Dogs can be aggressive for any number of reasons. In some cases, it is because of current or former neglect (aggression is often associated with rescue dogs when they first settle with a new family). Aggression can also be a sign that the dog isn’t receiving enough exercise and this is one of the main reasons that dogs sometimes lash out as, just like people, they are susceptible to boredom. In other cases, a dog’s aggression is misplaced playfulness. Remember that in dogs, biting can be a sign of affection and even when dogs go to give a playful bite that would cause us no real discomfort, we are often quick to recoil away as we automatically associate the sensation of their teeth against our skin as us being in danger.
If you find that your dog is more aggressive than you would like, it is always a good idea to consult with a professional rather than trying to tackle the problem yourself. Dog psychology is its own science and understanding the nuances of their behaviour isn’t easy. Dog trainers are used to dealing with all manner of dogs of all sizes, ages, breeds, and personalities. There are a number of ways that someone with the right know-how can assist you in training your dog and ensuring that it doesn’t get itself, or you, into too much trouble.
Occasionally dogs are simply aggressive because of a quirk of their own personality, but this is rare, and even in these cases the behaviour is usually correctable. In most cases, a dog is aggressive because of a flaw in the way it is or has previously been looked after. It doesn’t require any acts of staggering and obvious neglect to inadvertently encourage bad behaviour in an otherwise perfectly pleasant animal.
How Can I Tell If My Dog Is Aggressive?
Many dogs are playful and oftentimes the manner in which dogs play with one another can look like fighting to us observing as people. Most of the time, however, what we think of as being particularly aggressive behaviour is in fact simple play fighting and sometimes overreacting to this kind of behaviour can do more harm than good. If dogs are playing and one of them is in any kind of genuine distress, they will make it known by yelping or by growling.
The body language of a dog is one of the primary indicators of whether it is angry or not and dogs, like many animals, will use body language to convey their intent to other dogs. When they become aggressive, dogs will try and make themselves seem bigger to their opponent while snarling to reveal teeth and to intimidate their target. Other signs are the dog’s hackles rising and the dog locking its gaze with that of the whatever the focus of its aggression is.
Although dogs aren’t really found in the wild anymore, when they are they are pack animals. As such, there is always an alpha figure; a head of the pack to which the other dogs look to for guidance and leadership. In the case of a dog owned as a pet, the alpha figure is almost always its owner, this makes sense when you consider that generally dogs obey the commands and wishes of their owner. Even dogs who display aggression towards other people will still show respect to their owners.
If a dog doesn’t believe it is in the presence of an alpha figure, then it will take on this role itself. A dog who believes it is the alpha in a relationship with its owner is more inclined to misbehave and will prove much, much harder to control properly. It is for this reason that it is so important to establish and maintain dominance over your pet as an owner. Also, while all dogs are by their nature pack animals, there is still a great deal of variation in their personalities and many dogs will be naturally shy and unwilling to assume the alpha position.
Some dogs develop an aggressive streak in response to the way that their owner treats them. While it used to be in vogue to use punishment routinely as part of training a dog, this is now considered to be very ineffective. In fact, one can achieve the desired results of having a dog repeat correct behaviours through the sole use of encouragement and reward. Dogs who are trained in the absence of any form of punishment not only respond better to their training they also develop a much stronger bond with their owner.
By using punishment on your dog, you are teaching them that it is an acceptable response and thus it is one that they may repeat in kind. Creating fear between you and your dog also does nothing to make them more obedient, but it does make them more likely to lash out both at you and other people. It is therefore highly inadvisable to display any aggression towards your own dog. You should instead focus on rewarding their good behaviour rather than punishing incorrect behaviour.
What Can I Do with an Aggressive Dog?
Some owners give up on aggressive dogs at the first sign of trouble, but this need not be the case. An aggressive dog isn’t necessarily beyond repair, and in many cases, simply removing the environmental factors that lead to their aggression in the first place is sufficient enough to initiate a change in their behaviour. There are certain things that you can do as an owner to increase your dog’s chances of turning its back on its aggressive ways.
For example, as mentioned above, dominance is a big part of a dog’s life. If it doesn’t see you as the alpha in your relationship, then it will be harder to control and also more likely to display aggressive behaviours. Consequently, there are certain techniques you can use that will make you appear much more dominant to your dog and will allow to take control of your relationship. First of all, you can try using the lead on your dog when inside your own house. This might seem somewhat pointless, after all your dog isn’t going to run off anywhere while you’re at home, however it is in fact a very effective and quick way of establishing dominance. By controlling where your dog is able to go they will quickly learn that they need your approval before being able to set off anywhere. If you want to discourage your dog from climbing on furniture, for example, then the lead allows you to gently prevent them from doing so.
On the subject of furniture, one of the most common mistakes owners make with their dogs is in allowing them to see themselves as equals. Allowing dogs to climb on furniture and sleep in the same bed as their owner are both things that will ultimately lead to the dog developing an over inflated sense of importance. Clearly, it is the alpha in the relationship who enjoys the best sleeping spots; if you allow your dog to join you in bed, it will see this as validation of its dominant role. There is nothing wrong with having your dog sleeping comfortably of course, but letting it share the same bed as you is likely to negatively impact its behaviour.
When it comes to feeding your dog, don’t overlook the opportunity this presents to establish your own dominance. Before putting a bowl of food down for your dog, have them sit and then lie down, now place the food in front of them while commanding them to stay where they are. A well trained dog will leave the food until told to take it. A more aggressive dog will try and get at the food as you are lowering the bowl to the floor, which is obviously less than ideal. If your dog does this, simply lift the food up again and don’t place it down until they obey the right commands.
It should come as no surprise that the way you choose to play with your dog also has a significant impact on its attitude. Playtime, however, also represents one of the best opportunities you will have to work with your dog and to reinforce its status appropriately. Try setting up a play area to use with your dog, and a system by which your dog can ‘request’ the toy it wants by indicating this in some way. Once a ‘choice’ has been made, have the dog respond appropriately to a particular command before rewarding it with the toy. If the dog takes the toy and runs away, you may think they are playing with you, but in fact this is a test; if you follow the dog, you are reinforcing its notion that you obey it when we are trying to establish the opposite notion. Instead, allow your dog to play with the toy, then when it brings it back, take it away again. Your dog will eventually learn not to try and run away with its toys.
For particularly aggressive dogs you might want to consider investing in some form of muzzle. A muzzle sits over a dog’s mouth and prevents them from biting or nipping other dogs and people. Muzzles can seem like an extreme step, but they are always preferable to the possibility of your dog biting someone, the consequences of which can be very severe for you both.
How Can a Professional Trainer Help?
Trying to correct the behaviour of an aggressive dog is a demanding task for any individual to take on alone, and one is far more likely to be successful if they employ the services of a trained professional. Trained professionals not only bring with them ample experience in responding to a number of different dogs and their individual circumstances, they also have a firm grasp of the nuances and complexities of dog psychology, which are an important part of adjusting their general attitude and behaviours.
Safety is a big concern with aggressive dogs. Dogs are pack animals and have been designed by millions of years of evolution to be effective hunters and scavengers. As such, they are built for combat and, should they decide that a person is an enemy or a threat, their aggression can have serious consequences. Trying to take on the training of an aggressive dog on your own exposes you to the risk of the dog lashing out or in some way attacking you. Trainers, on the other hand, understand how to respond to misbehaving animals and are also much more acutely aware of any potential danger signs that indicate the animal might be unhappy or becoming aggressive. A trainer will be able to identify the most urgent aspects of your pet’s behaviour and will target their training such that the most problematic aspects of your pet’s personality are dealt with as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Generally, aggressive dogs are trained in isolation, at least at first, but some trainers like to encourage them to socialise as part of their rehabilitation. Aggressive dogs in a group usually will be required to wear muzzles but the goal is to ultimately train the dog so that it can safely conduct itself in public without one. There are a great many benefits to allowing your dog to socialise more, not only will training classes provide an opportunity for you to increase your dog’s obedience while combating its aggression, they are also fantastic places for both dogs and owners to meet some new friends. Rescue dogs, in particular, can benefit from these interactions as often the aggressive behaviour observed in these dogs is resultant from their circumstances prior to being rescued. When given the opportunity to socialise safely with other dogs, and once muzzles have taken away the danger of violent conflict, most rescue dogs will readily adapt to their new environment and will relish the opportunity to make some friends.
Professional dog training services, such as the services offered by leading trainers dogharmony.co.uk who use only positive reinforcement when training dogs (negative techniques are not recommended), recognise how important it is for owners to be able to take their dogs wherever they go without fear of an incident occurring. Dogs pick up on subtle non-verbal clues from their owners, which have a surprisingly big impact on their own behaviour and mood. Consequently, if an owner is particularly stressful or worried about entering a new situation, then it is likely that they will pass on this anxiety to their dog. In the case of a dog already predisposed towards aggression, this can trigger an undesirable response, either in the form of aggressive posturing, such as barking, or by the dog losing control and becoming scared. In either case this is something that dog owners want to avoid when out with their pets. Securing professional help in training your dog is the best way to minimise the risk of it becoming nervous or frightened in public.
Another of the stronger arguments for having your dog professionally trained in response to aggression is the dramatic impact it can have on your dog’s overall mood and wellbeing.
During the course of training, you and your dog will, by necessity, strengthen the bond you share with one another and consequently your dog will come out the side much happier, as will you as their owner in most cases. Not only will you develop a bond as part of the training process, but once you leave and are practicing what you have learned in the real world, you will find that your dog is much more responsive, makes far fewer mistakes, and generally elicits a much more positive response from you. Again, as dogs are sensitive to the moods of their owners it is likely that, even with no conscious effort on your part, the increased bond you develop with your dog will soon lead to improved moods on both sides.
What If It’s Too Late?
The earlier you can get a dog that is displaying aggressive tendencies into training, the better the outcome is likely to be, but it is never too late to start. Most young dogs will simply grow out of any aggressive tendencies, but dogs that are trained from a young age very rarely display any aggression as they get older.
This doesn’t mean, however, that if you have waited too long, or you have taken in a rescue dog who is already mature, that investing in training will be a waste of your time. On the contrary, because the benefits of training a dog, particularly when done under professional supervision, are so far ranging and wide-reaching, it is always worth your time and money to invest in training, regardless of the age of the dog in question.
An aggressive dog can be disheartening, but there is always hope. No dog is completely beyond help, but with so many different guides and opinions vying for our attention it can be hard to know what the best course of action is. Wherever possible, hand over training duties to a qualified professional to ensure the best results.