6 Things That Worked for My Anxious/Aggressive/Reactive Dog (and 3 Things That Did Not)

If your pet is exhibiting any type of behavior that puts you or other people/pets in your home at risk of injury, you need to take immediate action to ensure everyone is safe and get professional help. Do not risk your/other’s safety.

I am writing this because I wish I had been able to find this information when I realized that I had an anxious, aggressive, and reactive dog, Luna. As Luna reached behavioral maturity, around 1-2 years old, she started to display worrying behaviors that evolved into outright aggression towards the other pets in my home and reactivity (i.e. lunging, barking, generally freaking out) in unfamiliar situations. As a person who is really invested in her pets’ quality of life, enough to dedicate a blog towards the pursuit, it was terrifying and traumatic to see my dog’s behavior deteriorate to the point where I was concerned about my other pets’ safety. Thankfully, through a lot of work, we have gotten to a fairly happy place with Luna’s behavior. This is what worked for us:

Photo credit: Meghan Burton of Canine Lifestyle Academy

1. Professional help, including medication.

Over the course of three years, we have enlisted the help of three veterinarians* and four dog trainers*. This was partially because we moved during this period and partially because it took a little while to find a good fit for Luna’s particular problems. And this was very expensive: our veterinary behaviorist consult with Dr. Amy Pike at the Northern Virginia Veterinary Referral Center cost about $500 and we’ve had six private consultations in our home with dog trainers that cost between $95 – $200 each. This was definitely worth the moneyAdmittedly, I wish we had parted ways with one trainer sooner because we retrospectively realized she just was not meeting our needs with Luna’s issues! Nevertheless, I gained immeasurable knowledge about the underlying causes of Luna’s previously bewildering behavior, management techniques to keep everyone in the house safe, and behavior modification strategies that have greatly reduced the severity and frequency of inappropriate behaviors in our home. Is it insane to spend hundreds of dollars on a dog’s behavior problems? Aren’t there hundreds of behaviorally sound, homeless dogs that would have cost me less to keep? Yes, probably. What do you do if you are unable or unwilling to fork over the cost of a pretty crappy car or a fairly nice computer for behavior specialists? Find other ways to learn! Read about dog behavior – from academics/researchers/trainers/veterinarians who are well-versed in modern animal psychology, attend free/low cost seminars on dog behavior if they are available in your area (check out your local animal welfare agency or Your Dog’s Friend on YouTube), and you know…keep reading my blog!!

2. No punishment, ever.

Punishment has been actively and enthusiastically discouraged by every single animal behavior professional with whom I have worked on Luna’s behavior problems.

It was a major revelation in handling Luna to realize just how damaging any type of punishment was in Luna’s existence. Specifically, I’m talking about punishment in terms of operant conditioning: anything that decreases the frequency of a behavior. I have known for a while now that force-based training, which relies on positive punishment such as physical manipulation, yelling, shock/prong/choke collars, etc., can be very harmful and counterproductive. I previously believed negative punishment – that is, removing a stimulus that decreases the frequency of a behavior – applied with discretion, could be a useful tool in dog training. Walking away from a puppy who is nipping you, for example, is a perfectly appropriate way to decrease the frequency of nipping behavior. Generally. Because in Luna’s case, withdrawing attention is so confusing and distressing that she really cannot learn. And because positive punishment (again, generally) has an even more powerful emotional impact on dogs, really: punishment makes Luna’s learning brain turn off and her defensive, reactive brain turn on. So, you may be asking yourself: but how do you stop a dog from doing something you don’t want them to do if you can’t…stop them? In a word: prevention! Armed with the knowledge from Dr. Pike and our trainers, it’s pretty easy to set Luna up for behavioral success and, if all else fails, give Luna my tacit permission to behave “badly” and I remove her from the situation immediately.

3. Behavior modification to build impulse control.

When I started to work with good trainers and veterinary staff, I was told over and over that I needed to build up Luna’s impulse control. I was not told, however, why. Or at least I wasn’t told why in a way I understood! So it seemed a little..random, I guess, that teaching Luna to wait for a cue before going through doorways, fetching a thrown toy, taking a treat from my hand, etc. was going to significantly improve her aggressive outbursts. As Luna’s impulse control has been building, however, I now see why: impulse control means Luna is sometimes able to insert a break into her alarming stimuli -> extreme negative reaction behavior pattern so that it occasionally looks more like alarming stimuli -> wait a minute, this isn’t so bad -> no reaction and move on. This is especially helpful because, for Luna, things that one would take for granted as not that alarming – like our cat, whose tenure in our house predates Luna, walking by – have caused her to enter this negative reaction behavior cycle. Practice makes perfect, too, so this behavior is self-reinforcing!

4. A holistic approach. 

It pains me to admit this: the primary underlying cause of Luna’s anxious and inappropriately defensive behavior is that she could not cope with our lifestyle at the time. Our lifestyle wasn’t particularly demanding, she adds defensively, but nonetheless: it did not suit Luna. Consequently, the only real way to improve and resolve Luna’s issues was to entirely rearrange her lifestyle to a IMG_6361more mutually satisfactory design.  Basically every aspect of Luna’s life has been examined by me and/or my trainer(s) and/or my veterinarian(s) for opportunities to make Luna more comfortable. This has involved rearranging my house (and purchasing many Carlson pet gates), changing Luna’s diet, pheromones, compression wraps, counter-conditioning and desensitization, subscribing to a classical music station to calmly drown out noise stimuli, developing a strict set of rules Luna must follow for certain activities (i.e. she must sit before crossing a threshold, she must wait for a cue to take a treat), implementing behavior modification strategies, discontinuing use of potentially-dog-stress-inducing artificially-scented products, only permitting supervised interactions with Luna and our other pets, training Luna to wear a muzzle, trying practically every harness and head collar known to humankind, hanging up thick curtains to reduce visual stimuli at home…you get the picture, I think!

5. Different exercise.

Behavior problems can be solved by increasing a pet’s physical activity if those behaviors stem from boredom or pent up energy. But as Luna’s issues developed from fear and anxiety and our typical venues for physical activities (our yard and neighborhood) contained ample stimuli that caused Luna fear and anxiety, more exercise probably made Luna’s situation worse. IMG_5968Finding exercise that Luna could handle was key to improving her – and our’s – quality of life. And it turned out to be really simple: mental exercise and scent games! I intersperse our regular walks with short training sessions, using tricks and games I learned in previous dog classes. Scent games are simple: I hide kibble or toys in boxes or just around a secure location (because, of course, Luna does resource guard food items with our other pets). We started in a familiar location (inside our home), then moved outside, and try to go on ‘field trips’ to nearby parks regularly to build Luna’s confidence in these strange locations. If you have an anxious or fearful dog, I highly recommend looking into scent games!

6. TIME. 

Perhaps second only to seeking professional help, time has been the most important factor in improving Luna’s behavior. Of course behavior modification and meds take time to impact behavior, but it also seems to me that the longer we have stuck with the strategies listed above, the more spontaneous “good” behavior I see from Luna.  IMG_6784 I basically think of like Luna’s poor brain was inflamed from all the stress and anxiety, and now that we have addressed many of the sources of these bad feelings, her little brain is recovering. For example, just a few months ago, if my cat came into Luna’s room/my office and started meowing at me, Luna would have flipped out and gone after my poor cat. The cats learned pretty quickly to avoid my office. But just this circumstance happened last week – in itself pretty shocking, as again, my cats had been avoiding my office – and Luna just glanced at the cat…and that was it. It. was. magical.

I’d really like to hear from you if you’ve found this post interesting! Do you have an anxious/aggressive/reactive dog? What worked for you? What didn’t work for you? What do you wish you had known prior to adopting a dog with behavioral issues? Would you adopt a pet with behavioral issues, and if so, to what extent?

And 3 Things That Did Not Work:

1. Over-analyzing Luna’s history.

I’ll be brief: unless an event in a dog’s past has resulted in neurological damage, it is not helpful to know a dog’s background when designing a behavior modification and management strategy to alleviate behavior problems associated with anxiety, aggression, and reactivity. Strategies to deal with such behavior problems focus on changing a dog’s reaction to a stimuli, so it is not important to know that, say, a dog is fearful of brooms because she was beaten with one in a past home – you need to desensitize and counter-condition the dog so her reaction to the broom is one of indifference rather than defensiveness, period.

I say this because I have heard countless explanations – or more aptly, excuses – that a dog’s behavior is, “because he must have been hit” in a previous home. Most animals are neophobic after early socialization periods so it is a normal for dogs to react to unfamiliar stimuli with apprehension, as this was important survival trait during the evolution of dogs. So, maybe the dog was hit in a previous home. Or maybe he’s just never seen a man in a baseball hat before! The point is: it doesn’t matter which!

2. Giving Luna “more discipline”.

The people who have told me Luna would be better behaved with “more discipline” meant well but this suggestion inherently suggests that I needed to give Luna more punishment. Re: #2 above, more punishment was explicitly disadvised by all the professional behavior experts with whom I have worked and would likely have lead to an increase in behavior problems. While Luna does have a strict set of rules to which she complies – a routine which is as calming to her as it is to me – punishment will never be part of this.

3. Doing it on my own

I just want to reiterate that scientifically-up-to-date, professionally certified animal behavior experts were vital to improving Luna’s behavior problems. I know that many very worthy families struggle to pay for routine veterinary care for their pet and behavior care is SUPER expensive. My point is that behavior experts are a worthy investment if you are really struggling with your pet’s behavior. Be sure you are consulting a real expert*.

*Unfortunately, there are many trainers/veterinarian’s/etc. who will recommend behavior advice that is out of date, ineffective, and downright dangerous. Check out the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists for more information.

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  1. So glad to have found your blog! This is such a great post. We also have a reactive dog and are learning as we go along. It’s so refreshing to hear you talk about positive dog training- over here in Germany it’s not at all simple to find a behaviourist or trainer who also ascribes to this way of thinking. They all seem to have very outdated methods (as we discovered the hard way) so for now I’m using online resources and the support of an amazing facebook group. It’s lovely to read of your success with beautiful Luna- i’ll definitely be back to see how you’re doing on your journey! Thank you ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, thanks for such kind feedback! I think it’s a real shame how hard it is to find good behavior help in the US and it’s super disappointing to hear it’s even more difficult in Germany. I mean, this stuff is based in hard science and you know…it works!! Thanks again!


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