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Training Articles

Dog Aggression

by Maureen Haggerty, CPDT

It’s common.
If you have a dog that is showing signs of aggression, you are not alone. Aggression is the number one behavior issue facing dog owners.
It is very difficult when our beloved companion, who is so affectionate at home becomes a menace at the dog park, or barks and growls at guests in our homes. Some of you may be experiencing your dog growling at you, perhaps when you try and take a bone from him, or at your spouse when he comes to give you a hug or kiss.

It’s normal.
Aggressive behaviors is almost always a normal canine survival response. Your dog is not abnormal or misbehaving; he is doing what he is naturally programmed to do. However, it is a problem when dogs live in a human world. It is therefore our responsibility to teach them what is normal and safe in our world, and that they can rely on us for their safety and survival.

What is aggression.
Aggressive behavior is almost always a response to a perceived threat by the dog. Either the dog perceives that his personal safety could be in danger or that resources needed for survival will be taken away.

When your dog growls, it is his way of communicating that he is uncomfortable with something and is asking for more distance from the perceived threat. If his communication is ignored, he may ask in a louder more obvious growl. If still ignored, he may feel his only option is to aggress and lash out with a bite.

There are other reasons for aggression. Aggression between dogs in the same household can be status related. If there is a sudden onset of aggression, it is possible that there is a medical cause for the aggression and the dog should be thoroughly examined by a vet. There are many medical causes of aggression, including a change in brain chemistry, low thyroid levels, loss of sight or hearing, and pain caused by either a physical injury or illness. There is also something called redirected aggression which occurs when the dog is highly aroused in a display of aggression but cannot get at the trigger. The aroused dog may turn and bite the nearest dog or person. Redirected aggression toward a person can occur when one tries to break up a fight or prevent a dog from fighting.

What you need to do now.
If the aggressive behavior is new, get your dog thoroughly examined by a vet, including a full blood work-up, before seeking behavioral help.

Do not punish aggressive behavior; this will make it worse. Instead, until you seek help, you must avoid situations which will trigger an aggressive response from your dog. If he can only be comfortable with dogs at least 100 feet away, then you need to keep him that distance. If your dog growls when you take his bone or grab his collar, then you need to avoid these situations (don’t give him bones and find other ways to bring him to you). This is very important because you do not want your dog to practice the unwanted behavior. The more a behavior is practiced the more it becomes ingrained. Further, if you continue to do something with which your dog is not comfortable, you risk someone or another dog getting bit.

Make note of what your dog growls at or otherwise behaves aggressively toward. It is these things to which you need to slowly accustom your dog, teaching him they are safe (provided they are). If not done appropriately, you risk worsening the situation or doing harm to your dog.

There’s help.
There are ways to effectively and positively modify and manage most aggressive behavior. Find a dog training professional who is experienced in working with aggressive behavior using strictly positive, dog-friendly techniques. These techniques are called counter-conditioning and systematic desensitization. When done successfully, the results are amazing. You will see your dog’s automatic response to what was once a threat change to one of calm and happiness - or even anticipation.