Sometimes in life there are no easy answers. Unfortunately, dealing with an aggressive dog is one of those times.
A Difficult Problem
Canine aggression is a difficult (but not impossible) problem to correct, but it requires immense patience and dedication on the part of the owner. It is also essential to understand the type of aggression you are dealing with, in order to correct it.
Those types of aggression most likely to improve are:
> Fear induced aggression
> Food related aggression (read: Food Related Aggression Blog Post)
> Pain or health related
> Lifestyle related
> A dog with a dedicated owner who is employing the correct methods of correction
Those least likely to remodel are:
> Genetically driven aggression
> Any form of aggression when consistent corrective measures are NOT applied
> A quick fix is required
Why Motivation Matters
Aggression is difficult to get to grips with because the trigger may be different for each dog, and aggressive behavior brings its own reward.
The motivation behind the aggression is the key you use to unlocking this problem behavior. Many people’s instinct when trying to correct aggressive behavior is to exert their authority over the dog. However, in some circumstances this is exactly the wrong thing to do and results in a dangerous escalation of hostility.
Many dogs are deeply misunderstood and are aggressive because they are fearful. A dog that is frightened of, say of bearded men learns that by growling and snarling the bearded man keeps his distance – hence the dog feels safer. If however, that same bearded man starts hitting the dog to show who is boss; the dog’s anxiety and fear build…
Aggression Brings Its Own Reward
Another difficulty with treating aggression is the question of reward. We know behavior that is rewarded is more likely to be repeated, which is the basis of modern dog training. However, aggression brings its own reward (remember how the bearded man backed away?) which enforces the behavior.
However, I’m NOT advocating confronting an aggressive dog in order to show his behavior doesn’t work. Again, this escalates the issue because the dog will ramp up his threat level and someone may well get hurt. But it does illustrate what you are up against when retraining.
Dealing with Aggression: In the short term
> Warning signs: Be alert to the dog’s warning signals and respect them. Most dogs give a warning before biting, such as growling, snarling, flattened ears, or raised hackles. Do not ignore these warnings. If you see them, try and de-conflict the situation and do not challenge the dog
> Muzzle the dog: If the dog is unpredictable and does not give warning signs, if you have children in the house, or the dog is untrustworthy, keep him muzzled at all times. There are many excellent muzzles available which are comfortable to wear and allow the dog to drink, pant, and bark (e.g. the Baskerville Muzzle)
> Keep a long line on the dog: If there is conflict over furniture, such as getting the dog off the sofa, keep a long line attached to his collar so you can remove him without getting close enough to get bitten.
Dealing with Aggression: In the long term
Work out what is driving the aggression and retrain the dog. The vast majority of dogs require professional assessment to put an effective protocol in place to correct it.
Employing a properly trained behaviorist could save your dog’s life! However, check out the credentials of the person you employ. It is essential they are trained and recognized by a professional body dealing with pet behavior.
> Certified Professional Dog Trainer
> Dip ACVBs (Diplomat of American College of Veterinary Behaviorists)
> CAABs (Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists)
> ACAABs (Associate Credited Applied Animal Behaviorists)
Dealing with Aggression: Covering the basics
Whilst you are waiting for the consultation with a behaviorist, there is some basic ground you can cover.
> Pain and medical issues: Especially if your dog has only recently become aggressive, it might be he has a pain or health condition. Get him checked out by a veterinarian to rule this out or else get treatment.
> Appropriate diet: Food can play a factor in aggression, with some high energy or high protein foods aggravating the dog’s mood. Consider trialing the dog on a low energy, high fiber food to see if this helps.
> Enough exercise: Dogs with pent up energy are more likely to overreact and vent that energy in an inappropriate way. Make sure you dog gets plenty of exercise and mental stimulation.
> Start reward based training: It’s not going to cure the problem on its own, but using reward based training will build a bond between you and the dog, and teach him to learn. In addition, it is mentally stimulating which will help with any boredom or frustration issues. To learn more about reward based training read our post on Clicker Training here.