Clicking to calm an aggressive chihuahua

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My dog Sassafras is for the most part, a very good dog. She loves people, she’s well-behaved, she doesn’t jump or chew on things. She’s known to sneak off and pee on the bath mat if she doesn’t get a walk when she wants one, and she’s pooped on a friend’s carpet twice — but other than that, my little Boston Terrier/Chihuahua mutt is a really good girl.

The Grinchy FaceWell, except when she meets other dogs. Then she turns into a snarling snapping monster prone to lunging and chasing dogs 10 times her size. Stupidest was when she tried to take on a Great Dane. WTF, dog? Are you suicidal? What’s wrong with you?

In her former life, Sassy was one of four dogs. I’m guessing she was at the bottom of the food chain and learned to be heinously defensive with the other dogs and so, here we are: unable to introduce her to other dogs without her FREAKING THE FUCK OUT. She makes friends eventually, as we know from her demonstrated fondness for her dogfriend Wyatt. But introductions are always awful, to the point where I apologize to other dog owners before it even happens.

“Is your dog friendly?” they say.
“She gets snappy…” I say.
“Har har,” they say. “My Fido is so patient with little dogs,” and then Sassfras tries to eat Fido’s face.
“Oh I guess I see what you mean,” they say, shaking their heads and walking away.

I finally decided that something had to be done. It was stressful for Sassfras and stressful for me, and quite honestly, a little embarrassing too. I’m the lady with the dog she has to apologize for.

I got this book from the library called Click to Calm and have been slowly using its ideas to train Sassafras to be better about meeting dogs…

We started with click&treating whenever she even just LOOKED at another dog. Even if the dog was across the street, if Sassfras looked at it, I would click&treat before she could get pissy. (Caveat: I’m no expert on dog training, so I’d read the book before you take my advice.)

Then I started click&treating when she got closer to dogs. I keep saying “Be nice,” and if she could go 1 second without freaking out, she got a click&treat. She’s getting to the point where now when she sees a dog coming, rather than get scared or anxious, she gets happy and plops down waiting for her click&treat.

I try to make a point to end on a positive note, BEFORE she can freak out … which has meant some neighborhood dog owners have gotten a 10 second swing by and then a click&treat and “Off we go sorry I’m trying to catch her before she can freak out!” called over my shoulder.

Monday I got an indication that it’s going to work. Granted, it was the easiest scenario: we were out walking and ran into a man with another chihuahua mix. Chihuahuas are notorious breedists, so it was a relatively easy strange dog to say hello to.

“Be nice,” I told Sassy as the dog approached, and she responded by sitting and calmly waiting for a treat. Because now strange dogs = happy times with treats.

The dog approached. “Be nice,” I said to Sassafras, and gave the dog’s owner a quick explanation.

He cautiously let his dog approach … AND THEY TOUCHED NOSES! You know, like normal dogs do when they say hello. I managed to have my clicker in hand and click&treated at the exact moment they sniffed sans freak out. SCORE!!

Then I stood and talked with the dog’s owner for a while, and Sassafras continued to not freak out, even when I gave the other little chihuahua a treat for being so patient.

Next step: clicking & treating when a dog sniffs Sassy’s butt. The goal is to make her think of ass-sniffing as happy instead of scary. Because really: if you get enough treats, ass-sniffing IS happy.


Comments on Clicking to calm an aggressive chihuahua

  1. Win!
    I really wish this was something I’d heard about or thought of while we had THREE Chihuahua-rat terrier mixes. Their anxiety was far more related to strange people in the house. One of our dogs would get so anxious she’d wet herself (or the stranger.) The other two just got snappy and weird (until they got a petting that was to their liking.)

  2. Fabulous post!

    We have a very shy dog who is much larger than yours (100+ pounds). We’ve done a ton of clicker training to lower her fear of strangers so she doesn’t bark at everything she sees on our walks – which I imagine was quite terrifying for the people she barked at. It’s been amazing to see her anxiety go down and it’s such a positive and rewarding way to interact with her. I’m a huge fan and so happy to hear that clicker training is working so well for you.

  3. Thanks for sharing this! I currently have a Catahoula named Duval that is great at dog park but aggressive on leash. I’m going to go get that book and try it out on him.

    • Also look into “look at that” training and desensitization + counterconditioning. My dog used to be very aggressive on leash, and LAT and DS/CC helped tons.

  4. First off, Sassy is sooo adorable! Second, good work with the clicker training, sounds like it is working great. And finally a little advice about “dog friends” If you have two dogs that you want to become friends one of the best things you can do is walk together. There’s something about going for a walk that frequently just creates a bond for dogs. It’s part of their migrating pack nature, so it feeds into their instincts. We’ve done it on several occasions, and it almost always works like a charm! Oh, and PS…moar pet posts, please!

  5. Love reading about dog stuff on Offbeat Home! My basset is the exact opposite: he loves going up to other dogs and butt-sniffing and playing, which can also be embarrassing. I’ve noticed smaller dogs REALLY do not like this behavior. I’m trying to get him more playtime with other pups. Right now he’s that guy at the bar saying “Just one drink. C’mon! One teeny-tiny drink…” The dude comes on too strong.

    • Have you looked into dog daycares? It can be great socialization, even if you don’t really need it. A good daycare asseses play styles and matches dogs with a compatible group. The dogs will generally establish social order and will cue eachother to appropriate/inappropriate play with the daycare staff keeping watch for anyone getting a little too intense. It’s not necessarily the perfect social atmosphere for every dog, but it sounds like it might offer the playmates yours wants while helping him learn reasonable boundaries.

  6. This is such perfect timing!!! Just yesterday, I had a slight breakdown because I’m so stressed about my dog not getting along with other dogs… I’ve just started doing something like click&treating, so I’m glad to hear it’s working out for you! I have trouble because my dog is a German Shepard/collie, so the neighbors just see a big, barking dog and look as me like I’m a horrible person.

  7. ha! my mother just started clicker training our horses, but I’m not sure it’s occurred to her to try it on our (otherwise completely lovely and sweet) golden retriever who bites her arm when she takes him running. Maybe I should mention that….

  8. Yay!

    I’ve done a lot of training with my 4 (yes… four. I’m crazy.) rescue mutts. All are Boston terrier or Boston mixes just like Sassy! I love when I hear of people that take a proactive approach to their dogs issues. My 13 year old was a holy terror when we adopted him. It took a few different types of training styles to get him to the calm and happy dog he is today and it makes me so proud of him and MYSELF seeing how far we’ve come together.

  9. GREAT POST! There are so many pet-centered websites out there, but once in awhile it’s nice to see the topic here.

    My Trevor (Chihuahua terrier) got a bad rap for awhile because he has confidence issues. Another great book that helps with terrier breeds is "When Pigs Fly".

    It focuses on bull terriers, but terrier brains, the little Eager Beaver Problem Solvers that they are, are pretty much generally the same.

    The book focuses on the clicking, or using “yes”(Positive Reinforcement Training). Trevor was terrified of the clicker, but loves the Yes.

  10. Great post and just in time too! My 3 year old Pug/Jack Russell mix has lots of anxiety around dogs. Her first year she was abused heavily (they cut one of her ears off!) and was attacked by big dogs regularly so she’s had masses of anxiety issues since then. We’ve had her for two years now and she’s fine around people, but dogs of any size still scare her. Our neighbors just got a chihuahua and two mini pins that they let roam freely, so my poor baby is terrified of going outside. If she’s inside she’ll bark up a storm and i’ve had no clue of how to deal with it. I’m so glad you wrote this, i’m going out to buy a clicker and some treats today!

  11. Congrats on your progress!

    I have to tell you a story. A puppy I know was being clicker trained. One day his owner “Peg” was in another room when she herd a strange collection of noses. ‘click’ and the thump thump of a puppy tail hitting the washer. Peg went to investigate and found the puppy clicking the wagging his tail with his classic “I’m a good boy!” smile! .’click click thump thump thump’

    She found the puppy with the clicker in his mouth clicking it, then wagging his tail.

  12. If anyone wants to see some free clicker training videos, check out “kikopup” on youtube. She does tons of free tutorials and she always uses positive reinforcement (mainly with clickers). I don’t have a dog yet, but I’ve been watching her videos for a while now so I can be ready to train a dog when I finally can get one!

  13. I’m so glad this worked for you! My dog started becoming dog aggressive years ago and when I tried to start clicker training with her, she was paralyzed with fear. The sound of the clicker scared her so much that she wouldn’t come out of hiding for food or toys or anything. We tried muffling the sound so it wasn’t so intense, desensitizing her to the sound by doing it regularly…nothing worked. She acted like she was being beaten…quite the contrary effect we wanted the training to have. No alternative methods (like using a word instead of the click as a marker) that I’ve tried are as effective as I’ve seen clickers to be. It’s awesome that you took on such a great method of training and shared your experience with readers. I hope others will try it! So many great dogs out there could use a bit of rewiring to make their lives and their humans’ lives even happier. 🙂

    • The reason the clicker is so effective is because it’s the same noise every time and it’s a quick noise so you can click the exact moment they do something you want. Marker words aren’t quite as effective because they don’t have that consistency and they aren’t as short. Sadly the clickers made for dog training are usually really loud so they can be used outdoors.

      I’ve heard of people using a clicky pen for a clicker before – would your dog be afraid of that? Or maybe try snapping.

    • You can also do something like click while she is eating her breakfast/dinner. Or using higher-reward treats. Sometimes a little bit of chicken or peanut butter can help make a clicker less scary. My brother’s chihuahua was petrified of the clicker so we’d have one of us sitting in the next room with the clicker and one of us with the pup, and when he clicked, I’d give her a treat — as part of conditioning the clicker as a positive reinforcement tool. As she got used to the sound of the clicker, he moved progressively closer to the point where I was able to sit beside her and click without any freak outs.

      Good luck!

  14. My border collie gets very upset when the neighbor’s (much smaller) dog comes after her. I’ll definitely look into this as a much-needed potential solution. Saja’s not big enough to pull me over, but walking a dog who wants to go eat the cockapoo isn’t fun!

    • My dog is big enough (85lbs) to pull me over, and unfortunately he sees small dogs (as in anything under about 30 pounds) as prey. The bigger ones he tries to fight just for the fun.
      He will – usually – listen to me, I can make him sit and wait, or come away, until the other dog is gone, but if the other dog comes at him forget it. Even food won’t get his attention, and food is his Favourite Thing. I wonder if a clicker-with-food would be enough, maybe I should look into it.

      • There are so many good books and videos on dealing with this — but an actual positive reinforcement trainer can help you get this sorted and help you proof the positive behaviours built in a positive way. I have a reactive pup like this and it’s a trial and a half, but so rewarding when they can finally even LOOK at another dog and all they want is their treat, not to tear it’s head off.

        Good luck!

  15. This post is AWESOME! My mom adopted a dog that was fear-aggressive (aka I’m only trying to kill you so you won’t kill me first) and she ended up taking him to a traditional dog trainer that used dominance (leash yanking, rolling, etc.) It made his aggression so much worse. Clicker training is a much better way to deal with aggression because it tells the dog what you WANT him to do, and makes bad things not-so-bad, even good! If your dog doesn’t respond well to a clicker, you can also use a whistle. They make ones that only dogs can hear, and you can blow on it gently to make the noise less scary. I work at a zoo and we train our animals with whistles intead of clickers. Same concept, different tool.

  16. Aggression issues seen in dogs are typically fear/anxiety based or from barrier frustration. That didn’t make sense to me at first until I started training dogs. It’s pretty interesting. There’s a really good book called Don’t Shoot the Dog (by Karen Pryor) that explains all the behaviors we don’t realize we reinforce and it goes over some pretty interesting information on learning theory. I know I certainly learned a lot about how my pups think. 🙂

    I have a leash reactive german shepherd and I thought the same thing about food. We recently took him to some reactive dog classes that focus on positive reinforcement and taking little steps toward success. He loves other dogs, but will wig out when he sees one to play with and does this ear-splitting yodel if he’s on a leash.

    No treat I used worked until the trainer pointed out that it had to be really special to get their attention and it might take some experimenting. Turns out, hot dogs and this terribly stinky jerky could get his focus really well. Eventually we used getting to play with the other dog as the jackpot reinforcement when he was quiet, but that’s because play was what he originally wanted, so it worked in this case.

    What’s funny is my “menace to society” pit bull is the sweet quiet one on our walks. Silly dogs. 🙂

  17. I am really scared of dogs.

    The kind of “Freeze, close your eyes and put your finger in your ears untill they go away”-kind of scared.

    My aunt, whom I used to visit (haven’t been in her house since) took over the care of a chihuahua some years ago and that dog is Ca-razy!

    It’s almost like it is not mentally stable, get panic-fits if people walk past the house etc.

    My aunt claims that “it’s just how the breed is”, which I think is like “all boys are rowdy”, so glad to see that clicker-training might work.

  18. Thanks for posting this! I am a trainer, more specifically a clicker trainer who mostly works with aggressive behaviour in dogs (and sometimes other animals).

    Click to Calm is a great book! Probably one of the most user friendly for understanding aggression. The biggest misconception most people have about behaviour modification is where you target the behaviour. The answer is always before the dog has lost their cool and still capable of learning (so they are sub threshold). For very well rehearsed aggression this can mean you start very far away from the subject provoking them. You work closer and in more challenging scenarios over a series of sessions as the dog succeeds. Just like human therapy, progress is broken into many cumulative steps with the patient as an active participant. Very cool, very offbeat compared to older traditions of obedience coming from submission.

    For anyone who wants to learn what clicker training has to offer I highly recommend Kikopup’s Youtube channel (I know this was already mention, but another shout out never hurts!)

  19. Moar dog posts!!! We got our first puppy 2 days ago, and a lot of webistes I find are very contradictory in terms of potty training/feeding etc. Any recommendations?

  20. This rocks! I have 3 dogs, all have their own issues! My Eskie – Avery barks just to hear himself, I honestly think! Oliver, my Chihuahua snarles everytime our new boy (Dex) moves let alone sniffs him. And Dexter is my version on the movie “Marley & Me” rolled into a beagle, that likes to do what beagles do and hunt the cat! The poor cat has been in hiding since we moved 4 months ago. I am on my way to the library now! Thanks for posting this!

  21. Yay dogs! My schipperke used to be a big growly jerk when she met other dogs. After more than a year of work, I can *usually* get her to focus on me rather than on other dogs, especially if I have treats. Thus, I try to always have treats. Depending on where you live, some people may be dismissive of positive dog training. DO NOT LISTEN TO THESE PEOPLE. It works!

    Also, we now take Zelda to dog day care which has helped. I thought she might not be a good candidate because of her growliness, but after a small bout of growliness when she first goes in, she has been fine.

  22. Wow that’s amazing! My 14 year old Papillon is exactly like how you described Sassy, great with people – very well behaved in doors but as soon as you take her outside if she sees another dog she tries to eat it, no matter how big it is! She’s always been like this too 🙁 my boyfriend and I (who take turns walking her, or walk her together) are constantly apologizing for her behaviour but most of the time people just look at us blankly like “why is your dog so mean?” I wish more people could understand that sometimes dogs just have aggression issues! She’s a from the shelter originally, and I’ve tried all sorts of things – but I haven’t tried this one, I will have to give it a try! Even at 14 she is still learning, last week she figured out how to get on the table… oh dogs, they never cease to make life more interesting 😉

  23. Can anyone who has used the clicker method offer a general time-frame for how long it takes to work? A week? A month? Six months? Does the particular behavior take different times?


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