Living with a Difficult Dog

Coping strategies for when you get “more dog” than you bargained for.


“She’s a wonderful dog at home. But I can’t take her anywhere because she simply goes crazy when she sees another dog.”

“I was asked to leave my agility class because my dog kept barking and lunging at the other dogs. We have to channel her energy somehow. What are we going to do now?”

“I just don’t know if I should keep him. He’s a great dog with us, but he’s so wild around other animals and people. I’m afraid he’ll hurt someone or get into a serious dog fight.”

Does this sound like your dog? Every dog gets “wild” sometimes. But some of us live with dogs who exhibit difficult or wild behaviors every day!

It might help you to learn that many dogs who exhibit “difficult” behaviors such as hyperactivity, aggression, and destructive separation anxiety do so as a result of stress. The behaviors that we find so troublesome – barking, overenthusiastic greetings, dragging us around on leash, destructiveness, etc. – are all efforts by the dog to relieve his stress.

By your own standards, your dog’s life may not seem all that stressful – after all, he doesn’t have bills to pay, does he? But when you apply the more scientific definition of the word – anything that alarms or excites him, triggering his sympathetic nervous system into action and flooding him with the “fight or flight” chemicals adrenaline and noradrenaline – you may be able to see how many seemingly unrelated things in his environment actually contribute to his “misbehavior.”

Again, the triggers could be anything the dog sees as exciting or threatening. For some dogs, this may be strange people or dogs. For others, visual stimulation such as the sight of squirrels or cars going by out the window could trigger stress. Auditory cues such as trains, sirens, or garbage trucks might set off their internal alarms. For emotionally needy dogs, being left home alone might trigger a stress reaction.

And imagine how difficult it must be to not act out in some physical way while being flooded with adrenaline! (For a long discussion of the physiology of stress, see “Stressed Out?” WDJ January 2000.)

There is hope
Dogs whose stress results in behavior issues like nonstop barking or even aggression are often labeled “difficult” dogs. Living with a difficult dog can be unpredictable and sometimes even frightening. Simple things – like friends or family coming to dinner, going for a walk in the neighborhood, even taking him to the vet – can be an ordeal.

I know, because I live with a “difficult” dog. My Jesse is sweet, sensitive, playful, and a great companion. She is also, to put it mildly, difficult in many day-to-day situations. My family has dealt with typical stress issues such as separation anxiety, hyperactivity, and jumping, as well as more serious stress-related problems, like dog to dog aggression. Jesse’s natural response to stress manifests in fight rather than flight.

Yet today life with Jesse is so easy and enjoyable that I sometimes forget that she is a difficult dog. What has made the difference? It hasn’t been one single change, but rather a holistic approach. By integrating a positive attitude, lifestyle changes, training, and behavior modification, life with our difficult dog has become much easier than I ever thought possible.

I am what I am
Changing your attitude about your dog is the first and possibly the most difficult step in developing a saner life together. It probably seems obvious that a positive outlook can make a huge difference. But when you live with a dog who sometimes behaves in a frightening way (like snarling at other dogs), it’s hard to remember his wonderful qualities. It’s also hard to have faith that things can and will get better.

Focus on your dog’s good traits. Every dog has traits we see as positive and some we see as negative. By identifying your dog’s good traits, you’ll begin laying a foundation for strengthening those traits and bringing out the best in your dog. Try writing down all of your dog’s good qualities. Post them on the refrigerator or somewhere else where you will see them often.

Take some time to re-frame the negative traits, too. I used to think about Jesse’s protectiveness and aggression toward other dogs as a “problem.” Like many trainers, I assumed her behavior issues were because of a lack of something – like not enough early socialization or not enough training.

Then, one day, I challenged myself to think about what Jesse, a cattle dog mix, would be like on a working ranch. In the city, her ushering other dogs away from her home and family is seen as aggressiveness. On a ranch, her protectiveness over her “flock” would help keep predators away. Her hyperactive nature, which is difficult to cope with in a small home with a small yard, would lend itself to endless hours of herding. Even her relentless hunting of small furry creatures (like rats, gophers, and squirrels) would most likely be appreciated in a rural setting where it is important to control the vermin population. On a ranch, she would not be seen as a difficult dog. She might even be a prized dog!

Identifying the aspects of your dog’s nature that are natural and normal can help you understand that your dog is not being bad – or even difficult – but just being true to her genetically inherited nature. Many of the qualities that I think of as “difficult” in Jesse would actually be desirable under the right circumstances.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I can just ignore Jesse’s natural behavior traits. After all, I don’t live on a ranch. But by looking at your dog’s positive qualities, and re-framing the challenging behaviors, it may be easier to appreciate who your dog is, and not expect her to be someone she isn’t.

Prevent emotional overload
Before implementing any training or behavior program with a difficult dog, you will need to figure out a short-term management plan to help prevent the emotional overload that leads to stressful outbursts. A stressed dog can’t learn and a stressed person can’t teach.

Management means controlling your dog’s environment to the extent that he doesn’t have the opportunity to become hyperreactive, anxious, or aggressive – at least long enough for you to help him learn new coping skills. Management may involve confinement, head halters, changing routines – anything to help prevent the dog from acting out. Remember, each time a dog has the opportunity to act out, he stands a good chance of being rewarded for doing so, increasing the likelihood that he will act out again in the future.

Consider this example: Muffin and her human companion are walking down the street. Muffin sees another dog coming her way. Perhaps Muffin is worried and unsure how to behave. She barks and lunges in hopes that the other dog will move away. The human companions of both dogs cooperate, by moving the dogs to opposite sides of the street. For Muffin, her barking and lunging just successfully resulted in the other dog moving out of her space. While she may not have been given a single treat, Muffin was definitely rewarded for her behavior.

Of course, from the human perspective, if a dog is acting aggressively toward another dog while on a walk, crossing the street is a perfectly reasonable solution. So how can you avoid rewarding a dog like Muffin for aggressive behavior?

If possible, do not give her the opportunity or place her in a situation where she is likely to be aggressive. Hyper-vigilance on the part of Muffin’s human companion could be the initial management strategy. By turning corners, walking the other way, or crossing the street when another dog came into sight, before Muffin had a chance to bark or lunge, Muffin’s human could successfully prevent Muffin’s angry outbursts. Walking her earlier in the day, before the prime dog walking hours, could also help.

In addition, it would help to use a head halter on Muffin for all her walks so that her head could easily be turned away when she did see other dogs.

Train for the brain
According to James O’Heare, executive director of the Academy of Canine Behavioral Theory, the best strategy to get a dog through a stressful event is to focus the dog’s attention on a specific cognitive task. In other words, give him something to do – engage his brain. A dog whose brain is engaged is much less likely to react emotionally in any given situation. (Conversely, a dog who is in an emotional state generally cannot think or focus on a specific task. In our home, we say that the dog has “lost his brain” when emotions take over.)

Teaching a dog an incompatible behavior is one of the first courses of action and will help both in physically managing the dog and with gradually desensitizing him to the stimuli that sets him off. For example, teaching your dog to watch you while heeling can be a terrific management tool for dogs with compulsive greeting problems or on-leash aggression. If the dog is watching you, he can’t lunge at that other dog!

In addition, develop a repertoire of fun and engaging behaviors to help your dog de-stress. These should not be control exercises, but rather, active behaviors that are strictly for fun and play. For some dogs, catch games with a ball or toy work very well to de-stress. Use these fun activities to help your dog unwind after a stressful event.

For example, if you are walking down the street and pass a strange dog, have your dog heel and watch you, keeping her engaged and offering plenty of great treats until you are well past the other dog. Then, let loose with a few fun games to help you both let go of any residual stress. Are there specific behaviors your dog does well and enjoys doing? Make the behaviors you love in your dog the highlight of your training. This can, in and of itself, help defuse stress-related behavior.

Improving, one treat at a time
I am a huge fan of classical conditioning. In Jesse’s case, classical conditioning is what tipped the scale, shifting her from a well-behaved stress case, to a mostly relaxed, engaged, and happy dog.

Classical conditioning shifts a dog’s emotional response from a negative one to a positive one. For example, you can use classical conditioning to help a dog who is stressed or afraid of kids, other dogs, or even scary sounds, to learn to love the very things that used to scare him. While training a dog can help him behave in stressful situations, behavior modification can shift the very way the dog views those same situations.

Classical conditioning works best when you can expose your dog to specific stress producers at very low levels of intensity, simultaneously pairing this with something that is purely positive and enjoyable. If your dog gets overexcited or stressed when he sees kids, exposing him to children at a great distance while feeding him wonderful treats can help him learn that children make good things happen. As he becomes more comfortable with kids in the distance, you gradually position yourself and your dog ever closer to the children, all the while pouring on the treats.

This technique is not an immediate solution to most stress-related behavior problems, however. It takes time and commitment. (For in-depth information about this powerful behavior-altering tool, see “Classical Conditioning” in the June 2001 issue.)

Solutions abound
The above strategies are just a few of the many available to those of us living with difficult dogs. Many others tools are also available, including visualization, TTouch, massage, and homeopathic remedies. But perhaps the best tools we have are our positive outlook, and faith in our dogs.

The journey we travel with our difficult dogs can be a gift (though admittedly, it is sometimes disguised as a curse). My difficult dog has taught me to evaluate what is important in my relationships with my dog friends and to change my expectations of both my dog and myself. But possibly the most important thing she has taught me is that living with a difficult dog doesn’t really have to be all that difficult.

Also With This Article

Click here to view “Reforming a Reactionary Dog”

Click here to view “Dog Rehoming: When is the Right Decision?”

-by Mardi Richmond

Mardi Richmond is a freelance writer and trainer living in Santa Cruz, California, with her two wonderful dogs, Jesse and Blue. She is also the co-author of Ruffing It: The Complete Guide to Camping with Dogs.