It can be really scary to have an aggressive dog. Your friends might not want to come over, your neighbors might judge you, and you might even feel betrayed or threatened by your own dog.
Getting help for your aggressive dog is a must-do for the safety of everyone around you. Our aggressive dog training tips are meant to be a start, but not an ending point. Hiring a professional animal behavior consultant through the IAABC or other professional certification group is your best bet for getting help.
What Sort of Aggressive Dog Do I have?
The source and type of aggressive dog you have will influence the best aggressive dog training tips for you. Let’s go through some of the types of aggressive dogs.
When I say “aggression,” I generally mean a behavior such as lunging, growling, snarling, snapping, or biting. I generally don’t call a dog aggressive, though that dog can have aggressive behaviors. Thinking this way helps keep us from limiting our expectations of dogs because of a label!
Your dog might not fall cleanly into a single category. Motivation can matter for treatment as well (a dog that’s leash reactive because he’s too excited will respond differently to training than a dog that is reactive on leash because he’s scared), so try not to get too caught up with categories. Common types of dog aggression include:
This is by far the most common type of dog aggression. Dogs that are undersocialized or improperly socialized are very likely to exhibit fear aggression. These dogs have learned that aggression helps keep “the scary stuff” away from them.
Barrier aggression (or leash reactivity).
This is one of the most common types of aggression in cities. These dogs may be overly excited about seeing a “friend,” frightened of strangers on walks, or something else. The result is the same – a dog that lunges, snarls, screams, or otherwise loses his head when he sees a dog, person, bike, car, or other trigger on a leash or behind a fence.
Dogs that growl, snarl, snap, or bite around food, toys, resting spots, and more likely fall into the category of “resource aggression.” Resource aggression can be relatively easy to manage – but not always.
Less common, territorial aggression is when your dog’s aggression is based on protecting his territory. These dogs might be perfectly friendly in all situations, until a visitor comes onto your property. This trait is slightly more common in guardian-type breeds.
There are other sorts of aggression, but these are the most common. Some dogs will also become aggressive during grooming, when they have puppies, or in a truly forward attempt to hurt something.
Practical Aggressive Dog Training Tips
As a professional animal behavior consultant, I’m often called to help with aggressive animals. Helping dogs and owners deal with aggression is no small task, but there are several relatively simple steps to take to help deal with your aggressive dog. Here are my favorite practical aggressive dog training tips.
Training Tip #1:
Get Help. If you’re dealing with an aggressive dog, your first step should be to speak to a certified dog behavior consultant. If there isn’t one in your area from the IAABC, check other organizations or reach out to Kennel Trainer – we can help you find a good trainer!
Ask your trainer if they adhere to the Humane Hierarchy and Least Intrusive Method Available before hiring them. If they don’t, or don’t know what that is, move on.
Your trainer will help you create a personalized plan for training your aggressive dog. She’ll also help you learn how to read your dog’s body language and give you specific feedback as you train your dog.
Training Tip #2:
Damage Control. Trainers call this step “management.” Essentially, this is figuring out how to set up your life so that your dog is less likely to be aggressive again. If your dog bites people when they touch her food bowl, feed her alone in a room to prevent bites. If your dog growls at strangers in hats, don’t let strangers in hats approach her on walks.
Damage control may include crate training, muzzle training, walking your dog at odd hours, avoiding certain types of people or dogs, or skipping the dog park. Avoiding further incident is imperative to successfully changing your dog’s behavior.
Part of good damage control will also involve learning more about your dog’s body language and predictors.
Management shouldn’t be your only solution for training an aggressive dog, but it’s an important start. Without proper management, the rest of your training is likely to fail!
Training Tip #3:
Assess Your Situation. Clearly, not all aggressive dogs are the same. There are a huge number of factors that come into play when deciding on the best course of action for your family and your dog. Again, this is where a trainer can help. Depending on your dog’s issues, you might be able to simply manage the situation, or you might need to consider serious training, rehoming, or even humane euthanasia in severe cases.
After you’ve got the situation under control (thanks to Step #2), take some time to assess your situation.When you’re looking at your options, be sure to consider:
How many times has your dog escalated to aggression? A single bite is very different from a dog that has bitten 20 people.
How bad were these incidents? A small tooth scrape is not the same as a full-depth bite that crushed small bones in your hand.
What was the situation around those incidents?Did your dog bite out of serious pain, or was this bite less “understandable?”
How big is your dog? Unfortunately for us big-dog lovers, the danger from an aggressive St. Bernard is much more serious than the danger from a pug.
Are you logistically able to deal with this behavior concern?
Is the situation controllable? A dog that is aggressive towards other dogs might not be a big problem if you live out in the country and don’t have other pets – or it could be a serious issue if you’re in a crowded dog-friendly apartment building.
Can you predict your dog’s aggression? Unpredictable dogs are much scarier.
What is your emotional bank account like with your dog? If you’re terrified of your dog and already considering rehoming her, you may also be less likely to succeed with training because you are less dedicated. Be honest with yourself.
What is your financial bank account like? Dealing with aggression isn’t generally cheap.
Essentially, this aggressive dog training tip aims to help you understand a few things:
- How risky is this situation for my family, my neighbors, and others?
- How likely is it that my “damage control” measures fail?
- What’s the consequence if my dog acts aggressively again?
- Am I going to be able to help my dog and my family through this?
There are endless factors involved with predicting the outcome of any aggressive dog. A chaotic household with children, a large dog, a dog with many triggers and a dog with serious bites on her record is a very dangerous situation indeed. On the flip side, a single person with a small dog that only growls in controllable and predictable situations is far less severe.
Training Tip #4:
Nitty-gritty training. The actual training of an aggressive dog, at its base, isn’t necessarily very complex. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to train an aggressive dog! When training an aggressive dog to be calm, you will need to focus on three main training tasks.
The first two aim to help teach your dog that something that used to be “bad” is now a no big deal that makes bacon rain from the sky! The third step teaches your dog how to react to overwhelming things without aggressing.
This simply means slowly introducing your dog to incredibly small versions of the thing that “sets her off.” For example, you might expose a dog who is leash reactive towards other dogs to simply the far-away jingle of another dog’s collar. Slowly increase the intensity of the trigger, until your dog is able to watch as other dogs jog by!
If your dog barks, growls, or lifts her lips, you’ve clearly pushed too hard in training. Go back a few steps.
Desensitization is almost always paired with counterconditioning. As you’re exposing your leash reactive dog to the sound of another dog’s collar jingling, you’ll pair that collar jingle with treats. It’s very important that the trigger (the collar jingle) comes before the tasty treat. Otherwise, your dog learns that treats make scary things happen next!
The nice thing about using treats in training is that you’ll be able to gauge your dog’s stress level even more precisely. If your dog is too stressed to eat, you need to take a break.
Teaching an alternate behavior
Desensitization and counterconditioning is only half the battle. Many people will teach their dog to look at them or sit when they’re overwhelmed.
So if we’re playing the “collar-jingle-makes-bacon-rain” game, we’ll switch from the first sequence (collar jingle = bacon) to a more complex one (collar jingle = eye contact = treat). This is important – study after study shows that teaching the dog something to do instead is far more successful than just teaching the dog that something isn’t so bad after all. Additionally, a dog that’s looking at you for direction is easier to direct and control than a dog that’s off in la-la land!
Easy enough when you read through it, maybe. But this can be really tricky – that’s why we recommend hiring a trainer to help with your aggressive dog ASAP!
Want to see this in action? I put together a short video showing an example of teaching a dog to look at me for direction when he hears the sound of another dog coming.
Training Tip #5:
Double-check with the vet. Aggression often shows up because of underlying issues. Dogs that suffer from a painful tooth might be more likely to bite during grooming, and dogs with thyroid issues may suddenly develop unpredictable aggression. If your dog’s aggression doesn’t seem to have a clear behavioral origin (such as dog aggression that develops after a dog fight), get a thorough check up from your vet. Ideally, ask your vet about bloodwork and panels to rule out any hormonal causes for your dog’s aggression.
Training Tip #6:
Don’t punish the aggression. It’s tempting to want to squash out your dog’s behavior with scolding, yelling, or a good swat on the rump. However, aggressive training techniques from the human are actually quite risky. Your aggressive response to your dog might make your dog’s aggression even worse. Focusing on the training steps from above will be far more helpful.
I hope that you’re able to improve your situation using these aggressive dog training tips. We’re here to help if you have any further questions!