Dogcharmer: Anxious and aggressive?

As with so many other issues, treats play a central role.


Dear Tom,

Our sweet furry family member, Bruno, is a 6-year-old French bulldog. He is a loving and beloved member of our family, and great with kids. However, he is anxious, and at times aggressive toward other animals. He has been this way since he was younger, but it has gotten worse lately. He even bit a friend’s dog recently. Needless to say, it is a difficult and stressful situation for everyone. I know the saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” But I hope that with your help and advice, we can refute that myth. Please help!

Thank you for your time and wisdom.

Bruno and Fam

Dear Bruno’s family,

First of all, the saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is incorrect. The wisdom an old dog has gained by living with people makes it much, much easier for the dog to grasp what you want him to do, especially if the lesson includes yummy treats. The more accurate statement would be, “It’s harder to break long-established habits in an older dog.” It will take me a fraction of the time to teach an older dog new tricks that it does with an egg-for-brains puppy.

Over the years I’ve worked with many dogs that were antisocial and very aggressive when it came to other dogs. Those dogs were obviously not candidates for the dog park, and yet without doggie friends, they lived wonderful lives harmonizing with their two-leggeds. As for Bruno’s going after geese and other wildlife, that’s likely to be predatory aggression. The 9-week-old puppy chases the blowing leaf because the movement of the leaf elicits the prey drive in the dog. In Bruno’s case, he simply needs to be taught “Leave it!” Whatever he’s focused on, be it a squirrel, a duck, another dog, he has to disregard it, shrug it off, when told “Leave it.”

Depending on a dog’s intensity when it comes to other dogs, or its prey drive, the method to get the cooperative “leave it” is dependent on the dog’s temperament, sensitivity to a correction, and how motivated he is by food rewards. My method to get the mini poodle to ignore the pizza crust on the sidewalk might just be a slight pop of the leash to the side, and praise and a treat when he passes it. Hearing me say “leave it” as the light snap of the leash startles him just as he’s focused on the pizza, and makes the pizza the “bad guy” to be avoided. The rest is easy. However, stopping the140-pound Rotty named Sugar from dragging the 115-pound owner to get to the dog it sees and wants to fight, the leash pop “ain’t gonna cut it.” I’ve been asked a million times, “What’s your methodology?” It’s always been the same answer. “It depends. I’m a depends trainer. What I do depends on a whole lot of stuff.” In Bruno’s case, you witnessed Bruno’s total cooperation ignoring meat on the floor, and happily taking the treat instead. Ater a couple of very slight leash pops, he was even cooperating when off-leash. He was also cooperative by the geese and ducks, and then with only the words, “Leave it!” With consistency, life with Bruno will be a lot more fun.

Best of luck,
Dog Charmer Tom