Is it possible to eliminate dog aggression?

Aggressive behavior may be manageable if the behavior is not severe and the owner is willing to commit to leadership guidelines and obedience training.

By Laura Pakis, Certified Professional Dog Trainer and Cynologist

An aggressive dog can be defined in many ways but it is simplest to say they are a dog that has overstepped its boundaries with being a human companion.  There are health reasons for aggression that can sometimes be managed with medication.  There are also behavior reasons for aggression which can sometimes be managed with training tools and establishing structure and boundaries in the dog’s life.

And I stress the word managed.

This seems like such a deep behavior to eliminate, but a dog can learn not to be aggressive through the management of aggression.  You need to understand that aggressive behavior is not curable.  However, aggressive behavior may be manageable if:  the aggressive behavior is not severe and if you are willing to commit to the leadership guidelines and obedience training recommended by a certified professional trainer.

These dogs have learned that by growling, snapping, or biting they can achieve their goal…to have their way.  Just like any behavioral issue, there are varying degrees of management.  Re-establishing leadership, creating a black and white world, etc.  These are terms used to describe techniques for doing this.  Some dogs require different tools to accomplish this as well; martingale, slip collar, prong collar, and e-collar.  The degree of aggression determines what may be needed to achieve the results to help these dogs remain in our world and not head over the rainbow bridge.

You need to understand that some dogs may become aggressive towards their owners when they begin to work with obedience training.  This may occur because strict guidelines are being enforced, and the owner is reclaiming the leadership role in the pack.  You may want to invest in a muzzle for your dog to wear when there is a possibility the dog may become aggressive.

What do we mean by “manageable”?

You will need to expect your dog to do what he is told and respond to the command you have given.  Giving the dog a command that does not allow the bad behavior gives him something to do.  The dog should then be focused on you instead of the other dog, which is really just a distraction, albeit a big one. This is called “managing the behavior.” Can we change how the dog thinks or feels about other dogs?  No, we can not, but we can control the dog’s behavior in other dogs’ presence.  With a lot of repetition, the dog realizes that the bad behavior is no longer acceptable.

An aggressive dog has no rules or boundaries. 

Envision the following from the viewpoint of the dog.  An aggressive dog has no rules or boundaries.  The dog can bark and lunge and try to fight every dog he sees.  No one has stopped the dog, and it has worked for him.  You are now changing the rules for the dog.  Starting the first day of training, the dog can no longer bark and lunge when you approach another dog.  Instead, you give him the command “sit,” for instance.  The dog thinks, “Sit?  No, stupid human, this is what I always do.”  But you keep at him and get him to sit finally.  So the new rule becomes–when you see another dog, your dog must sit.  Each time your dog sees another dog, he thinks, “Even this time? Can I get him this time? Why not, I could last week?”  And each time, your answer is–Sit.  Eventually, the dog stops asking the “Can I?” question, and you have broken a bad habit.  In some cases, this may take years for the dog to stop asking. Occasionally the thought occurs to the dog again, so you should always watch for the thought to cross his mind.  The adrenaline high the dog gets from all that frenzied barking and carrying on can be addicting.  It is not unlike people who quit smoking.  After a person first quits smoking, they think about it all the time.  It gradually lessens until some time has passed and they don’t think about it anymore.  For this reason, an aggressive dog will need to be managed for the rest of his life.

Self-control is needed when socializing

It is important to continue socializing the dog with as many dogs as possible as long as it is fair to your dog.  The dog will be much better as he gains more practice at maintaining self-control in situations that previously sent him over the top.  Always monitor and manage him.  Does the dog show signs of being under a lot of stress?  Can you get the dog to relax on a “place” command when the dog is around other dogs, and they are kept at a distance?  If the dog is highly stressed, leave him home and try again at a later date.  Continue training and socializing but remember the rules need to be consistent, so the dog knows what to expect.  Once the dog is confident in what to expect, the dog should relax more which will reduce his stress.

When your dog is mingling or being introduced to a friendly dog

Set up a controlled situation

Pre-plan and set up a controlled situation before the dog goes into “fight-mode.”  One way is to determine what each dog considers as their “personal space.”  Then prevent each dog from invading the “personal space” of the other.  Besides, through training, we can reduce the “personal space” to become a communal space.  Also, do not allow either dog to be put into a situation where they feel cornered.  Cornering can cause “fear aggression” — growling, possibly leading to snapping.   Being “cornered” not only refers to being backed up against an object but also refers to any situation in which a fearful dog (on a short leash, for example) feels he cannot get away from the approaching dog (or child).

Watch for signs of aggression

Watch for signs of aggression such as dogs teeing off (front paws on the shoulders of another dog), hackles raised, tail straight, ears back, a blank stare, and/or chuffing.   Immediately tell the dog “NO” and refocus the dogs by giving commands, mentioning a ride in the car, etc.  If you laugh and “jolly the dog,” you can avoid any signs of offering the dog “sympathy reassurance.”  Do whatever it takes to get the dogs’ tails wagging again without inadvertently rewarding the unwanted behavior with petting or hugs at the wrong time.  Praise for good behaviors and immediately correct for bad behaviors.

Use your best judgment

If you feel comfortable letting your dog play, always use your best judgment.  If the dog is doing something to the other dog that looks questionable—it probably is.  Although some dogs play rough, do not let roughhousing escalate.  Playtime should begin and end on your terms if you need to break up a fight using a noose or raise the attacking dog’s back legs rather than placing your arms in the dogs’ direction.  End the situation on a positive note and keep the exercises brief.

General rules when interacting with an aggressive dog

When the dog sets off by barking, lunging, or growling:

What NOT to do

  • Do not try to console the dog by petting and saying, “it’s ok.” That reinforces the behavior by giving the dog your attention and inadvertently encourages the behavior.
  • Do not scoop up the dog into your arms, hold in a bear hug, or wedge the dog between your legs. Doing so tends to reinforce the growling behavior inadvertently.  For example, the dog growls, wanting out of the situation, and the owner picks up the dog. The other dog goes away, and your dog is now out of the situation.  The dog got what he wanted, and as a bonus, he got your attention.  His growling behavior worked, and, therefore, he will repeat it next time.  Also, keep in mind that a fearful dog may also feel cornered because he has no escape route.   Doing so can make the dog lose trust and question your judgment, especially if the dog still ends up being attacked.  This can result in you being bitten as well.
  • Do not show emotional displays or threats to handle. Your dog will react to your emotions.
  • Do not carry the dog. This instills a false sense of security, and more unwanted behaviors will result.

What to do

  • Rule out medical problems such as hypothyroidism (causes mood swings in dogs), dislocated vertebra, arthritis, or poor eyesight.
  • Ensure the dogs respond dependably to the commands taught before receiving any praise or petting. Reliability is essential.
  • Always stay calm and collected.
  • When your dog solicits petting or attempts to direct your behavior, you as the owner must turn the tables and direct the dog in one of the simple command responses. This mechanism helps impress on the dog that he is responsible to you rather than vice versa.
  •  Discourage urine marking of neighborhood or backyard. Encourage one area for elimination.  Urine marking creates territories and boundaries and causes some dogs to “protect” their territory.
  • Seek the assistance of a professional trainer.

about the author

Laura Pakis is a dog owner, professional dog trainer, and blogger whose other works can be found on Spike’s Dog Blog by Acme Canine. If she’s not working with dogs, sharing canine knowledge on KSCOPet Radio, or working in the garden, she can be found writing about dogs, dog products, and behavior.

Let’s talk dogs, or even better, let’s learn about dogs.  Set aside some time to receive Spike’s dog blogs by Acme Canine.
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