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blog – Reinforce correct behavior in tyrant

Question:

I have a 1.5 year old neutered male Yorkie who is exhibiting aggression at all human family members except me, the mom.  It doesn’t matter whether I’m holding him or he is just walking around, if anyone comes near he will growl and bark.  When I am not home, he is fine with all other family members.

 

Dr. Nichol:

Your dog is over-bonded to you, becoming hyper-aroused and protective when your family comes close. Anxiety is likely to be at the root of the problem.

Our dogs watch us often for behavioral cues. Any worry that your little tyrant will threaten violence on your family will be betrayed by your body language. Young Napoleon follows your emotional lead, compounding his protective aggression. But when you’re away he doesn’t get agitated so your family isn’t nervous around him. In that context he keeps his cool.

Everybody at your house must avoid unwittingly reinforcing inappropriate tension and agitation. Dogs believe that all interactions with their people have been earned.  They regard any response as a reinforcer for their behavior and emotional state of the moment. Reprimands would be a mistake because they actually encourage more of the behavior you don’t want. Pint-sized temper tantrums should be completely ignored.

Humans and dogs share an important feature of behavior modification: what gets rewarded gets repeated. When your dog starts to relax, or any time he appears calm, he should be quietly reinforced. Repeat hundreds of times.

These concepts can be hard for many people to embrace. We’re inclined to correct what we don’t want and to assume that our dogs recognize the lack of a reprimand as an indicator that they did nothing wrong. But the canine hierarchy that is genetically programmed into our dogs’ brains is different. Well-adjusted dogs can learn to adapt to species differences (owners who foist human behavior solutions on them). Canine nervous wrecks like your Yorkie, on the other hand, get more confused and reactive. Medication could be helpful if your dog’s anxiety is severe but if you ignore and walk away when he starts getting tense he may improve with the safe antianxiety supplement Zylkene.

 

Each week Dr. Jeff Nichol makes a short video or podcast to help bring out the best in pets. Sign up at no charge at drjeffnichol.com. Dr. Nichol treats behavior disorders at the Veterinary Emergency & Specialty Centers in Albuquerque and Santa Fe (505-792-5131). You can post pet behavioral or physical questions at facebook.com/drjeffnichol or by US Post to 4000 Montgomery Blvd. NE, Albuq, NM 87109.