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Four Steps to Train an Aggressive Dog

In addition to his veterinary work, Dr. Mark also trains dogs—mostly large breeds and those that suffer from aggression problems.

All aggressive dogs need to learn a safety word before being taken out for training.

All aggressive dogs need to learn a safety word before being taken out for training.

The majority of dogs I have seen suffering from aggression issues were poorly socialized during the sensitive socialization period, or, worse yet, they were not socialized at all.

I have seen many Rottweilers left inside until after 16 weeks of age because the owners were worried about their possible susceptibility to the Parvovirus. In recent years, I have seen the same thing with Pitbulls, and in the region I live in, some Fila Brasileiros are never let outside of their yards.

What is the only possible way that you can help these dogs? They need to get out and be exposed to new sights and sounds. The more they are taken out, the more likely they are able to get over their shyness and aggression. If you have chosen to work with an aggressive dog, however, there are some special precautions you need to take.

When walking him outside, around other pets or people, your dog should be muzzled if you cannot be 100% sure of your control. The muzzle needs to be secure but should be of the “basket” type to allow him to breathe comfortably.

Also, make sure you always use two leashes when walking your dog. The second leash should be of the “slip” type, and even if you do not use it to control the dog, it should be kept attached to your left wrist. The main leash should be held in the right hand at all times. If the main leash breaks, your dog will still be under control.

Take as much time training the dog in a confined area as is necessary. I am a fan of hand signals and expect all dogs I work with to respond to both oral and visual cues; dogs should learn all basic commands like sit, down, stay, and come. All aggressive dogs come 100% of the time before being taken for a walk.

It is also a good idea to spend some time teaching the aggressive dog a safety word before he is ever walked outside of a confined area. There are no guarantees when working with dogs, but if trained properly, this word will give you the best chance of calling your dog when he is in an aggressive mode.

Things to Do Before Walking an Aggressive Dog

Attach two leashes

Use a basket muzzle

Practice/review all obedience commands

Teach a safety word

Some dogs are never let out during the socialization period because they are accused of being aggressive.

Some dogs are never let out during the socialization period because they are accused of being aggressive.

The Safety Word

Here is what you should know about safety words.

What is a safety word?

A safety word is a special command that you can use when calling your dog. It is similar to the “come” command, but unlike that word, it is rarely spoken during a normal session.

I use the safety word “touch.” When the dog hears this word and sees the hand command, he knows that he needs to come close to me and place his muzzle against my hand. I give the treat every single time, but only at that time.

If your dog responds to treats, the best way to teach a safety word is to say the command, give the hand signal, and give a treat every single time you call the dog with his safety word.

How was the safety word developed?

The first safety word that I am aware of was used when training guide dogs for the blind. The word “touch” was given and the dog learned to place his muzzle against the blind person´s fingers. Even if the person could not see the dog when called, the touch allowed them to know exactly where the dog was at.

Using the safety word with an aggressive dog is different. When the dog is calm, he should be so accustomed to hearing the word that if he lunges, either at a person or another dog, the “touch” command should call him back and allow you to regain control.

This is the hand signal I use for the "touch" command.

This is the hand signal I use for the "touch" command.

Training the Aggressive Dog

Here is what you should know about working with aggressive dogs.

Teaching and using the safety word

When the aggressive dog is in his enclosed yard and going through his regular obedience training, start using the safety word. Every time you use the word, give him a special treat—do not give a treat erratically, like you would with most other commands.

Practice the safety word several times during the session, but always with the dog on a leash. The dog should never learn that it is okay to ignore this command.

When you take the dog out for his first socialization session, use the safety word even when you do not need it. (This is so that both of you will remember to use it.)

Is teaching a safety word enough to control an aggressive dog?

Not at all. All dogs, especially aggressive animals, need to be taught all basic obedience commands. As part of your obedience training, a safety word should be taught so that it is available in times of emergency.

Some puppies aren't being aggressive at all—they just want to have fun!

Some puppies aren't being aggressive at all—they just want to have fun!

Even though it is not enough, training your aggressive dog to reply to a safety word should be an important part of his total obedience training. If you obedience train your dog but are still not able to control him, please seek professional assistance.

If he ends up biting a person or attacking another dog, he may end up being killed by your local judge. Prevent that by teaching him a safety word.

All dogs should be taught to obey hand signals. Make sure that hand signals are part of the normal routine when working with your aggressive dog.

More About Aggressive Dogs

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.

Questions & Answers

Question: My two-year-old pitbull is aggressive when people are walking towards me. What can I do?

Answer: There are several things you can try. The first would be to put your dog in a sit-down position everytime someone approaches. I realize you cannot do this if you're walking in a busy area. The second is to practice avoidance, but again this may not be possible where you are walking. You can also have people you know walk towards you and toss the dog a very good treat so that he sees strangers coming towards you as less threatening. This takes a lot of time, and you need to have a lot of friends that the dog does not know, but you have the best chance of him getting over this with this technique. If you want to do more reading on these training methods, I have an article at, but it is mostly about dog-to-dog aggression, which is what I see most commonly.

No matter what you do, your dog might get away from you someday, and if he bites someone, the authorities will take him away and may even decide to kill him. To avoid problems always walk him with a muzzle. Keep him in a good harness so that he cannot take off on his own.

© 2014 Mark dos Anjos DVM


Mark dos Anjos DVM (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on June 07, 2018:

An ACD (blue heeler) needs to be taught bite inhibition from the beginning. Keeping the dog muzzled all of the time is not the answer. It will just make him resent the muzzle and he will be harder to work with. Most of these dogs are not suited for an urban or suburban lifestyle but many people do not realize how much exercise is needed.

Since a 9 year old child is involved, I recommend that your daughter consult with her regular vet and find an animal behaviorist. The behaviorist can tell her what she needs to do to calm the dog down. If she is reluctant, tell her that the girls life and future are at stake. If the dog gets excited and bites her in the face, leaving scars, her life is going to be ruined.

Susan Barrett on June 07, 2018:

My daughter has an a9yr old girl and they have a blue heeler dominant male of 1yr old. I am concerned that the dog will seriously bite her as I have just spent a few days babysitting and have found him to be aggressive and bites and drew blood on my husband and I have found I can control him only if I spray him in face with watered down citronella. I think the dog should have a muzzle at times And needs more training. He is strong and wilful ? Please help

Eileen Hughes from Northam Western Australia on January 25, 2017:

Good tips although obedience training is a great help to both the owners and dogs. They will correct some of the handlers problems in the correct ways of training their dog. Voice commands need to be spoken correctly too, that way the dog learn more from the tone of your voice.

Snuggleme on February 13, 2015:

Hello! Our apt. has changed rules... and we will need to re-home our female heeler. I've read most of these post and it scares me that it will be hard to rehome her as she has all the work qualities of a great heeler and would need an experienced handler. My heart is broken and scared as she glares into my eyes wanting to play and learn. Even if I find a responsible person who will take over; I worry. We invested into her but that doesn't even matter if I find someone who will love her and rehabilitate her to their life. PLEASE HELP IF YOU HAVE ANY OUTLETS.

Mark dos Anjos DVM (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on October 05, 2014:

Ha! Exactly, I think it is always me that needs more training, not my dogs. I hope things go great with your Min Pin.

Mary Craig from New York on October 05, 2014:

I read your hub on hand signals but think this one is more helpful. I'm not sure who needs the training, him or me.

Mark dos Anjos DVM (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on October 02, 2014:

Thanks, the touch command sounds perfect for him. I have a hub on training with hand signals, too, so if you want to spend some more time training him, so that he is easier to work with on a leash, you might want to look at that.

I hope things go well for you. Drop me another comment if I can be of any help.

Mary Craig from New York on October 02, 2014:

Great advice Dr. Mark. My Min Pin is normally laid back with any dog that comes to our house. Put him on a leash and he thinks he's a pitbull. The hair on his back stands up, he growls and pulls. Not a pretty site.

The only hand signal he's been taught is for "down" which he learned in puppy kindergarten. Raising your hand above your head you give the down command, he does it well. The instructor said she used that signal because if your dog runs away and/or is across the street, he can see your hand in the air.

I digress. I will certainly start trying 'touch'.

Voted up, useful, awesome, and interesting.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on September 24, 2014:

I enjoy reading more about dogs and have read a many on HP. Dogs are such amazing pets. Your advice is helpful.

Elizabeth Parker from Las Vegas, NV on September 10, 2014:

Great advice and I wish more people would take the time to train their dogs when necessary. It would prevent a lot of accidents, deaths and dogs from being euthanized due to their aggressiveness!

Mark dos Anjos DVM (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on September 08, 2014:

Hi goatfury thanks for dropping by. Alexadry has great hubs on this site too, and there are some others by Shaddie, theophanes, Solaras, and Melissa Smith that you are sure to enjoy reading.

Andrew Smith from Richmond, VA on September 08, 2014:

Great stuff! I have foster dogs frequently at my house (we help rescue dogs as a part of a couple of different organizations). I appreciate the info.

Bob Bamberg on September 07, 2014:

We just finished a hot spell...a week of 90+ F and high humidity. Pretty uncomfortable, but I'll never complain. I'm just glad it's summer. Today was nice...mid 70's and sunny. I'd rather have the hazy, hot and humid weather all winter, too.

Mark dos Anjos DVM (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on September 07, 2014:

Thanks for stopping by! Winter is still here though--it was down in the 60s this evening. Can't wait for those warm days around Christmas.

Bob Bamberg on September 07, 2014:

Very helpful info, Doc. I wasn't familiar with the safety word concept. I'll share that with dog owners I talk to while in the various pet supply stores I service.

I envy you guys as your winter comes to an end in the coming weeks and ours creeps in. Already seeing signs...squirrels' tails are starting to get bushy and the Pats opened the season today...with a loss to Miami. Can't wait for Memorial Day!