How to help an aggressive dog is not always an easy problem to solve. And why they’re aggressive, in the first place, is often misunderstood.
As a trainer, I encounter worried dog owners asking, “what can I do about my dog’s aggression?” My first response is to reassure. The root cause of your dog’s aggression isn’t that they’re naturally “bad” or “mean.” Most likely they’re fearful of or insecure with a particular environment or stimulus. Aggression and fear are two sides of the same coin.
Common causes of dog aggression
- A traumatic event or series of traumatic experiences with people or other dogs.
- A lack of socialization with particular environments or types of individuals.
- A history of having important resources such as food or comfort removed or denied.
Canine physiology—factors like genetics, hormones and chemical imbalances—may also contribute to aggression. Illness, pain or dementia in a senior dog can cause him to exhibit aggressive behavior, as well.
Why punishment doesn’t work
Even though dog aggression is generally due to anxiety or uncertainty, it’s not uncommon to find undereducated dog guardians and trainers addressing dog aggression by acting aggressively themselves. Unfortunately this approach, which punishes a dog for their aggressive behavior, is far more likely to make a dog quick to lash out.
Punishing a dog for their fear is likely to create more anxiety around frightening or unfamiliar situations. Remember: more fear = more aggression. It’s a vicious cycle.
More fear = more aggression.
Think about it in terms of children. If your child is afraid of the dark, you wouldn’t punish them by forcing them to sit in a dark room for hours. Rather, you could help them adjust to the dark by installing a night light, leaving the door open to a lighted hallway, letting them sleep with the family dog so they feel protected, and so on.
Helping an aggressive dog to heal requires the same kind of compassion, understanding, and confidence-building.
Triggers for canine aggression
When someone tells me they have an “aggressive” dog, my first questions are: “What does your dog do when they are acting aggressive (i.e., growl, bite, lunge)?” and “When do you see this aggression occur?”
Most dogs are not uniformly aggressive toward everything; they have a particular trigger (say, men or, more specifically, men that enter the home).
Responding to that trigger by snapping or biting is your dog’s attempt to defend or intimidate in order to ensure their personal safety (and sometimes that of loved ones or “valuable” resources).
In many cases a dog may be satisfied with the display of an aggressive behavior if it results in the perceived threat moving farther away. At other times, a dog may feel that they have no other option but to fight in order to resolve the threat.
Some of the most common triggers for dog aggression include:
- Interaction with other dogs
- Interaction with people or a particular category of people (children and men are two common ones)
- Interaction with people or dogs while on leash
- Outsiders that approach or try to enter a dog’s territory (especially when the dog is chained or fenced)
- Perceived threats to important resources such as food, toys or sleeping places
Helping a dog to overcome their aggression is a difficult task; changing a negative emotional response to a positive one always is. A Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA) trained in positive-reinforcement techniques can help you to establish realistic goals and reach them via a process of gradual desensitization and counterconditioning.
The key word here is “realistic.” A dog park will probably never be the right fit for a dog-aggressive dog, and leash-reactive dogs will probably always require some management on walks. Your dog may never live up to your expectations, and part of working with or loving an aggressive dog is accepting that fact.
What to do if your dog is aggressive in public
If your dog is aggressive in public, it’s important to determine what their aggression is directed toward, and what “triggers” them to be aggressive. Once you’ve identified it, your first goal should be to prevent your dog from getting close enough to their trigger to elicit aggression in the first place.
Space is key to keeping a dog from feeling threatened or uncertain. Once you’ve figured out how much space is needed, you can begin to gradually help your dog to build positive associations with their trigger—ironically, by assuring that it predicts that wonderful things happen. This is called desensitization-counterconditioning.
If getting the space necessary from the trigger isn’t possible (for example, if your dog is aggressive toward men and you live in a city), safely walking your dog and slowly improving their aggression will require you to transport your dog to quieter locations for walks or play.
You should also consider desensitizing your dog to a muzzle in order to assure that they will not hurt another person or dog if they should suddenly lash out. Though muzzles look scary and restrictive, they’re essential tools to providing an uncertain or unpredictable dog with additional freedom.
A dog properly desensitized to a muzzle shouldn’t have any trouble wearing it as long as you select the right style. Look for a Baskerville or basket-style muzzle, not the nylon muzzles that fit tightly around a dog’s nose. Nylon muzzles are meant for grooming, not outdoor activity, and because they prevent a dog from panting, can cause a dog to quickly overheat.
What to do if your dog is aggressive in the home
Aggression in the home may, in some ways, present a bigger challenge than aggression in public, in part because the corners and angles of a home can prevent us from providing an aggressive dog with enough space from their trigger to feel safe.
In a home in which a dog is aggressive toward children or other dogs, rehoming your dog might be your best option. Putting a dog in a situation in which they must exhibit daily control while under great stress is only setting them up for failure and, with an aggressive dog, that often means biting. It will be far easier to find your dog a new home before he has been pushed to that point.
If the issue of aggression revolves around something that only occasionally happens in the home, such as guests coming over, it may be helpful to set up specific “rituals” to comfort your dog and, in the long run, make some improvements in their aggression.
Though you may want your dog to be present when you have visitors, your dog is likely to feel safer out of the way. Setting up a protocol for the situation will help you both to better manage your emotions. For example:
- Before your guests arrive, prepare several delicious puzzle toys with high-value foods like chicken, hotdogs and cheese for your pup and put them in the freezer.
- When the doorbell rings, bring the smorgasbord and your dog with you into a back room where you’ve set up a comfortable bed and turned on some white noise.
- Close the door (or baby gate) and greet your guests in another area.
- Only free your dog from their quiet zone when all your guests have gone.
While this particular protocol falls more under the category of “management” than “training,” it does do a bit of double-duty. To your dog, the doorbell rings and suddenly four puzzle toys filled with the best stuff ever appear.
In other words, the doorbell predicts a super-special feast! With time, your dog may begin to think the doorbell isn’t such a bad thing after all, and you may be able to begin working with them on being in the same room when guests visit.
What to do if your dog has bitten someone
If your dog has bitten a person or another dog, the situation may be more serious than you think. Even a low-level bite can cause authorities to intervene. Aggression is an issue not to be taken lightly. If your dog has bitten someone, it’s important to get help immediately from a qualified positive-reinforcement trainer, never someone that uses punitive methods or techniques rooted in outdated and disproven “dominance” theory.