Q: I have a year-old neutered male Yorkie who is aggressive to 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 everybody.
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. You can set your pupster up to succeed.
Our dogs watch their leaders often for behavioral cues. Non-verbal communications (body postures) are triggers for young Napoleon. He follows your emotional lead, which compounds his protective aggression. When you’re away, he doesn’t have a care in the world. Your family isn’t nervous, either, making it easier for this hothead to keep his cool.
You can stop unwittingly reinforcing this little despot’s agitation. Dogs believe that all interactions with their people have been earned. Any response is regarded as a reinforcer for their behavior and their emotional state of the moment. Avoid reprimands; they actually encourage more of the reactivity you don’t want. Pint-sized temper tantrums should be completely ignored.
Humans and dogs are operant learners: what gets rewarded gets repeated. When your dog starts to relax, or whenever he’s calm, he should be quietly reinforced. Repeat hundreds of times every day.
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 understand that no scolding means they were good. But the canine hierarchy that’s genetically programmed into our pets’ brains is different than ours. Well-adjusted dogs can adapt to being treated like little people in furry suits, but canine nervous wrecks just get more confused. 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. An antianxiety supplement (Zylkene or Anxitane) can help the kid relax and lose the tough guy routine.
• For help with behavior problems, you can sign up for a Zoom Group Conference on my website, drjeffnichol.com.
Dr. Jeff Nichol is a residency-trained veterinary behaviorist. He provides consultations in person and in groups via Zoom (505-792-5131). Each week, he shares a blog and a video to help bring out the best in pets and their people. Sign up at no charge at drjeffnichol.com. Post pet questions on facebook.com/drjeffnichol or by mail to 4000 Montgomery NE, Albuquerque, NM, 87109.