Dog Aggression: How to Get Your Pet to Play Nice

Aug. 12, 2015

Dogs can be aggressive for any number of reasons. Learn why your dog may have adopted certain behaviors and how to manage them.

Your dog is the best and would never bite anyone. But that barking and lunging he does whenever another person or dog walks by, or that growling and snarling you hear whenever you get near his toy or food bowl, are somewhat alarming. Face it: You're dealing with dog aggression. You have what dog trainer and canine behavior specialist Tonya Wilhelm calls a "reactive" dog. The first thing to do when dealing with dog aggression is to "make sure you get a run down from your veterinarian to rule out any medical reasons," says Wilhelm. Then you can begin working with your pet to curb any bad behavior.

Different Forms of Dog Aggression
Dogs show aggression for a variety of reasons. But Wilhelm says that all aggression is rooted in fear and anxiety. If dogs are territorial, they show aggressive behaviors when a person or animal invades their territory or gets too near their possessions, including food. They might become rigid, bark, lunge, growl, show teeth or even bite. "Essentially, the dog may not know the appropriate or acceptable response to the stimulus," says Dr. Amanda Landis-Hanna, a veterinarian. Dogs can also display aggressive behaviors when they are protecting you or a family member from a perceived threat, which is known as protective aggression.

Preventing Dog Aggression
"The best way to deal with dog aggression is to prevent it from happening," says Wilhelm. For example, you can train your puppy to let people approach her food. Toss a small piece of chicken or steak into the food bowl while your puppy is eating. She will then associate people coming near the food as something good. Socialize your puppy by bringing her around people and other dogs. Take her places to get her used to different smells and sounds, praising your pup when she behaves calmly. Remove her from situations that frighten her, and introduce her more gradually to those things in a controlled setting.

Territorial Aggression
If your adult dog displays aggressive traits, you can change the behavior using desensitization and counter conditioning. "You first need to figure out your dog's threshold and boundaries," Wilhelm advises. Do that by observing your dog. For food aggression, watch him when he's eating calmly. If he reacts when you walk toward him, you've found your dog's boundary. Next time he's eating, toss a piece of chicken or steak into his bowl before you encroach on his boundary. You can eventually get nearer, training him to accept the intrusion. "This process can go really, really slowly," warns Wilhelm. It can take several months for you to see results, so be persistent.

Aggression Toward People and Other Dogs
There's not much you can do in the moment when your dog is already growling or barking at another person or animal. However, you can start preparing to rectify the behavior. Dr. Landis-Hanna recommends documenting the issue. "You will be able to discuss it with your vet or trainer and have all needed information present," she says. But first, ensure everyone's safety by leashing your dog, she adds.

Wilhelm recommends that you take your dog on a walk. While she's in a calm state, give her a treat. When you see a dog or person in the distance, keep walking and giving treats as long as your dog isn't reacting. If your dog reacts, stop giving treats and walk the other way. Eventually she should tolerate a dog or person coming closer.

How to Manage Behavior
You can seek professional help as soon as you notice dog aggression. "The longer the dog has had those behaviors, the more difficult it is to change them," says Wilhelm. "Some dogs do well with medication to help with aggression, says Dr. Landis-Hanna. "Complementary techniques, such as herbal supplements and acupuncture, have also been used."

There are also measures you can take on your own. If you know that someone's coming over, place your dog in another room. "You don't want to expose dogs to things they can't handle," advises Wilhelm. But if you have a regular visitor, like Grandma, it's worth conditioning your dog. "Do this by putting him on a harness leash so you have control," says Wilhelm. That way, you can stay between Grandma and your dog, treating when your dog is calm and walking away when your dog reacts.

Laura Agadoni is a pet writer and pet owner whose articles appear in various publications such as The Daily Puppy, Pets on, The Nest, Toms' of Maine, The Penny Hoarder and Trulia.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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