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.

Find Out Your Mutt's Family Tree

The American Kennel Club pedigree of Fallon Flights O’Fancy, an Irish setter owned by Anne Schilling, is a mile long. The stunning purebred from Madison, Wis., justly holds his furry mahogany head high, but he isn’t snooty when he selects his friends. One such canine chum is Frank, a scruffy, shelter-rescued mutt that Fallon met at a dog park.

Unlike Fallon, Frank’s family history is a mystery. But thanks to new DNA testing procedures, Frank, and most mutts like him, can have their mixed breed ancestry deciphered. The tests are the scientific version of the best guessing game of all, “What kind of dog is that?” which has kept dog park walkers in conversation for years. The DNA tests cannot reveal every bit of information about your dog, since genetic data isn’t available for every breed and mix, but even if you don't receive a fully positive identification, at least some breeds can be eliminated.

How the Tests Work
One such DNA testing company is MetaMorphix Inc. of Beltsville, Md., whose cheek swab kit allows dog owners like you to test for about 38 breeds. To participate, you place the provided swab in your dog’s mouth and swoosh it around to coat it in saliva and mouth cells that hold DNA, a cellular material that contains the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of your dog. A blood test from the Rockville, Md.-based Mars Veterinary, part of the same company that makes M&M’S candy, can detect more than 130 breeds. The American Kennel Club currently recognizes over 150 breeds, and the United Kennel Club recognizes 300 breeds, so there are inherent limitations to the current tests. As time goes by, though, these organizations will likely include more breeds, making the procedures more accurate and revealing.

Geneticists have identified over 300 DNA markers that help identify specific breeds. The recently mapped canine genome refers to the content and organization of genetic instructions for dogs -- sort of the protein recipe for canines. The ability to identify specifics in the canine genome gave birth to the breed DNA identification tests. “The more dogs these companies test, the more information they’ll have,” says Susan Nelson, DVM, of the Kansas State University's Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. “Hopefully that information will have medical relevance. Right now it’s mostly just for fun.”

Dog Family Surprises
Alexa Lewis of Los Angeles, Calif., decided it would be fun to test her two mixed breeds. She used the cheek swab test and felt that the results for her cordy -- a chow chow and Akita mix -- were accurate, but she was surprised about the results on her golden retriever mix, Riley. “Golden retriever was eliminated for Riley even though they couldn’t tell us his primary breed. Riley has three breeds: saluki, dachshund and Labrador. That could explain his short legs.” Lewis plans to give Riley the blood test when they next visit his veterinarian.

Another dog owner who has tried out the new DNA testing is Cecilia Castillo of Tewksbury Township, N.J. She used the cheek swab on her purebred border collie and her two border collie mixes. The purebred’s came back as 100 percent border collie. “I knew Sally had to be a mix because she doesn’t act like a border collie, although she looks like one. I thought it would be cool to find out what was in Sally’s genetic makeup -- only for curiosity, no other reason,” said Castillo. “The results on Sally’s cheek swab were missing something, so when the blood test came out, I figured I'd retest her.” The results were different, although both tests revealed two breeds in common: Lab and dachshund. “They both showed that she has no border collie. The cheek swab test showed traces of husky, dachshund, and a significant amount of Lab. The blood test showed traces of Cavalier King Charles spaniel, golden retriever, German shepherd, Lab and dachshund.”

So what did Castillo do with the results? “I concluded that Sally is a true mutt.”

Health and Behavior Benefits to Testing
“Knowing a dog’s heritage can help identify temperament traits,” said Lisa Peterson of the AKC. “Breed-specific training is important. If the majority breed is listed in these tests, it will aid an owner in how to approach training and socialization.” Peterson added, “For example, Cecilia thought she had a border collie, the obsessive compulsive breed of the dog world. Knowing that Sally has some husky, which tends to be more independent, means Cecilia may approach training in a different way.”

Like Castillo, you don’t have to do anything with the information, or like Lewis, you can joke about it with your dog park buddies and other friends. Lewis says, “We’ve made a lot of non-dog owners think we're crazy when we tell them about the testing!” Information gained from dog DNA-testing also has the following applications:

You may consider altering your training style based on behavior related to certain breeds. Sporting dogs like Labradors need significant daily exercise to prevent boredom-based destruction. Guard dogs like German shepherds are naturally protective and can be aggressive without appropriate socialization. Toy breeds like papillons can be notoriously difficult to housebreak, so patience is required.

Inform your veterinarian if your mix has any breed known to have difficulties with anesthesia. For example, greyhound or whippet breeds have low body fat, and part collies are sensitive to ivermectin, a compound used in some heartworm preventives.

Familiarize yourself with the breeds’ predisposition toward certain diseases. Miniature schnauzers are prone to inflammation of the pancreas. Dalmatians are prone to uric acid stones. Old English sheepdogs are prone to a type of anemia.

Explore performance activities that you may not have considered for your dog; these may include agility exercises for herding breeds or field tests for hunting dogs.

Add to your exercise choices. If your dog’s ancestry includes a water-oriented breed, such as poodle or Newfoundland, see if it will enjoy learning how to swim.

Consider going to dog shows to look for visual evidence of other breeds that might be related to your dog.

Create a fun pedigree document discussing historical backgrounds of breeds rather than specific parents.

Make a scrapbook using your dog’s photos and photos of the known breeds of your mix. Consider including other people’s opinions of your dog’s heritage mix, no matter how bizarre it might be. The scrapbook could even include a funny illustration of your dog by using parts of magazine photos to piece together a collage.

Mutt Owners Get the Last Laugh

Family history information about your dog’s breed heritage won’t change the way you feel about your pet. You will love your dog just the same, but curiosity killed the cat, or in this case, dog, and satisfaction brought him back. You won’t be lost for words the next time someone asks you about your favorite canine companion, no matter how unusual the breeding turns out to be. In fact, where mutts are concerned, the funkier the mix of breeds turns out to be, the better and more entertaining answers you’ll have.

Dog Training Partner

The best workout partners never complain, bring unfailing energy to your exercise sessions and stick by your side rather than racing ahead or trailing behind. If it sounds like it would be tough to find someone to fit that description, it’s time to consider a four-legged workout partner.

“For the most part, any dog can be a runner,” says Lindsay Stordahl, a professional dog runner and walker who operates Run That Mutt in the Fargo-Moorhead area of North Dakota. Stordahl has covered more than 4,200 miles with clients’ dogs. “People get too caught up over whether or not their dog can run. If you are not sure, then simply try.”

It’s also possible you might find another exercise activity to enjoy with your dog, such as swimming, which is low-impact for joints, says Dr. Amber Andersen, a veterinarian at Point Vicente Animal Hospital in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. A dog-focused activity such as agility training can also provide workout benefits for both you and your dog.

Before You Begin a Workout Program

Of course, it’s not simply a matter of grabbing a leash and heading out the door. Before you begin working out with your dog, experts say you should consider these factors:

  • Your health and your dog’s health. It’s a good idea to check with both your veterinarian and your physician before you begin a workout program.
  • Your dog’s breed. Stordahl runs with all manner of breeds. However, short-faced (i.e., brachycephalic) dogs, such as English bulldogs and pugs can overheat easily. “They have an already compromised respiratory system,” says Andersen. “Monitor them closely.” An English bulldog will likely be happier walking because of its heavyset body.
  • Your dog’s age. “Many veterinarians will stress that a large-breed dog should not run until it’s about 18 months old, because the dog’s bone structure will not be fully developed until that time,” says Stordahl. Check with your veterinarian to determine when a young dog is ready to jog, then keep to a modest pace and distance. Older dogs, like older humans, can suffer from arthritis or other health conditions.
  • Weather conditions. Extreme temperatures and weather conditions can impact your dog’s ability to work out. Be particularly conscious of your dog’s water needs in warmer weather.

Working out With Your Dog

“Gradually increase the intensity and duration of exercise over the course of a few weeks,” says Andersen. “Be consistent and committed so both you and your dog can build stamina.” Exercising with your dog will work better if you do the following:

  • Let your dog be a dog. “Usually our dogs are allowed to stop and sniff on daily walks, so they will want to do this during more intense jogs or runs,” says Andersen. “Before you start running, let your dog have ample time to relieve itself as well as sniff around. During the cooldown after your run, let your dog do this again.”
  • Use a harness and ditch the retractable leash. A harness allows for greater control, and you’ll want to keep your dog on a short leash.
  • Do regular paw-checks. “If your dog is new to running, you should stop and check its feet at least every five minutes until you know how much it can handle,” says Stordahl. “If the paws look pink or tender, then slow to a walk and head home.” Bleeding paws mean a few days’ rest, though they should heal on their own. Your dog’s feet will naturally toughen.
  • Know when to stop. If you see a wagging tail and your dog is alert and responsive, it most likely is enjoying the activity. It’s time to stop when you see any respiratory distress or lameness or when your dog starts dragging behind or slowing down.

Be creative and patient as you find a workout routine you both enjoy. “Exercising is vital to both human and canine health,” says Andersen. “Finding a way to incorporate your dog’s fitness routine with your own will make you both happy and can be a huge time-saver.”

Does Breeding Impact Dog Behavior?

All domesticated dogs have likely had their behavior and personalities altered as a result of breeding. “Breeding of the brain” has become a catchphrase among some scientists who study dogs.

But first, consider how just spaying or neutering impacts your dog. For example, the ASPCA reports that female dogs can become far less irritable and nervous after being spayed. That’s because un-spayed dogs experience hormonal changes that affect behavior. The surgery can make such dogs act in a more consistent, predictable manner.

Our impact on dogs goes back far earlier than modern surgical techniques. Selective breeding over thousands of years has influenced not only how dogs look, but also what goes on with them internally.

A 2010 study published in the journal PLoS ONE, for example, found that when humans select for differences between skull lengths for breeds, the position of the brain within the dog’s skull can actually shift. To determine this, Michael Valenzuela of the University of New South Wales and his team used MRI to scan the brains of 11 recently euthanized dogs from a local Australian pound, along with two living English springer spaniels.

Analysis of the brain’s overall position in the skull determined that dogs with the shortest skulls -- such as a pit bull, Akita and Shih Tzu cross included in the study group – showed substantial reorganization of the brain. Parts of the brain rotated forward up to 15 degrees, to the point that the sections devoted to scent had shifted position from the front of the brain toward the base of the skull.

That one change alone could affect how dogs perceive their environments. This, in turn, could alter a dog’s behavior and personality. For this and other reasons, animal breeding should be done with care and in a responsible manner.

Small Dog Syndrome

“Small dog syndrome” refers to tiny dogs with a big attitude. In humans, a comparable phenomenon is called the “Napoleon complex.” That’s a phrase used to describe an inferiority complex held by people who are short in stature. Napoleon stood about 5 feet 6 inches, but what would today be considered a short stature obviously did not stand in the way of his military and political achievements. People with this complex are said to be driven by a perceived handicap to overcompensate in other aspects of their lives.

Small dogs, in turn, “get a bad rap for being yippy, yappy, snappy and high-strung,” say Wendy Nan Rees and Kristen Hampshire, authors of the Dog Lover’s Daily Companion. Rees and Hampshire, however, add that these little dogs don’t seem to care much about size. They think they’re big, so they act like it. The writers astutely ask: Have you ever seen a Bernese mountain dog back off from a feisty Chihuahua? The Chihuahua will probably be the one that doesn’t back down. (Owners, however, should be present to take control of such situations and prevent them in the first place.)

Rees and Hampshire propose a very interesting theory about small dog syndrome. They believe it is rooted in people’s willingness to overlook bad behavior. They explain that because small dogs can usually just be scooped up in our arms, we tend to slack on obedience training. With larger dogs, such training is often not ignorable.

The solution to curing a small dog of this syndrome is to just stick to a training plan. Be sure to teach your little dog foundation commands. That way, the next time your dog goes into a yapping fit or decides to dig on your furniture, you can rein in the behavior before it becomes habitual.