Expert Tips for Managing Aggression

Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist Karen B. London, PhD, uses play and KONG toys to treat aggression. Learn her tricks.

I regularly use play to treat aggression, and KONG toys are a big part of the success I have with these cases. Play is undervalued in the field of dog behavior, both as reinforcement and as a part of the treatment for behavioral issues. Once a dog knows how to play with and eat from a KONG toy, that set of skills can be applied in lots of ways to improving behavior — just like obedience skills can.

The advantages of using KONG toys when treating behavior problems are many. For example, KONGs are durable; there are lots of options in terms of shapes, sizes, and materials; they create a high motivation factor for dogs; and many dogs are already familiar with these toys. When play is incorporated into treatment plans, pet compliance is better. Many people are more willing and motivated to play with their dogs than to follow through with other types of treatment.

In some cases, play is part of a training program or part of relationship enhancement exercises. But in other cases, play forms the core of the treatment plan. The typical dog who benefits from a play-based treatment program with KONG toys is one who is high energy, high arousal, mouthy, young, already toy motivated, jumpy, in a household with children, and has not gotten into too much trouble with the mouth already. Generally, if dogs misbehave in situations of high arousal associated with objects and play, a treatment that incorporates play may be helpful.

Play with KONG toys helps dogs learn to inhibit themselves from exhibiting many problem behaviors, including jumping, holding onto objects, and being mouthy. Dogs can be redirected from problem behavior with play. For example, dogs that leap up at people or nip at people who enter and leave the house can be taught to go get a KONG in that same context in order to initiate a game of tug or fetch, depending on which KONG toy is used. By allowing dogs to perform an active behavior in an arousing situation, it is easier to get them to stop the undesirable behavior than if one tried to teach the same dogs to sit and stay or do some other behavior that requires high levels of impulse control.

In any case of fearfulness in which counter conditioning and desensitization is used to treat the problem, play should be considered as a way to change the dog’s emotions about a feared object, person, or event. For example, in a dog that loves playing fetch with KONG toys and is afraid of strangers, it can be very effective to have every stranger the dog encounters throw a KONG toy for the dog to fetch. Dogs who are play-motivated often respond better to play than to treats, even if they are highly treat motivated — and the fears often lessen more quickly and thoroughly in response to counter conditioning with play than counter conditioning with treats.

KONGs are always a part of my “house-call bag” when working with dogs of all kinds, including those with serious behavior problems.

Thanks, KONG!

Karen B. London, PhD, CAAB, CPDT, is an expert on canine play and specializes in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog. She is the training columnist for The Bark Magazine and writes the Arizona Daily Sun’s animal column, “The London Zoo.” London is on the Animal Behavior Society’s Board of Professional Certification and is an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She and Patricia B. McConnell, PhD, CAAB, have co-written four books, including Play Together, Stay Together: Happy and Healthy Play Between People and Dogs.