What to do With an Aggressive Dog

We’ve all been there. You go to visit your friend, your neighbor, your co-worker, etc., and then before you even walk in the door you hear it. Barking. Growling. Lots of anxious movement.

Dealing with an anxious and aggressive dog is scary and, for the owners, can be a bit embarrassing. Barring the invention of a time machine that would allow you to go back in time to when your dog was 6-12 weeks old to focus on behavioral training (which is what Oscar E. Chavez, DVM, MBA, Member of the American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition, says he likes to first suggest), there are a few specific things you can do to try to help curb your pooch’s bad (and oftentimes dangerous) behavior.

“Aggressive dogs, if truly aggressive, usually require professional behavior modification, and the attention of a trainer or professional,” says Dr. Chavez. “This doesn’t mean you need to work with them at all times, but it does mean that they need to be a part of the behavior modification program.”

The key when dealing with aggressive dogs is to identify which type of aggression your dog is exhibiting, and then develop an appropriate strategy to reverse it. “This process can take days, weeks, months or even years,” says Dr. Chavez. “But if done right, it can be effective over 90 percent of the time. Truly ‘evil’ dogs are rare, and most of the time it’s poor socialization or training during puppyhood that leads to problems.”

When it comes to training, the key is to ignore bad behavior (provided it’s not immediately threatening), and reward good behavior with attention. “Negative attention is still attention, so yelling and shouting your dog’s name when it’s lunging and growling may only fuel the problem,” says Dr. Chavez.

One common technique that helps in the initial stages is what Dr. Chavez called the ‘invisible dog’ technique. “This is where you literally are instructed to ignore the dog completely, except for only feeding and potty walks for two weeks,” he said. “Even during these allowable interactions, you are instructed to avoid eye contact and be very cold to the dog.”

Dogs who are being given the ‘invisible dog’ technique typically go through a mourning phase, where they miss the attention and affection of their pet parent so much that they become open to training and to being very cooperative. After this period, the dog’s behavior is usually better modified. “Invisible dog is tough, because the last thing we want to do is ignore a pet we love,” says Dr. Chavez. “But it must be adhered to very consistently for it to work, and when it fails, it’s usually our fault for giving in.”

If your dog’s aggressive behavior worries you, Dr. Chavez suggests checking out The Animal Behavior Network as a great place to start for advice.

Prepare your Dog For Guests

Inviting guests to your home when you have a new or energetic dog can prove to be challenging. Just a little training -- for both your dog and your guests -- will make visits more enjoyable for everyone, though.

The Jumping Hurdle
A big concern for dog owners is jumping. Dr. Rebecca Jackson, DVM, staff veterinarian at Petplan pet insurance, explains, “The goal is to have your dog remain calmly in a sit-stay or down-stay while the doorbell rings and guests enter,” she said. “If he starts jumping or barking, ask your guests to ignore him. Teach them to turn their backs on him, and avoid eye contact, talking to him, petting or pushing him down. Once he realizes that his behavior is not getting him the attention he wants, he will eventually give up.” 

Believe it or not, even scolding your dog for his improper behavior is still giving him attention, so it’s important to stay calm. Practicing this with neighbors or friends can help get your dog used to guests coming to your home.

Once your guests are in your home, if your dog still hasn’t calmed, it might be best to put him in another room where he has a bed, water and some toys, so he can calm down safely and avoid injuring anyone. 

The Beggar
If you’re serving food, your dog might start to beg. “Breaking a bad habit, whether it’s jumping or begging, has the same formula: don’t ‘feed’ the bad behavior … literally,” says Dr. Jackson. “Your dog needs to be ignored to learn that fussing and begging will not get him what he wants. Ask your guests to refrain from making eye contact with him or touching your dog while they’re eating, and never offer treats from the table.”

Not giving your dog food from your table should be the rule all the time, which will help train your dog to behave when guests are eating.

Bribing your dog with treats when he is doing a bad behavior such as jumping is the opposite of training. “Treats, toys, affection [petting] and verbal praise [such as ‘good’] should only ever be used as rewards, when your dog is doing what you want,” said Dr. Jackson. “If your dog is jumping and you call him away with a treat, he will quickly learn that jumping equals treats. If your dog is being ignored, and he finally gives up and walks away calmly, then offer praise and a reward.”

Check out more information about how to train using treats here.

Overnight Guests
If your guests are staying overnight, try to keep your dog on his normal schedule. Unless his space or routine is disrupted, then it shouldn’t be a problem. If you’re having kids over, you need to consider whether your pup is normally calm and gentle or easily excitable and jumpy. If you think your dog could possibly not interact well with a child, you may want to keep her in another room. “Even with calm dogs, visiting children should also be instructed on how to behave, including not petting too hard,” said Dr. Jackson.  “And never, ever leave your dog alone with a child. Even the most even-tempered dog can bite if he’s hurt or frightened.”

Preparing your dog for visitors is one step in the ongoing process of training that doesn’t end with sit and stay. “Training is not only about teaching your dog -- it is about you learning how to teach your dog, and how to instruct others to carry the training through,” said Dr. Jackson.

How Aggressive Is Your Canine?

When Aleta Watson’s 1-year-old grandson, Xavier, tried to crawl on Aggie, her golden retriever, during Watson’s recent visit to Portland, Ore., there were no worries. The large, imposing dog simply got up and walked away, says Watson. “We love golden retrievers because they tend to be so mellow,” says Watson, 62, a writer based in Ben Lomond, Calif. “Aggie is our fourth purebred golden, and she’s really easygoing. We’ve never seen any sign of aggression in her or our previous goldens.”

A recent study backs up Watson’s experiences with golden retrievers. Evaluating surveys of two groups of owners, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society rated dog breeds on their levels of aggression. The study, accepted for publication in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, indeed found that goldens rate among the least aggressive breeds. But the study also offers somewhat unexpected conclusions when it comes to canine feistiness. You might be surprised to find where your dog’s breed ranks.

Small Dogs, Big Attitudes
Using a survey called the C-BARQ (Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire), researchers collected results from both online respondents and a sampling of members of 11 breed clubs recognized by the American Kennel Club. Remember the saying “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog”? It turns out the surveys found two small dog breeds, Chihuahuas and dachshunds, rated high on aggression toward both humans and other animals.

“Initially, I was quite surprised by how aggressive these smaller breeds came out,” says Dr. James Serpell, study co-author and director of the Pennsylvania center. “In smaller dogs, I think we tolerate higher levels of aggressive behavior,” he says, adding, “the prospects of being seriously injured by a Chihuahua are small. Part of the problem with these little dogs is that they probably do live in terror a lot of the time because they are so small, and they are surrounded by giants -- both humans and dogs.”

How Other Breeds Rate
Akitas and pit bull terriers ranked high in aggressiveness toward other dogs, while Jack Russell terriers, Australian cattle dogs, American cocker spaniels and beagles were noted for aggression toward humans. Among the mellowest dogs were golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, basset hounds, Siberian huskies, Bernese mountain dogs, greyhounds, whippets and Brittany spaniels.

“Interdog aggression is scarily high in some breeds,” says Dr. Serpell. “Close to 30 percent of Akitas, for example, had shown serious aggression toward other dogs in the recent past,” says Dr. Serpell. Indeed, says co-author Dr. Deborah Duffy, the amount of dog-versus-dog aggression reported by owners was alarming.

“What surprised us most was the percentage of owners reporting that their dog had bitten or tried to bite other dogs,” says Dr. Duffy. “When we think of canine aggression from a public health perspective, aggression toward humans is typically what gets discussed. However, our study found that serious aggression among dogs is surprisingly common for some breeds, and this also presents a public health hazard because people can get bitten trying to separate dogs that are fighting.”

Genetics likely plays a role in the aggressiveness of breeds such as the Akita, says Dr. Serpell. However, the researchers point out that these aggressive traits are often balanced by positive attributes, such as loyalty. Aggressive dogs, even the tiniest ones, tend to make terrific watchdogs, letting us know when strangers are around.

Nature or Nurture
Nagja Bamji says that her dachshund, Ronny, is far from aggressive. Ronny gives other dogs a wide berth, loves kids and recently backed off when a squirrel hissed at him, says Bamji, 46, a homemaker in Fremont, Calif. You also might find that your dog doesn’t fit the profile developed in this study.

“We do have breed differences; there is no question,” says Dr. Gail Clark, a canine behavioral psychologist based in Fort Collins, Colo. “But there is a tremendous amount of factors in dog behavior.”

She explains that environment and training, as well as breed, help determine how your dog behaves. For example, she says, the owners of little dogs tend to pick them up frequently in threatening situations. Perched high in their owners’ arms, the little dogs feel mighty brave. When the dogs return to the ground, they might feel defensive and threatened. How you perceive your dog’s breed, regardless of size, might therefore influence the way you train or handle your pal, thus affecting your canine’s long-term behavior, says Dr. Serpell.

Where you obtain your puppy can be another significant factor, says Dr. Serpell, who recommends finding a reputable breeder, visiting the breeder and even meeting your pup’s parents, if possible. Dogs produced in puppy mills often have behavioral problems, he says. Puppies tend to be removed from their mothers and littermates too soon, and they don’t have enough positive human contact in their early weeks. Their mothers often are kept in highly stressful environments during their pregnancies, which likely has a longstanding impact on the puppies, says Dr. Serpell.

Individuality Can Overcome Statistics
Dr. Serpell believes that the next step for researchers is to understand the factors that contribute to individual dogs behaving aggressively. When it comes to this study, it’s important to not paint every dog with the same brush, he thinks. “The No. 1 thing we’d like you to take from the study is it’s based on breed averages,” says Dr. Serpell. “Branding a breed as dangerous or aggressive is inappropriate. Within any breed, you’re going to find many, many individuals that are really nice and well-tempered.”

If you’re interested in evaluating your dog’s behavior, you can still take the C-BARQ. The survey, which takes 10 to 15 minutes to complete, is located on the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine Web site.

Rehabilitate Your Reactive Dog

When 27-year-old Jodi Carp of Royal Oak, Mich., moved in with a friend and his German shepherd, she was happy to help out by walking the big boy. Her roommate, however, told her that his dog, Guinness, tended to be overprotective of women walkers. “Just hold his leash tight when men are walking toward you on the street,” her new roommate instructed. No problem, she thought.

Following this directive, Carp pulled the leash as men walked toward them on the sidewalks of her neighborhood and Guinness summarily lunged, barked and pulled with each approach, his behavior ratcheting up a notch if another dog was in the vicinity. Over time, Jodi herself became increasingly tense on these walks and was horrified -- though not altogether surprised -- when Guinness finally went at someone with his teeth, nipping their 82-year-old neighbor’s wrist with his sharp fangs. At this point, Carp decided her dog-walking days were done. She remembers, “I felt awful about the incident, and I didn’t want to risk something even worse happening while I was out with Guinness.”

According to Sandy Case, a certified pet dog trainer and co-owner and training director of Positively Canine in Oklahoma City, Carp and her roommate simply needed some training on how to care for their reactive dog. “They were basically doing everything wrong, and with a little instruction, they could have prevented a lot of their difficulties,” says Case.

What Is a Reactive Dog?
Reactive dogs aren’t hard to spot. Outdoors, such canines will lunge at people or dogs that get too close. They usually also bark loudly, growl forebodingly and may even bite anyone foolish enough to get close. In the home, the reactive dog can appear threatening to visitors as it jumps, barks and stares. Reactive dogs tend to stress out their owners as they try to keep visitors and passersby safe from their intimidating, if loveable, best friend.

Some breeds are more prone to reactivity. Terriers tend to respond excitedly to other dogs, for example, while herding dogs, like shepherds, are innately reactive toward movement, such as joggers. Any dog, though, can become reactive if it feels its safety and security are threatened. “The majority of reactive behavior is fear-based,” explains Case. “If a dog is confident, it doesn’t need to do these things.”

Understanding the Reactive Dog
Human misunderstanding of canine social norms is responsible for a large percentage of reactive behavior. Case says, “Dogs have greeting rituals, and they don’t involve walking up to another dog. For dogs, that isn’t polite. Once we’ve got them on their leash and are dragging them toward another dog to say hello, we’re setting them up for what might be a bad reaction.”

Canine caretakers also fail to identify their dog’s own pre-reactive behaviors. “Dogs are peaceful animals,” says Case. “They don’t want conflict. When they begin to feel tense, such as when they’re around another dog, they engage in self-soothing behaviors like looking away, sniffing and yawning, to let themselves and the other dog know things are okay.”

If these initial calming behaviors fail, the dog may stare or growl. While owners tend to tense up and correct dogs for growling, they should really only take the growl as a signal that it’s time to soothe their pooch. “Growling is communication,” says Case. “Make your dog comfortable rather than punishing it for expressing itself. You can do this by simply staying calm yourself and walking it away from the situation.”

Staying calm yourself is key: Tightening the leash and tensing up is one of the most frequent mistakes made by dog companions like Carp. Explains Case: “Dogs should be confident that we will handle things for them. They react because they feel they’re out there on their own. If they see their person is confident and proactive instead of reactive, they’ll feel a lot better. Its person needs to be a good leader.”

How to Manage a Reactive Dog
If your dog is reactive, Case recommends the following five steps:

1. Buy a harness Any tightening of a leash is restrictive to a dog’s airway, which will only heighten its anxiety. A harness removes the possibility of pressure on the neck, and also helps to rebalance a dog that’s lunging forward.

2. Have a plan Knowing what you will do (e.g., turn and walk away, keeping the dog moving) when your furry friend responds to perceived threats will allow you to remain calm. Part of the plan should involve reminding yourself to relax.

3. Be familiar with the signals When dogs begin to become uncomfortable, they may lick, yawn and sniff. As they get tense, they may exhibit changes in posture, such as becoming more upright, tucking their lower body backward or stiffening up. Staring is usually the last move before a more intense reaction. If you can get your dog out of a situation before the stare, you will nip the problem in the bud.

4. Retrain your dog Walk away from the tense situation to a comfortable distance, keeping the object of the dog’s discomfort in sight. Get your dog to glance at the other dog or person before it gets to the point of staring, and then give it a treat. Soon the dog will begin checking back with you when it sees things that make it tense. 

5. Enlist help If you can’t handle the problem on your own, find a good trainer or behaviorist to work with. “A professional can observe your dog and possibly see a lot more about what it’s doing,” says Case.

With some time, effort and training, you can turn your reactive dog into a companion that any roommate would feel comfortable taking for a stroll around the block.

Top 10 Dog Behavior Problems

Individual dogs, like people, misbehave in their own unique ways. However, sometimes this is tied to breeding. Some dogs, like coonhounds, were bred to be very vocal. It’s therefore not really the dog’s fault that it has a predisposed drive to loudly howl. In fact, under the right situations, that behavior is desired.

However, surveys still show that certain behavioral problems are common among all dogs, no matter the breed. In their book Handbook of Behavior Problems of the Dog and Cat, authors Gary Landsberg, Wayne Hunthausen and Lowell Ackerman present not just one, but two such lists based on surveys.

The first list mentions the most common problems as reported by dog owners:

1. Jumping up
2. Barking
3. Begging for food
4. Jumping on furniture
5. Digging
6. Chewing
7. Showing a fear of noises
8. Being overprotective of family
9. Being overprotective of property (tied with number 8)
10. Escaping from yard

The other list contains the most common dog behavioral problems as reported by referral practices:

1. Aggression
2. Inappropriate elimination
3. Destructive behavior
4. Excitability/unruliness
5. Barking
6. Fears and phobias
7. Excessive submission
8. Compulsive and stereotypical behaviors

The book also goes on to list the most common problems that lead to increased risk for relinquishment. The top three:

1. Aggression to pets or people
2. Barking
3. Destructive behavior

What’s missing, of course, is a list of what pet owners themselves did wrong when training and caring for their dogs. Nearly all of the above problems can be solved with good socialization and training.