Dog Behaviour – Dominance and Aggression

Adorable, handsome, cute – these were just some of the admiring descriptions of a twelve week-old-cocker spaniel puppy called Alfie, when he arrived at puppy class way back in the autumn of 2008. Vic, his owner, regularly brought Alfie to class and they made excellent progress, going on to perform well together in the more senior obedience classes. Vic’s work routine changed, however, so he was unable to attend training classes with Alfie and although I stayed in touch with his wife, Sue, saw nothing of Alfie. That is until she telephoned me recently to say that Alfie was giving cause for concern….

Vic and Sue had been invited to go to a friend’s house for a weekend by the coast and Alfie could go too, as usual. The rambling house and grounds accommodated several adults, children, dogs and cats with ease. Almost immediately they arrived, Vic and Sue were whisked off for lunch at a local pub, leaving Alfie to become re-acquainted with his friends, who had the run of the house. All seemed fine when they returned home and the animals rushed hither and thither, enjoying the great excitement of the families being reunited.

Alfie was allowed the run of the house and was often to be found in Vic and Sue’s bedroom, usually on the bed, enjoying a bit of peace and quiet away from the melee of adults, children and dogs having fun together. Signs of protective, possessive behaviour began to appear when Alfie was settled on the bed and Sue told him to get off. No response, apart from a deep growl and baring his teeth, as if to say “no, I’m comfortable here and I’m not moving!” Vic appeared and he also failed to get Alfie to move voluntarily, until being told that there it was dinnertime – the bribe worked. Later in the weekend Alfie prevented Vic from entering the room altogether, which unnerved him and horrified Sue. Alfie had never done that before, anywhere.

The children in the home were used to going into any room in the house, often followed by one of the dogs. The children were enjoying a game of “hide and seek”, so when one of the little girls intended to go into Sue and Vic’s room, Alfie decided otherwise and nipped her on the elbow – a clear signal that he did not approve of his space being invaded and she was not welcome. The little girl was upset, but relatively uninjured to the great relief of Sue and Vic.

As is common when we have pets, we tend to ignore signs that their behaviour is changing and accept their character traits for better or worse as they get older. Alfie’s behaviour had tipped the scales and so alarmed Sue that she telephoned me for help immediately upon her return home.

Sue related how Alfie, at home, follows her around the house, goes upstairs at will, lounges on the bed at times during the day or stretches out on the sofa, especially when she sits there whilst watching television or enjoying a snack. The anxiety and indeed, sadness in Sue’s voice indicated to me that Alfie, once a cute, well-behaved little puppy, had grown into a dog that lived by his own rules. Alfie never was a confident dog and at times showed signs of fear aggression as a puppy.

I arranged to visit to the home when Sue and Vic would be home together. I felt confident that a few adjustments to their routines and downgrading Alfie’s status would solve the problem.

Being aware that Alfie barks and jumps up at all visitors, he duly gave his performance upon my arrival, however, I had arranged for Sue to have Alfie on a lead, so once the greetings were over and I had observed his behaviour, without giving him any attention, I took the lead and began to work the astonished Alfie in the garden. He responded grudgingly at first, but willingly after a few minutes. A good start!

Back indoors, I chatted to Sue and Vic who revealed that they accommodate Alfie’s behaviour in virtually every respect. I kept Alfie on lead next to me, not allowing him to escape to the sanctuary and security of being with Sue. He eventually relaxed and I started to address the problems presented.

Sue’s parents are elderly, in their eighties and sometimes not too steady on their feet, so the fear of Alfie barging into them, jumping up and knocking either of them over is always to the forefront of her mind. I suggested that by removing Alfie from his role of greeting everyone who enters the house, he should be put out of the equation until the excitement of visitors’ arrival subsides. He apparently sleeps in a downstairs cloakroom, so I suggested taking Alfie there and giving him a Kong stuffed with tasty meat (prepared in advance and kept in readiness in a freezer or refrigerator), immediately the doorbell heralds the arrival of visitors or callers. After a while, I would expect Alfie to associate the sound of the doorbell with going into the cloakroom and receiving a tasty stuffed Kong – a pleasant experience. Keeping him busy with the Kong would take his mind off the visitors, too. Once the excitement of the visitors’ arrival has subsided, Alfie, on lead and under control, could be introduced to them in a calm, respectful manner.

With regard to being possessive with an object – Alfie’s favourites are socks, toys or easy to grab items – so I taught him to release the item on command, saying “give” when holding out the palm of one hand and exchanging the item for a treat with the other; a fair exchange in which we both win. Possession of an area of the house, such as the bed or sofa where he is prepared to growl and snarl to protect his position, I showed Sue and Vic how to use an ordinary lead as a slip lead, in order to lasso Alfie and encourage him to vacate his position, in a confident, matter of fact way. This would reduce his status, but I particularly did not want them to engage in any confrontation that would definitely make matters worse. Sue reiterated how frightened she was when Alfie was quite aggressive towards both she and Vic during their weekend away and was visibly relieved to know that she can safely regain control of Alfie in the event that he displays similar behaviour in the future.

Alfie clearly needs to be brought down a peg or two, so I asked Vic about his morning routine and found that it is oriented around the dog. I suggested that he makes his morning cuppa then, with Alfie on lead, takes him out into the garden under control, whilst enjoying his tea. This would also give the advantage of preventing Alfie from barking and driving the neighbours mad – I understand that the ritual of Alfie barking at foxes and other wildlife (real or imaginary) first thing in the morning and last thing at night has caused friction with the neighbours.

When Sue gets up she makes herself tea and toast, which she enjoys whilst sitting on the sofa watching morning TV; who is sitting on the sofa next to her waiting for his piece of toast, personally served to him? Yes, you’ve guessed, Alfie! I explained that toast is not dog food and if his status is to be reduced, so this ritual needs to be stopped and Alfie banned from the furniture at all times. “What about his Sunday sausage?” Sue asked. Each week on their Sunday morning stroll along the promenade, Vic buys a large sausage for Alfie, who greedily devours it only to be either sick shortly afterwards or suffers from the runs for the next 24 hours. Draw your own conclusions, but I discouraged this, too!

The final piece in this jigsaw, is to reintroduce the use of Alfie’s indoor kennel, to enable Sue to move about the house without him following and to give her some personal time to relax, confident that Alfie is not getting up to mischief. Remember that he is still a handsome boy with winning eyes that make Sue’s heart melt, so all these changes to their lives will take time, but if enforced with kindness and consistency will work. Sue also brings Alfie to activity obedience classes, too, where they can have fun together and rebuild their relationship on a steady footing. It also gives Alfie something to look forward to that is stimulating for a very intelligent dog.

I popped in to see Sue 10 days later, to find that she was so much more relaxed, there was a calm ambiance about the house and Alfie was happily engaged with his stuffed Kong. She has seen such a difference in Alfie, who is more relaxed and the tension between members of the household has disappeared. Who knows, they may even be on speaking terms with the neighbours again soon?

Written by Sue Gilmore

This article appeared in Dogs Monthly magazine