Whether a dog regularly growls, snaps, or bites, aggression is a serious behavior problem for pet owners. In fact, it's the top reason why pet owners seek out the help of a professional dog trainer. It's not just "scary" larger breeds of dogs that are prone to aggression; any breed is capable. While it cannot be cured overnight, there are steps you can take to curb the aggressive behavior.
Why Do Dogs Become Aggressive?
"Aggressive" behavior in a dog refers to any situation in which a canine starts to warn of an impending attack. This includes becoming still and rigid while growling all the way up to when the dog actually attacks. An aggressive dog might bare its teeth, snarl, or quickly nip at a person.
Your first step is to figure out what causes your dog's aggression. Some dogs growl when someone approaches them while they are eating or chewing a bone. Others react aggressively toward children or strangers. You cannot come up with a plan to change your dog's behavior until you know the reason behind it.
The most common types of dog aggression include:
- Territorial aggression: A dog defending its space or your home from what it deems to be intruders.
- Protective aggression: A dog defending members of its pack—whether it's another animal or a human—against someone.
- Possessive aggression: A dog who protects food, chew toys, bones, or another object that it loves.
- Fear aggression: A dog who becomes aggressive when it tries to retreat in a scary situation but then decides to attack if the person turns around.
- Defensive aggression: Similar to fear aggression, a dog that simply attacks out of defense rather than trying to retreat first.
- Social aggression: A dog that's trying to earn the alpha spot in a group.
- Frustration-elicited aggression: A dog will sometimes behave aggressively when it is overly excited, such as before a walk.
- Redirected aggression: A dog might become aggressive when excited with one person but another person interferes.
- Pain-elicited aggression: A dog who becomes aggressive when injured or in pain.
- Sex-related aggression: Two male dogs that become aggressive when vying for the attention of a female dog.
- Predatory aggression: A dog that behaves aggressively without much warning when acting like a predator, such as when chasing wildlife.
How to Stop Aggression
Examining when your dog becomes aggressive and the circumstances surrounding the behavior is an important part in determining your next step. There are a number of things you can do to stop these hostile actions, but it will take time, patience, and the help of professionals.
Talk to Your Vet
Dogs who normally are not aggressive, but suddenly develop aggressive signs might have an underlying medical problem. Diseases that can cause aggression include hypothyroidism, congenital or acquired neurological problems such as encephalitis, epilepsy, and brain tumors, and behavioral seizures.
Talk to your veterinarian to determine whether this is the case for your pet. Treatment or medication may make big improvements in your dog's behavior.
Call in a Professional Trainer
If you have ruled out a medical problem, it is time to call in a professional dog trainer or behaviorist. Because aggression is such a serious problem, dog owners should not attempt to fix it on their own. A professional can help you figure out what causes your dog's aggression and create a plan to manage it.
To find a professional dog trainer or behaviorist, ask your veterinarian for a referral or contact the Association of Professional Dog Trainers.
Create a Plan
Your trainer can help you figure out the best plan for managing your dog's aggression. In most cases, you will use positive reinforcement (e.g., lots of treats and praise) to teach your dog new behaviors.
For example, if your dog is mildly aggressive toward strangers, start off by standing far away from someone your dog does not know. The distance should be far enough away so that your dog has not started to growl or snap. Then, give it lots of treats and praise. Gradually decrease the distance between your dog and strangers, continuing to use the positive reinforcement.
Your dog will begin to learn that strangers equal treats, and you should see a decrease in aggression. This same gradual process can work for getting your dog used to a variety of other situations.
Punishing your dog for aggressive behavior usually backfires and can escalate the aggression. If you respond to a growling dog by hitting or yelling, it may feel the need to defend itself by biting.
Punishment may also lead to your dog bite without warning. For example, if your dog growls at children, it is letting you know that it is uncomfortable around them. If you punish your pet for growling, it may not give this warning the next time it gets uncomfortable. It will simply bite.
In some instances, training alone is not enough. Dogs who are aggressive because they are fearful may need medication to help manage the problem. Talk to your veterinarian about your options.
Finally, you need to consider if your lifestyle allows you to stick with a plan. For instance, if you have a dog who growls at children and you have kids, it is impossible to avoid the situation which brings out its aggression. In this case, the best option for you and your dog may be finding it a new home.