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How to Work with Aggressive Dog Behavior

How to Work with Aggressive Dog Behavior

Having a dog that reacts aggressively is likely the most stressful behavioral problem a dog could have for both the dog and the dogs human family. Bottom line, it’s dangerous, so getting to the root of the problem and designing a plan based on management and positive reinforcement training is critical. The dogs owner will need the input and guidance of pet professionals to help evaluate the problem, establish and implement a plan that the dogs family can adhere to, and access the plan periodically to ensure behavioral progress is being achieved and maintained.

What is Dog Aggression

Before we look at tips for working with aggressive dog behavior and how to stop dog aggression let’s consider what aggression is. Aggression, whether in dogs, humans, or any animal is a normal behavior. There are a multitude of good reasons why an animal might resort to aggressive displays and/or actual aggressive behavior. To name just a few, aggression can establish boundaries, help in securing mates, protect individuals and family members, resolve conflicts, and drive away things that are scary or undesirable. Aggression can present itself  very subtly so that it barely even reads as a warning, to something as extreme as an attack where harm to another is the outcome. In dogs, the most obvious aggressive displays involve biting, starling, growling, barking, charging, and air snapping. Recognizing aggression well before it becomes an imminent threat is critical in avoiding problematic consequences, and in getting started on an effective treatment plan.  

It is wise for any dog owner or pet professional to be aware of some basic canine body language that can in many situations be precursors to aggressive behavior. Some signals to be aware of include:

  • lip licking
  • looking away repeatedly
  • cowering
  • freezing
  • sniffening
  • moving/running away 
  • moving away with possessions or coming up and over them in a protective manner 
  • starring

Many of these behaviors are designed to avoid further confrontation, and/or clearly express that the dog is uncomfortable in its present situation. 

If your dog is exhibiting any of these behaviors, you would be well advised to seek the advise of a pet professional with experience in dog aggression before your dogs behavior escalates into biting.

Why is My Dog Aggressive

Understanding the underlying cause and motivation of your dogs aggression and what triggers it is paramount in designing an effective behavior modification plan. The reasons and triggers are likely numerous and nuanced, but here are some common culprits:

  • Territorial
  • Protective
  • Fearful
  • Threatened
  • Sexual
  • Illness/Pain

To break that down a bit further and put it into some context, a dog that lacks positive early socialization, desensitization, and training may find themself uncomfortable, nervous, frightened, and ill equipped to handle the many things life has to throw at it. The dog may be fearful of people that are outside of their family circle, of strangers coming into their home, or being handled by people such as vets and groomers. The most difficult and problematic of situations is when dogs are uncomfortable with their own owners handling/taking care of them, or having things they value taken away or even approached. Early training and socialization is certainly important to provide our pups with every advantage to grow up into confident, comfortable, well mannered dogs, but genetic predisposition can also be a strong influence on behavior.

A note about pain/illness related aggression. Aggressive behavior can be caused by an underlying medical condition, poor health, and pain. In cases where the onset of aggression is sudden and/or uncharacteristic, pain and/or a medical condition is often the cause. The dog should always be given a thorough medical examination to rule out poor health as a factor in our dogs behavior. It is also wise for your vet to be aware of your dogs behavioral challenges. In some cases a treatment plan using behavior modification and prescribed medication is the winning combination.   

Best Way To Handle Aggression in Dogs

The best way to handle aggression in dogs is to prevent it from happening. Preventative methods include being aware of what is most likely going to cause aggressive behavior in an adult dog and working preventively with the puppy to avoid predictable problems.

The two most common reasons a dog will show aggression to its own family is resource guarding. The dog may guard anything it values, but most commonly it will guard food, and it will guard itself. When a dog guards itself we usually refer to that as handling issues. When a dog guards food, objects, locations, even people, it will generally be referred to as resource guarding.There are many preventative exercises that incorporate classical conditioning and positive reinforcement techniques. It is essential to proactively do aggression/anxiety/and fear preventative exercises with a young puppy (as well as a newly adopted adult dog) to avoid the common causes of aggressive behavior influencing your dogs future behavior.

Here are some aggression and anxiety prevention exercises typically taught in a basic puppy class or early puppyhood personal training utilizing a positive training approach:

  • object exchanges – give your puppy a chew toy (a bone or food stuffed rubber toy) to enjoy. Periodically take the item away from you puppy, quickly deliver a treat that is of equal or greater value to your pup, then quickly give the item back to your pup to enjoy. This teaches your puppy that when people approach them and take away something they have possession of, they are doing so to give them a bonus treat, and then returning the possession. With repetition of this exercise throughout puppyhood and adolescence, your puppy learns that its good news when people approach them, and it is fine to let people take things away.
  • object sharing – this exercise is similar to objects exchange, but it this exercise you hold the chew toy for your puppy to enjoy. Frequently you take the toy to give your pup a treat and then give the toy right back.
  • drop/give – when you are playing with your puppy using toys, periodically encourage them to drop the toy from their mouth (you can use a treat or another toy to prompt this). The reward for dropping the toy or giving it to your hand is to resume the play session.

Body handling – gently touch, and examine the many parts of your dogs body to get them comfortable with touching that is not just petting. Do this gently and daily to prepare them for all the ways in which they may be handled throughout their life.Pair body handling with delicious treats to build a positive association and to help keep your dog calm and still during the handling exercises. These should include exercises to prepare your dog for grooming, cleaning, topical medications, nail clipping, teeth cleaning, oral exams, and having walking gear put on. Keep the experiences positive so your dog learns to willingly cooperate it his or her care. 

friendly stranger handling – have friends, extended family, and puppy school classmates give your dog treats and gently pet your dog provided they are comfortable. Keep greetings calm and positive.

people on the street – you can give your dog treats when people approach you on a walk. Ask your dog to sit if you have done that training. If your dog is comfortable you can give the person a treat to hand your dog. If your dog likes to be pet, you can allow for calm gentle petting and treats from the person.

guests in the home – when guests enter your home it would be wise to have your untrained dog on a leash so you can train your dog to let people into th e home without barking or jumping on the guests.Encourage your dog to sit to be greeted, offer some treats, and then settle them down nearby on their dogged with a chew toy while you visit with your human friends.

A note about service and delivery people – your friends and family will likely be happy to help you train your dog and will take direction from you. People coming to fix or install something, or make a delivery are not useful for training unless you have a second person. Your dog needs one person to train appropriate behavior, and other to interact wit the person. If this isn’t possible and your dog will practice unwanted behavior you are best to use your management options like a crate or a separate room.

These exercises are preventative, so they should be fairly easy, meeting little to no resistance on your pups part. If you are noticing that your puppy or newly adopted adult dog is acting uncomfortably (ex: moving away from you to avoid the exercises) you should work with an experienced dog trainer to insure you proceed at a pace and use techniques that will improve your dogs feelings, not make them worse. It is important to always keep in mind that if our dog does not like something (a person, place, or thing) we need to take notice and take steps to make those things more positive and comfortable for our dog. Managing those situations until our dog is able to be comfortable is key. This may mean not putting our dog in those situations – but more on that a bit later.

Other areas that can predictably lead to aggressive behavior and should also be addressed with early training and socialization are:

  • Guarding the home and territorial aggression
  • Puppies are not inclined to alert or bark at doorbells, or sounds in the hallway or around the homes property, but adult dogs certainly do, and some individuals and breeds are more prone to this than others.  Notice and curb over alertness, barking, and over excitability at the entry way to your home right away. As understandable and even desirable as it may be that your dog alerts you to the presence of a possible intruder (friend, delivery person, etc), don’t assume the behavior won’t grow into something more serious that a mere nuisance. A general good rule of thumb is, if your dog is unresponsive to you (doesn’t come, or sit, or quiet) then your dog is over stimulated in that situation. You will want to work with your dog feeling calmer and being able to take your direction.
  • I can’t overstate how important it is to notice signs that your dog has the potential of taking an aggressive approach to handling certain circumstances so you can begin to adjust your dogs reactions early on before more serious behavior is occurring. The problem is so much easier to address in its early stages. The prognosis for successful behavior modification is also far greater when we begin before the dog has rehearsed and perfected an aggressive strategy.

Practice Makes Perfect

If we are training our dog to sit, we repeatedly have our dog sit and reward them for a job well done. We do this throughout the day and in many different scenarios in order to perfect the skill of sitting (and having manners). Learning happens through repetition whether we are being taught by someone or we are self taught. In other words, your dog learns behavior through repetition whether you want them to or not. Practice makes perfect. Do not let your dog practice any unwanted behavior, especially not aggression.The more frequently your dog responds to situations aggressively the more likely your dog is to pick aggression as a strategy, and the quicker they will be to aggress. Basic training takes time. Counterconditioning and behavior modification takes even more time and expertise. So if your dog has aggressive tendencies, Management is crucial. Aggression is too serious of an issue to allow any practice.

Management, Management, Management

Manage your dogs environment

Manage your dogs emotional response

Manage your own expectations. Be realistic.

Safety first. The safety of your dog depends on the safety of the people (and animals) in your dogs surroundings. Along with a training plan, even before, there should be a clear understanding of what management tools you have available, and how and when to use them. You may need to focus on acclimating or training your dog to be comfortable with management schemes so they are available to you when you need them. Here are some useful management options:

Leash (4 to 6 feet) – Keep your dog on leash and close by you in situations were aggressive behavior could occur, even when you are in training mode. Your leash is your dogs safety net. It allows for exposure while safe guarding against failure

A well-fitted harness or head halter – try out, and get your dog comfortable wearing gear that provides you with more control than a plain collar. It is crucial that you use humane equipment (head halter, harness, etc), rather than pain evoking gear (pinch collars, choke chains, prong collars, etc). Punishment can initially subdue behavior, but in the long run it is likely to make the problem worse. Pain doesn’t make your dog feel better about the situation your dog already doesn’t like. It confirms for your dog that the triggering scenario is bad and now it is worse. The aggression if temporarily reduced, could come back even stronger.

Pet/baby gates – get your dog used to and comfortable being gated into a room or out of a hallway, etc. Practice this when there is nothing stressful going on so the dog learns that being restricted is no big deal. Feeding your dog or giving them a special long lasting chew toy in a gated area will help to make this association a positive one. There may be times when your dog will be better off being kept away from an aggression evoking situation, especially when you are not able to give the dog your full attention and training time.

Dog Kennel/Crate – teach your dog to relax in his or her own comfortable space. Start with meals in the crate, and encouraging its use as a resting place. The door can remain open, and you can remain with your dog while introducing this idea. Get your dog crate trained before you use it as a holding area. Your dog may feel safer crated and out of the frey when service people or lots of guests are in the home.

Alone time/ separation training when you are home – teach your dog to rest comfortably in a crate or room away from you when you are home. If you are having a family gathering or a children’s party that will be too intense for your dog to handle, you will all be better off knowing your dog is where he or she is more comfortable.

Muzzle desensitization – If you need to have your dog in close proximity to triggers that could cause aggression it is best for all concerned to have your dog muzzled. Train your dog to have a muzzle put on, and to wear it comfortable in a non-threatening environment such as in the home or out on a walk. Having your dog muzzle trained is a wonderful tool to have in your tool box. It provides you with a choice you would otherwise not have. Being muzzled can be stressful if the dog is not pre-trained to wear one. Common times and places a dog might be better off wearing a muzzle would include:

  • crowded hallways, elevators, and common spaces in a building
  • vet office
  • walking on a crowded street

It may seem easy for someone to say “Do not put your dog in a situation that your dog will fail”. But the truth is, being overwhelmed is a recipe for failure. So it is important to to try to control our potentially aggressive dogs environment so they are not put in situations that are too intense for them to handle. This is especially true while we implement a training program carefully designed with an experienced reward based trainer/behavior consultant,

It is also true, that not everyone can always control their dogs environment. There may be some situations and cases that realistically can not guarantee safety. If the stakes for your dog behaving aggressively are too high, the dog may be served better being in a home environment that is easier for them to be calm in.

Aggression to Non-human Animals

Regardless of the reason (fear or guarding), aggression directed to humans is a serious concern and liability. Canine aggression towards other animals is also not uncommon and can be the cause of a variety of motivations. Predatory aggression, as the name implies stems from instinctual prey  drive. Some breeds will have a greater genetic predisposition to have high prey drive, but there is also plenty of individual variation. Some might argue that a dog going after a cat, rabbit, or bird is not aggression, but rather it is normal prey drive. If you are the owner of the critters in question you may disagree or at least find little comfort in that explanation. Either way, it is hard to train away this type of behavior reliably. This is a situation were management is essential and the outcome of failure to high to risk.

Dog to Dog aggression is also a very pervasive problem. If the aggression is towards another dog sharing the same home and the aggression is mild, it is never too soon to enlist the help of an experienced dog trainer to evaluate the situation and implement a plan. Don’t wait to use your management tools right away to insure safety for all your pets. You can use leashes, crates, and gates in a variety of ways to keep everyone safe and secure. Your pets should be closely supervised when you are together with them, and they should never be left alone unattended.

Not all dogs like to play with other dogs. Even dogs that were well socialized and friendly as pups may become less interested, to down right averse, to being with their own kind as they get older. These dogs are not good candidates for the dog run or off leash hours in the park. This may come as a disappointment to the dogs owner, but the dog can live a perfectly full life without the stress of having to be a social butterfly in the dog park. The more important skill to focus on, would be the dog being comfortable enough to walk by dogs when on a walk, and to be peaceful around family and friends dogs (utilizing management when needed).

On-leash reactivity is a very common problem, especially in urban environments. A leash reactive dog may be perfectly at ease with dogs when they are off leash but highly reactive (barking, lunging, and snarling) when they encounter dogs while walking on a leash (or even behind a barrier or fence). Leash reactivity responds very well to a treatment plan using positive reinforcement and counter-conditioning techniques. You will want to be trained by an experienced professional dog trainer in the proper use of these techniques.

Care and Commitment 

Working with an aggressive dog to change their behavior requires an awareness and accuracy in reading canine body language, an understanding of reward based training and counter conditioning, as well as an unwavering commitment to adhering to a treatment plan that relies on both management and training. Improvement can be slow, full success may be incomplete, and behavioral regression is always possible. Depending on the motivation and severity of the aggressive behavior, modification could come easily, but will more likely be a life long commitment to making sure we don’t set our dogs up to fail.

Oddly, as common as aggression is in dogs, the mere mention of it seems Taboo. As a result, professional pet experts will often hear from dog owners denial oriented descriptions like, “my dog if not aggressive she is fearful.” Might it be more accurately worded “my dog is aggressive because she is fearful” or “my dog is aggressive when put him in fear invoking situations”. Until we can get more comfortable recognizing and speaking freely about aggression, the problem will continue to persist and be addressed later than it could have been for our canine family members.

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