Behavior Modification Q & A

Clients and veterinarians often ask CPT questions regarding the philosophy, methodology, and design of CPT’s behavior modification programs, especially our programs to reduce canine aggression. On occasion, the questions are sparked simply by curiosity. However, a majority of the time the questions emanate as part of the evaluation process when a veterinarian or client contemplates using or referring CPT’s services. Below are answers to some of the better and more interesting questions recently submitted to CPT.


Question 1: What breeds are most dangerous?

A: According to research conducted by the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, the most aggressive breeds overall are respectively the: Dachshund, Chihuahua, Jack Russell Terrier, Akita, Australian Cattle Dog, Pit Bull Terrier, Beagle, English Springer Spaniel, Border Collie, and German Shepherd. The breeds scoring highest for dog-owner aggression were the Beagle, Cocker Spaniel, and Dachshund. The breeds most frequently displaying dog-human (stranger) aggression were the Dachshund, Chihuahua, Australian Cattle Dog, Jack Russell Terrier, and Border Collie. The breeds most frequently displaying dog-dog aggression were the Akita, Jack Russell Terrier, Pit Bull Terrier, Australian Cattle Dog, Dachshund, and Chihuahua. Conversely, the least aggressive breeds were respectively the Labrador Retriever, Greyhound, and Whippet. Other low scoring dogs included the Golden Retriever, Brittany, Bernese Mountain Dog, Rhodesian Ridgeback, Poodle, and Siberian Husky. The University queried 6,000 dog owners representing 33 purebred breeds to arrive at their results. The survey respondents, sampled randomly from amongst breed club members and an online pool, replied to the standardized Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ).

Do you agree that Dachshunds are the most aggressive dog breed?
Do you agree that Dachshunds are the most aggressive dog breed?

In contrast, the Centers for Disease Control, in data collected between 1979 and 1998, found that the breeds most frequently responsible for lethal dog attacks on humans were respectively Pit Bulls/Pit Bull Mixes, Rottweilers, Unspecified Mixed Breeds, German Shepherd Dogs, Siberian Huskies/Husky Mixes, Chow Chows, and Alaskan Malamutes. In addition, over 50% of the deaths were attributable to just the top two breeds, Pit Bulls/Pit Bull Mixes and Rottweilers. The CDC did not collect data by-breed for non-lethal dog bites. However, they report that over 360,000 Americans visited hospital emergency rooms in 2001 to receive treatment for dog bite injuries. CDC epidemiologists believe that since most dog bites do not require medical treatment and/or go unreported, as many as 4.7 million Americans are bitten by dogs annually, with those bites resulting in an average of 16 fatalities per year.

It sure doesn't look like he wants to hurt anybody. But, CDC data shows that Pit Bulls are responsible for more lethal dog attacks than any other breed.
It sure doesn’t look like he wants to hurt anybody. But, CDC data shows that Pit Bulls are responsible for more lethal dog attacks than any other breed.

Ironically, Siberian Huskies are listed by the University data as being amongst the safest dogs and by the CDC as being amongst one of the most dangerous dogs. Similarly, in the University research, Rottweilers fell in the middle of the pack for aggression. However, the CDC data lists them as one of the two most dangerous breeds.

CPT experience shows that the breed of dog most frequently cited by clients as “aggressive” is the Unspecified Mixed Breed, which in our opinion is usually a cross that includes either Labrador, Chow Chow, Border Collie, or Pit Bull. After the Unspecified Mixed Breed, the breeds we most commonly treat for aggression are Labrador Retrievers and German Shepherd Dogs. Owners also label a disproportionate amount of Shih Tzus, Maltese, and other small dogs as either aggressive to them, strangers, and/or strange dogs. Nevertheless, the breeds we would label as most potentially “dangerous” to CPT Trainers are Chow Chows and American Staffordshire Terriers.

In the opinion of the University of Pennsylvania researchers, many small breeds are aggressive to humans due to fear arising from perceived vulnerability related to their small stature. We partially agree with the researchers’ theory. However, we will include a disproportionate amount of coddling by small dog owners and a lack of appropriate socialization made available by apprehensive small dog owners as more significant than a genetic proclivity to act aggressively or a “Napoleonic complex.” Other than their stature, small dogs are rarely significantly different from large dogs from a genetic perspective. Consequently, from a genetic behavioral perspective, there are far more similarities than dissimilarities between small dogs and large dogs. Nevertheless, small dog owners often treat their pets far differently than do large dog owners. In addition, small dog owners are much less likely to enroll their pets in a formal training program. Hence, in our opinion, a frequent deficiency of owner leadership and formal training spawns the genesis of many small dog behavioral problems.

Furthermore, in our opinion and the opinion of the U of P researchers, the CDC breed-related data is skewed to emphasize large breeds, because the only breed-related data the CDC collected was specific to fatal bites. If the CDC collected breed-related data for all bites or even aggressive posturing that did not result in an actual bite, the breed representation would likely be far different. Nevertheless, the pertinence of the CDC data is highly germane to how one defines the word “dangerous.”

To some clients, a dog is deemed “dangerous” if it postures in a threatening manner and/or exhibits an abnormal potential to deliver a bite, regardless of the likely severity of the bite. To other clients, some professionals, and many animal control laws, a dog is defined as “dangerous” if it has gone beyond posturing and has bitten in other than a playful manner, regardless of the ultimate intent of the bite or the bite’s severity. Yet, to some persons and in many animal control laws, the dog is defined as “dangerous” only if it has delivered a bite that resulted in major injury or death. Furthermore, the statutory or applied definition of “dangerous” may be dependent upon the species or nature of the victim.  To some, a dog is dangerous only if it bites humans. To others, the dog is dangerous only if it bites humans other than the owner. Other persons provide a broader definition and determine a dog is dangerous if it demonstrates a maladaptive potential to injure people, dogs, cats, or even wildlife.

CPT believes that ideally pet dogs should not injure people or animals, regardless of species. Nevertheless, we hesitate to define a dog as “dangerous” if it injures wildlife. However, people, dogs, and cats are all members of our social community. Therefore, we define a dog as “potentially dangerous” if the dog exhibits out of context threatening physical or verbal communication to people, dogs, or cats or has delivered a low magnitude bite that failed to create noteworthy pain or cause physical injury. We define a dog as “dangerous” when the dog has delivered an out of context bite to a person, dog, or cat that resulted in significant pain or required medical or veterinary treatment.

From CPT’s experience, a preponderance of Mixed Breed Dogs require aggression reduction therapy due to a lack of appropriate socialization during the critical periods of behavioral development. Most of the dogs cited as aggressive were adopted from shelters, humane societies or rescue organizations past the age of 4 months. We believe early socialization is the paramount criteria in determining whether a dog is likely to become aggressive. Secondarily, proper handling, structure, stimulation, education, and the absence of traumatic events are also more relevant criteria than the dog’s breed in determining the probability of the animal developing aggressive behavior.

Moreover, we treat many Labradors and German Shepherds primarily because the breeds are commonly represented amongst our client base, rather than due to any breed-related proclivity. Nevertheless, unwise breeding of fearful, anxious, or aggression-prone dogs, regardless of breed, can increase the probability of spawning aggressive progeny, due to both genetic and maternal influence. Consequently, we strongly advise clients to read the CPT articles discussing puppy and dog selection. The articles educate clients how to properly evaluate puppies and dogs from breeders, shelters, and rescue organizations. Resultantly, instead of engaging in potentially hazardous impulse purchases, clients will have a higher probability of purchasing or adopting a stable, non-aggressive puppy or dog suitable to their lifestyle and goals.

In accordance with the CPT definition of “dangerous” described above, we categorize the Chow Chow and American Staffordshire Terrier breeds as most “dangerous” due to the following factors. First, Chow Chows due to their facial, coat, and overall body structure emit body language that is often difficult to interpret. Second, Chow Chows appear to more often act impulsively without discernable warning signals. Third, Chow Chows are often very aloof one-person or one-family dogs. Yet, the pedigree Chow Chow is not a common breed amongst our client base. Thus, we rarely encounter them when performing behavior modification lessons.

A wolf-like dog, such as a German Shepherd, has the easiest body language to interpret. In comparison, it is difficult to interpret the eyes, muzzle, brows, ears, hackles, tail, and posture of a Chow Chow.
A wolf-like dog, such as a German Shepherd, has the easiest body language to interpret. In comparison, it is difficult to interpret the eyes, muzzle, brows, ears, hackles, tail, and posture of a Chow Chow.

We labeled Am Staffs/Pit Bulls as one of the two most potentially “dangerous” breeds due to their potentially high arousal level and the intensity of their bite when sufficiently provoked or aroused. Despite the preceding, the vast majority of Am Staffs and Pit Bulls that visit CPT are very nice dogs with both people and animals.  However, we occasionally come across highly dominant, stubborn, and potentially reactive purebred Am Staffs/Pit Bulls (usually males) and anxious, fear aggressive, and/or poorly socialized rescued Pit Bull Terriers or Pit Bull Mixes that are potentially dangerous or dangerous if trained or handled improperly or placed amongst a provocative stimulus.


Question 2: How do you handle potentially dangerous or dangerous dogs?

A: We handle “potentially dangerous” and “dangerous” dogs in a variety of ways depending on the characteristics and history of the individual dog and the type of aggression. If the dog is highly aggressive to strangers, we may not handle the dog for several lessons until the dog becomes familiar with the trainer. However, in most cases when addressing a dog that exhibits aggression to strangers, we can handle the dog safely during the first lesson with a “tag-off” that occurs on leash, on neutral territory, whereby the trainer places food near where the dog is walked by the owner, and then calmly and inconspicuously acquires the leash from the owner and takes the dog for a walk. In some cases, we may first put the dog away in an adjoining room where the dog can hear our voice for ten to thirty minutes before meeting the dog outside off-leash or indoors off-leash, with the trainer standing against a wall or sitting in a chair or stool.  In the case of a fearful dog, we may simply ignore the dog until the dog investigates us due to curiosity and a feeling of increased safety, whereby we then avoid direct eye contact and offer him/her delectable treats. When the dog is exclusively dog-owner aggressive, we believe we can usually handle the dog safely, except perhaps when amongst a provocative trigger stimulus (if the dog is also territorially aggressive, food aggressive, or possessive aggressive). When the dog is exclusively dog-dog aggressive, we can handle the dog safely, except for concerns of redirected aggression if the dog is overstimulated when exposed to other dogs.

Nevertheless, before handling any of the described animals, we complete a thorough diagnostic to understand the type of aggression exhibited, the frequency/probability of the aggression, the severity of the aggression, the stimuli that provoke the aggression, and the level of stimulus required. In addition, early in the training, we usually convert the dog’s equipment to a Gentle Leader and a leather leash. Moreover, as a preliminary training step, we frequently clicker-condition using high-stimulus food to build the dog’s trust.  Lastly, we do not overstimulate the dogs.  Instead, we attempt to control the environment to remain beneath stress thresholds, avoid reactivity, and further the desensitization process.


Question 3: Do you use muzzles on dangerous dogs? What type of restraints do you use?

A:  Our recommendation regarding muzzles depends on whether we are working on-leash or off-leash and on the reactivity level of the dog.  CPT rarely uses muzzles when conducting on-leash behavior modification.  Typically, we can construct counterconditioning and systematic desensitization drills that remain beneath the dog’s stress threshold.  We design the drills with two primary goals.  Our first goal is building the subject dog’s relaxation, confidence, security, and trust amidst the stimulus.  Our second goal is teaching the dog a passive replacement behavior that the dog will perform in lieu of the previous reactive behavior (barking, lunging, snarling, biting, et al.).  We wish to modify the emotional state of the animal from an aroused emotional state to a calm, composed emotional state.  Consequently, during the behavior modification process, the subject dog will gradually accept increasing levels of exposure to the stimulus without becoming reactive.  Muzzles, especially if there has not been a proper acclimation period, may increase stress levels.  Therefore, when conducting on-leash drills we typically manage safety via the drill design itself.  Nevertheless, in extreme cases, we will recommend muzzles when the client dog presents an imminent danger to the client, the client’s family, the trainer, family dogs, family cats, or third party persons or animals present during training sessions.

When conducting off-leash behavior modification training we frequently use muzzles.  However, we prefer implementing a muzzle only after the owner has completed a trainer-directed acclimation period that systematically desensitizes the dog to the muzzle.  The process typically takes approximately one week and uses treats and an incremental process so that at the conclusion the dog can wear the muzzle comfortably, without any signs of stress and without attempting to paw the apparatus off its nose.  Once the dog is comfortable with the muzzle, we may commence training via either a systematic desensitization or a controlled flooding process or a combination of both.  In such a training format the muzzle provides several benefits.  First, the owner, trainer, and volunteer humans, dogs, and cats can participate in drills without any risk of injury arising from reactivity by the subject dog.  Second, the subject dog usually knows it can not bite or quickly understands that it can not bite, which creates a dilemma that expedites the adoption of a non-aggressive replacement coping behavior.  Third, volunteers remain calmer when the subject dog wears a muzzle.  Calm volunteers raise the probability of drill success in comparison to using anxious volunteers.  Moreover, it is easier to recruit human or canine volunteers when the subject dog wears a muzzle.  Fourth, the subject dog tends to be more subdued when wearing a muzzle.  The calmer, more subordinate emotional state facilitates lower arousal, reduced or extinguished reactivity, the adoption of the replacement coping behavior, and ultimate success in reaching the owner’s final behavior modification goals, whereby the dog can eventually coexist peacefully without needing to wear a muzzle.

In most cases of dog-human, dog-dog, or dog-cat aggression we work on-leash and require successful on-leash goal accomplishment before progressing to off-leash drills.  However, in certain cases of dog-human and dog-dog aggression the leash exacerbates arousal and reactivity, whereby progressing immediately (once the pre-training muzzle acclimation process is completed) to muzzle work in a counterconditioning/desensitization or controlled flooding process expedites results.  If a leash agitates a dog exhibiting aggression to cats, we will either work first with the dog to better accept the leash or we will place the cat in a carrier or crate for safety before removing the leash from the dog.

Outside of formal training protocols, we will also recommend a muzzle when a client dog is potentially injurious to any person, dog, or cat in the course of daily routine activities and we believe the dog cannot be managed safely without the inclusion of a muzzle.  With potentially dangerous or dangerous animals that either have a high probability of reacting aggressively or that have a low probability of acting aggressively, but a high probability of inflicting severe injury through lack of bite inhibition, we recommend that the dog wear a full basket muzzle that includes a center strap that prevents inadvertent removal.

A dog wearing the Ultra Basket Muzzle
A dog wearing the Ultra Basket Muzzle

There are a variety of types of basket muzzles:  wire, leather, plastic, and plastic/rubber.  We typically recommend the Ultra Muzzle made of soft plastic and neoprene.  The soft plastic is flexible and comfortable for the dog.  Even better, the device has neoprene in locations that contact the dog’s skin, which enhances comfort and decreases the likelihood of abrasions.  The device has a center strap for added safety and a superior fit.  The device has outstanding ventilation.  Therefore, a dog can wear the Ultra Muzzle outdoors on a hot day and still be able to breathe normally without unduly overheating.  The dog can lap water, accept treats, and eat treats while wearing the Ultra Muzzle.  The only thing the dog can’t do is bite.  Consider the Ultra Muzzle like an adapted football facemask.  Moreover, the Ultra Muzzle is less expensive than wire or leather alternatives.  The Ultra Muzzle comes in multiple size alternatives that fit the varying widths, heights, and lengths that differ amongst breeds.  Thus, before ordering an Ultra Muzzle be sure to properly measure your dog’s muzzle and to select the correct size.  Then, once the muzzle arrives, consult with a CPT Trainer to learn the proper acclimation protocols.

Please note that we do not recommend Velcro Mikki Muzzles.  The Velcro Mikki Muzzles still allow a dog to bite with its incisors, which may not be highly injurious, but remains painful.

In contrast, a full basket muzzle, such as the Ultra Muzzle, allows us to safely engage in dog-human and dog-dog controlled flooding drills.  In addition, the more applicable full basket muzzles allow us to use treats during the drill process, which is not true with all basket muzzles.

When conducting aggression modification cases, we typically begin by performing a thorough diagnostic.  The diagnostic may include a chronological history of the dog, a behavioral history, a training history, a health history, an episodic history pertinent to key aggressive events, a lifestyle description, an observation of the dog’s environment, a general observation of the dog, and an observation of the dog with key household members.  The diagnostic helps us to understand the origin, provocation, and magnitude of the dog’s behavior.  Consequently, the diagnostic aids us in judiciously controlling the training environment and the management environment, so that the level of stimulation presented is less than the threshold level required to provoke reactive aggressive behavior.  Therefore, to accomplish indelible behavior modification, we can contain the habitual aggressive behavior and instead foster the habitual adoption of a passive replacement coping behavior.

As stated above, when working on-leash, we implement a counterconditioning and systematic desensitization process, along with other concomitant therapies, that gradually and incrementally increase the dog’s threshold level and foster the adoption of a replacement behavior- usually looking at the owner, instead of looking, staring, stiffening, barking, lunging, or snarling toward the target.   Generally, without the inclusion of a muzzle, we can train a subject dog to appropriately accommodate passively to subsequently greater levels of stress.  When performing aggression reduction training, slow and steady wins the race.  Both during the formal training process and outside of formal training periods (management periods), we wish to minimize the potential of backsliding due to overstimulation or lack of proper environmental control.  Therefore, by astutely completing a thorough historical diagnostic, custom designing a sapient training program, gradually modifying the dog’s behavior in a systematic desensitization process, including other comprehensive therapies within the treatment program, and controlling exposure to provocative stimuli within the dog’s environment, we usually render the inclusion of a muzzle unnecessary, at least when working on-leash.

In most cases, instead of muzzles, we use clickers, treats, Gentle Leaders, and leather leashes.  In rare cases that comprise intransigent, highly powerful, highly reactive animals, for reasons of safety and physical control, we may double collar/leash the dog, whereby we use a Gentle Leader in combination with a flat collar or ventral harness or less frequently a Gentle Leader combined with a pinch collar.


Question 4: When do dogs bite?

A: Dogs bite for various reasons. There are close to 20 categories of dog aggression. The types of dog aggression we most commonly observe are fear aggression, intra-species dog-dog aggression, intra-pack dog-dog aggression, interspecies aggression, predatory aggression, territorial aggression, food aggression, possessive aggression, dominance aggression, redirected aggression, and pain induced aggression. Typically, dogs bite when they are exposed to a provocative stimulus that exceeds a threshold level, whereby the particular animal fails to continue responding in a non-aggressive manner. Furthermore, dogs may bite when the victim fails to heed initial non-aggressive physical or verbal communications that request greater distance from the subject animal or some other form of compliance.  Thus, the subject animal may escalate the communication to an aggressive level when the recipient animal is inconsiderate toward the subject animal’s initial non-aggressive communications.


Dogs may develop biting behavior because they were prematurely removed from their litter, whereby they failed to learn appropriate non-aggressive social communication and/or bite inhibition. Similarly, dogs may develop biting behavior due to inadequate socialization or environmental exposure during critical periods of behavioral development. Consequently, the subject dog becomes anxious and/or fearful when exposed to an unfamiliar stimulus or a stimulus to which it never became comfortable.  Dogs may bite due to learned experience, where aggressive behavior accomplished the dog’s objectives (e.g., greater distance, safety, maintenance of a possession, submission on the part of the victim).  Dogs may bite upon repeat exposure to a stimulus after a traumatic event creates a strong negative imprint or instigates the development of a phobia.

Dogs may bite due to genetic proclivities.  Some dogs are congenitally more predisposed to the development of high arousal reactive behavior.  To determine the likelihood of a genetic influence, CPT conducts a thorough historical overview of any aggressive animal.  We obtain chronological information as best possible regarding the dog’s sire/dam, the littermates, the breeder facilities, the initial upbringing, and the upbringing since acquisition by the present owner.  We compile a chronological history of the dog’s behavioral progression from puppyhood to the present, including great detail about the most pertinent behaviors and/or incidents.  We inquire about the dog’s medical history, training history, the owner’s living arrangements, the owner’s lifestyle, where the dog sleeps, the amount of daily sensory, physical, mental, and tactile stimulation the owner provides the dog, and how the owner feeds, walks, plays, exercises, and cares for the dog’s emotional and general needs.  By acquiring information, determining trends, and isolating pertinent variables, we obtain information as to the probable genetic versus environmental effects on the dog’s behavior.  Furthermore, if we believe that there is a strong genetic component behind the dog’s behavior, veterinary pharmacological intervention may be required as part of the treatment program.

Lastly, dogs may bite due to irritability or pain arising from illness or injury.  Therefore, we generally recommend a veterinary visit prior to commencing a behavior modification program.  Dogs in physical pain from an orthopedic condition or injury may be more prone to exhibit aggressive behavior.  Dogs in physical pain from a chronic or acute illness, such as a gastrointestinal infection or an ear infection, may uncharacteristically exhibit aggressive behavior.  Dogs suffering from glandular abnormalities, such as hypothyroidism or pituitary tumors, may exhibit aggressive behavior.  We need to determine whether there is a physical etiology to the behavior.  Moreover, if there is a physical origin, we need to treat and extinguish, or if not possible, at least manage, the physical causation before psychological-based behavior modification will be successful.


Question 5: When should dogs be put down for behavioral reasons?

A: Although behavior modification programs have no guarantee of success, they generally achieve progress sufficient to avoid euthanasia as an appropriate or required solution.  Even when we do not achieve the optimal result of zero future aggressive episodes, we typically achieve success in decreasing the frequency of episodes, decreasing the severity of episodes, increasing the dog’s threshold level and tolerance toward stressful stimuli, and improving owner manageability of the subject animal.  Consequently, the dog can integrate safely amongst the family and the community.

Nevertheless, euthanasia is a rational option when the probability of treatment success is very low; when the dog presents frequent or severe potential danger to family members, family animals, or the community; when the owner is incapable of properly managing the dog in a manner that will prevent future injurious episodes; or when the owner is incapable of participating in a treatment plan or unwilling to properly participate in a treatment plan and there is no available alternative to house, maintain, or adopt the dog that will provide safety to persons and animals within the domicile and/or the community and concurrently provide humane treatment of the subject dog.


Question 6: What about dogs that kill cats or other small animals?

A: Although human intervention has disrupted the complete wolf-like hunting process so that most domestic dogs do not possess all stages of hunting behavior, some dogs will complete the predatory sequence and purposefully kill cats or small wildlife.  In such a case, there are a number of aspects to consider.  How is the dog receiving access to the cats or wildlife?  Is the dog loose and unsupervised away from the owner’s property?  Is the dog contained within a fenced yard?  Is the dog attacking the family cat while within the residence?  The solution may include superior owner supervision and management, no longer allowing the dog unattended in the backyard, speaking to neighbors who let their cats loose, and/or commencing a training program that emphasizes diminishment of predatory behaviors, the adoption of replacement behaviors, socialization, and systematic desensitization.

No true pet lover would allow this adorable kitten to be mangled by an unruly dog.
No true pet lover would allow this adorable kitten to be mangled by an unruly dog.

Due to societal protocols, killing cats is a more serious problem than wildlife predation.  If the cat killing problem cannot be extinguished by training the dog or prevented by managing the dog, facility modification, or managing the cats, the dog may need to be re-homed or the cats may need to be re-homed.

Although wildlife predation is rarely desired by the owner, if the situation can not be trained or managed, it is at least deemed less of a problem by society, neighborhood associations, and law enforcement, provided the subject animal was legally confined. Moreover, if the dog is legally confined, wildlife will usually safely adapt by becoming better aware of the dog’s presence or relocating.


© Copyright Mark Spivak and Comprehensive Pet Therapy, Inc., August 2008, Revised February 2014, All rights reserved.

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