When your dog regularly growls, snaps, or bites, you have a serious behavior problem on your hands. Aggression is one of the top reasons dog owners seek the help of a professional dog trainer or animal behaviorist. And it’s not just larger dogs and so-called “dangerous breeds” that are prone to aggression; any breed is capable of becoming aggressive under the right circumstances.
Although aggression can’t be cured overnight, there are steps you can take to curb the aggressive behavior and help your dog remain calm.
Why Do Dogs Behave Aggressively?
Your first step toward stopping this behavior is to figure out what is causing your dog’s aggression. Some dogs growl as someone approaches them while they’re eating or chewing a bone, for instance. Others react aggressively toward children or strangers.
The most common types of dog aggression include
- Territorial aggression: The dog defends its space or your home from what it deems to be an intruder.
- Protective aggression: The dog protects members of its pack against another animal or a person.
- Possessive aggression: The dog protects food, chew toys, bones, or another object of value to it.
- Fear aggression: The dog is fearful and tries to retreat in a scary situation, but then attacks when cornered.
- Defensive aggression: Similar to fear aggression—the dog attacks in defense of something rather than trying to retreat first. These dogs have generally given other, more subtle, indications that they want to be left alone before biting, such as turning their head away.
- Social aggression: The dog reacts aggressively to other dogs in social situations. Dogs that are not socialized properly with other dogs and people may also exhibit aggression.
- Frustration-elicited aggression: The dog behaves aggressively when it’s restricted on a leash or in a fenced yard. When the dog becomes stimulated and can not act on that stimulation, it may act out. Sometimes a dog may become overly excited, such as before a walk, and nip its handler.
- Redirected aggression: The dog might become aggressive toward a person who attempts to break up a dog fight. It may also happen when the dog can’t reach the target of its hostility, such as a neighboring dog on the other side of a fence.
- Pain-elicited aggression: The dog shows aggression when it’s injured or in pain.
- Sex-related aggression: Two male dogs or two female dogs become aggressive when vying for the attention of a mate. This applies to intact animals and can be avoided by spaying and neutering dogs.
- Predatory aggression: The dog behaves aggressively without much warning when exhibiting predatory behavior, such as when chasing wildlife. This instinct may become a serious danger when a child is playing chase with the dog. It may start out as an innocent game, but dogs with predatory aggression may quickly turn on and possibly bite the child.
Why might my dog behave aggressively toward me?
There are multiple reasons that a dog may exhibit aggression toward family members. The most common causes include conflict aggression, fear-based, defensive aggression, status related aggression, possessive aggression, food guarding aggression and redirected aggression. Living with a dog that is aggressive to family members may be difficult, dangerous, disappointing and frustrating.
Should I keep a dog that is aggressive toward family members?
In some households’ family composition, daily obligations and other issues may make keeping and rehabilitating an aggressive dog unrealistic and dangerous. Placement in another home may sometimes be an option but often a suitable home is not readily available. Euthanasia for aggression is the only guarantee a dog will not be aggressive again.
How do we avoid aggression and keep family members safe?
Safety and prevention of bites is the essential first step; both in keeping family members safe and in beginning the process of behavior modification. First, identify all situations that might lead to aggression and prevent access to these circumstances (by caging or confinement, muzzle, or environmental manipulation) or otherwise control the dog when a confrontational situation might arise (e.g., leash and head halter control, tie down). Then it is essential that these situations are avoided to prevent further injury and learning. Although the long-term goal would be to reduce or eliminate the potential for aggression in these situations, each new episode could lead to injury and further aggravation of the problem. A head collar and leash is a good way to control and prevent aggression even inside the home. A properly fitted basket muzzle is even more effective at preventing bites and may be useful in some situations. The dog is unlikely to change his behavior without retraining and the dog learns from each opportunity to practice his aggression; so limit his opportunity for additional aggressive encounters.
Once the family elects to begin a behavior modification program for aggression, their ability to keep people safe and prevent aggressive episodes must be reevaluated constantly. If there are frequent safety lapses, accidental bites or new bites occurring in new and unforeseen circumstances then the decision to keep and treat this dog must be reassessed.
Don’t we just need to show our dog that we are alpha or dominant for the aggression to stop?
Aggression toward family members is not likely to be related to dominance or social status. This is a common misconception, which can lead to inappropriate treatment strategies and perhaps worsening of the aggressive behavior. Most often a dog’s aggression is motivated by fear, anxiety, conflict about what to expect and what to do and the anticipation of possible punishment. It follows that if underlying anxiety and fear is causing aggressive responses then training programs designed to enforce the human family members as alpha or dominance using confrontation or intimidation-based interventions will increase rather than decrease anxiety and associated aggressive responses. Strategies designed to achieve pack leadership, alpha or dominance over your dog do not address the underlying problem; the fear or anxiety and lack of understanding of what to expect or how to react in the situation. While control and consistent interactions with the pet are desirable, they should be achieved in non confrontational ways that decrease anxiety and conflict not increase those underlying emotions.
How to Stop Dog Bites
As a dog owner, you must take responsibility for training your dog and keeping it under control at all times. You’re responsible for your dog’s behavior and are the first line of defense in preventing dog bites. It’s important that you do whatever you can to keep others safe and keep your dog from biting:
- Put your dog through basic training at the very least and continue to keep up your dog’s training program throughout its life to reinforce the lessons you’ve taught it.
- Socialize your dog. Allow your dog to meet and interact with different types of people, including children, disabled people, and older people under calm, positive circumstances.
- Expose your dog regularly to a variety of situations such as other dogs, loud noises, large machines, bicycles, or anything else that might spark fear. Start this training with your dog at the youngest age possible and keep the experiences positive.
- Pay attention to your dog and know when things may be leading to aggression. If you can’t control the situation or your dog’s behavior, you may have to remove your dog before things get out of hand.
- Don’t discipline your dog by using physical, violent, or aggressive punishment. Opt for positive reinforcement—praise and treats—before resorting to the use of aversives, such as shock collars and loud noises, to discipline undesirable behavior. Consistently rewarding your dog for desirable behavior is far more effective because dogs aim to please their people.
- Always keep your dog on a leash or in a fenced area. Know your dog well before letting it off its leash in permitted areas. Keep your dog in sight at all times.
- If you suspect or know that your dog has fearful or aggressive tendencies, always warn others. Don’t allow your dog to approach people and other animals unless the situation is strictly controlled. Use a muzzle if necessary.
- Keep your dog’s vaccinations current, especially its rabies vaccination, and visit your vet routinely for wellness checkups.