10 Things You Need to Know About Aggressive Behavior in Dogs

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This article is intended to help dogs that bark, growl, lunge, charge, snap or bite when interacting with people or dogs. Stress, generalized anxiety, chronic stress, frustration, pain or underlying medical conditions can all contribute to aggressive responses. Address any potential medical issues with your veterinarian and read through these tips before creating and implementing a behavior modification plan for aggressive behavior.

1. The Importance of Management With Aggression in Dogs

Solid management strategies is a critical component of an effective behavior modification plan. The more a dog practices undesirable behavior, the more habitual those behaviors become. Create visual barricades to reduce the intensity and frequency with which your dog barks at people or dogs through windows or fences. Walk your dog at times and in areas that are quiet. Help your dog relax in a safe space in your house when you have visitors come over. These strategies will facilitate progress when paired with an effective training plan.

2. Keep a Behavior Log of Aggressive Responses

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In order to work through aggressive behavior, we first need to get really good at predicting when it will occur. This can minimize the number of times our dogs rehearse aggressive responses. Keep a behavior log and use it to write down concerning behavior when it occurs. Write down:

  • Date
  • Environment (ie living room, kitchen, backyard etc.)
  • Time of day
  • Conditions that surrounded the event (events, resources, activities)
  • Behavior (avoid labels like “vicious” or “defiant” – use terms that describe the actual behavior like “lunged” or “barked.”)
  • Recovery time (ie. how long did it take for your dog to return to calm?)

3. Suppressing Symptomatic Behavior

Verbally or physically reprimanding a dog for growling, barking or snapping can easily teach a dog to suppress warning signs of aggression. When people say, “the dog bit without warning” this is usually because the dog was “trained” not to give warning. Respect warning signs and create space by moving your dog away from a person, dog or event that is triggering aggressive behavior. Do not use verbal or physical reprimands/corrections to suppress warning signs of aggression, like hard stares, growling, barking or air snapping.

4. What should I do if my dog delivers a bite?

If a dog delivers a bite, you should neutralize the situation by moving the dog away on a secure leash and harness. Avoid restraining the dog by the collar, isolating a dog, yelling or hitting the dog in such a situation. All of these responses can intensify the underlying emotional response. Instead, focus on redirecting the dog to an activity that is inherently calming. For example, go for a walk or stand or sit with the dog in a calm environment.

5. Ambiguous Behaviors

Know that wagging tails, licking faces, sniffing or rolling over to expose a belly are ambiguous behaviors. Many people mistakenly assume that these are indications that the dog is friendly, and wants to be pet or that they want to be “friends” with another dog. Sometimes that’s true, and sometimes this is actually an “appeasement gesture” that the dog is displaying to express stress or discomfort. Forcing unwanted interactions is a fast way to teach a dog to express discomfort in a less ambiguous manner, for instance, biting. If a dog has history of being nervous, or has a history of aggressive behavior, err on the side of caution, and give the dog space.

6. The Importance of Neutral Body Language

Petting, talking to, or staring at a dog that is uncertain can trigger an aggressive response. It may take several meetings for a dog to become comfortable. Some dogs never warm up to certain people, and will always need space. Neutral body language and patience are the most effective ways to generate trust with a nervous dog.

7. Avoid having Strangers Feed Your Nervous Dog

High value food can be a great way to condition a dog to have a “feel good” response to the presence of people that may otherwise generate stress. However, food should always be delivered by a trusted caregiver, not from the hand of a stranger. Coaxing a dog to interact with or approach a person they are uncomfortable with can create a conflict of interest that could result in an escalation of stress, and could lead to a bite.

8. Fences and Tight Leashes Can Fuel Aggressive Impulses

Trainers that train police or protection dogs use barriers and tight leashes to generate aggressive behavior. Leaving dogs outside in a fenced yard or walking your dog on a short, tight leash can have a similar effect. This behavior can generalize to other social situations, like greeting guests or people that they see on walks. If you live in urban or suburban environments do these four things to minimize the amount that your dog practices barking at people or dogs:

  1. Keep your dog in a central area of your home when you are leave the house. Avoid leaving your dog in a yard unsupervised for extended periods of time.
  2. Create visual barriers to windows or fences to minimize exposure to environmental triggers, like people or dogs.
  3. Walk your dog on a six foot leash, as short leashes will exacerbate reactive behavior, like barking and lunging.
  4. Enroll in a training program that uses positive reinforcement training to minimize stress and/or arousal that would otherwise fuel your dog’s aggressive responses.

9. Avoid Aversive Methods, Training Tools and “Techniques”

Avoid trainers or training recommendations that promote the use of aversive training tools to “fix” or “rehabilitate” dogs with aggressive behavior. Slip collars, choke chains, throw chains, shaker cans, remote electronic collars, bark collars and alpha rolls are likely to suppress behavior in the short term, but can exacerbate the underlying issue long term. There is only so long that you can keep a lid on a boiling pot of water before it pops!

10. Learn About Canine Stress Signals

Learn about canine stress signals and the manner in which they present in your individual dog. Recognizing early signs of stress can afford us the opportunity to give our dog the space they need when they are overwhelmed by a person, dog, or activity.  Dogs will escalate to more intense aggressive behavior when early warning signs are unnoticed, dismissed or suppressed.

3 thoughts on “10 Things You Need to Know About Aggressive Behavior in Dogs”

  1. Pingback: Part 3: Training the "Untrainableā€ Dog | Base Training Method

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