Monday, August 3, 2009

Don’t sniff my butt- Reactive Dogs

Reactivity to other dogs is one of the more challenging behaviors to modify in dog training. It can be distressing and unnerving to have a dog that barks or lunges at other dogs. Dog-dog aggression is a common behavior, but how people deal with it can be drastically different.

Some owners fit their dogs with choke collars and try to “correct” reactive behaviors by yelling and/or jerking firmly on the leash. One owner that I encounter on my walks tries to suppress her dog’s reactivity by yelling at the dog (which can be heard a block away, by the way) and jerking on the dog’s choke collar. Several weeks later the dog still has a strong reaction to my dogs, even from across the street and the owner continues to scream in the dog’s face and jerk on the leash. One could imagine the stress this causes to the dog and it is hard to see how this actually changes the dog’s attitude towards other dogs.

Having Akitas and a Shiba Inu, I am all too familiar with owning breeds that have a tendency to be dog aggressive. My 12-year old rescue came to my home highly reactive to other dogs. Eventually, through training and gradual exposure to other dogs, he learned to become less reactive and walk calmly on a leash. My Akita puppy, now going through adolescence, is also being trained to react less to strange dogs. While she is friendly to dogs she knows and the dogs in her obedience classes, she shows anxiety when meeting strange dogs on the street. As part of her training, I am applying counter-conditioning techniques so that my dog will associate the presence of other dogs with positive experiences (play, verbal praise and/or treats). I know from experience that harsh physical corrections will not go very far with these independent, northern breeds. The process of counter-conditioning and desensitization can take time and requires a calm, cool demeanor, but studies have shown that this methodology is safer than dominance-based methods of dog training.

Earlier this year, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine found that aggressive dogs were more likely to respond aggressively when the training program involved “confrontational” techniques. Confrontational techniques included training methods such as the “alpha roll,” the “stare down,” grabbing the dog by the jowls, yelling and growling at the dog. The lead author of this article, Meghan Herron, noted, “this study highlights the risk of dominance-based training, which has been made popular by TV, books and punishment-based training advocates,” Herron cautions, “these techniques are fear-eliciting and may lead to owner-directed aggression.” See also, Meghan E. Herron, Frances S. Shofera and Ilana R. Reisner, Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors, J. Applied Animal Behavior Science, Vol. 117, Pgs. 47-54 (Feb 2009).

In a study released last May, the researchers from the University of Bristol’s Department of Clinical Veterinary Sciences reached similar conclusions. In this study, researchers concluded that there was little empirical evidence of wolf-like dominance hierarchies in dogs. One of the authors of the study noted, “the blanket assumption that every dog is motivated by some innate desire to control people and other dogs is frankly ridiculous. It hugely underestimates the complex communicative and learning abilities of dogs. It also leads to the use of coercive training techniques, which compromise welfare, and actually cause problem behaviours.” See See also, John W. S. Bradshaw, Emily J. Blackwell, Rachel A. Casey, Dominance in domestic dogs—useful construct or bad habit?, Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, Vol. 4, Issue 3: 135-144 (May 2009).

The conclusions reached by these studies are not unique. In 2008, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) issued a position statement on the Use of Dominance Theory in Behavior Modification of Animals. In this statement, the AVSAB similarly cautioned about risks involved with the application of dominance theory to address behavioral problems. Rather, the AVSAB recommends that veterinarians refer cases to trainers who advocate positive reinforcement, counter-conditioning, desensitization and other science-based methods.

The AVSAB also issued a position statement on the use of punishment in dog training. In this document, the AVSAB warns that punishment “should not be used as a first-line approach or early use treatment for behavioral problems.” Examples of punishment include choke collars, pinch/prong collars, electronic/shock collars, jerking on the leash and alpha rolls. The AVSAB cautions that the use of physical punishment or aversive methods can lead to adverse consequences such as owner-directed aggression and increasing fear responses in an already fearful animal. The AVSAB points out that while punishment may suppress the behavior, it does not address the underlying cause of the behavior. See

In the case of reactive dogs, physical corrections and/or harsh reprimands do not address the underlying cause of the behavior (i.e. fear, anxiety or aggression towards other dogs). The goal of training should be to address the underlying behavior. If your dog is exhibiting aggressive or reactive behavior towards other dogs, avoid applying physically coercive or punitive methods to subdue your dog. Contact a trainer or veterinary behaviorist to work with you and your dog to modify the dog’s behavior. Choose a person who is experienced and familiar with positive methods of dog training.

Los Angeles Dog Trainer

Mitsu hates having her butt sniffed by unfamiliar dogs but she has learned to tolerate dogs being in close proximity.


  1. EXCELLENT article. i love that it shows evidence of consequences of punishment. while some people simply accept alternative methods to deal with fear based reactivity, many others need to see hard evidence to be accepting. simply awesome!!!

  2. I have a 15-month old male Shiba Inu and he is definitely not a reactive dog. He loves to play with almost every dog that he meets during our daily walks. Just like Mitsu though, he hates having his butt sniffed, though i have not paid enough attention to determine if he's allowing dogs that he knows to sniff his butt. Do you think not allowing another dog to sniff his butt is being perceived by other dogs (the sniffers) as non-friendly ?

  3. I think you can gauge the other dog's perception by the behavior that follows. Does the dog walk away? Does the dog then approach your dog from the front?