Dog aggression may not be the easiest problem to solve because it is a complex problem and can take some commitment to treat. But with the right plan, you can change your dog’s behavior for the better in the majority of cases.
Success depends entirely on these factors:
1. The right methods used to improve aggressive behavior.
2. The history of the behavior in the dog (how long the aggression has gone on for, how intense the aggression is, etc.).
3. The commitment to make change happen.
In this article:
- Dog aggression: What To Do First
- Creating a Dog Aggression Treatment Plan
- 3 Main Areas For Changing Aggression in Dogs
- Can Dog Aggression Can Be Successfully Treated?
- Should You Avoid the Circumstances That Cause Your Dog to be Aggressive Long Term?
- On Punishment Methods
- Preventing Harm in Unpredictable Situations
1. Dog Aggression: What To Do First
Usually the first response to an aggression problem in your dog is denial and justification. We deny the problem is that serious, or will occur again, etc. In some cases we are not wrong. There are good reasons for dogs behaving aggressively. But when a pattern of inappropriate aggression is finally recognized and acknowledged, we now have the power to do something about it.
Management and Prevention
Your first step is to analyse the situation so you have a good idea of what happens before the aggression occurs and what scenarios it happens in. Even if you aren’t clear why the dog is doing the things it’s doing, most people can at least predict scenarios where the aggression is likely to happen. Look for patterns in what happened immediately before the aggression.
Manage and Prevent
Management and prevention is less about using tools to prevent the aggression like muzzles or head halters and more about avoiding or finding alternatives to scenarios where your dog is anxious or frustrated enough to behave aggressively.
It is also about training dogs to do behaviors that can allow you to manage situations better. But this takes some time. To begin with avoidance is the best strategy.
Management and prevention won’t improve dog aggression but it’s critical to prevent your dog behaving aggressively for two critical reasons:
- Every time your dogs is exposed to situations that make him or her anxious, fearful, frustrated or aggressive, the problem gets worse.
- Safety. Aggression tends to escalate
- Your dog reacts badly when you try to move them while they’re resting. Alternative: don’t move or touch them physically. Instead, get a treat and call them over to another area instead. Yes, they might keep jumping back up where they were. Make a more suitable sleeping area. Reward them to stay there.
- If you have two dogs that fight over toys or food, separate them in those situations.
- If your dog is bad with house guests out them in an enclosed area away from the people like in another room with something to do.
- If your dog goes after strange dogs, walk them at a time or place where they are not likely to meet them, or prevent enough space between your dog and the threat that your dog doesn’t feel the need to react.
- If you are really stuck, you might be able to use treats as a way to distract your dog from getting worked up.
- Long term:
- Teach and train your dog to touch your hand on command as a way to move them in small areas.
- Teach your dog to sit.
- Teach your dog to stay be remaining both sitting and lying down.
Always get your dog evaluated for any health problems when they behave aggressively.
2. Creating a Dog Aggression Treatment Plan
Behavior modification is a very important technique but if it is not carried out correctly it can cause problems (see the blog post The importance of getting your dog’s attention at the earliest stage of aggressive arousal for one example). Much of the time we fail because we either got second-hand information or incomplete information on what is involved. Improving dog aggression more complex than simply giving your dog a treat when they start showing aggression.
However, creating a plan for improving dog behavior is not as difficult as it may seem when you have the right information and support. There are even steps you can take right now before you decide to consult an expert in dog aggression. Unfortunately some training techniques, can either prevent, slow down progress or in some cases make your dog worse in the long term.
For example normal dog might be able to cope with methods that rely on scare tactics, pain, discomfort or intimidation but these tactics can cause additional problems for a dog who has shown any kind of aggressive behavior (see more on 5 treatment methods to avoid). When that happens many people don’t know where to turn. Some consider euthanasia, others rehoming.
That’s why it is critical to find the right treatment plan for your dog right away; one that is designed to actually improve the life of your dog and keep those around safe. With a good treatment plan that is based on science (and not charisma and storytelling), and getting support either from a support-group if your problem is not too serious or from a good professional who can help, it is usually possible to improve your dog’s behavior.
Treatment and management: 3 main areas for changing aggression in dogs:
There are three clusters involved in treating aggression that should be considered. The three areas could be broadly grouped as:
- Cognitive & Learning
Cognitive and Learning
While aggression is primarily a physiological response to a hard to cope with emotional state, the process of cognition and learning is used to affect change in different ways.
Changing what a dog does
There are some confusion when it comes to understanding the role training plays in dealing with aggressive dogs. Typically many people think that an aggressive dog is not a well-trained dog. This is often not the case. Besides which, there are many dogs who are not well-trained at all that are not aggressive in the least.
Teaching your dog to sit and stay or come when called, etc. will not improve dog aggression because at the heart of most aggression is anxiety.
However, what training can do for dealing with an aggressive dog is make them more likely to respond to you allowing you to essentially better manage them in situations where they might get into trouble. If you can get your dog’s attention and keep it easily, it means that you might be able to keep them from acting out.
Training doesn’t make a dog less aggressive. But the more you can avoid them becoming aggressive, the less practiced they will be at behaving aggressively and the easier they will be to deal with and the safer they’ll be. Training can help with that.
For example, if your dog starts to show arousal (getting too focused on a stranger for example) and you know from experience if that stranger comes any closer your dog will start to growl or lunge and bark, training may help you get your dog’s attention, distract them and move them away to a safer distance.
Some of the most valuable things to train in an aggressive dog are:
- Sit when instructed
- Lie when instructed
- Pay attention to you (usually by asking the dog to look at you)
- Go to lie down in a specific place (like a mat)
- Come when called
- Touch your hand when asked
These behavior are some basic behaviors that can be used both in management of behavior and later in teaching your dog to relax which is needed for behavior modification.
Additionally once these behaviors are taught they can act as a kind of barometer to indicate how calm your dog is. A dog who has been trained to sit calmly and pay attention but is now unable to indicates they may be too excited or too close to his or her triggers.
Changing how a dog feels
Behavior modification is different from dog training. Although term behavior modification suggests that it is about changing behavior, the real goal is to affect change in physiological responses to certain external triggers. In simpler terms this usually means reducing stress or anxiety in situations where our dog doesn’t need to feel threatened.
Therefore you can look at training as teaching your dog to sit stay or getting and keeping your dog’s attention, and behavior modification about your dog learning to be more relaxed around those things that trigger their aggression.
Through behavior modification, you can change how an aggressive dog responds to certain situations. Most aggressive or reactive behavior can not change without behavior modification. Learn more about what is behaviour modification.
Targeted behavior modification, specifically meaning working with your dog around his or her triggers, is the often the place first place people jump in and often where people fail and decide it “doesn’t work”.
If you push your dog too far or too fast in behavior modification, you risk making him or her worse. If you want to learn more you may want to consider purchasing the The Dog Aggression System Every Dog Owner Needs which goes into this in detail.
A retraining, or relearning program should offer a systematic – and positive – approach to changing your dog’s behavior that sets your dog up for success. And while you might consult a trainer or behaviorist, you are ultimately the one who will carry out the program with your dog so it is important you understand what is involved and you have the support and understanding you need to carry it out effectively.
Behavior Modification Foundation Work
Treatment programs some form of foundation work that includes some easy to implement passive practices that teach your dog to sit, relax, look and wait for cues on what he should be doing next. These programs sometimes called Foundation or Deference Training as well as Relaxation Training.
These teach your dog to be calm in situations where they can succeed in being calm and then build up to more challenging situation such as non-threatening distractions. These dogs don’t always know if a situation is threatening or not, and learn to take their cues from you. These programs help you and your dog prepare for more targeted and direct behavior modification.
Targeted behavior modification
While foundation training teaches a dog what it means to feel calm and look to their human for cues on how they should respond, targeted behavior modification is specifically tailored to address the dog’s particular set of issues.
Targeted Behavior Modification typically involves different approaches that aim to change your dog’s responses to the specific situations that make him or her stressed or anxious. Quite often a combination of approaches will be used that capitalize on the different ways dogs learn and adapt.
The success of most Targeted Behavior Modification approaches heavily relies the previously described foundation exercises. They need preparation before they deal with their fears or anxieties. This important work is often skipped or rushed through simply because people don’t understand exactly why it is so important.
In addition there are other exercises that you can practice with your dog that will help them develop better self-control, including self-control over their emotions. This too, makes targeted behavior modification much easier and more effective.
We all understand will power. What we don’t often know is that the ability to control ourselves is like a muscle that can be both exhausted, but also further developed. Working with your dog at developing their self-control is a valuable preparation to help them keep their stuff together when it comes to behavior modification.
Where Behavior Modification Fails
Behavior modification is not new in science, not is understanding how humans and animals learn. Behavior modification has been long proved to be successful. That said, there are many reasons why dogs don’t improve through behavior modification.
Dogs may also have other psychological or physical issues that are interfering with progress. The intensity of the aggression and the length of time the problem has existed will also affect outcomes.
But sometimes failure falls on the humans. Making long term change is a marathon and not a sprint and behavior modification takes commitment and a certain amount of belief that we can make change happen.
People also fail because they have not been taught:
- How to plan a complete treatment program to ensure your dog is set up for success.
- How to recognize clear warning signs that your dog expresses that tells you how slow or fast to proceed.
- What else you can do along with behavior modification to make things much easier and effective.
- Things you might be doing that is blocking your dog from learning what you intend them to learn
- How to avoid the traps and pitfalls that go hand in hand with any training program.
Humans grossly underestimate the needs of dogs.
For a dog who is showing signs of inappropriate aggression, meeting these needs are extremely important.
Boredom, unnecessary stress, unpredictable change, anxieties, confusion conflicts, frustration and insecure attachments can make the best of us difficult to deal with. Sadly, much of what we do or don’t do contributes to challenges in the lives of our dogs.
Improvements might include an approach to develop and enhance trust in your relationship with your dog, strategies to prevent boredom, changing where or how often you walk your dog for exercise or how you greet guests in the home. It may even include regularly changing what your dog plays or interacts with, and/or allowing your dog plenty of time to sniff on walks.
The single biggest psychological change we can influence involves preventing situations to occur where our dog feels the need to continue to behave aggressively. Each time our dog has the opportunity to behave aggressively, the aggressive behavior sequence gets practiced, the response becomes quicker to be triggered and their brain becomes more and more effective at it. Over time behavior sequences get shortened. Important behavior communication becomes at risk for disappearing as the dog goes straight to the extreme response. chronic stress causes other changes and a downward spiral in health and wellbeing occurs.
From diet to exercise to health, all of the physical elements of our dog can and will affect our dog’s behavior and mental health. Getting your dog checked out by your vet is one of the first things we recommend. A high percentage of dogs seen by behavior clinics also have medical issues so this needs to be ruled out. Pain and sickness is going to complicate improving behavior.
We have got to the point where we’ve become immune to messages about diet and exercise because we hear them so often, and making change in those areas are often challenging.
But diet and exercise can have a direct influence on aggression, too, and we may find making changes in this area of our dog’s life much easier and is worth discussing with a vet or ideally veterinary behavior for our specific dog’s issues.
There is research that have looked at the effects of certain diets on dog behavior from low-protein diets to gluten-free diets to various supplements. Whether or not this is an option to try for your dog may depend on what you are already doing and the underlying causes of aggression.
Additionally some foods may just not sit well with your dog. A dog that you think is just picky may actually dislike their food. We don’t always know if they simply dislike it, or they aren’t feeling well from it. Some may benefit from a change of food, especially towards a healthier version of it.
Looking at your dog’s diet might be a topic for you and your vet, particularly a veterinary behaviorist.
Some hope that exercise can make their dog too tired to be aggressive. While exercise can benefit dogs, being “too tired” is not how it works. An exhausted dog may be a less tolerant dog. Usually what happens is that a dog simply becomes a more physically capable dog and then it become more difficult to tire the dog out. Continually ramping up exercise to the point of exhaustion can also lead to physical injury over time.
In some cases it may depend on the nature of the exercise and your dog’s baseline stress levels. Some activities like coursing, flyball, or competitive agility training may be firing up your dog’s arousal system too often and for too long.
It’s important to consider that your daily walks may be adding to your dog’s overall stress if those walks produce frustration, fear or anxiety. For example, dogs that are fearful of strangers may not benefit from walks. For these dogs, alternative exercise options should be considered.
However exercise has been well proven to make a significant different to mental health. If your dog is not getting the exercise he or she needs, this will make an aggressive dog worse.
If you have the option to; discussing your dog’s exercise habits with a veterinary behaviorist may be beneficial.
Some hope medication can be a quick fix. On the other hand, some people see it as a last option, afraid of how it might change or “drug” our dog. Understandably some of us worry even more about giving medication to our dogs than we would taking medication ourselves, simply because our dogs can’t tell us what they’re feeling.
The dogs that need medication for aggression, need it in order for behavior modification to be effective. Dogs that need imedication are actually different from healthy and are often far too anxious to be able to learn properly.
Medications can potentially help these aggressive dogs to think more normally, be less reactive and then gives them the opportunity to learn better. It can also help some dogs be less impulsive and allows a moment before acting aggressively to assess the situation or to gain self-control. Without the medication these dogs are more likely to resort to aggression that much more quickly. Learn more about medications used for treating dog aggression.
There are few medicines designed specifically for treating dog aggression. But there are many medicines that help normalize a dog’s chemistry and are used to help treat the underlying causes of aggression. These should be prescribed by a vet.
However, medications do not work alone and there must be a behavior modification plan in place in order to see real change. As much as other factors impact aggression, dogs learn to be anxious in some situations and aggression becomes a fall back way to cope.
How Likely Is It That Dog Aggression Can Be Successfully Treated?
Behavior clinics such as University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine have a very high success rate with 90% of aggressive patients improve to the extent that the owners are happy to keep them. (We do not have any verified data on other behaviorists or trainers success rates).
We also don’t know how much of these owners have accepted their dog’s issues and have just decided to manage the aggression by avoiding it altogether rather than improve the aggression. But what the numbers suggest is that there is hope that you can enjoy life with your dog provided you take steps to keep everyone safe.
The challenge is that there can be a long waiting list to get an appointment with these clinics. However there are steps you can take immediately.
If you are interested in learning more about what you can do to treat dog aggression, check out the e-book, The Dog Aggression System Every Dog Owner Needs. It will give you suggestions on how to live with an aggressive dog on a day-to-day basis as well as provide you with a number of options and considerations that can help you help your dog.
Should you avoid the things that cause your dog to be aggressive long term?
Our best intentions avoiding our dog’s triggers for aggression is not always possible. Life happens and the unforeseen happens. For this reason alone, we should do what we can to treat the underlying problem.
In a treatment plan, you initially you want to avoid the circumstances because your dog’s attitude and behavior has not be modified or changed in any way. However as you go through a behavior modification program, the goal is to reduce your dog’s reactivity and anxiety around those circumstances. Aggression is simply a by-product of an underlying issue.
This shifts our focus from avoiding the circumstances, to avoiding putting our dogs in situations that leads to (excessive) anxiety. Learning how to read anxious behavior in dogs is critical for this since signs of anxiety are subtle and even those with a lot of experience with dogs usually miss them.
On Punishment Methods
As mentioned earlier, behavioral science has been around a long time. Punishment is one of many methods that can change behavior in people and in dogs. The general and obvious concept is that by following a behavior by an unpleasant consequence the behavior the frequency of a behavior decreases.
Some trainers are contemptuous of that advocate for the avoidance of punishment. The logic is that the need for safety and keeping the dog from the risk of being euthanized should override this concern.
Unfortunately this view indicates a fundamental lack of understanding of underlying causes and complexity of (or even the purpose of) dog aggression. Punishment is neither effective nor safe for treating dog aggression long term.
Dog aggression isn’t “bad behavior” or “bad manners”. It is important to understand that there is a high adaptive risk to behaving aggressively. Dogs only resort to aggression as a coping response to an extremely unpleasant internal state (typically anxiety, fear, pain or frustration) that drives an urgency to do something about it.
Dogs that are behaving inappropriately aggressive in situations where there is no threat are not behaviorally normal, and to treat the dog as if they are simply behaving badly is dangerous.
While punishment has the potential to temporarily inhibit aggression in theory, not only does the threat of our punishment create additional conflict and frustration for our dog, but we cannot guarantee that the stress load of our dog will never be pushed to a point where, in the face of the perceived threat, the punishment ceases to matter.
Punishment will never make a dog more calm and less anxious. Nor does punishment assist in learning that a perceived threat is not actually a threat. This means it is not effective at treating the underlying causes of aggression. Summary Not only can punishment be dangerous, it can contribute to greater aggression long-term. See the world worst dog aggression advice for more.
Can Punishment Stop Dog Aggression If It Happens?
In this midst of an actual attack, punishment is usually ineffective and may contribute to the aggression. People also risk redirected aggression and so can be dangerous.
Prior to an attack, punishment may inhibit warning behaviors. However, we definitely do not want to inhibit any of the warning signs such as growling, because the warning signs are infinitely preferable to biting.
If the dog has not yet attacked, and their arousal threshold is low enough, you can potentially distract them with treats or a toy. Don’t worry, this does not “reward” aggression. The only thing that reinforces the behavior for aggression is exposing them to situations where the anxiety is likely to worsen, punishment and being able to be aggressive in the first place because it provides relief from anxiety.
There are other strategies to try to interrupt aggression, but it is best to avoid any situation where aggression is likely to occur.
Preventing Harm in Unpredictable Situations
We cannot predict every situation. Dogs and people come out of the blue.
Your first concern should always be preventing harm. You need to be able to prevent biting or lunging and move your dog away as quickly as possible. The best tool for preventing bites is a muzzle, however a dog can still lunge and terrorize. The best tool for moving your dog away is a head halter when used and fitted properly. See how to fit your dog with a Gentle Leader like a pro.
A head halter is recommended by many veterinary behaviourists and trainers because of the control it gives you when used properly. While a dog still has the potential to bite, a head halter gives you a lot of control over your dog’s head to prevent lunging, allows you to close their mouth when used correctly, and steer your dog away.
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Featured image by Photo by cottonbro studio
 Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals, Karen L. Overall, M.A., V.M.D., Ph.D. Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Behavior, Department of Clinical Studies, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. Pennsylvania, Mosby, Inc. 1997