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How to Say Hello: Teaching Manners to Aggressive Dogs

In her new book Click to Calm: Healing the Aggressive Dog , Emma Parsons presents several groundbreaking concepts in treating canine aggression through clicker training. In April, we shared one of her remarkable new ideas regarding the impact of the handler's body language on a dog's aggressive responses: Changing Stress Cues to Calm Cues. This month we share another of her insights to reactive dog behavior, and the practical training plan she developed in response.

An excerpt from Click to Calm: Healing the Aggressive Dog, by Emma Parsons

Change the Behavior, the Emotions Will Follow

While emotions drive behavior, the reverse is also true: emotions follow physical expression, or behavior. In psychology, the practice of "smile therapy" advises clients to hold a smile on their faces, whether they feel like it or not. The theory is that even a forced smile washes away the emotions that prevent you from smiling, increasing your motivation and confidence. In other words, if you want to be happy, act happy. In addition, changing the consequences of a behavior can alter an emotional state. While the psychologists are concerned with human behavior, clicker training accomplishes both objectives for our dogs. We can teach our dogs to perform separate social behaviors on cue while interacting with other dogs. If these behaviors are solidly on cue, they can help them relax, and spark spontaneous appropriate interactions.

"As your dog grows accustomed to touching other dogs, the encounters become self-reinforcing and evolve into genuine social interaction."

When I wanted Ben to meet other dogs, I knew I needed to teach him a behavior that would requires moving toward other dogs. Another dog would become, for our purposes, a prop: an object that would provide a clickable opportunity. Targeting, or touching his nose to an object on cue, was a behavior that Ben already knew well. So I decided to teach Ben to target, or touch, another dog's nose or hindquarters on cue.

At first, Ben would touch the other dog, and immediately look to me for a click and treat. As we worked on the behavior, something exciting began to happen. Ben would touch the other dog, turn to me for a click and treat, and then turn back to the other dog, gently wagging his tail. Trying to contain my glee, I would calmly let the two dogs meet, clicking and praising Ben for each second that he exhibited acceptable behavior.

Originally the target-the-dog behavior was simply a cued behavior that Ben would perform in conjunction with the other dog. But as Ben discovered that being close to another dog had its benefits, his attitude toward the other dog changed. The door opened to the possibility that Ben could meet other dogs happily.

When you teach your dog to touch another dog's nose or hindquarters on cue, you ask him to focus on a task rather than on the other dog. He will first see the other dog as an opportunity to earn a click and a reward. He learns, "Interaction with the other dog is the means through which I get clicked." As your dog grows accustomed to touching other dogs, the encounters become self-reinforcing and evolve into genuine social interaction.

Don't rush into these training sessions. If your dog is a danger to other dogs and truly attacks them, these sessions may never be appropriate for him. With the violently aggressive dog, work on desensitizing him to the environment that he considers aversive and teach him a behavior incompatible with aggression, rather than focusing on his canine body language. Other less-aggressive dogs, however, may regain the ability to play with friends, to run off-leash, and to take part in the other joys of dog life, just by learning to speak "Dog." (pages 98-99, Click to Calm: Healing the Aggressive Dog, by Emma Parsons ).

Here is Emma Parsons's step-by-step recipe for teaching a dog to greet another dog politely, as excerpted from pages of Click to Calm.

Touch Another Dog's Nose or Hindquarters on Cue

You can teach your dog to introduce himself appropriately to another dog on cue; he does this by softly touching the other dog's nose or hindquarters. As he performs a canine greeting as a trained behavior, he will focus on the task rather than the stressful fact that another dog is in close proximity. The other dog becomes vital to the learning equation: "Interaction with another dog earns me a click."

Especially helpful when…

  • You want your dog to become comfortable in close proximity to other dogs.
  • You want to get your dog used to having other dogs sticking their nose in his face.

How to make it happen:

  1. Work with another dog and handler. Pick a dog that your dog likes. If your dog is not comfortable with any dogs, see if you can find a handler with a nonreactive dog who would be willing to help.
  2. Work in a secure area where no other unleashed dogs will interrupt the training session.
  3. Leash both dogs.
  4. Ask the other handler to stand in the center of the space with her dog at her side.
  5. Start walking with your dog toward the other dog. Instead of walking straight up, curve in an arc around the other dog.
  6. Click and feed after each step that takes you closer to the other dog.
  7. Stop a couple of feet from the other dog.
  8. Click and feed your dog for looking at the other dog.
  9. Take another step closer.
  10. Click and feed your dog as he sniffs the other dog. Note that each time you click, your dog will automatically look up at you again for his treat. Then say "okay" and begin again. If successful, repeat three to four times per session.
  11. When your dog begins to start sniffing the other dog's nose or hindquarters on his own, you can now add the verbal cue "Touch." Reinforce your dog for sniffing the other dog's face (nose) only.
  12. Practice this behavior with as many friendly, nonreactive dogs as you can. The more exercises you can do in and around other dogs, the more your dog will feel comfortable with dogs around him, especially if you have specific exercises where the other dog is part of the learning environment.

Secrets of success:

  • If your dog has a hard time understanding that touching the other dog means a click and a treat, teach your dog how to target on everyday objects first. A canine stuffed animal is a great object to start with.
  • It might be easier to start teaching your dog to touch another dog's hindquarters on cue first before advancing to touching the other dog's face. Sniffing the hindquarters of another dog is one of the first things dogs do when they meet each other.
  • Follow the steps of this recipe a lot more slowly if your dog is interacting with a strange dog.
  • Maintain a high rate of reinforcement.
  • Make sure your dog has worked the "Meeting Other Dogs on Cue" exercises in the previous training recipe before progressing to this section.
  • Safety first, always. Feel free to muzzle your dog when practicing this exercise.
  • This skill comes in handy if another dog rudely introduces himself to your dog. Your dog will automatically think that this is part of an exercise. Your dog will remain calm, therefore you will remain calm.

Click and feed your dog anytime another dog happens to stick his nose in your dog's face without incident. This is called "capturing the behavior" and will be an increasingly useful method to reinforce your dog's calm, spontaneous interactions with other dogs, as they become more frequent.

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hi i was given a small chigi. he was a little aggresive toward me when i got him but after an hour he was fine. he is not aggresive around me or my family only other people. when we have visiters i have to crate him. i will take him out side on leash when we have visiters and let him smell them and they will say hello zack then he tries to bite them he barks loundly and is really mean. i telll him no and walk away. but he will contenu to try to get to them and tear them up. we take him with us to visit and he is the same way with everyone. i dnt knw what to do. help please. oh zack is my first dog and i do not want to give him up. he is not fixed cuz i called a vet and explained to them how aggresive he is and the lady told me he was a liability and i should just take him to the pound. i do not agree. i knw this problem could be fixed


Laurie Luck's picture


Thanks for your email about your dog. Because aggression is a complex issue, I recommend a veterinary behaviorist who can properly diagnose and prescribe a treatment and training plan for you. A veterinary behaviorist will also likely recommend a positive-reinforcement trainer who can help you implement the training plan for your dog. 

Laurie Luck
For Clickertraining.com
Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner
See my profile and contact information at

Laurie Luck's picture

Extremely food aggressive dog

Hi Carmelly,

I'm very happy to hear you've got an appointment for a veterinary behaviorist. That is my #1 suggestion! 

Other things you can do to manage the situation until you can get into see a behaviorist:

1. Don't worry about going through doors first, staring him down, etc. All you want to do until you can get a professional behaviorist's help is try to minimize the chance that you (or someone else) will be bitten. Many times, these things can actually increase the chance that aggressive behavior will occur. 

2. Do you have a gate? You can prepare his food whilst he is on the other side of the gate. You can then put the bowl across the room and then let him into the room. When he's in the room, you leave and stand behind the gate. In essence, you're trading places. Neither he nor you are near the food bowl at the same time, which will keep you both safe. 

3. Bother your vet for that behaviorist's referral! This is a serious situation and you need professional help. Please impress upon your vet the urgency of this situation and get that veterinary behaviorist's referral sooner, not later. 

I hope this has helped give you some ideas you can use to stay safe around your dog.


Laurie Luck
For Clickertraining.com
Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner
See my profile and contact information at



Extremely food aggressive dog

Please help


I have an extremely food / bed aggressive dog.  I rescued him 3 weeks ago. i know very little about him. he is 2 and a chocolate labrador.  He is not neutrered yet but we are booked in for next week.  HE shows extreme aggression around his food.  I never let him eat before me, i make him sit before i put down his food. as soon as he is allowed near his food he goes bonkers. there is about a 2 second warning. he barks, snarls, lunges and jumps at you. there is no calming him.  if you say no and ignore him, he carried on, if you leave the room, he carries on (sometimes half an hour). i have tried hand feeding him. he growls whilst waiting for his next mouthful and sometimes decides to attack me. he hasnt bit me yet but i expect i am very close to it.

He is a big dog.  he weighs about 6 stone.  I have never been frightened or concerned around dogs but he is very quickly changing my feelings.

I am waiting for my vet to provide a reference for a behaviour specialist but in the meantime could do with some advcie on how toreact when he starts.  It is not possible to put down his food and leave him to it. this does not stop his reaction and we have neighbours that are starting to get quite antagnoised by him (quite rightly). I never let him walk through doors before me, never let him eat dinner first / feed him scraps, i make him sit before i put down his food, he goes for very long walks.  i guess i may have a dominance issue (he does sit staring at me and i stare right back until he looks away.) i just am not sure how to get over it as i do everything that i have been told to in respect of not letting him on the furniture and not petting him unless he does something first such as sit down.

i am certain he can feel my anxiety but there is little i can do about this.  he has also showed aggression around his dog bed.  should i take his dog bed away? there are so many people on the internet that say so many different things.  I just want to know some damage limitation until i get a behaviour specialist in.

I hear that food / dominance aggression is usually quite simple to sort out and i dont think i would mind as much if his outbursts werent quite so nasty but it makes no difference where in the house you are. you dont have to be anywhere near you and he will come looking for a fight once his food is there.


please please help. 

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