Many dogs are reactive and will exhibit aggressive behaviors when they are behind a barrier, such as a gate, fence, crate or car window. The following technique can be used to eliminate this undesirable behavior, called barrier aggression or barrier frustration. It is not intended for use with a dog who is reactive on lead. For your own safety, do the exercise through a barrier with an opening just large enough for a treat to pass through.
Helping a dog overcome barrier frustration
To begin changing the undesirable behavior, you will need to change the dog’s negative association with being behind the barrier to a positive association. The easiest and most effective way is with yummy food treats. Use these steps:
- Prepare yourself with food rewards. For safety, long stick treats are recommended. Put the rewards in a pouch around your waist so that your hands are free.
- Take the dog to an area where you can use food rewards without interference from other dogs. If you have to work in a run, remove the other dogs until you’ve finished. Situate yourself so there is a barrier between you and the dog.
- Begin by giving a treat through the barrier regardless of what the dog is doing. Even if the dog is barking or reacting to you, you can throw a treat to him through the barrier. Give another treat as soon as the first has been eaten; repeat until you’ve given the dog five treats.
- Then, stop and wait for 3–5 seconds; if the dog remains calm, give him five more treats. If he becomes reactive, say nothing to him; just turn and walk away.
- If the dog became reactive, move him to another area (behind another barrier) where he hasn’t been practicing the unwanted behavior. Give him five treats; if he remains calm, give him five more.
- Repeat this process each session and gradually increase the time you ask the dog to stay calm.
As you work with a dog, here are some things to keep in mind:
- Always use a calm, gentle tone.
- Keep sessions short: five minutes or less at first.
- Remember to take breaks. Stop and take the dog out for a walk or think of another activity your dog might enjoy, such as playing catch or sniffing around the yard.
- Be patient, but optimistic. Progress may be slow, but it will happen. Keep a journal of your training sessions to track your progress.
Once progress has been made with one handler, start introducing different handlers in different locations to help the dog generalize about the positive associations.
Note: Please use caution at all times when working on behavior modification. It’s important to establish and maintain a positive relationship with the dog; once you have that, you will be able to make good progress with behavior modification techniques.