If your dog has recently started showing aggressive tendencies, it’s essential to correct these issues immediately. And the best place to start? Investing in a scientifically-sound training program that specializes in training for aggressive dogs.
As we learned in our first installment of this behavior series, the best way to modify your pup’s less-than-desirable behaviors is to:
Warning Signs vs. Aggression: How to Tell the Difference
First things first, we’d like to reiterate one of the most important highlights from our last installment: aggressive behaviors almost always have a root cause – one of which is communication.
When a dog growls, barks, or snaps, pet owners often perceive this as an act of aggression. However, it’s simply a form of communication for our furry friends.
Dogs don’t speak our same language, so when they’re uncomfortable, they let us know through body language.
Ignoring these warning signs can cause your dog’s aggressive behavior to escalate, so one of the essential first steps to correcting this behavior is listening and understanding their distress signals.
Don't Punish the Warning Signs
The aforementioned behaviors can be confusing for humans. We want our dogs to be kind, and it can be concerning to see them act in a way so different from their usual nature.
So, in an effort to correct the situation, we often scold them, telling them to “be nice” or “calm down.”
And while it’s understandable for dog owners to react strongly when their pets act out of turn, it’s also important to consider how dogs think.
Humans often view their pets’ barks and growls as a moral choice, categorizing behavior as either good or bad. However, dogs don’t operate within the same moral framework as we do. Instead, they categorize situations as either safe or dangerous.
If a dog feels threatened or unsafe, he may respond with aggression.
Understanding this distinction can help owners better interpret their pets’ behavior and avoid misunderstandings.
This concept is hard for humans to wrap their heads around – for many, dogs are viewed as members of the family and expected to behave as such – but this is simply not the reality.
Dogs are an entirely different species and communicate in vastly different ways. Believing otherwise will only hinder our training efforts.
After all, if dogs thought, felt, and acted like humans, dog trainers would be out of a job!
When a dog growls or snaps and we, in turn, scold them for it, it may put a stop to the actual behavior, but it is not changing the root cause.
So what’s to stop it from happening again or even escalating?
When we ignore our dog’s warning signs, things are bound to take a turn for the worst.
Let’s explore some of the most successful ways to modify these aggressive behaviors – keep reading!
The Beginner's Approach to Training for Aggressive Dogs
The most effective dog-training programs out there feature a comprehensive approach that takes into account the unique needs of both you and your pup. And perhaps the best place to start is to look for a program that emphasizes positive reinforcement as its primary teaching.
Positive Reinforcement and Reward-Based Training for Aggressive Dogs
Before getting into the nitty-gritty of working with aggressive behaviors, we must first start with the basics.
By establishing a skill-building foundation through science-based positive reinforcement training, you’ll possess a greater arsenal to tackle your dog’s undesirable behavior – even aggression.
When talking about positive reinforcement training, one of the most common misconceptions that we hear is that positive means permissive – but this couldn’t be further from the truth.
In contrast, a well-rounded training program will include both positive reinforcement AND well-defined boundaries.
When it comes to correcting or modifying problematic behaviors (even aggressive ones), positive reinforcement has been proven to be the most effective approach.
This can be difficult for some people to understand because we humans have an innate desire to tell others when they’re in the wrong, but you can’t argue with the facts!
For more information on the significance of using positive reinforcement methods to address aggressive behaviors, check out this video that dives deep into the “why” behind this approach.
Another great resource to help you learn the basics of positive reinforcement training is “The Power of Positive Reinforcement” by Pat Miller. This book, in addition to explaining the many benefits of this approach, includes a six-week basic training program that will help you lay a strong foundation.
A Word on Prevention
One of the most important elements to managing your dog’s aggressive behaviors (until your training program can begin) is preventing any potentially dangerous situations. Let’s take a look at an example.
Say your dog exhibits aggressive tendencies when guests come into your home. This may include lunging, growling, biting at their pant leg, etc.
If this describes your dog, you may be tempted to alter this behavior by arming your guests with treats. However, this can be problematic for a variety of reasons.
If your dog gets so worked up by the presence of a stranger that he feels compelled to act out in an aggressive way, odds are that (unless he’s extremely food motivated) he won’t take the treat.
Instead, he may feel threatened by your guest lowering to his level and snap at their outstretched hand. This situation can be disastrous for you, your guest, and your dog.
We have already discussed that dogs reacting in this type of aggressive way require intensive training. But until then, it’s important to keep everyone safe. So if your dog is reactive when guests enter your home, consider using a crate or spare room to contain him.
Socializing Aggressive Dogs
As a society, we tend to believe that socialization is best done in a shared public space, such as at the dog park or in a daycare setting. After all, if I wanted to make a new friend, I might frequent a local bar or join a book club – shouldn’t it be the same for my dog?
The short answer is NO. This belief causes far more issues than it solves, and let me tell you why.
For starters, these types of environments can be very overwhelming to a dog – especially one who has not yet been properly socialized. This sense of overwhelm can lead to fear and insecurity, which, in the case of a dog with aggressive tendencies, can result in fights, bites, and other such harmful things.
Group play is not an environment you should put your dog in if they have exhibited behavior that concerns you around other dogs or people.
Instead, we need first to change our thinking when it comes to socializing a dog, particularly one that is aggressive or reactive.
Perhaps down the line, your dog can enjoy the company of others at your local park, but until then, the best thing we can do is change our dog’s perspective of other dogs and people.
This can be approached either with systematic desensitization or counter-conditioning (or a combination of both).
Systematic Desensitization describes gradual exposure to the trigger object (other dogs or people), only increasing the exposure as your dog is comfortable.
A human example? I am terrified of snakes. But if you had one contained in a tank ten feet away, I could probably be in the same room.
Then, to systematically desensitize me, you would move me closer and closer to the tank as I become more comfortable until, eventually, I’m able to stand right next to it (and yes, writing that section did make my skin crawl).
Counter-Conditioning is a technique that pairs the trigger with something good.
Going back to my human example, if you gave me a $100 bill each time I looked at that terrifying snake, my association would likely change. This is because I am receiving a reward for my positive response, which encourages me to repeat that behavior.
Though keep in mind that to truly counter-condition, you must use something innately rewarding to the trainee (your dog). If you tried to give my dog a $100 bill, it would NOT change her perspective of anything!
But if you gave her bacon, you might have a shot.
Using these two tools together can be a great way to change the emotion driving your dog’s unwanted behavior – but we also have to change our goals.
For example, owners often feel that their dogs need to play with other dogs in order to be properly socialized – but this should not be the goal for an “aggressive” dog.
My goal for my dog is simply to be able to exist around other dogs. They never have to interact with them unless they (and the other dog) want to.
The same is true for people. Even my most social dog does not have to interact with someone unless she wants to (and she almost always wants to, but it is still her choice).
If you feel your dog would benefit from these types of exercises, I highly recommend the book “The New Click to Calm: Solutions for All Dogs in a Challenging World” by Emma Parsons.
While obedience cues will not change the emotional response to your dog’s trigger, they are an essential management tool. Let’s take a look at an example.
Imagine that your neighbor’s dog is approaching, and you know your dog will bark and lunge toward them – how do you handle it?
To prepare for this situation, it’s a wise idea to ensure that your dog is well-trained to respond to their name or, even better, has a dependable recall.
This way, you can promptly call your furry friend back to your side, away from anything that triggers their aggressive behavior
Training your dog to make eye contact with you on command can also interrupt this potential interaction.
The idea behind this is to prevent your dog from acknowledging the object of their anxiety, though it won’t prevent them from hearing the approach (which is a dog’s strongest sense).
I myself prefer to keep a safe distance and gradually increase it to acclimate the dog to the object or situation.
Training to a Muzzle
If you have a dog with aggressive tendencies, there are several reasons to consider training your dog to a muzzle:
- Muzzles are an extra level of security because life happens. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, our dog may be pushed over the threshold and snap. The muzzle will prevent your dog from doing any damage.
- Muzzles can actually have a calming effect on some dogs if they are conditioned to it properly. This can be extremely helpful in social settings.
If you choose to condition your dog to accept a muzzle, please be firm with friends, family, and neighbors that the muzzle is NOT a license for people to do anything they wish to your dog.
Your goal should always be to keep your dog in a calm emotional state, and pushing him beyond what he can handle will only worsen their aggressive behavior.
The exception to this is at the vet, where your dog will, on occasion, need to be poked and prodded. The muzzle will allow your dog to get the medical attention they need while keeping the vet staff safe.
In addition, if your dog has exhibited aggression at the vet, I highly recommend finding a Fear Free Vet where the staff has been trained to help you come up with a plan to minimize your dog’s stress as much as possible.
Consulting With a Certified Trainer or Behaviorist
There are a lot of variables to consider when working with aggression, and it can sometimes be overwhelming for those who have not yet learned what to look for.
For example, if your dog growls while playing, is it really just play or something more? How involved should you get? Is this normal behavior, or should it be corrected?
Working alongside a certified trainer or behaviorist can be so helpful in these instances.
Not only will this person help answer all of your questions, but they can also teach you to better understand and manage your dog.
Let’s take a look at our example again.
For many dogs, play imitates aggression, and there are many subtle body cues that help a skilled trainer determine whether the play is good, bad, or something that may be okay for now but could potentially progress.
Not only can your trainer help evaluate your dog during this play session, but they can also teach you how to do so at home.
Certified trainers and behaviorists can also help you determine an appropriate pace for your dog’s training regime – when to slow down and when to speed up.
Plus, they can teach you how to properly introduce new behaviors, commands, and environments.
It’s important to seek professional help if you have a “difficult” dog, and when it comes to aggression issues, a veterinary behaviorist may even be recommended.
Not only can they prescribe medication to help manage your pup’s anxiety, but they can also identify any physical illnesses that may be contributing to your dog’s behavior.
To find a Veterinary Behaviorist near you, visit the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.
Dogs will not change their behavior on their own, so it’s up to us to help them. And let’s admit it – aggressive behavior can be scary!
But these behaviors also give us valuable insight to a dog’s psyche that can help us determine the best training approach.
Dog training is a lifetime endeavor, so be sure to remain consistent once you find a training plan that works for your dog.
The behavior was not created overnight and won’t change overnight either – aggressive behavior takes time to modify, so patience is critical.
As we close this aggressive behavior series, it’s also important to understand that aggression is a broad, blanket term that can have many causes.
Fortunately, there are numerous resources available to tackle individual issues. Below are a few of our favorites.