Q:My miniature dachshund, Otto, becomes aggressive when you go to take off his collar or harness. He is fine (most of the time) putting it on, but getting it off presents a big problem. Sometimes it takes days. Please help.
New Canaan, CT
Dear Ms. Devol,
A:It’s hard to tell what you mean by “aggressive,” but if it takes days to remove Otto’s collar, we imagine it involves biting, or at least snarling and threatening to bite. Anxious dogs often feel threatened when touched near the nape of the neck. In any case, owner-directed aggression, now commonly known as conflict aggression, means there has been some kind of breakdown in communication between a dog and his owner. “Some people have termed it ‘mistrust,'” says Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, Director of our Animal Behavior Clinic. “The dog doesn’t quite understand your motives, and because of what for lack of a better term can be called a kind of species dyslexia, reacts aggressively, or at least inappropriately.”
How to solve the problem? One thought is to simply let the collar stay on 100 percent of the time, as many dog owners do. It won’t hurt Otto and will also remove a source of misunderstanding between the two of you. Or maybe try to keep the buckle down under his chin rather than on the top of his neck. That way, when you go to unbuckle it, your hands will be under Otto’s head rather than over it, which some dogs perceive as a threat or challenge.
Solving the collar problem won’t solve the larger problem, however. We suspect that Otto’s difficulty with your removing his collar is only the tip of the iceberg. You suggest it yourself when you say he is agreeable “most of the time.” Thus, his aggression toward you when he perceives conflict or feels anxiety with certain interactions needs a more broad-based solution.
Dr. Dodman suggests the nothing-in-life-is-free approach. If Otto acts aggressively with you about food, don’t feed him upon demand. Make him work for his food by doing a trick or following a cue. Ditto if he wants attention or petting or even asks to go outside. Don’t immediately give in but, instead, make him work for the desired result. You’re not being tough on him. You’re demonstrating that you’re in control and that there’s therefore nothing for him to be anxious about. That will provide the structure in the relationship that he needs to feel comfortable.