Your dog may have one or more of the five types of aggression:
- interdog household aggression
- fear aggression towards other dogs
- conflict aggression (towards familiar people, formerly known as dominance aggression)
- fear aggression towards humans
- predatory aggression
Many of us have strong beliefs about the causes and best treatments of dog aggression but until this research was completed the details were not clear. This is a summary of what works in all types of aggression.
Is My Dog Being Aggressive Because They Are Sick?
In this large study, 15% of owners that took their dogs to the veterinarian for aggression found out there was a medical cause for the behavior. (1)
It may not seem like a medical problem that has anything to do with aggression, but if the dog is feeling bad, that is sometimes the only way they can express it.
Obvious cases like a seizure disorder can cause aggression, but I have seen cases where the dog was aggressive towards the family secondary to diarrhea and a bowel problem, others where the aggression was secondary to pain from an injury, and still more where the dog bites because of an undiagnosed hormonal disease.
You may need to have blood work done after the examination if nothing is obvious. If you can find a medical reason for aggression, however, your dog will feel better and the problem can be taken care of early.
If everything is normal, the next step is training.
Will Training Help With an Agressive Dog?
More than anything else, this latest study shows that behavior modification and training work. What kind of training should you do with an aggressive dog?
- Obedience training: Short and more frequent training sessions are more likely to help than once a day or a few times a week. All dogs need to learn the basics (sit, down, stay) and other important commands like "leave it" and "drop it". All dogs also need to learn a safety word so that they can be put back under control quickly.
- Relaxation: Reactivity is when a dog responds to something in their environment. When the dog responds aggressively it is considered an inappropriate response, and dogs can be trained to be less reactive through relaxation. Counterconditioning is one form of relaxation training; it can be very helpful to teach a dog to be less reactive and calmer, but of course, you need to recognize what the dog is reactive towards.
- Habituation: This is a specific type of training where your dog becomes used to what is making him aggressive because they are repeatedly exposed to it. You may want to use the services of an experienced obedience trainer but this is also something you can do yourself when you figure out the trigger for the aggression. If your dog becomes aggressive when around other dogs, for example, they need to be repeatedly exposed to other dogs until this is not an issue.
- Improved communication: When you start training, communication is going to be improved. Your dog will start looking to you for signals, commands, and treats. Spending more time on all types of training will reduce aggressiveness, and teach you to recognize your dog's signs before they react.
But do you also need to invest in equipment when doing the training?
Do Muzzles Help an Aggressive Dog?
None of the training equipment (muzzles or anti-bark collars, etc) helped the outcome of dogs with aggression treatment in the nearly 1000 dogs studied. When the owners rely on this type of treatment, they are actually less successful in helping their dogs get over the main issue.
What muzzles can do are help control a dog when still untrained and unpredictable. If you do not have your dog under control yet with obedience training and are still not sure if your dog will stop his aggression when you use a safety word, it is best to use a basket muzzle when walking outside.
But should you put your dog on medication until they are trained?
Will Medications Help With Aggressive Dogs?
Many different types of medications have been used for aggressive dogs over the years, both sedatives and mood-altering drugs. Not all of them are useful in all cases and not all dogs respond the same way to a particular drug.
If you try one type of medication and your dog is acting "doped up" (like a zombie) talk to your veterinarian and have the medication changed.
Medications can help if they are given early and if they are given with behavioral training.
If training was not enough and you have tried medications, what else can you do?
Are There Other Therapies That Help With Aggressive Dogs?
If your dog becomes aggressive follow these steps:
- Take them to your veterinarian for an examination. If the physical exam and blood work are all normal, go on to the next step.
- Start obedience lessons. Remember that short lessons repeated more often work better.
- Consult a trainer. Other techniques besides simple obedience training can help a lot, and an experienced trainer can spot some of the problems and provide assistance in setting up a program to help improve communication between you and your dog.
- Return to your veterinarian for medications that you can use with behavioral training. Not all dogs will need medication but if you need to use them start early, when the training does not appear to be resolving the behavior.
- Consult a behaviorist. The majority (81%) of people who consulted a behaviorist found the advice helpful to reduce their dog's aggressive behavior. I do not suggest this first because if your dog is sick, no behaviorist is going to stop the aggressive behavior. If the dog is not trained, this will be the next step. Some dogs will need to consult a behaviorist to resolve their aggressive behavior but there are other things to do first.
Spending some time training your dog with desensitization and counterconditioning is the most helpful proven behavioral therapy.
(1) Ian R. Dinwoodie, Vivian Zottola, Nicholas H. Dodman, An investigation into the effectiveness of various professionals and behavior modification programs, with or without medication, for the treatment of canine aggression, Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Volume 43, 2021, Pages 46-53. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1558787821000174
National Canine Research Council. Growling, snarling, snapping, and biting behavior: incidence and correlates; a literature review. NCRC, July 2016.
Simpson BS, Papich MG. Pharmacologic management in veterinary behavioral medicine, Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract 33:365-404, 2003.
Feltes ES, Stull JW, Herron ME, Haug LI. Characteristics of intrahousehold interdog aggression and dog and pair factors associated with a poor outcome. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2020;256(3):349-361. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31961268/
Reisner IR, Shofer FS, Nance ML. Behavioral assessment of child-directed canine aggression. Inj Prev. 2007 Oct;13(5):348-51. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17916894/
This article is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from your veterinarian. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.