James Livingood has been a dog sitter for several years. He has written numerous articles and a book about the topic because he loves dogs.
Dogs are man’s best friend, no one can deny it—they’re loyal, fun to be around, and can easily make us feel like we're special. However, the human-animal bond can easily be damaged by the onset of aggressive behaviors. Aggression is part of the dog’s behavioral repertoire. Labeling dogs as “evil” or “mean” for displaying aggressive behaviors is extremely unfair. If a dog growls, barks, lunges, snaps, or bites, he’s trying to communicate! The underlying message may be:
- Resource guarding
Fear-based aggression is caused by uncertainty, whilst resource-guarding aggression is motivated by the dog’s need to protect something he considers to be extremely valuable. There are several types of aggressive behavior and each has its own causes and training protocols.
In fact, aggressive behavior shouldn’t be left unaddressed. Dogs have the ability to kill other animals and they can easily inflict serious injuries on people. The bigger the dog, the bigger the damage! So, what can we do to prevent aggressive behaviors? Can we actually stop dog aggression?
Step 1: The Socialization Phase
The first thing we need to pay attention to is the socialization phase. When the puppy is 3 to 12 weeks old, everything’s new and exciting! He wants to explore the world around him and he’ll do it without hesitation, however, this process should be carefully guided. The puppy should be exposed to a variety of stimuli in a positive, gradual, and controlled way. If correctly done, the puppy won’t be prone to fear the unknown and will reach adulthood as a balanced, self-assured dog. If not, this is the phase where he may develop fears and phobias.
Remember: A fearful dog is extremely likely to use aggressive behaviors! The puppy should be exposed to children, men and women, people wearing sunglasses or hats, bikes and skateboards, vacuum cleaners, hairdryers, brooms, and doorbell rings. These stimuli should be paired with something positive, such as play or yummy treats; the idea is to create a positive association between them.
Step 2: Basic Obedience Training
Secondly, all dogs should be trained. The dog’s size, breed, or temperament doesn’t matter! Basic obedience training plays a vital role in preventing behavioral problems, however, if you choose to use aversive training methods, it may backfire. These are known to increase the dog’s aggressive responses since they promote fear and intimidation.
Dominance-based training techniques, such as yelling, hitting, yanking on the leash, and forcing the dog to lie down (also known as “alpha roll”) are not recommended; one should be using positive reinforcement-based techniques, instead. Aggressive dogs are not being dominant, they couldn’t care less if you think you’re the “pack” leader; in fact, trying to force the dog into submission can even make things worse.
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What should you do if the dog is already displaying aggressive behaviors? First and foremost, seek professional help. Look for a positive dog trainer or certified behaviorist. Your dog’s behavioral issues will be assessed and you’ll receive an appropriate training and behavior modification protocol. Don’t wait until your dog has severely injured someone. You should ask for help after the first aggressive episode before the dog has time to escalate his behavior.
Usually, aggressive behavior can be addressed by using several training techniques: counterconditioning, desensitization, and BAT are just a few examples.
Counterconditioning is used to change the dog’s emotional response to a certain stimulus. Let’s imagine your dog is afraid of umbrellas and will bite anyone carrying one. By pairing the umbrella with a positive stimulus, such as a piece of sausage, the emotional response gradually begins to change. After a few repetitions, all your dog wants is to see an umbrella! If you were given a $500 check every time you saw a spider, wouldn’t you love them? I bet you would!
Desensitization is also used to change the dog’s emotional response by decreasing its intensity. With this technique, the dog is gradually exposed to the umbrella. We start by presenting it 10 meters away from the dog; then, we take a few steps forward and decrease the distance. We can only move forward whilst the dog is feeling comfortable. If he’s stressed, we need to take a few steps backward and try again. This technique is usually paired up with counterconditioning.
Behavior Adjustment Training
BAT (Behavior Adjustment Training) is a training technique that is based on the dog’s behavioral responses. Once the dog sees the umbrella, he has a choice: he can growl and try to bite it or he can choose to look away and sniff the ground. We reward the calm response by allowing the dog to move away from the umbrella. His behavior will control the consequences, henceforth, the dog will learn to react in a calm and controlled manner instead of using aggressive responses.
Neutering or Spaying to Decrease Agression
What about neutering or spaying the dog? If the dog’s aggressive behavior is based on fear, then neutering him won’t help, in fact, it can even worsen the problem. On the other hand, if the dog’s aggression is closely related to resources, such as females, neutering him should be considered.
Ask your veterinary behaviorist before making this decision to make sure you’re doing what’s best for your dog. They should also advise you to run a few tests as some physical pathologies can induce aggressive behaviors. Thyroid conditions, neurological problems, arthritis, hip dysplasia, or any pain-causing conditions are a few examples.
Dog aggression can be very difficult to deal with. We may see it as a personal insult or even a betrayal, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. Dogs do what works for them; if they’re scared of something, growling makes it go away. If it doesn’t, then they need to climb the ladder of aggression and start biting. It’s up to us to understand their behavior and help them get through their fears, setting them up for success.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.