Aggression is a common issue dog owners face and can be infuriating to deal with. From vet bills to potential lawsuits, it pays to know the root cause of your dog’s aggression as well as what you can do to manage it.
While it may be surprising, aggression in dogs oftentimes is ultimately an expression of anxiety. New situations, environments, animals and people all represent a potential unfamiliar stimulus that may render your dog uncomfortable and therefore anxious. While anxiety is normal, aggression is when it’s taken too far. Snapping, biting, lurching, growling and snarling are all symptoms of aggression. Thankfully, aggression in dogs can usually be treated and the first step is to figure out what is causing it.
On some level, anxiety is familiar to most creatures and it comes in many forms. As humans, we may be anxious about a presentation or a first date. Many of us resort to exercise, TV or happy hour or ease the feeling. However, your dog requires different coping mechanisms. Dogs’ anxiety is much more primal than humans’ and requires training and patience to overcome. The first step is to understand the cause.
Causes & Solutions for Aggression
Dogs are territorial, hierarchical and protective by nature. Any threat--real or imagined--to themselves or their pack (including humans) may result in aggressive behavior. This is shown by aggressively protecting themselves, their owner, pack, food or even a toy.
Here are some tips for managing aggressive behavior. But remember, acclimating your dog to other dogs and humans is a process.
- Make sure to establish your dominance early. Training your dog to respond to basic commands is crucial for preventing aggression. For example, dogs can become aggressive when there are external stimuli such as a mailman or neighbor. So make sure to take your time before answering the door to communicate both calmly and firmly with your dog. Your dog is looking to you for answers and just wants everything to be ok, so it's important to establish eye contact with them. Once your dog has calmed down (at least to the extent that they are not exhibiting aggression), offer them a treat. Doing so will reinforce good behavior (listening to you) and a sense of security (everything’s OK).
- Go slow. Social acclimation is not something that happens overnight--it takes time, patience and trust, among other things. You will soon know if your dog has aggressive tendencies and the severity of the specific situations that elicit such behavior.
Does your dog get into fights at the dog park? If so, try going at a different time when there are fewer dogs. Allow some more time and space for effective training. Before you even enter the dog park your dog will be distracted by the sight of other dogs. So take a step back and stop. While they’re still on their leash, establish a connection--look them in the eye and have them sit for a moment until there is relief from the distraction and you have established dominance. Then reward them with a treat. This is what reinforcing good behavior means.
A word about leashes
Naturally, dogs approach one another side-by-side and become acquainted by scent. As a dog owner, you understand that an issue with leashes is that they disrupt this natural tendency. So two dogs, both anxious to investigate each other, naturally would never approach one another nose-to-nose and look each other in the eye to start a conversation. In actuality, this is an act that is normally reserved for reasons of domination and potential aggression. Surprising, I know.
Unfortunately, we can’t get away from leashes and they are legally required to walk our dogs. However, two well-trained dogs will not tug at their leashes and will approach one another side-by-side (as per usual), inspect and move on. If your dog is a tugger and prone to becoming excitable around other dogs, then begin by avoiding the other dog (cross the street perhaps) and again, establish dominance by steering away from the distraction. Stop, create a state of calm and reward good behavior. Plain and simple.
Pain is inherently a state of anxiety. A dog that is hurt may exhibit signs of aggression based on an illness or injury. If a paw has a thorn, your dog may get aggressive when you try to pull it out because touching the affected area is more painful than leaving it alone. In the case of a thorn, try speaking calmly and reward your dog with a treat during the removal process. This reinforces calm behavior and allows for the procedure to be a success.
In the case of illness, you may notice your dog has become aggressive without any overt physical symptoms. It is best in this case to see a veterinarian to investigate a potential underlying cause. Also, be sure to support your dog's health the best you can.
Dogs may also be predisposed to aggressive behavior due to their genes. As we all know, some breeds are more aggressive than others. If your dog's breed tends towards aggression then your training may have to be that much more patient and intensive. A muzzle is appropriate in many of these cases. The use of a muzzle ensures everyone’s safety while training is underway and also establishes you as a responsible owner.
All-in-all, causes of aggression in dogs is relatively easy-to-understand. Furthermore, realizing your ability to treat it is empowering for you, the dog owner. It's important to do what you can to mitigate the issue at hand.
Disclaimer: These statements have not been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Information contained or made available through the ColoradoDog website is not intended to constitute or substitute for legal advice or veterinary advice.