Recently a friend’s dog bit one of the children in the family, after seven years of living together without any aggression from the dog. The eight-year-old boy tends to be hyperactive and the dog tends to be nervous, and one day when they were alone in the back yard together, the child pulled the dog up on its back legs and hugged it hard. The dog bit the boy’s nose. All too common a situation, but there is a lot you can do if your dog shows aggression. Here are nine tips.
1. Immediately manage the situation for safety. Don’t risk injury to yourself, other people, the dog, or other pets. Use a crate if the dog is used to one. (See my page on crate training.) It may be quite inconvenient for you to provide the necessary level of supervision while you consider your options, but it’s essential. For example, if two dogs in your house are not getting along, you may have to keep doors closed between them. You are avoiding dog bites and worse.Teach children the excellent Be a Tree approach to warding off dog bites.
2. As soon as possible, take your dog to your veterinarian for a check-up. There are literally dozen of causes of dog aggression that veterinary attention can find. Pain anywhere in the dog’s body can make the dog very irritable. The veterinarian may suggest temporary medications for the dog, and you can consider that. (Only a small percentage of veterinarians at present would be able to make suggestions for herbal or homeopathic remedies, but some of those who do will consult by phone. This would be best after your regular vet has seen your dog.)
3. Start a log. Use a notebook or a clipboard with paper, something you can keep handy and have a pen with it . Much as I love writing at the computer, in this case, I don’t recommend it as your primary log, because it is too easy to think you will write something the next time you turn on the computer and then not get around to it. Better to jot down short notes at least daily. Note any problems and also note successes. Don’t think you will remember it all later, because it will blur over time.
4. Be sure your dog gets plenty of exercise and healthy food. This may require some significant changes in your habits — you could get a lot more exercise too! — but a tired dog is typically way less likely to misbehave. If your dog’s aggression comes out when you walk him, you can get him used to a head halter such as a Halti or Gentle Leader which gives you more control without aggravating the problems. You may need to drive him to a different area to get good walks if your neighborhood isn’t optimal.
Small dogs can get a good bit of exercise if you play with them in your house or apartment. (By the way, many small dog owners let aggressiveness go unchecked that they wouldn’t allow in a larger dog. Don’t make that mistake.)
Regarding the food, many brands are full of chemicals which can affect behavior negatively. See other pages of this website for more on the importance of healthier dog food, or search the internet.
5. Avoid situations that bring out the aggressive behavior in your dog. Research shows that your vigilance can make all the difference in the long-term outcome of a dog aggression problem. If the issue is in your home, pay attention to what resources your dog may be guarding — things like access to you, a comfortable bed, food, toys, etc. This resource guarding can be relative to another dog or relative to a cat or a person. I once had a rescue dog who tried to guard me from my husband Kelly when Kelly would enter my home office; it took months, but after my husband had patiently given the dog many treats in the hallway before the growling began, the dog realized that there were two nice people in the family.
6. Train your dog. Go back to the basics of sit, stay, down, if you haven’t been using them a lot lately. If you do train your dog regularly, keep it up. Train tricks like shaking hands or rolling over, if you wish. The core idea here is to help your dog to use his mind and to enhance the relationship between you, THEN over time you can get better behavior in the stressful situations.
Whatever you do, be sure to use pain-free training methods; not only are they more humane, they are actually more effective too. I highly recommend clicker training in this situation — here’s one outstanding book on it: Click to Calm: Healing the Aggressive Dog.
7. Hire a really good dog trainer for a series of sessions. Many dog aggression situations are going to be beyond the ability of the owner to handle alone. In choosing a dog trainer, be very careful. Ask a lot of questions. You may be shocked at the cruelty of some of the methods that are commonly used to “break” a dog. Also, you may be vulnerable emotionally to a trainer who promises you that everything will be just fine, but be wary of anyone who promises you the moon. Be sure to ask the dog trainer about their background, professional training, and philosophy. Ask for at least three references, and phone those people.
An excellent resource for your dog trainer search is the list at the Association of Professional Dog Trainers.
Don’t be in a hurry to send your dog away somewhere for training or “rehab” because the aggressive behavior happens in the context of your world, and in general it’s much better to work with someone while the dog stays at home. Also, real improvement is almost never going to happen in just one or two sessions. When the trainer evaluates your dog, discuss with them how many sessions they recommend, knowing that it’s hard to predict. This is likely to make a dent in your wallet but can make it possible to save a dog.
8. Diminish your dog’s fear by touching him soothingly. Recognize that in most cases, fear is a big part of why your dog is aggressive. Do what you can to diminish his fear. For example, touching the dog with massage or Tellington TTouch can make a difference. (That’s a link to the category page on this website where all the articles about massage and bodywork are listed.)
Since every dog has a different handling threshold, that is, a different level of acceptance of being touched at all and of being touched in particular parts of the body, don’t push beyond what the dog accepts. You will also be diminishing your dog’s fear by doing things mentioned in this article, such as more exercise and avoiding stressful situations.
9. Consider your options and commit to a plan. This last tip is one of the most important, because no matter what difficult emotions you go through –anger, sadness, frustration, denial — if you keep working with your dog, revising your plan as needed, the outlook is much brighter than if you let things slide.