Dealing with Dog Aggression

There are many kinds of aggression and, depending on the circumstances, some are normal. It's good to understand that growly dogs believe they have a good reason to aggress, whether owners agree, but it still should be dealt with. Sudden changes in your dog's behavior should be checked by a veterinarian, because aggression can be prompted by pain or health issues. Aggression can be complicated and require professional help, but here's how to recognize five common types and learn how to keep the peace.
By Pets Team
Published on Tuesday, 29 March 2011

[Adapted from www.pawnation.com]

From Amy D. Shojai, a certified animal behavior consultant and the award-winning author of 23 pet care books, including "PETiQuette: Solving Behavior Problems in Your Multipet Household."

We want dogs to love us, but snarls, growls or (heaven forbid!) bites are dangerous and make it hard to love them back. But dogs aren't evil and you are not a bad owner if you have a growly dog. Forty percent of dogs have growled at their owners at one time or another.

There are many kinds of aggression and, depending on the circumstances, some are normal. It's good to understand that growly dogs believe they have a good reason to aggress, whether owners agree, but it still should be dealt with. Sudden changes in your dog's behavior should be checked by a veterinarian, because aggression can be prompted by pain or health issues. Aggression can be complicated and require professional help, but here's how to recognize five common types and learn how to keep the peace.

  1. Play aggression looks scary but dogs tell each other it's just pretend by using gestures like the play bow (butt up, front down). Puppies learn to inhibit bites when they play with other dogs, and owners also can teach limits. If the mouthing hurts, yelp like another puppy. Whimper and say, "You hurt me." Immediately after you yelp, give the dog a 10-minute time-out -- no mouthing allowed -- to teach him that hard bites end the fun.
  2. Predatory aggression includes stalking, chasing, catching and biting like in play, but predatory dogs are deadly serious. Joggers, bicyclists, moving cars and cries of young children, babies and smaller pets can trigger the prey drive. Predatory behavior may go away as a youngster grows up, but keep potential targets safe by providing strict supervision of your pet. Identify triggers (like joggers in the park) and avoid them. Teach dogs to control natural impulses with obedience drills and have other strategies on hand when the dog's predatory nature kicks in. A "happy" word the dog can't resist (ball, cookie, ride) can often change the dog's attitude and interrupt the behavior.
  3. Fear aggression results when a dog can't escape a scary situation. Caged, chained or cornered dogs often bite out of fear. Snarls, growls or bites make the scary "thing" go away, which rewards the dog, so she repeats the behavior. Reaching for the scared dog's collar almost always prompts a bite, because a hand descending toward the head looks threatening. Avoid petting on the top of the head. Instead, pet the dog's sides or chest. Don't stare, which can intensify intimidation. Work to build your dog's confidence by playing fetch or other games where he can succeed, while avoiding tug games that encourage fear-biting behavior. You might also want to try pheromone therapy, such as Comfort Zone with DAP, to help calm fears.
  4. Territorial aggression typically involves herding and protection breeds. Dogs bark, lunge and growl at the fence or doorway when company comes and are rewarded when the mailman, new dog or your fiancé goes away. One way to deal with territorial aggression is to create a plan with visitors so the outcome changes. Have one of your neighbors come over. When the dog begins to act up, have the neighbor toss treats to the dog without making eye contact or speaking. Once the dog quiets to munch the treats, the neighbor can say, "Good Rex!" and walk away. He should not walk away as long as the dog barks and lunges. If Rex ignores the treats and continues to bark and lunge, then you call the dog and reward him with a treat or toy for coming. The neighbor leaves as the dog retreats -- so essentially neither wins.
  5. Dominance aggression can be complicated and dangerous to solve and usually requires a professional. Guarding food, toys and furniture are all part of dominance aggression. These dogs often object to being restrained -- as for nail trims -- and the aggression can gets worse with punishment or confrontation. They're often young, intact male dogs who want to call the shots with people but then tremble or seem to act "remorseful" afterward. An argument over toys or food that prompts an instinctive snarl teaches the dog that aggression keeps others a safe distance from important resources. Neutering the dog and managing resources can help. If the dog protects toys, remove them so he has nothing to guard. Require the dog to "earn" privileges with good behavior. For instance, ask him to "sit" (he sits), which earns him what he wants (attention/food/open door/verbal praise). He should get nothing unless he earns it by responding in a positive way to your command.

At any point when dealing with aggression, if you aren't sure what to do, consult a professional to help you and your dog stay happy and safe.

In addition to being a certified animal behavior consultant, Amy Shojai also appears on Animal Planet's "Cats-101" and "Dogs-101," and lives in North Texas with a senior citizen Siamese and smart-aleck German shepherd who routinely attacks stuffed toys. Read Amy's blog on Red Room.