What do you do if your dog is showing signs of aggression? Dogs rarely act aggressively for no reason. If your dog has suddenly started showing signs of aggression, the first thing you need to do is to find out why. What is causing the aggression?
According to a study from the Center For Disease Control (CDC), approximately 4.7 million dog bites occur in the United States each year, and 800,000 of those bites result in medical care. The U.S. population is approximately 325.7 million people as of 2017. That means a dog bites 1 out of every 69 people.
Just for fun, guess which breed of dog has the highest bite numbers annually: chihuahuas or American Pit Bull Terriers? Hint – it’s not the pit bull!
Types of Aggression
Take the time to carefully watch your dog’s behavior to see if you can see what triggers the aggression. Maybe they growl when someone gets too close to their food bowl, or they snap at someone reaching for their bone. This is called food aggression or resource guarding.
Maybe a loud noise startles them, or they get woken up suddenly from a nap, and they get startled and growl as a warning. This is called fear aggression or anxiety aggression.
If your dog has recently reached sexual maturity or a certain age, then they could be displaying challenging signs of aggression towards their owner, which is called dominance or status-related aggression.
If your dog is usually calm and quiet but becomes reactive and aggressive when you go for a walk, or when they are in the yard behind a fence, this is called leash or barrier aggression.
These are all caused by different things, but they all end up with the same problem: aggression. Unfortunately, an aggression problem seldom has an easy, quick-and-simple fix. Aggression is a complex problem that can take weeks or even months to solve.
Recognizing The Signs Of Aggression
Learn to recognize the signs and signals of aggression, and the body language your dog uses when it’s starting to feel stressed or anxious. Common signs of beginning aggression can include:
- Lip licking
- Lip curling (showing teeth)
- Tense or ‘stiff’ stance or posture
- Restlessness or pacing
- White around the eyes, called “Whale Eye”
- Avoiding looking at you
- Staring fixating on something or someone
- Raising their ‘hackles,’ the fur on their neck and back
Aggression towards owners or family members and caretakers is always a scary and dangerous situation that needs to be handled carefully and immediately. Often this is caused by:
- Hectic or stressful living environment
- Inconsistent training
- Inappropriate discipline
- Mishandling of the dog
- Change in the house
- Adding or taking away household members
- Lack of proper socialization
Dogs are sensitive creatures, and any change in their environment or usual routine can be extremely stressful for them. Some dogs can handle these things better than others, and some react so severely that they end up displaying aggression, even without meaning to.
Visiting Your Vet
One of the first things you should do when your dog starts displaying aggression is to take them to the vet. Your vet will do a thorough physical examination to determine if any underlying medical conditions are causing the problem, or if they are experiencing pain somewhere. This can easily be the cause and trigger of aggressive behavior.
If your dog is in pain, they may react badly to being touched or be overly sensitive and moody, which can cause them to act aggressively towards the people that they normally love and adore.
Finding A Trainer and Animal Behaviorist
If your vet cannot find any physical or medical problems, then it may be time to contact a professional behavior consultant. They will be able to help you discover the reasons behind the aggression, and help you come up with a treatment and training plan to handle the problem.
The Aggression Complex
Aggression problems are complex and often multi-faceted, and often challenging to deal with, but rarely impossible. Most dogs can be brought through their aggression issues and continue to live their lives as happy, loving family pets. Some dogs have severe problems, however, and some may even never be fully resolved.
The majority of the time, though, they can be controlled and safely managed. Unfortunately, some dogs have such severe aggression problems that it is better and safer for everyone if they are put to sleep. But that is not the norm, and always a last-case scenario.
In most cases, an aggressive dog can be successfully managed and controlled. Once you figure out what your dog’s aggressive triggers are (and these can be vastly different for each dog) you and the trainer you’re working with can come up with ways to avoid these situations or steps to take to minimize the amount of stress and aggression your dog experiences and displays.
Aggression & Children
If your dog is aggressive towards children, then you should absolutely avoid taking them into situations where you know they are likely to come into contact with a child. You can take small steps in getting your dog used to being around children prior to them coming into contact but never ever risk a child’s safety with your dog.
Proactively, you can teach children who will be around dogs most frequently how to properly and safely interact with a dog. All these techniques will help to reduce a dog’s sudden aggression. Hands down, an aggressive dog should never be near children. There is too much to risk and the outcome of something going wrong could have devastating effects.
What To Do in the Moment
At the moment when your dog reacting or displaying aggression, it’s essential that you remain calm and don’t overreact. Our first instinct is often to yell and scream at the dog, but unfortunately, this usually ends up making a bad situation so much worse. It increases your dog’s anxiety and stress and can often end up triggering your dog to bite.
You never want to punish your dog in these scenarios. Punishment will only confuse and hurt your dog and will end up compounding the problem. Attempting to dominate your dog or show them who is the ‘Alpha dog’ rarely works, and often ends up making the whole problem worse. After all, aggression merely breeds more aggression. This is the case with both canines and humans.
NEVER punish your dog for growling. Dogs use growling as a warning sign, and if you punish them for issuing a warning, then they will stop. Instead of peacefully growling, they will instead attack with hardly any warning at all. It’s much safer to let your dog growl and have that warning option than to remove it from your dog’s options of reactions.
When your dog triggers on something and starts to become aggressive, stay calm. Quietly put a leash on your dog if you can, and put some distance between him and whatever it was that caused the trigger. Try to distract your pup by having him do simple obedience commands like “sit” or “down,” things they know and will listen to. Or you can try giving them a toy or a treat — anything to get their attention away from their trigger and back onto you.
9 Things You Can Do To Help Your Dog
There are many things you can do to help your dog work through its aggression issues, to ensure that your dog continues to have a full and happy life with you and your family. The best treatment is always prevention before the fact and avoiding the situation altogether if you can.
- NEVER lie to anyone about your dog’s history or aggressive tendencies… especially your pet sitter or dog walker!
- At the moment when your dog is reacting, do your best to stay calm, and don’t use punishment.
- Diffuse the situation as much as possible, and do your best to put some distance between your dog and its trigger.
- Distract your dog with treats, toys, or simple commands, and get its attention and focus back onto you.
- Learn to recognize your dog’s body language and signals; that means they are starting to get stressed and triggered, and lead them out of that situation.
- Determine the cause of the aggression and rule out any possible medical or physical reasons by taking your dog to the vet for an examination.
- Work with a professional trainer or behaviorist to determine what triggers your dog to become aggressive in the first place.
- Come up with solutions that will work for both you and your dog.
- Learn to manage your dog’s aggression as much as possible. Seek expert help if needed.
- Take steps to either reduce the amount of stress your dog experiences or avoid situations that you know will trigger their aggression.
Most dogs with aggression problems can continue to live happy and healthy lives, just like any other dog. It’s all up to you, their owner, and human caretaker.
A dog is a member of the family and a big responsibility and commitment. The love and companionship you receive from them in return are more than worth the effort on your part. Dogs enrich and better our lives in countless ways. They deserve a little of our time and effort and a whole lot of our love.
Melanie is the owner and founder of Brevard’s premier trusted in-home pet care company. With a Sociology & Criminal Justice degree from the University of Tennessee, in 2016 she took her corporate security background and combined it with her lifelong passion for animals – that’s how Space Coast Pet Services was born! She is certified in Pet First Aid & CPR, bonded, insured, and proudly completed a full background check successfully. She is committed to ongoing training and education for herself and her team. To learn more, click here.
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