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Understanding and Managing Aggression in Dogs

Most dogs are loving family members that wouldn’t hurt a fly. They’ve never growled at anyone, and couldn’t dream of greeting people with anything but kisses and wagging tails. Unfortunately, some owners suddenly find themselves with dogs that are lunging at people with baring fangs instead of rolling over for belly rubs. As you may have guessed, this could present a number of issues. And it’s true; aggression is a very real problem. It is not something that’s funny, something you should take lightly or something you should delay addressing. Aggression is highly misunderstood and often poorly managed. There are a number of reasons for this. Most often, it’s because the aggression is not addressed early on and is allowed to continue. Aggression always escalates, and unfortunately the longer it is enabled, the harder it is to control. However, there are steps that can be taken if you find yourself in need of help. Below are some very basic tips on becoming proactive with your aggressive dog, but they should always come with the help and guidance of a professional trainer.

  • Identify the aggression, or the potential for aggression – This is important. Many people cannot read a dog’s body language to understand when they are scared or uncomfortable. When dogs feel insecure, they will often become aggressive. Dogs are aggressive for a variety of reasons, but many of them exhibit one or more of the behaviors listed here:
    • Stiffness: A dog will go rigid when he’s uncomfortable. This is a preparation for a flight or fight response, and since dogs are typically stuck to the end of a leash, it ends up being fight.
    • Growling: A growling dog will bite you, almost without a doubt. Dogs growl as a warning sign to stay away.
    • Snapping: Sometimes dogs will snap at you instead of biting you. This does not mean that’s all they will do. This is a dog that doesn’t want to bite you but is trying to warn you that he will. Believe him. If you continue allowing the dog to be uncomfortable, his teeth will meet your body and that snap will become a bite.
    • You can view more signs of stress in dogs with helpful photos hereshutterstock_38306050
  • Hire a trainer – And hire a good one. Quality, professional, private trainers will cost you some money. But you will get what you pay for. Dog aggression is not the time for you to take that obedience class you intended to take when Fido was a puppy. Aggression almost always requires detailed, dedicated, and tedious work. Having one-on-one time with a private trainer will train you and your dog. Your trainer will have full control of the situation, unlike in a group class, and will be able to help you understand how to manage and control your dog. Many trainers specialize in all types of aggression (ie. dog to dog or dog to people aggression). They are well worth your time and money. Your trainer has dealt with far more aggressive animals than you ever want to experience.
  • Aggression is managed – This is something your trainer will help you understand. Oftentimes, we cannot cure a dog’s aggression. In fact, any trainer that 100% guarantees curing your dog’s aggression is probably a trainer I would stay away from. Aggression is very, very difficult to cure. There are many reasons for this, but the important thing to remember is that your life will have to change. Living with an aggressive dog doesn’t have to be difficult or unpleasant; it just has to be understood. Crating and kenneling dogs when people are at the house, never leaving your dog unsupervised around other people or animals, or muzzling him on a walk or a visit to the veterinarian are all steps to preventing dog bites.
  • Understand the source of the aggression – Sometimes there is a medical component to aggression. Dogs with ear infections, arthritis, and many other ailments can seemingly become suddenly aggressive. Others are resource guarders, as seen in our resource guarding article, and need to understand that their behavior is not acceptable. Some dogs that are dog aggressive were attacked and are now just afraid of all dogs. Sometimes we don’t know why the dog is aggressive, and that’s okay too. The training and management will almost always be the same.
  • Stop making excuses – This is something everyone likes to do, especially with dogs with an unknown history. Many people with aggressive rescued dogs feel that they are aggressive because they were abused. This is very often not the case. But if it is, it’s not really all that important. What’s important now is that your dog is aggressive and you need to manage that aggression. Many people will allow resource guarding to continue because they think their dogs are protecting them. Again, this is most often incorrect. Understanding the source of the aggression can be useful, but it should not be an excuse for enabling the behavior.
  • Dogs don’t differentiate – Most people want to view their dogs as some sort of protection against the bad guys in the outside world. We don’t mind when our dogs bark to alert us when someone comes to the door, or even stop a robber from entering our homes. Unfortunately, you cannot have both your neighborhood playmate and your protection dog all in one package. As much as we love them, Lassie and Rin Tin Tin are fictional characters. A truly aggressive dog will not differentiate between Uncle Bob and a burglar when one or the other walks in your front door. If you want a protection dog, you need to realize that this same dog will not be the same one lounging by the fireplace during the Christmas party. He’s going to need to be contained when people are coming over.

Aggression is serious. Whatever the cause may or may not be, an aggressive dog will hurt somebody. Aggression left unaddressed will escalate and become a liability for you and your family. This not only puts you and other people at risk, but your dog as well. Dogs with bite histories do not fare well with authorities and will eventually be sentenced to humane euthanasia if they’re allowed to continue the aggressive behavior. So if you notice any aggression in your dog at all, it’s time to take action. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, take control with the help of a professional, and start the path to a safer, healthier, and more enjoyable life with your furry best friend.



About the Author

Katie is a professional dog trainer located in Southern California, with a background of experience as a veterinary assistant as well. She has trained and competed with multiple breeds in AKC Obedience and Rally, agility, herding, Schutzhund/IPO, French Ring and conformation. She has been involved in dogs since she was a child, and specializes in protection dogs, working dogs, and aggression issues. You can visit her website, Katie’s Dog Training, to find out more information about her training and accomplishments. When she’s not helping others and writing, she’s out on the field with her Belgian Malinois and Pembroke Welsh Corgi.

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Written by Katie Finlay
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