Living and Coping With An Aggressive Dog
Thanksgiving, 2013, the whole family was over at my parents house. My dog, Harley a 105 lb German Shepherd, was safely tucked away upstairs. Or so I thought. My sister accidentally left the door open, enough that my clever dog could nose the door open the rest of the way. Harley knew something was up, he just didn't know what, until he came racing down the stairs and saw my nephew.
Confused, and scared, my dog did the only thing he could think of to protect his territory from what was a stranger to him. He got real close to my nephew, got in his face actually, and started barking at him aggressively. My nephew was terrified, I felt horribly guilty, and while on the positive side Harley did not bite anyone, on the downside my nephew is probably terrified of dogs for life.
Fear Aggression in Dogs
Are all German Shepherds this way? No, despite their bad reputation, most are normal. German Shepherds are loyal, smart, and stubborn. Because they are so smart, they are easy to train, which is why they are used as working dogs for the police, military, search and rescue and more. While very protective of their family and not the most inviting to strangers, Germans Shepherds are not bad dogs. That goes for any breed of dog, including pit bulls.
My dog, however, is the exception. He has what experts call fear aggression. He's pretty much terrified of everything: strangers, other dogs, sudden and loud noises, cars, motorcycles, bikes and more. When he feels cornered or scared, he reacts aggressively, choosing to bark or nip at whatever is scaring him in hopes they will leave him alone.
There are two main reasons dogs become like this: (1) because they were abused by a previous owner, or (2) over breeding, which leads to undesirable traits like aggression. My dog's aggression is a result of over breeding. So make sure if you are going to buy a puppy, buy it from a reputable source and do a temperament test first.
A big dog with aggression issues is a very dangerous dog. If you have a dog like mine with fear aggression, then you have to make a very difficult choice. You can either keep the dog, or put the dog down. There really is no other alternative. You could drop the dog off at a shelter, but unless they are a no kill shelter or a shelter that can deal with the needs of an aggressive dog, the shelter will most likely put your dog down anyway. If you are lucky, you might be able to find a person equipped to handle the dog and willing to take them in.
A dog is a big responsibility on its own, but an aggressive dog is an even bigger responsibility. Having an aggressive dog is a serious problem and not something to take lightly. I constantly worry about the possibility of my dog biting someone. You cannot keep an aggressive dog, unless you are going to take the necessary precautions to keep not only your dog safe, but anyone your dog comes into contact with.
You may also have to make lifestyle changes. For example, I can't go on vacation and leave my dog behind, or spend the night at my boyfriend's place because I have no one at home to take care of the dog, and I can't board him either.
Putting them down, however, is also a big decision. For many us, our pets are family. We love our pets, and therefore despise the idea of putting them down for anything other than medical reasons. However, you also don't want your dog to hurt anyone. You have to weigh your decision. Do you still have options to explore? Do you believe you can keep your pet and the people around you safe? Are you prepared to handle incidents if they do happen? If you answered yes to those questions, there still may be hope. If your dog is aggressive towards you and the other family members in your home, or you do not believe you can keep the pet from hurting someone, then maybe it's time to consider putting the dog down or giving them away.
However, if you are willing to tough it out like me, know you are not alone and that there are many things you can do to help your pet and keep them safe.
Understanding Dog Aggression, Signs and Symptoms
Dogs are aggressive for four following reasons: territorial, dominance, fear and prey. The first, territorial, occurs when a dog becomes obsessive of their property. It's one of the reasons dogs seemingly pee on every tree when you take them for a walk, because they are marking their territory. A territorial aggressive dog feels the need to protect its property and will bite, growl, or snap at other animals or strangers that approach its turf. So if your dog is barking at the mailman, or snapping at strangers that enter your home, this is a sign they may have territorial aggression.
Dominance aggression, also called social aggression, occurs when your dog believes he is the leader of the pack. Many times these dogs are happy, well-behaved, but if a member of their pack (anyone in the family) oversteps their boundaries set in the dogs mind, the dog reacts with aggression. Examples would be if someone took the dogs food or treats away and the dog snapped, of if you try to groom or hug your pet, or move him while sleeping and he snaps or growls.
I talked a little bit about fear aggression already, but it typically occurs in shy dogs that have no confidence. One sign or symptom of fear aggression includes waiting until someone has their back turned before the dog decides to bark or charge (so never turn your back on a fearful dog). Jumping up and nipping is also a pretty good sign, as fearful dogs don't want to go in for the attack, so they'll nip and then flee and then nip and flee. Fearful dogs also bark and lunge at anything that approaches.
The last is prey aggression. All dogs are descendants of wolves, and wolves hunt for their food. So for many dogs, they have a high prey drive and when they see a squirrel, rabbit, cat or other small critter, they have a strong drive to chase after the animal. If your dog suddenly takes off running after a squirrel or cat and tries to attack them, that's a pretty good sign they have prey aggression. This could result in dogs chasing animals into the streets. Some dogs have a prey drive so strong they may confuse bikes, livestock, or even small children as prey.
Dogs may also react out of frustration, or pain, however the four forms of aggression listed above are the most dangerous. However don't mistake a high energy, excited, if somewhat bratty, dog for an aggressive dog. A dog who pulls on his leash, jumps on people, or chases squirrels isn't necessarily an aggressive dog. If they are trying to bite, nip, or lunge at a person or dog, that usually signals aggression.
What Can You Do For an Aggressive Dog
So your dog is aggressive, but what do you do know? Where do you start? There's not a whole lot of information on that that is very useful. It also doesn't help that no two dogs are the same, what works for one dog may not work for another. However, below is a list off things to help you start managing your dog's aggression problems.
Work With Your Veterinarian
Your vet can be your closest ally when dealing with an aggressive dog. There are not a lot of people who like my dog, but my vet has always been very helpful. Your vet can prescribe medicines like Xanax or Prozac to treat anxiety or aggression. My vet has really adapted to my dogs needs too. When he has an issue, such as diarrhea that needs treatment, or the time he hurt his front leg, they were willing to treat him without making me bring him in for a visit. That way the dog isn't traumatized by a visit, and no one at the vet has to risk getting hurt. The vet can also recommend a good behaviorist.
You are going to need your vet on your side if you want to keep the dog and get it medical treatment.
I would argue that every dog, at the very least every big dog, needs obedience training. It's not just about doing tricks, you need your dog to listen to you especially when the dog is stressed, scared or excited. The most important is a good recall, that way if your dog takes off after someone or something, a good recall will have your dog coming back to your side no matter what before anything bad can happen, like running in front of a car, or before biting a person.
Teach your Dog to Think While Stressed or Excited
One of the major problems with fear aggressive dogs is that they get stressed or excited and then they do not respond to your commands, because they are not even really hearing it. So you must teach your dog to think and respond while excited. This increases the chance that they listen to your commands when reacting to a trigger, and it is good training for all the different forms of aggression. Teaching a recall ,as I mentioned above, is an example of how to teach your dog to think while excited, but making your dog sit while excited is another good way. For example, if you play catch with your dog, make them sit before you throw the ball every couple of throws or so.
This is a must for anyone with a dog who is aggressive towards other dogs! This product has seriously been a life saver for me, and I would absolutely recommend it for anyone who takes their dog out on a walk. How it work is if a stray dog, or a dog not on a leash approaches you, then the best way to protect your dog and the other dog is by spraying the loose dog in the nose with citronella spray before a fight breaks out. Citronella spray won't hurt the other dog, but they won't like it, and will most likely leave you and your dog alone.
I use SprayShield Animal Deterrent Spray, available from Amazon. I bought it about two years ago, and it's still good. I never go anywhere with my dog without it ... literally. I always, always carry a bottle of this stuff around with me, and have had to use it several times because people in my hometown constantly let their dogs run around without leashes and without supervision despite the leash law. It really does work, has stopped a potential dog fight or two, and it really isn't harmful. I once accidentally sprayed myself in the face with it and I was fine, so I know firsthand it won't hurt the dog.
Dogs with fear aggression require more than obedience, they need behavior modification. Your vet can recommend a good behaviorist. I would not recommend going to a random one you found on the internet. But if you do, make sure they use positive reinforcement training, such as clicker training. Doing things like alpha rolls, or tugging and pulling on a leash will only make the aggression problem worse.
A behaviorist can teach your dog not to overreact to stimuli and not to lunge at, attack, or bite the objects that it fears. There are different methods such as BAT, or behavior adjustment training, which is the method I am teaching my dog now with the help of a behaviorist. In this method, we are teaching my dog that he doesn't have to attack or bark at strangers and other dogs to get them to go away, but he can control the situation by choosing not to react and removing himself from the situation. His reward for not reacting is getting to walk away from whatever is scaring him. There is also constructional aggression treatment, or CAT, where one desensitizes their dog by introducing them to their trigger and having them interact with it until they are not afraid of it. You have to work under threshold (before the dog aggressively reacts) or this kind of training will only make things worse. I wouldn't recommend either without the help of a professional.
Is it possible to cure your dog of their aggression problem? That I don't know. There are success stories out there, but I don't believe it is completely possible to cure an aggressive dog. I do believe that one day I will be able to walk my dog down the street without him trying to lunge at and bark at people and other dogs, but I do not believe he will ever let a stranger pet him.
UPDATE in 2016: I've been working on behavior training for about a year with Harley now. While he has made some progress, and I can walk him through a large crowd of people without him reacting aggressively, he is in no way shape or form 'cured.' He is now fine with people walking close by as long as they keep walking, but if anyone tries to approach, goes by on a bike or skateboard, or moves unexpectedly, then Harley still reacts. But progress is progress, and I'll take it.
Behavior Adjustment Training
A muzzle is imperative if you are going to keep an aggressive dog. If you cannot control them while in public, then they must wear the muzzle when you take them out. It is also a great tool for taking your dog to the vet.
Fence in Part, or all, of Your Yard
If you don't want to risk taking your dog into public, then fence in part, or all, of your yard. This way you don't have to risk taking them places they may react to a trigger, but can still get their exercise in. I can't fence in my yard, because it's not flat, so instead I fenced in part of the yard, and it's great for playing catch with my dog. Do not leave your aggressive dog in the backyard unsupervised, though.
Increase Their Confidence
Dogs with fear aggression are not confident, that is why they react aggressively to triggers (the things that scare them). There are a few ways to increase confidence, such as playing tug with your dog and letting them win. Don't do this with dogs with dominance issues, however, and make sure when you are done playing you take the toy from the dog and put it away.
You can teach a dog a sport, such as Rally, which is also good for obedience training, or you can teach a dog how to track. Teaching them to be good at something and getting a reward for it can go a long way in increasing their confidence.
Avoid Areas with Lots of People
It's tough, I know, but your dog will never be friendly so don't hope they ever will be. If you are going to take them out, avoid areas with a lot of people or children or dogs. If someone or something is coming from the other direction and you cannot keep your dog from reacting, turn around and walk away or take a side street. The best thing you can do for your dog is avoid triggers.
Socialize Your Dog From a Young Age
Socializing your dog from a young age, and getting them fixed at or before six months of age, is a preventive measure against your puppy turning into an aggressive dog. However it is not a guarantee. I started socializing and training my dog at three months and got him fixed at six months and he still turned out aggressive.
Calming or Pheromone Collar and Thundershirt
This is something I have never tried, but my dog's obedience trainer uses a calming collar or a pheromone collar for her dog who is afraid of everything, literally everything. Like my dog, her dog barks at things that frighten him, but isn't a bite risk like my dog. My obedience trainer has noticed her dog is significantly calmer due to the effects of the collar. The reason I have never tried it with my dog is because it is not waterproof, and I take my dog to the creek or the lake pretty much everyday where the first thing he does is jump right into the water. Therefore the collar wouldn't be much use for me. Your local pet store is likely to have these for sale.
A thundershirt is another option. It works similar to a calming collar by keeping the dog calm by applying pressure to certain parts of the dog's anatomy. It is called a thundershirt because it is generally used to calm dogs down during thunderstorms, but can also be used for other situations. Personally, I have never used one, but Tia Torres from Pit Bulls and Parolees uses them on the dogs she has under her care that are afraid of thunder. Your local pet store may have one, but it is also for sale on Amazon.
Even if you are not calm and are freaking out or panicking, breath deeply and steadily, and refrain from showing any outward signs of panic. Your dog can easily pick up on any anxiety, but you can fool them into thinking you are calm by controlling your breathing. If they think you are scared, they will want to take over and protect you and can become aggressive. So fake it till you make it.
For those of you who have kids but have a dog that hates kids or think kids are prey, consult a behaviorist right away. In this situation, it may be best to give your dog to someone else.
I am not a vet or a dog behaviorist, but I am living with and coping with an aggressive dog, and I've been going to behavior training classes with Harley for three years now. I know it's not easy. I know how tough it is to take care of an aggressive dog. There is a lot of stress and anxiety that comes along with it. I've spent many nights crying after incidents with my dog, such as the Thanksgiving incident or the time my dog chased a kid on his bike (I cried for hours after that one). You must weigh your options and decide if it is something you can really handle, but be honest with yourself. It's not for the faint of heart. You have to be tough, you have to be adaptable, and you have to be able to handle whatever might happen. You also have to be able to handle the fact that people will hate your dog, and possibly you, and might just avoid your house forever.
I know one day I may have to put my dog down because of his issues, but I will also know that I did everything I could for him before I made that decision.