Reactivity and Aggression in dogs – Managing and Treating

Dog pulling on leashIt’s hard to enjoy a walk in the park, when we know our beloved companion can suddenly turn into Cujo at the first sight of a strange dog or a jogger. Not only do we have to face the challenge of holding onto the lunging and barking beast, but we also have to put up with the shame of the event. If that wasn’t enough, owning and taking out such a dog raises legitimate concerns for the safety of those we encounter. Walks can quickly turn into a succession of adrenaline rushes for both our canine and ourselves, making it increasingly more difficult to go out. It’s easy to see how frustrated or desperate owners of such dogs can feel like the only way out of this embarrassing and sometimes dangerous predicament, is to surrender the dog. There are options however. Once we understand some of the underlying factors, with planned management and training sessions, we can help our pooch relax. While we’re quick to label many of the dog’s behaviors as aggressive, most dogs are simply reactive, in other words, they overreact to certain stimuli in the environment. Left untreated however, reactivity can lead to aggression. In this article, we won’t cover all the different categories of canine reactivity, as the subject is vast, but will mainly focus on the dogs’ emotional reactions when on leash, and how to manage and treat them.

Hyper-excitability, barking, whining, lunging, pacing, panting hyper-vigilance, difficulty calming down or responding to their guarding are all different expressions of the dog’s emotional state when in presence of the object of their anxiety or frustration. Many of the signs listed above would not qualify as ‘aggressive’ but will often develop into more problematic behaviors. If left untreated, even the mildest reaction may evolve into a full display of lunging, snarling and barking. Sometimes, the frustration of being on a leash will also lead to such behaviors. While trying to inhibit the unruly display, the guardian might unwillingly teach the dog that ‘bad things happen’, such as yelling or leash popping, when in presence or people or dogs. With repetitions, the frustration can turn to reactivity or aggression. It’s often best to stay calm or even adopt the Jolly Routine coupled with redirection and rewards, to immediately abort the dog’s reaction.

It doesn’t matter how assertive the dog may seem. At the core of the reaction, lies stress, anxiety or fear. Genetics, poor socialization, hormones, neurophysiological makeup as well as experience can all be factors leading to such emotions. Friendly little puppies can evolve into reactive adolescents. Other times, even older well-behaved dogs can develop such behaviors when circumstances join together to create the ‘perfect storm’. In every situation, whether we understand it or not, somehow, the dog has developed the perception that the object of their reaction is a potential threat. In many cases, the reactivity is also related to being on leash. If let loose many reactive dogs would not display such energetic outbursts so we have to be careful when labeling a dog aggressive. Sometimes however, the reactivity can develop into real aggression with intent to harm what is perceived as a threat.

Small dogs barkingAt the first sign of reactivity, many guardians will try to interrupt and inhibit the behavior. Saying ‘no’, yelling at the dog, yanking the leash or even ‘alpha rolling’ are typical ways that guardians often use to ‘tame’ the wild beast at the end of their leash (Herron & al., 2009). It makes sense doesn’t it? Punish the unacceptable behavior so the dog will stop doing it. Unfortunately, as we’ll see, this type of correction might stop the behavior in the moment, but the long-term effects can be devastating and actually increase the problem.

When dealing with reactivity, there is no quick fix. I see advertizing for 24 hour or ‘minute’ fixes all over the Internet. Treating emotional reactions takes time as we’re literally working on creating new neural connections. We might be able to temporarily inhibit a behavior with the use of strong punishers, like a shock collar. So with just a few repetitions, the dog may go from reactive to prostrated, looking calm and passive even in the presence of the trigger. But such treatments are likely to backfire. Treating stress and anxiety with aversives only reinforces the connection between the scary person or dog and the unpleasant experience. For lasting results, we need to help the dog feel safe, not increase the level of danger.

So what can we do?

For any treatment to be successful, it’s important to make changes in the dog’s environment so we can limit and control the dog’s exposure to the trigger (person or dog). It’s important to prevent the dog from experiencing the emotional episodes outside of the treatment protocol. 

1- Management:

  • Remove any opportunities in the house for the dog to experience the outburst of emotions. Close the blinds, cover glass doors and put visual barriers if necessary to prevent the dog from being able to patrol windows, doors or fence. The dog should be crated or kept indoors and away from the windows when left unattended. If the dog reacts to people, the dog should be crated when visitors first come in the house.
  • Find walking areas where you won’t be encountering other people or dogs. Here again, we want to provide the dog with exposure and physical exercise while avoiding exposing the dog to the trigger, outside of planned training times.
  • Look for ways to provide your dog with mental stimulation. Rotating toys, feeding from food-dispensing devices, like Kongs products, the Tug-a-Jug or the Pet Tutor®, provide the dog with puzzles, like the Buster Cube. Spend a few minutes every day training your dog, even if it’s just simple tricks.
  • Look for equipment that will provide you with better control. Since dogs are very sensitive to our emotions, staying calm when out on a walk will be a critical part of the process. It’s therefore important to make sure that you feel in control even if the worst of situations was to present itself. A head halter like the Halti or Gentle Leader or a no-pull harness like the Easy Walk can make a significant difference in our ability to maintain our composure. Choke chains, prong collars, extension leashes and pull harnesses should be avoided as pain and discomfort will again, increase the dog’s aversion to the situation.
  • Away from distractions and chances of unfortunate encounters with a person or dog, practice teaching the dog to look at you (eye contact), ‘sit’, ‘down’ and walking without pulling on a leash. Working with a local trainer or find a tutorial DVD (clicker training) that will cover those behaviors can make a big difference in our chance of success.

Great dane pullingOnce you feel that you can effectively keep your dog on a loose leash, have taught to dog to pay better attention to you and feel in control, it’s time to work on the treatment protocol. During the entire process, for best results, it’s important to stay as calm as possible so the dog can also stay calm. Many times the problem has been exacerbated by our own reaction of pulling on the leash and yelling in an attempt to regain control of the situation. Our own reactions need to be closely monitored so we can help our dog associate those stress-generating situations with more positive experiences.

2- Treatment:

  • Find a park with plenty of dogs and people and determine at what distance your dog starts showing a reaction. You’ll want to find a place where you stay sub-threshold, in other words, where the dog can see the people or dogs, but can still respond to the simple cues you have taught him/her and stay relatively calm. Anytime the dog looks at the trigger (person and/or dog), click then give him/her a treat (for more details see the ‘Look at That’ game (LAT) by Leslie McDevitt).
  • After a few repetitions, you should notice that your dog looks at the trigger, then looks at you expecting a treat. At that point, you can start clicking and treating your dog for looking away from the trigger and paying attention to you.
  • Once the pattern: looking at the trigger – looking at you, is consistent, it’s time to move to the next step. You can move a little closer to the trigger while still staying right under threshold. When the dog looks back at you, click, treat and walk away a few steps (Behavior Adjustment Treatment (BAT) by Griesha Stewart). You can also wait for any sign of relaxation, like a sit, a down, a head turn or a sniff to the ground and walk away with a lose leash and a happy but calm demeanor. After a few seconds you’ll go back in position and wait for the next dog or person to walk by and repeat the sequence.
  • Change will occur through repetition. You should gradually be able to decrease the distance to the trigger(s). The pace at which you’ll be able to make progress is dictated by the dog’s ability to relax at every step.

With careful and deliberate exposure to the trigger(s), most cases of reactivity or even aggression can be greatly reduced and often treated completely. Again, just like therapy in humans, there is no quick fix when dealing with an animal’s emotions. Depending on the level of severity, it can take from a few days, to a few weeks or even several months to see any significant change. There are also times where the best we could do is manage the situation the best we can, limiting the dog’s exposure to whatever may trigger a reaction. With cases of severe aggression, any success will depend on how committed the guardian is to follow through with the treatment and how much risk they are willing to take given that any accident is ultimately their responsibility. Even small changes can make a world of difference.

We’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg here as it would take a book to really get a full picture of our canine reactivity and/or aggressive behaviors. For more tips and guidelines, you can also read the following posts:

Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.

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Jennifer Cattet Ph.D. has been working with dogs for over 30 years, as an ethologist with the University of Geneva (Switzerland), a trainer and a behaviorist (in both Europe and the US). As Director of Training for a service dog organization in the U.S, she supervised and taught offenders in the training of service dogs. Today she's the owner of Medical Mutts (MedicalMutts.com), a company dedicated in the training of rescue dogs as service dogs for conditions such as diabetes, seizures, PTSD, autism, etc. She's also part of a research team working on understanding the ability of dogs to detect changes in blood glucose levels through scent. Jennifer also works with Smart Animal Training System on the promotion of reward based training and the development of technology to support it (SmartAnimalTraining.com).

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Posted in Dog behavior, Dog training, emotions, Fear, Positive Animal Training, Psychology
40 comments on “Reactivity and Aggression in dogs – Managing and Treating
  1. Angie H. says:

    Great post! I have a leash reactive dog that we have been working with for almost 5 years. She is reactive to dogs her size or bigger. She tolerates small dogs, unless the dog is very high energy. I have also noticed that she seems to react when a dog is on a Flexi-lead. Maybe that is just the way I see it, but she seems more reactive when a dog is on a retractable leash. She has been attacked in her previous life and with us by off-leash dogs and the invisible fence dogs, so I cannot blame her for the way she feels.

    It has taken this long to be able to break her focus when she alerts to a dog. I can now say her name and she will look at me. I treat heavily. When she sees a dog and I don’t say her name, she almost always looks at me for treats.

    Even with her leash reactivity, she became a certified therapy dog almost three years ago. She is almos perfect with every new therapy dog she meets. The situations are all low-energy, which suit her well. I always carry high-value treats with me on visits. Even with dogs that we have been visiting with for quite some time, she still gets rewarded every time she looks at a dog. Sometimes she touches or licks the dog and then looks to me for a treat. I think she has turned it into a game. Do I treat her every time? You bet I do! If it is a game, that is fine by me. If that helps reinforce that dogs are good and mean yummy treats, she can look, touch, or lick any dog she wants. I will always play her little games if it means being a good girl.

  2. Danette says:

    I think this is great advice…. But what to do when other people let their dog come up growling at your dog. There is a leash law but no one pays attention.

    • Cj Landry says:

      Danette, you efficiently move away. You can not control what others do, you need to keep your dog below threshold and alway be willing to retreat.

    • Michele says:

      My trainer told me to be very proactive in these cases and tell other people from afar to please stay back that your dog is “in training”. I’ve had people continue advancing even after I tell them that and sometimes you just have to be “rude” and shout, stop, stay away from us! THAT gets results, lol! (they might think I’m the crazy dog lady, but hey, whatever works!)

      • dc says:

        My trainer says to call out that my dog is contagious!! That works really, really well.

        • Cari P says:

          I attempted to mention both in training and contagious, people just keep allowing “he (my dog) just needs some socializing”… I ok but then your dog may need stitches!

      • jane says:

        lol – am going to try this!

      • Miss Cellany says:

        Carry a long walking stick (similar to a shepherd’s crook) and ward the other dog off with it (please don’t hit the dog, just block its approach). It could also come in useful if one dog latches onto the other – you could use the stick to pry the jaws apart.

    • Premier Dogs says:

      When handling/managing a reactive dog in public, you’ve got to keep your head on a swivel so you can see trouble coming and maintain a safe (below-threshold) distance. I grant you that this is easier said than done sometimes, because you cannot control the outside world. If someone seems intent on approaching, and you cannot maintain a below-threshold distance, you need to be polite yet assertive: “My dog is reactive to other dogs, can you please LEASH YOUR DOG so we can get by?” (and hopefully the other dog handler is understanding enough to do so).

  3. John says:

    “You can move a little closer to the trigger while still staying right under threshold. When the dog looks back at you, click, treat and walk away a few steps (Behavior Adjustment Treatment(BAT) by Griesha Stewart).”

    BAT, according to Stewart, involves NO food rewards, especially BAT 2.0.

  4. Wow that video actually wanted me to go buy this tutor thingy for my dog cuz u don’t know how my dog barks so hard in the car at humans thx for posting this video this might help me

  5. Dog Training says:

    Great post! Been reading a lot about how to deal with canine aggression. Thanks for the info here!

  6. jane says:

    wow – great post! perfect timing – it gave me courage to continue and reinforced what I am doing is ok… just a little slow…..thanks, looking forward to reading more of your articles 🙂

  7. kelly says:

    You can’t redirect an excited dog. You can not teach and excited to. The adrenaline blocks the cortex of the brain and and the dog can’t focus. You need to correct to get the dogs attention then teach the proper behavior. Today we have so many issues with dogs. Years ago you never heard of all this non sense.. Hence the methods used today are dangerous. They don’t teach they avoid

    • That’s exactly why any treatment should be under threshold (first point in the treatment section). This is not about redirecting an excited dog, that’s where many people get into trouble and make things worse.

    • Michele says:

      By the time most people get around to hiring a trainer, the “bad habit” is firmly ingrained. Avoidance is the first step changing the dog’s mindset. Positive reinforcement is based on psychology. Years ago, people didn’t know how harmful punitive training is on the relationship between dog and handler. Now we do.

  8. KateDBeston says:

    How do you get your dog to focus on you when the other dog is more important and the value of what you have to offer is much less than the excitement surrounding the other dog?

    • That’s why it’s so important to work sub-threshold. Distance is key for success. If you’re struggling to get your dog’s attention, you’re too close: “Find a park with plenty of dogs and people and determine at what distance your dog starts showing a reaction. You’ll want to find a place where you stay sub-threshold, in other words, where the dog can see the people or dogs, but can still respond to the simple cues you have taught him/her and stay relatively calm. Anytime the dog looks at the trigger (person and/or dog), click then give him/her a treat (for more details see the ‘Look at That’ game (LAT) by Leslie McDevitt).”

      Think of it in terms of neural pathways. Neurons that fire together, wire together. So if the dog is repeatedly experiencing the sight of another dog with high emotions, that connexion is getting stronger and stronger each time it happens. To reverse this, you have to make sure the dog can feel safe and somewhat calm in the presence of the other dog. Finding the distance at which your dog can notice the other dog without reacting is key to reversing the emotion triggered by the perception of the other dog.

      • Miss Cellany says:

        I agree with the theory but some dog’s threshold is at such a distance it becomes impractical unless you’ve set up a friend with a leashed dog in a huge empty field and you know no one else is going to be coming into that field (and you can talk to the other dog walker on a phone or walkie talkie). This could be awkward for many people to arrange – was impossible for me as no such easily accessible place existed and I don’t think any of my friends would have been willing to drive hours away to get to such a place just to help me train my dog.

        My border collie could see a dog 1 km away e.g. in a large empty field or on the beach (dont know how as it looked like a dot to me) and if he was offleash or escaped his harness (which happened a lot as he was a houdini) would take off and run that whole distance at a sprint to get to it.

        He was insanely driven to attack, or herd, or whatever it is he thought he was doing – certainly he never once injured a dog, even the tiniest chihuahua so I think it was misplaced herding instinct.. he used to stalk dogs as if they were sheep.

      • P.d says:

        I have a 2 year old collie. We have been to a number of trainers all trying to use the above techniques and have stuck to it for a long time but it has never worked. I theoretically agree with the principal of the method but max doesn’t have a ‘sub threshold’ it doesn’t matter how far away we are, if he can see a dog, he reacts…

  9. Pam says:

    I have two rottweilers that suddenly don’t like each other. They are both neutered male rescues. I also have a spayed female rottweiler and four cats, they don’t have issues with them just each other. What could possibly have changed their attitudes.

  10. Linda Parks says:

    I like the sense your directives make, except I don’t want to spend my life clicking a clicker.

  11. Rachel says:

    Great article and video, this is the type of training my vet has recommended I do. I have a 2 year old Mastiff/Boxer mix who is a rescue. He has territorial aggression with dogs only and is completely psychotic in the car and on leash when he sees a dog. I have tried a few different training methods with no progress, only thing that helps is avoiding other dogs like the plague! I live in an area with lots of dogs so training is difficult- once you find a dog far away enough to practice training another one pops out from somewhere and sets my dog off and it’s almost impossible to remove him from the situation. He’s very difficult to control even with a head halter. The dog in that video is nothing compared to my dog, I would think my dog was the best dog in the world if his behaviour was only that bad!

  12. Thanks for this wonderful post!
    I’m now finding several options to choose from as a solution for my aggressive dogs.
    Cheers to a good post!

  13. Sandy says:

    My dog is likely too smart for the remote pet tutor, can see him chewing it open to get all the rewards.

  14. Kevin says:

    Hi – I have a 3-year, soon to be 4-year old German Shepard Boxer Mix named Diesel. He is an excellent dog inside the house, great with people and kids – no issues. On the leash he is another animal all together. If he sees a bird, dog, car, jogger, walker, he freaks out. He grabs the leash or bites my pant leg to try and pull me away. If I have both my dogs together, he will grab the other dog’s leash to try and pull her away from the situation, which the other dog hates and will then start a fight. Diesel grew up as a puppy off leash, with only some walks here and there on a leash. After we adopted him and removed him from his home environment a year ago, he began to show this behavior on the leash that is concerning. We’ve tried working with a trainer, but he doesn’t seem to improve. I would love to be able to take him on walks and not worry about how he will react when he sees another living thing in the world. Any idea on what causes this behavior and how to correct?

  15. Christina says:

    Wow, it sure is comforting to know that there are many people out there experiencing the same problems as I am. I have an 8 month old female boxer (not yet spayed-as per our vets recommendation). At home she listens quite well for the most part. However going for walks is a whole other story, I try very hard to take her where we wont run into other dogs/ sometimes people; but this can be extremely difficult. When she hears another dog barking or sees another dog no amount of calling her will make her budge. We are currently working on the “watch me” trick and in the house she does it no problem; outside she wont even look at me. She hates being held back on the leash and I feel it makes her even more “aggressive/reactive” Almost always there will be some unleashed dog that will run up to us with the owners wayyyyy behind!! I always try to call out “Hey your dog… my dog is still training and not…” but by that time Roxie is already trying to be the dominant one and always starts growling/nipping/jumping first. If I try to give a little pull or hold her back she gets even more mad/crazy barking/lunging/biting back at me. I know dogs can sense our emotions and I try to maintain calm but it SOOOOO hard and extremely embarrassing; I always worry that this strange big dog walking up to us will fight back and then what; how would I stop them. This makes Roxie appear aggressive when I know she is a loving dog. I just don’t know how to get her to meet other dogs and act polite. She is always the first to act out. She had met my parents dogs and a friends dog and the beginning is always so crazy; now she can go to my parents house and behave a lot nicer. We will be starting a “growl” class next week and hoping this will help. I have not tried clicker training and maybe that is something I need to look into.

    A trainer at the pet store recommended purchasing one of those small leashes and have her wear it constantly when we are home to help with leash aggression (which I purchased yesterday and started doing)

    Any further advice or tips would be greatly appreciated.

  16. Lydia McCue says:

    I am going to try your method it makes sense I have been doing some of the positive things you talked about but also the negative. I’m on disability for emotional problems. It has been suggested that Clancy is reacting to my emotional state. Could that be the case? Would I still do the same technique? My family came over. I was nervous when they came. Clancy was growling at them until I settled down If you can please let me know what to do

  17. Rebeccah says:

    My boy Dimitri is a very fear aggressive dog, there is literally no threshold, he sees a dog, it’s go time. He sees a person, it’s on. He was very badly handled by a vet (one of those horror stories where no one acted correctly in the face of nervousness of people) when he was younger. We have tried clicker training, we have tried harsher training, but nothing has worked so far. It’s gotten to the point where I can only take him for walks in the wee hours of the morning so we will not encounter another dog or person. He has and wears a muzzle any time he is outside and though he knows how to take it off, he seems to feel more secure with it on. I have noticed that when he’s freaking out if I put my hands over his eyes he calms a bit, so I’m wondering if one of those training caps would be good for him. Can you think of anything that might help this situation even if just a little bit?
    He’s a lab/shepherd/pitbull mix, is 3 and a half years old and weighs approx. 100 pounds. I haven’t been able to take him to the vet (different from the nightmare vet) since he was neutered, they had to sedate him as soon as he was in the room and I had to stay with him (without the vet or vet tech) until he passed out, so I don’t actually know his exact weight.
    Just as an aside, at home or when there are no other people or dogs around, he is very well trained.
    Thanks

    • Marissa says:

      I was hoping to see a reply to your story, my boy is pretty similar in his fear aggressiveness reaction. I haven’t tried muzzling him as I’m afraid of making his anxiety worse (so I’ve read) but if it seems to ease your boy maybe it will work for mine. Thank you for posting your story!

  18. Petra says:

    These are great tips, I would like to add massage to the list. This is something that a lot of owners seem to forget. It works miracle if you do it right. Add some essential oil, lavender preferably and you will see how great it works.

  19. Kristen says:

    We have a dog that came to us damaged and aggressive. He is a small framed English bulldog who was raised with a pit bull and Rottweiler that were aggressive to him. We have spent the last two and a half years training him. Being consistent and trying every tip in the book. There are triggers though that we can’t get rid of. During play he suddenly shifts moods and will full scale attack us. When my husband gets up in the morning, every morning our dog lunges at him until he snaps him out of it. He has given my husband stitches, twice, on his hand and most recently he bit my chin and bruised up my shoulder when he was triggered out of nowhwere. The problem is, 90% of the time he is sweet, and calmly lays at our feet, or suckles his toys. We love him, he is part of our family, but we can’t put up with his unpredictability anymore. He is a liability to us, anyone who visits our home, and neighbor kids should he ever somehow get out. We suspect he is the product of overbreeding, as English Bulldogs fetch a pretty penny. We don’t know what to do and know he would be put down in a shelter/ rescue. We can’t even bathe him because he is too aggressive nor being him to the vet routinely. What should we do when nothing works?

  20. alyk says:

    I have a Pyrenees/ Caucasian Shepherd female. She is SUPER nice to people, well trained, and happy with our three other dogs and our neighbor’s dog. But if she ever meets any other dogs she will bull them over and hold them down until they completely submit, if the other dog doesn’t submit it will end in a dog fight. If she is on the leash this doesn’t happen because if I tell her to “sit” and “leave it”, she will (though she still growls a little). We live on a large property, though so occasionally she will wonder, and has gotten into three dog fights in the neighbor hood. Is there a way I can get her to at least tolerate other dogs when not on the leash? She is also very food aggressive and dominant with my other female (not with my male), though she never actually tries to hurt her, just growls and snaps. She is not dominant with me: waits for me to go through door, is fine withe me taking her food, does not pull on leash, comes 98% of the time (only doesn’t if chasing an animal), easily roles over, and heels well off leash. Only time when she does not behave properly with me is if I reprimand her for snapping at other dog then she will growl a little and this only started recently. She also tries to demand attention, I don’t let her get away with that though 🙂

    • alyk says:

      Just thought I should mention that strange dogs don’t seem to upset her, she seems to rather enjoy putting them “in their place”

  21. Laura says:

    Great post and great advice!

    How do you handle the situation when it occurs only in a very specific area? With my pup, he is great when we are out on walks (on and off leash) and his obedience in general is actually pretty fantastic.

    However, we encounter a problem when we’re in our apartment’s hallway on our way TO our walk (or bathroom breaks). Unfortunately, we have no choice but to walk down the hallway several times a day in order to leave the building, but it makes him terribly anxious. When he gets too close to people / dogs, he barks and lunges. I do practice the Jolly Routine, but it usually doesn’t work so we simply turn to go the other way to avoid an event (so sometimes it takes a while to successfully leave). I’m sick of avoiding, and I really want him to be able to handle passing people and dogs in the hallway with confidence. Because it is a hallway, there isn’t much “distance” I can provide him during training sessions. Any advice?

  22. emilyventre says:

    I have a very reactive dog and I believe it was due to poor socialization when he was young with other people and animals. He is currently three. I left for college and he lived with my dad, but a few weeks ago I decided to take him under my wing to give him the attention and exercise he needs. I bought a no-pull harness and have been taking him on several walks. I noticed he was already doing better and ignoring other people and did not bark at other dogs as long as we were at a safe distance. Recently, I decided to start taking him out to a field and throwing the ball for him. I’ve done this every day for several days because I think he gets a better exercise than just a walk. Now, I have noticed he has gotten worse on the leash and even more reactive, barking at any person and any animal even though they are very far away. I cannot get his attention and it is very difficult. Do you think taking him off his leash lately has ruined the progress he has made?

  23. Johnes says:

    Great!

  24. Gerry says:

    My dog is very social with other dogs, people, children and everything else. The problem I have is that if she meets another dog and that dog snaps at her first, she’ll turn and instantly have the dog on its back snarling and fighting with it. This seems to happen with small dogs especially and given she is a 30 kg German Short Haired Pointer, she then comes across as aggressive which 99.9% of the time she isn’t and doesn’t display those tendencies. Any tips?

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