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.

How to Prep Your Dog for Boarding

Boarding your dog can be a stressful time for both you and your pooch. If you take the time to prep ahead of time, however, there’s no reason the time your furry friend spends being boarded can’t be both fun and stress free.

To help make sure you’re prepared ahead of dropping your dog off, call ahead and find out any specific rules or regulations your kennel or vet has for dogs who are boarded. Oscar E. Chavez, DVM, MBA, Member of the American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition, says the following are a few of the steps you’ll most likely need to take to help put everything in place before the big drop off occurs.

For Her Physical Health

Medically, you’ll need to make sure your dog is up to date on her vaccines before you board her, says Dr. Chavez. “This includes the famous Bordetella bronchiseptica, aka Kennel Cough,” he said. “In fact, most boarding facilities will require proof of Bordetella vaccination within the last six months, and a current Rabies vaccine.”

Timing is everything when it comes to these vaccines, too. It’s easy for pet parents to lose track of vaccine dates, which could cause a last-minute, stressful rush to the vet. “While some boarding facilities will be satisfied with a last-minute vaccine, it’s important to note that your pet only mounts an effective immune response several days following the vaccination, so if you do it all at the last minute, they may  not truly be protected,” says Dr. Chavez.

Additionally, just because your pet has had all her vaccines doesn’t mean she’s totally in the clear for avoiding common boarding ailments (like Kennel Cough or fleas). “Just like the flu vaccine, no dog vaccine is 100% effective, so it’s worth doing what we can to maximize their efficacy,” says the vet.

Other things to keep in mind when it comes to your dog’s health include: flea prevention, de-worming and preventative care. “Many dogs are flea allergic,” says Dr. Chavez, “and the April, May, June season is the worst for it. I see owners come in and spend over $200 on treatments for flea allergies (antibiotics, etc.), when it could have been prevented. Don’t let the boarding facility become a source of fleas for your home unnecessarily.”

For His Mental Health

Physical health prep before boarding is important, sure, but don’t forget the psychological preparation, as well. “In short, don’t make it a big deal,” says Dr. Chavez. “Research has shown that domestic dogs are better than any other species on reading human cues and body language -- so if you’re anxious, he will be anxious, as well.”

Instead, try to stay calm and make things fun. Consider how you would talk to your kids excitedly about going to Grandma’s for the weekend, and use that same thought process to gear your dog up for getting excited about being boarded.

It doesn’t hurt to drop off food for your pup (in fact some kennels require this), along with a few of his favorite treats to help him feel more comfortable, too.

If you’ve properly prepped your pet, a couple days of being boarded can actually be a fun experience where she’ll get to meet and play with new people and puppy friends. And after all, absence makes the heart grow fonder … so just think of what your reunion will be like when you’re finally back together! 

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.

Could a Veterinary Behaviorist Help Your Dog?

Trixie the greyhound lives surrounded by movie stars in her Southern California home, but for many years, she was hardly a talent agent’s dream. Fearful and aggressive toward strangers who came to visit, Trixie wouldn’t even go on walks without becoming skittish. Her owner tried just about everything and was at the end of his rope, until he found a dog savior.

Los Angeles-area veterinary behaviorist Karen Sueda, DVM, a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (DACVB), came to the canine’s rescue. After spending time with Trixie’s owner, Dr. Sueda started a behavior modification program where she slowly introduced new people to the anxious greyhound and conditioned Trixie to respond with behaviors other than growling or snapping. She encouraged the dog to sit or offer a paw and rewarded her with a treat for doing so. Dr. Sueda also prescribed a psychiatric medication, similar to human medications such as Prozac, for the stressed-out pooch to help her get accustomed to busy streets and loud noises.

“It’s really hard to predict the triggers, and you can’t prevent the anxiety,” Dr. Sueda says. “So we talked to the owner about teaching him another behavior the dog could do besides becoming startled or running away, such as sitting.” She adds, “The medication helped speed up the process. Rather than months, it only took a few weeks.”

This type of “dog whispering” is becoming more common for dealing with canine behavioral woes -- and for good reason.

Increasingly, pet owners, veterinarians and the research community have come to believe that many canine behavioral problems, such as aggressive behavior or biting, destructive chewing and elimination troubles, have their roots in the emotional health of dogs. When that emotional health is unwell, your dog may need the help of a human psychiatrist equivalent. That’s where veterinary behaviorists step in.

What Veterinary Behaviorists Do
Veterinary behaviorists are fully trained veterinarians who complete an additional specialized program in behavioral medicine. They then apply to be board-certified by the American College of Veterinary Behavior (ACVB). There are only 47 such certified veterinary behaviorists in the United States today. Ask your general veterinarian for a referral if you think your dog might benefit from this treatment, or look on the ACVBs Web site for a list of certified behaviorists and where they practice. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) Web site may also be a good source. In addition to veterinary behaviorists, this site lists veterinarians who have a special interest in behavior, as well as members with a Ph.D. in animal behavior or a related field.

Dr. Sueda says that veterinary behaviorists are the dog world’s equivalent to psychiatrists for humans. But since our dogs can’t talk, it’s usually the pet owners who meet first with the “shrink” and provide a history of the dog’s behaviors. Veterinary behaviorists use this information, medical records, what they know of the animal’s behavior in the wild and how the species communicates with other animals or humans to make a diagnosis.

Once the diagnosis is made, the behaviorist lays out the options for treatment. “Every home situation is different. Every dog is different,” says veterinary behaviorist John Ciribassi, DVM, DACVB, who practices in Carol Stream, Ill. “What is done with one family isn’t necessarily done with another. You have to tailor your approach to situations and people. You have to get the whole family involved.”

Problems Behaviorists Treat
There are several common problems that cause dog owners to seek out a veterinary behaviorist. The referrals sometimes come from their dog's general veterinarian.

  • Aggression The most common issue veterinary behaviorists deal with is aggression in dogs, Dr. Ciribassi says. Some aggression in dogs is natural, such as territorial aggression in canines who are allowed the run of the house or the yard. But aggression that is fear- or anxiety-based is an individual temperament issue, usually caused by a flawed system of transmitting nerve impulses within the dog. “The messages don’t get from one to the other part of the brain,” Dr. Ciribassi says. In cases where fear and anxiety are the result of a chemical imbalance, medication may be part of the solution in addition to behavior modifications, he says.
  • Separation anxiety This tends to be the second most common issue veterinary behaviorists treat in dogs, Drs. Ciribassi and Sueda say. Separation anxiety is often a situation in which a dog becomes anxious or nervous in instances where they are separated from their primary attachment figure -- typically an owner. Separation anxiety often results in destructive behavior. Dogs will sometimes chew or scratch at furniture or doors, or may even destroy items left in the home. Dr. Ciribassi says behaviorists try to desensitize the dog to being left alone by decreasing how much the owner interacts with the dog in the house and teaching the owner to be low-key when they leave and return. Sometimes medication is needed.
  • Elimination disorders These include elimination of waste inside the house and territorial marking. Behaviorists have to get to the root of the problem. Sometimes it can be as simple as a bad habit that the dog has formed and needs to break. Other times, marking, in particular, can be caused by aggression between multiple dogs in a house.

FDA-approved Medications
Prescribing psychiatric meds for dogs is a last resort, Dr. Sueda says, and is only considered after other forms of behavior modification have failed. The behavior modification techniques often include desensitization of the dog to a certain trigger and then counter-conditioning the pet to react with different behavior. These methods are similar to teaching humans how to overcome their fears -- such as a fear of flying.

When medications are called for, veterinary behaviorists have three types of psychiatric medications approved for behavioral uses in dogs by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. These three medications are as follows:

  • Fluoxetine, a generic form of Prozac, has been approved to treat separation anxiety in dogs.
  • Clomicalm, aka clomipramine hydrochloride, has also been approved to treat separation anxiety in dogs.
  • Selegiline (sold as Anipryl for veterinary usage) has been approved for treating cognitive dysfunction in dogs -- akin to Alzheimer’s disease in older dogs.

Dr. Sueda says that early intervention is the key to solving your dog’s behavior problems. “Behavior problems are just like any other habit. The more we’re allowed to practice bad behavior, the better we get at it,” she says. “For the dog’s well-being -- as well as the owner’s -- you need to catch it early.”

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.