A friend comes over to visit. Your dog greets them at the door and all is well, until your friend gets up to leave and heads for the door. Suddenly your dog leaps up and attacks their leg from behind or starts frenzied nipping at the heels behavior. You are horrified, your friend is terrified. What do you do?
There seems to be minimal research done on this behavior defined as redirected aggression. Actual research on its frequency or common conditions of occurrence are rare, however if you have a dog like this, you are very familiar with the behavior.
Breeds prone to play-biting or nipping are Australian Shepherds, German Shepherds, Terrier, Chihuahuas and even Labrador Retrievers. Some perceive it to be predatory behavior, however if it is accompanied by barking, this is not the case. With dog's who attack from behind you'll see stalking body language. Is it defined as predatory behavior, or redirected aggression, or is it instinctual or anxiety/stress-related?
Herding dogs are bred to make decisions to move animals and instincts kicking in relative to a human may very well fulfill that instinct and breeding. This presents a problem as herding dogs are often misunderstood in their behaviors and so considered aggressive, or problematic. Usually this behavior is out of fear, even if the dog appears confident. It is much easier for the dog to attack when the eyes of the person are turned away and nonconfrontational. This gives the dog just enough confidence to strike out from behind. It is a scary experience for those who've been attacked from behind and embarrassing for owner's of dogs who have exhibited this behavior.
On the other hand Cattle Dogs are well known for their 'play' in the form of running behind you and nipping at your heels. A Cattle Dog is also known for allowing people on the property, but not letting them off. Australian Shepherds, Pembrook Corgis and mixed breeds with genetics in any of the aforementioned also display this behavior
There are seven reasons a dog may play-bite, or nip from behind.
1. As a form of redirected aggression/respondent aggression.
2. With the goal being to OBTAIN or have "contact".
3. As an underlying fear. Removal of eye contact makes dog feel braver.
4. Continues because it works to move person away. It creates drama.
5. However, there are different types of attacks from behind: those stimulated by instinct (herding); those that wield a "bite" to do harm; those done out of fear and lack of confidence; and those done because the dog doesn't want the person to leave/or move and even as an act of territorial aggression or protection of owner.
6. Few studies on redirected aggression itself as it relates to play-biting or nipping.
7. Controlling or bully-type behavior with roots in resource guarding or to keep the person there (so a "don't move" element). Bottom line is that for attacking from behind there are multiple reasons for this behavior and each may need to be addressed with a different solution.
So what do you do?
First, you need to figure out what circumstance causes the dog to do the behavior. When does he do it? To whom? What sets the occasion for the behavior to repeat itself? What does the dog get out of it? This step cannot be left out, because just by eliminating and/or desensitizing what occurs beforehand and making what the dog gets out of exhibiting the behavior ineffective, you can modify and eliminate the behavior altogether.
Below are ten steps to modify the behavior of a dog that nips, bites and attacks from behind.
Step one - replace problematic behavior with an incompatible behavior.
This process is gradual, because you want to make sure you have properly identified why the dog does this behavior, what motivates them. Then pick what you'd rather have them do - pick up a ball, sit, lie down, go to their mat etc.
Step two - reward the behavior you DO WANT, while not bringing attention to the behavior you don't want.
Be committed to making a dog's exhibition of the behavior nonexistent. You need to have a very strong positive reinforcement history substituting something your dog loves as an alternative to completing the scary behavior of attacking from behind.
Step three - start a program to build dog's confidence around people, and to satisfy their instinct to herd or chase with acceptable behavior such as playing soccer, Frisbee, chasing a ball, maybe herding sheep, or doing agility.
Your dog needs a job!
Step four - walk away.
You would have a person familiar with how to work with reactive and aggressive dogs walk away, but if dog aggresses turn around and face the dog. With this method, which should take someone who knows what they are doing, the dog doesn't get the satisfaction out of the aggression because it changes the whole context. The person moves back towards the dog to the place where they started from. It breaks the sequence assumed by the dog. The person would then stay there, and reward the dog for their being there. Other option is that the owner rewards the dog for NOT aggressing. This way you change the way the dog views the entire process. Then mock visitor would attempt to leave again and repeat the process.
The dog should not be actively punished, because the punishment is the visitor returning. With a particular persistent dog or vicious display you will need to prevent and manage this dog and remove them to prevent this dog from practicing the behavior.
Step five - use prevention and management to your advantage.
Prevent dog from continuing the behavior, because the more they do it, the more they will. Be prepared when the person gets up to leave and have a lead on your dog. Start connecting the dog to a reward BEFORE the person turns. Then you can play a game called open and closed bar whereby the treats start to flow fast and furiously as the person turns away and walks away to leave. The treats end when the person is gone and no treats are given prior to the person turning. Turning away has to become desensitized by replacing the actually behavior with reinforcement for NOT acting out the behavior. What you want to happen is that the dog automatically turns away from a turning person and goes to you for reward.
Step six is - reduce dog's social anxiety about this problematic behavior by changing the dog's perception and habit and practicing turning away with a lot of people in planned and controlled sessions. Depending on your knowledge in this area, you may or may not have to hire a professional.
Step seven - shaping a different behavior with a clicker. In this process you would need to set your criteria and be creative in your motive.
Step eight - train a whistle sit, and/or an emergency recall.
Step nine - use clicker to click for calm. When person stands up and dog remains calm, click and reward. When person turns slightly, click and treat for calm, and so on, in baby steps.
Step ten - have person toss dog food when they get up, again when they turn, and again when they are walking away from the dog. The food serves as a distracter, making the dog lower head to get the handful of goodies. The treats must be much better than the acting out of the behavior.
The number one concern is that the training situation is safe for all concerned. Also, the dog must end on success, which equals NOT aggressing.
Fixing the problem by changing the learned behavior into something else eliminates the concern for worrying about the actual cause. The cause becomes irrelevant and the dog's behavior to people turning around makes it irrelevant. We are changing the way the dog looks at people turning away. When it becomes irrelevant, you have modified their behavior.