This is a face that no dog owner wants to see on their dog or any other dog! The fear that goes through every person when they see an aggressive dog is palpable. I know the panic that courses through a dog owner’s veins! I have lived it! I have had a dog every moment of my 57 years of life and have had a couple of different dogs with varying forms of aggression. Two dogs that I will talk about in this post are very different breeds. One was a small, but mighty Lhasa Apso, Goldie Lucks, who bit people and the other is my rescue dog cinnamon, who lunches, and bites. Cinnamon is still with me and we work on her behavior every day.
Why is my dog aggressive?
While stopping dog aggression is not an easy task, it is generally an achievable one with perseverance, patience, and a bit of psychology. When people realize that their dog is aggressive, they often immediately want to know why. Most of the time, when you see an aggressive dog it wasn’t born that way. The short answer is that aggressive behavior is a normal but uncommon behavior in many animals. Aggression in dogs can quickly become a serious problem, especially if it’s over-the-top. Owners of dogs just may not fully understand how to train their dog. This lack of training often leads to aggressive behavior in dogs because they are responding to situations using their instincts, and not proper training since they have never been taught differently. This training or living every day, as I think of it, is ongoing. While a dog may not be born aggressive, many rescue dogs have been traumatized from birth and will take constant love and structure for the rest of their lives. There are certainly situations that make Cinnamon’s behavior worse or agitated and those things are what I will highlight.
Dogs become aggressive in a situation for a number of reasons.
Normally, their aggression is born of fear or possessiveness. Most aggression in dogs cases are fear-based or insecurity-based – not based on dominance. Most dogs act aggressively because they want their triggers to go away, not because they’re trying to take over the household.
Fear-based aggression is common in under socialized dogs. This is also common in dogs that have learned that trying to avoid something doesn’t help, such as dogs that can’t escape a bothersome child in the home or a trigger while they’re on a leash. Cinnamon’s is born of fear. An owner who fails to see the signs of aggression as they develop will soon find themselves with a dog that is completely out of control. This is the owner’s responsibility, and does not mean that the dog is a “bad dog.” It just means it is time for some assertive dog training tips to help you make your dog be a calm, happy member of the family. Aggressive behavior is far less common in confident dogs. Since most aggressive dogs are actually scared, it’s not a good idea to try to “correct” aggression out of them. These dogs have learned that “the best defense is a good offense,” and an aggressive punishment will only teach them that their owner is scary, too.
What does Aggressive Behavior look like?
We all know what it looks like once our dogs have lost control and are in the act of being aggressive, but it’s our jobs as dog parents to know what it looks like before our dogs lose it.
Here are some tips for looking for aggressive behaviors in your dog and how to end them.
Dogs tend to use body language to intimidate; therefore your dog may try to situate himself so that he is taller than other animals and he may become tense. His hackles may rise. Cinnamon is a ridge back and from her neck down to her tail, her whole back of fur raises up to look like a ridge when she’s agitated.
- Your dog may lock his gaze and display more control over the mouth muscles.
- Other forms are a tightly closed mouth, or lips stretched over the teeth.
- Your dog might shift his weight forward,
- Prick his ears
- Slow his breathing
- Many dogs will also display dilated pupils (big pupils),
- Wag their tail in a high, stiff fashion.
Dogs are pack animals. In a pack, there is always a leader or “alpha dog.” If no leader is established then the dog will establish itself as the alpha and will be guided by instincts and how much control he has over people, other dogs, and situations. Even though dogs are pack animals, some dogs are naturally born shy or they have been abused and their aggression is the result of their fear. This is Cinnamon. Just remember, small dogs can be vicious also and their bite, while small can cause much damage. My dog, Goldie Lucks, was small but would bite and this was just as terrifying.
We’ll have much better luck with calming aggressive dogs if we help teach them that the world is predictable and safe and that they can get what they want by behaving well, rather than acting aggressively. Set realistic expectations whenever working with training an aggressive dog. In your home, you need to be the one to establish yourself as the alpha dog. To set the structure and rules consistently. You establish physical boundaries as well as behavioral boundaries. To do this, you must first teach the dog that you are the one in control.
Assertive training is Not a Form of Punishment
Many dog owners punish aggressive dogs with aggressive behavior themselves. Rather than the dog learning to behave from this form of punishment, they learn that aggression is an accepted response. Remember that some aggression is born of fear. When you beat your dog, you might establish some fear and that may cause the dog to stop doing whatever it was punished for, but you also build a foundation for aggression to be acceptable. Sooner or later that fear you created may come out in aggressive behavior that is beyond your control. Instead, use specific methods to teach your dog what is acceptable and what is not.
Rather than using punishment to establish control, you can limit the dog’s abilities and following the pack order. Keep in mind that the alpha dog gets the best of everything, and first choice to decide what the best of everything is. The alpha dog is followed, not led. When you rely on punishment only, you are responding (following), rather than leading.
In order to establish yourself as the alpha dog in your home, you may have to use a leash inside your home. This is so that you can control where the dog is able to go. For instance, if you do not want your dog on the furniture, simply step on the leash when he goes to get on the couch. If you do let your dog on the couch, don’t let your him take your favorite spot on the couch. Make him move over. You are the alpha. Harnesses work well for this type of training because they do not choke the dog when he is being guided, but they do limit what he can do.
If your dog is the alpha dog, he sleeps in the best possible place. In most homes, this means he would sleep on the bed. This is fine once the dog understands he is not the alpha dog and that, you, the alpha dog is allowing him to sleep in the bed, but you have to establish the pack relationship first. Your dog has to start at the back of the pack and work his way up. This might mean your dog has to sleep in a crate until he understands the chain of command. This also means that if you allow your dog to sleep in your bed, he is not allowed to take your pillow or all the blankets! If you go to move him over and he lets out a low growl. That’s it…off the bed he goes. You are the alpha.
The alpha dog has first choice when it comes to meal times. Since you are starting your dog at the back of the pack, he will be the last one fed. This is done by simple routines of feeding your dog at certain times of the day. You are alpha because you are bringing the food. You may even find that you should crate him during meal times. He can progress to eating at the same time as you once boundaries have been established. No begging allowed.
Playtime and mental stimulation
Playtime is one of the best times to focus on training your dog. Toys should be kept up so that when your dog gets a toy, you are the one to give it to him. When playtime is over, the toy is put up. If your dog takes off with a toy and you chase him, you are letting him know that he is the one in charge, not you. Instead of chasing the dog, wait for him to bring the toy back, then put it away and never give it to him again. (Please note, this does not mean not to give him a toy at all. It just means to get rid of that particular toy.) Mental stimulation is a very huge step in helping to control aggressive behavior. It helps to keep your dog busy and it tires him out. A bored dog will get into trouble. Many dogs spend a lot of their day being bored while their humans are gone at work. Luckily, there are lots of cheap, fast, and easy ways to exercise your dog’s mind.
If your dog isn’t really safe or easy to walk outside, consider the many dog puzzles that are out on the market. Brain Training 4 dogs has many free game ideas that you can play with your dog. Check out the videos here.
Collars and Muzzles
Collars and muzzles can be very helpful when it comes to training your dog. They may seem like harsh forms of punishment at first, but they work better than regular collars because of the way they are made. Truly, it broke my heart when I had to put one on Cinnamon. But Cinnamon does not like small children. I will never know why. So, when my family and friends with small children come to visit, she has to wear a muzzle. It makes all of the family members relax, which creates a relaxing atmosphere in the house. If you get a muzzle that fits correctly, like I did for Cinnamon, they can still eat and drink, they just can’t bite.
Those were all great ideas for starting with the basics. Let’s move onto more graduated forms of helping to prevent and deal with the aggressive behavior.
#1 – Take Care of Yourself and Those Around You
The very first step to training an aggressive dog is making sure that everyone is safe. There are several components to this step. The very first step is to identify your pet’s triggers and thresholds without putting anyone in danger. You may already know what your dog’s triggers and thresholds are (for example, a dog that growls around his food bowl is generally easy to identify), but you might not. Be as clear as you can about what causes his aggression. Identify triggers and thresholds by taking extremely careful note of what sets your dog off and what happened right before. Keeping a journal will help you notice more subtle patterns.
All of these are warning signs, and it’s time you paid attention to your dog’s “tells.”
Once you have an idea of what triggers your dog’s aggression, it’s time to put in preventative measures.
Preventative measures may include building a fence to prevent your dog going into the street, placing baby gates to separate your dog from the kitchen, muzzling your dog while out and about, not grabbing your dog’s collar, or skipping the dog park. We have a baby gate in our house to prevent Cinnamon from going to the front door. Anyone coming in the front door sets the aggressive behavior of jumping, growling, barking and, if allowed, to bite our guest. This is the gate we use. My gate has to be tall enough so Cinnamon cannot nip people as they walk by. ‘>
Some big dogs simply don’t get enough exercise. While your Great Dane might enjoy lounging around all day, most working breeds like German Shepherds need quite a bit of exercise each day. It’s hard to muster the energy to exercise your dog after a long day of work, and it’s often challenging to exercise aggressive dogs in public. If your dog is safe to walk outside on a regular basis, jogging or activity walks are my go-to exercise methods for busy people. Cinnamon and I walk every day. I try to go for my 7,000 steps. That seems to be what is good for both of us. It is a huge challenge though as Cinnamon is set off by bike riders and other dogs. I try to control my environment while we are exercising…this means, I try to go at a time of day when there won’t be many dogs out for their daily walk. If we do see other dogs, we simply turn around and go the other way or we cross the street. We never go to a dog park. It’s just not a good situation for Cinnamon. She gets extremely overwhelmed. When I had my lab and retriever, who were not aggressive at all, it was a must. We went every day to a dog park. As a general rule, healthy dogs should get at least an hour of activity each day between mental and physical exercise. The exercise doesn’t have to be physically intense, especially for older or less energetic dogs.
Pay a visit to a behavior-savvy vet and talk to her about your dog’s behavior concerns.
- She might be able to help you pinpoint physical issues that are related to your dog’s aggression. There are a few red flags to look for to know aggression may be related to something medical:
- Your dog’s aggression had a sudden onset, especially if it’s not linked to a specific experience (such as being attacked at the dog park).
- Your canine’s aggression is triggered by petting, touching, or approaching a specific area of the dog’s body.
- The aggression appeared in old age and is accompanied by weight gain
- Dogs may become aggressive for any number of reasons if they are in pain. Even if your dog’s aggression isn’t caused by a medical issue, medication may still help. Some dog aggression medications can help reduce your dog’s baseline stress level enough that behavior modification can take hold. It’s almost impossible for dogs to learn if they’re 100% stressed out 100% of the time, and medication can help there. There is a CBD formula for dogs that help calm them. It can come in chews and sprays. The one I use is this one. It really helps Cinnamon. ‘>
- My dog, Goldie Lucks, was actually getting sick with cancer. We didn’t know this because she didn’t show the human symptoms of cancer. She died a year later. So, a sick dog also may show signs of aggression.
#2 – Counterconditioning and Desensitization
Now we’re ready to pull out the big guns. You’ve got all of your safety measures in place, and your dog is fully taken care of. If you’ve done steps 1 and 2 correctly, you already should have seen a dramatic reduction in your dog’s aggression. Some people choose to stop here. Depending on what your dog’s aggression issues are, that’s just fine. Everyone is safe and your dog is happy. But if you really want to calm an aggressive dog, you’ve got to get into counterconditioning and desensitization.
This is the concept of slooooowly introducing your dog to his triggers in small doses, while teaching him that those triggers always make awesome things happen. The best way to show you how this works is to have you watch this YouTube video from Brain Training 4 dogs. Watch it here.
Don’t expect to be able to cure your dog’s aggression in a day, a week, or even a month. Be patient and consistent. Counterconditioning and desensitization is simple, but it’s not easy.
Nobody’s perfect, and mistakes are to be expected. If you’ve done a good job at step one (take care of yourself and those around you), mistakes shouldn’t involve blood. Always do the best you can to avoid mistakes, but be prepared for something to happen.
- This approach does a few things:
Crates and closed doors prevent a repeat mistake. You can’t make the same mistake again if your dog is locked in his crate with a chew.
- Crates and closed doors allow you to step away and keeps you from getting upset at your dog. Getting upset is only going to upset or scare your dog, which won’t help in the future.
- Chewing gives your dog something else to do. Chewing calms your dog down. Odds are, your dog needs to take 10 to calm down, just like you do.
Don’t worry about accidentally rewarding your dog by feeding him a chew toy after a mistake.
Above All, Be Safe When Dealing with Aggressive Dog BehaviorAggressive dogs are inherently dangerous. They are threatening to cause damage or have already followed through on that threat. If you do nothing else when calming an aggressive dog, keep everyone safe. This means understanding your dog’s triggers and thresholds, reading his body language, and using appropriate prevention strategies such as muzzles.
Use non-confrontational training methods to teach your dog that his triggers are actually treat machines, then teach him a replacement behavior. Work with a professional if at all possible. Brain Training 4 dogs gives many sound training techniques and you can watch it on a YouTube video in your home.
When you are training your dog, be sure to reward him or her for good behavior. You can do this with a toy, a treat, or lavish praise. This lets the dog know he has pleased the alpha dog and may be moved from the back of the pack soon.
Have patience and introduce your dog to new ideas and settings a little at a time. If your dog is nervous around people, only expose him or her to people for a short period to begin with, petting him and reassuring him all the while. Your dog feels safer with an alpha dog indicating that all is well.
Are you training an aggressive dog? What advice has helped you? We’d love to hear your personal experiences.