Dealing with dog aggression is one of the parts of being a dog owner that most of us would rather avoid. But as a dog behavior consultant, dealing with dog aggression is one of my daily tasks. The majority of dog aggression comes from fear or discomfort. Undersocialized dogs and dogs who live in chaotic environments are at the highest risk. Many of the dog bites that I see can be traced back to an unfortunate combination of environment, genetics, training and a specific trigger.
When people ask me if dog aggression can be fixed, my answer is always that it depends. Fixing a dog’s aggression depends on your definition of fixed, your commitment to training and environmental management, and the specifics of your dog’s genetics and learning history.
We can’t fix your dog’s genetics or early life socialization. However, we can change her environment and training to make things better. It’s far easier to “fix” a dog who is generally relaxed and happy who bit someone once at the end of a long series of stressors (at the vet after an injury, for example), than it is to “fix” a dog who is always stressed out by normal life.
When working to fix dog aggression, we have 3 main strategies:
1. Environmental Management
This is where things like crates can come in handy. If you know what causes your dog’s aggression (called a trigger) and at what intensity aggression is likely to happen (called a threshold), we can prevent it from ever being a problem using crates, exercise pens, gates, muzzles, leashes and more.
This is kind of like putting childproof locks on things with a toddler in the home. It’s not going to fix the problem, but it keeps everyone safe for now.
Common triggers of dog aggression include:
- Grabbing the dog’s collar
- Hugging the dog
- Strangers coming into the home
- Dogs or people near food or treasured toys
- Strangers approaching the dog at night
A threshold can be based on time (your dog is OK with a two-second hug but gets uncomfortable after four seconds), the number of triggers (one stranger is OK, but five is freaky), speed (a fast-moving stranger is generally scarier than a slow one), and many other things.
Keep in mind that dogs can get “fed up,” just like us, so your pup might behave differently the first time you clip her nails versus the eighth. She also might be more likely to behave aggressively if she’s already had a long day.
Getting to know your dog’s triggers and thresholds are imperative for fixing dog aggression.
One of the hardest things for many owners is handling other people around their aggressive dog. Practice keeping your dog close to you and asking others not to pet her. Use hand targets to refocus your dog and instruct others on how to interact with your dog (if at all). For dogs that can get overwhelmed with petting, the pat-pet-pause method can be a real lifesaver.
Once you’ve separated your dog from her triggers for most of her day, it’s time to get down to training. Specifically, your job is now to fix your dog’s aggression by teaching her that her triggers actually make good stuff happen. This isn’t always easy, but it basically goes like this:
- Expose your dog to her trigger at a level where she notices it, but doesn’t react yet. This is hard, as most people try to move too fast and get stuck here. If your dog is already growling, barking, lunging, or snapping, you’re too close to the trigger.
- When your dog notices the trigger, give her a piece of chicken. If she won’t eat, you’re too close! Give her the chicken no matter what she’s doing. This is called counterconditioning, and it’s important that the trigger always makes chicken appear.
- Reset by giving your dog a break, then try again. The Treat-Retreat Training Method is useful for helping you make sure that you’re not too close to your trigger.
- Gradually increase the intensity of the trigger, but always be prepared to take breaks or go back a step.
3. Teaching an Alternate Behavior
Many times, you can essentially fix your dog’s aggression with a combination of management and counterconditioning. But in many cases, teaching your dog to do something else other than aggressing is very important.
For dogs that don’t like being touched by strangers, I like to teach them to do a hand target – touch their nose to a person’s hand. The dog can go and hand target to the stranger, then return to you for a treat. You can also use the hand target to refocus your dog if she’s upset about something.
Essentially, you can teach your dog to touch your hand instead of barking or lunging. If your dog is potentially aggressive towards you, teach her to go lie on a bed or touch a Post-It note instead of your hand.
You may notice that I never once mentioned dominance, alpha, or corrections here. In fact, treating aggression with corrections is often more dangerous than ignoring it. Corrections teach your dog that you’re scary and that his triggers do hurt him. They may stop the aggression, but that stress may manifest in other ways. Using counterconditioning is far more effective and safe. You can read all about how scientists and professionals who work with aggression every day think about this problem here.
If your dog is behaving aggressively and you’d like to fix it, the best course of action is to get a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant or Veterinary Behaviorist on board ASAP. Aggression cases are complicated, and having a licensed professional will help immensely. If you can’t find a dog behavior consultant near you, I offer online dog behavior help at Journey Dog Training.