treating each occurrence. Then, move a little closer and go through the process again. Remember, it is very important to maintain your dog sub-threshold.
If you do not use a clicker, you simply apply the rules of classical conditioning. Working with your dog sub-threshhold, you offer him a handful of food when he is calmly watching his trigger. This handful of food will be associated with the trigger and it will, by association, transform from a scary experience to a pleasant one – at that distance. As with the clicker you then need to move closer to the scary object in small increments, being very careful not to go too quickly so that your dog pops over-threshhold again.
Again, remember, that your dog learns just about everything he knows by classical conditioning. In other words, he is constantly pairing experiences with reinforcers, or punishers. So, if you have your dog on a leash and he lunges for another dog, and you haul back on the leash with a loud exclamation, the dog will associate that with the dog he is lunging at, and it will make him more fearful and aggressive whenever he is on leash and he approaches another dog, or the dog approaches him. Many dogs exhibit this behaviour when on leash and are perfectly fine off-leash. The leash has a lot to do with aggression.None of the dogs in this picture taken at a popular dog park are on leash. There is some posturing now and then, but no aggressive behaviour.