We Talk to Dr. John Ciribassi About How to Keep Shy Dogs From Developing Aggressive Behaviors


For any animal lover, rescuing a canine can be one of life’s most rewarding experiences. You give a scared, abandoned pup a safe, caring, lifelong home. You give yourself a living, breathing creature to nurture and adore. Most often, in numerous ways, you’re rescued right back.

Yet, undeniably, certain rescue and shelter pets come with a set of built-in challenges. Some have been mistreated, malnourished, poorly socialized, and physically abused. In certain cases, little is known about the dog’s background. Adopters need to be prepared for a range of possible behavioral issues.

John Ciribassi. (Photo courtesy Dr. John Ciribassi)
John Ciribassi.

One of these issues is outright aggression. In my own experience with abused rescues, I’ve seen that canine aggression can often stem from poor socialization or abject fear. Sometimes it’s worsened by physical symptoms, like old injuries or advancing arthritis. Though here’s an extremely important point to remember: Aggression can actually manifest in any companion animal, even a purebred who was purchased from a reputable breeder. It can represent the culmination of a dog’s inherited tendency toward nervousness or anxiety. It may even be linked to a neurochemical imbalance.

Dr. John Ciribassi has been addressing pet-related behavioral challenges for nearly two decades. He’s the founder of Chicagoland Veterinary Behavior Consultants, and in 2014, he co-edited the book Decoding Your Dog: The Ultimate Experts Explain Common Dog Behaviors and Reveal How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones. He and his specialized team are trained in behavior modification techniques designed to help pets interact more productively with humans and other animals across a range of situations.

“Dog aggression isn’t a simple issue,” Dr. Ciribassi explains. “There can sometimes be a misperception among owners that an aggressive pet simply needs retraining. But at its foundation, aggression is more than just a training problem.”

The root causes of canine aggression can be straightforward or exceedingly complex, he says, “so it’s extremely important to see your veterinarian as a first step. This can help identify any physical or neurological factors that may be contributing.”


Whatever the core issues, once aggression has become a regular management tool for your dog, it’s important to obtain ongoing professional guidance. The potential for liability is obvious — and as I’ve also learned from past experience, an aggressive canine can also dominate (or decimate) your home and social life in myriad ways.

But for now, let’s say you’re simply dealing with a shy, nervous, or timid dog — one who has yet to display any outward signs of aggression. “Timidity is a form of fear or anxiety,” notes Dr. Ciribassi. And certainly, a fearful dog can sometimes learn to lash out as an unproductive way to manage stress. This does not mean that all timid canines are destined to become aggressive. But observant and dedicated owners can take specific steps to work with their timid pups early on, as a precaution. This may help to discourage potential aggressive tendencies from cropping up later.

Rescued pup Sparky was timid and tentative all his life — but a behaviorist helped him gain confidence and eliminate any signs of aggression. (Photo courtesy Marybeth Bittel)

If you’d like to help your shy dog avoid developing stress-provoked reactive or aggressive behaviors, Dr. Ciribassi shares a few experienced insights and observations that may prove beneficial.

1. Practice on-leash exercises

“Remember that leashes are very artificial,” he says. “To your dog, a leash can feel extremely unnatural and confining. So when your leashed dog meets another leashed dog who’s unfamiliar, that can sometimes represent a stressful situation just waiting to happen.” Of course, most communities mandate leashes for the safety of both human and canine citizens. So Dr. Ciribassi suggests two techniques that can help to mitigate leash-related tension.

First, consider arranging regular dog-walking parties: a group of familiar leashed dogs and their owners, taking a walk together for a specific duration, headed in the same direction. This can help dogs get more comfortable with their leashes, and with each other. Second, behaviorally “vaccinate” your pup with a positive-association exercise during every leash walk. “When you leave the house, take along a supply of training treats,” Dr. Ciribassi explains. “Every so often, at random intervals during the walk, call your dog’s name. If she looks up at you, reward her with a treat. A bit later, ask for a sit. Then reward again.”

Over time, use this positive-reinforcement technique to attract your dog’s attention as you approach or pass other dogs and people on your walks. “You’re teaching your dog to take her attention away from the potential stressor, and focus it on you for a fun, positive reward,” he says.

Airedale Beethoven was very reactive on leash walks, until an animal behaviorist began reshaping his learned behaviors. (Photo by Marybeth Bittel)

2. Recognize dog park triggers

I’ll personally admit that dog parks make me exceptionally uncomfortable. On two separate occasions, we’ve had much larger dogs attack our 15-pound Grant. One particularly agitated Rottweiler actually pinned him to the ground with her jaws. While I (along with my husband and two other owners) frantically tried to call this dog off, her owner chatted away with friends on a nearby park bench. The helpless, panicked look on Grant’s face is a horrible memory … and a major reason we’ve tended to avoid dog parks ever since.

“Approved off-leash dog parks can certainly encourage dogs to socialize; but very often, the owners become even more focused on socializing,” says Dr. Ciribassi. When this happens, he explains, an owner may fail to notice cues of distress or aggression in their own canine — or in others. “Also remember that people socializing may inadvertently place their dogs in very close proximity,” he adds, “and while the people may get along fine, the dogs may not.”

Another troublesome type of group congregation often occurs at dog park entrance gates. Off-leash dogs frequently cluster together here and check out each “new kid” who enters. Dr. Ciribassi strongly suggests avoiding this situation. “It can put your dog in a very tense, unpredictable position from the moment you walk in — especially if your canine is still on a leash,” he says. Instead, try visiting the dog park during off-peak times, when fewer dogs are present. At any rate, don’t enter through the gate while a throng of canines surrounds it.

Dog parks can be a fun way to help socialize your pup — but stay alert for trigger situations and signs of trouble. (Photo by Marybeth Bittel)

3. Send a clear community signal

Understandably, many pet owners prefer to avoid muzzling their dog. But if your canine tends toward shy or somewhat nervous behaviors, you can still clearly convey a “give us some space” message to others. “There are certain collars, such as the Gentle Leader, that simply drape across the dog’s nose area as a training device,” notes Dr. Ciribassi. “They’re not muzzles — but people may perceive them that way, and allow your dog some extra room.”

If someone asks to pet your pup, you can merely say your dog’s in training. This allows you to control the frequency and degree of interaction as you work on socialization skills. Other visual cues — such as a hand-lettered “pup in training” handkerchief or the bright yellow ribbons/bandanas favored by The Yellow Dog Project — can create a threat-free open area around your pup that helps instill composure and confidence.

Once again, these tips apply to shy or timid dogs who haven’t displayed any signs of outright aggression. By helping your pup manage early feelings of anxiety, you can sometimes avoid unproductive, fear-fueled lashing-out behaviors that may (or may not) crop up later. If your dog is already showing early or advanced signs of reactive aggression, however, it’s always best to consult with a licensed animal behaviorist. Skilled professionals like Dr. Ciribassi can work with you to identify the cause or causes, then custom-tailor a program that can help your dog handle troubling triggers in a more constructive manner.

Read more about dog training and behavior:

About the author: Marybeth Bittel is a freelance writer who lives in the Midwest with her wonderful husband, her crazy rescue dog Grant, and her level-headed rescue dog Maizy – all of them Heinz 57 mixed breed types. Marybeth identifies as mostly Italian, so she enjoys feeding family, friends and furkids almost as much as Grant and Maizy enjoy eating. She’s also a marketing communications consultant and former marketing/PR exec. Connect with her on LinkedIn or — to see her latest pet pics (and be careful what you wish for here) — check out her family Instagram feed.

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