Aggression is a serious behavior problem for many dog owners. Behaviors such as growling, snapping, or biting are upsetting and scary, and dogs of any breed are capable of aggression. While aggression cannot be cured overnight, there are steps you can take to stop it.
Talk to Your Veterinarian
Dogs who show sudden signs of aggression may have an underlying medical problem. There are a number of conditions and diseases which cause aggressive behavior.
Talk to your veterinarian to determine whether this is the case for your pet. Treatment or medication may make big improvements in your dog's behavior.
Call in a Professional
If you have ruled out a medical problem, it is time to call in a professional dog trainer or behaviorist. Because aggression is such a serious problem, dog owners should not attempt to fix it on their own. A professional can help you create a plan to manage your dog's aggression. To find a professional dog trainer or behaviorist, ask your veterinarian for a referral or check out the Association of Pet Dog Trainers website.
Determine What Produces the Aggression
Your first step is to figure out what causes your dog's aggression. Some dogs growl when someone approaches them while they are eating or chewing a bone. Others react aggressively towards children or strangers. You cannot come up with a plan to change your dog's behavior until you know the reason behind it.
Avoid Situations That Produce Aggressive Behavior
Now that you know what causes your dog's behavior, you can avoid those situations. If your dog growls over his toys or his food bowl, you can feed him in his crate or take away certain toys. If he is aggressive towards strangers or other dogs, you can keep his exercise limited to your own backyard.
Create a Plan
Your trainer can help you figure out the best plan for managing your dog's aggression. The plan will be different for each dog depending on the cause and the degree of the aggression. In most cases, you will be using positive reinforcement (i.e. lots of treats and praise) to teach your dog new behaviors. For example, if your dog is mildly aggressive towards strangers, start off by standing far away from someone your dog does not know. The distance should be far enough away so that your dog has not started to growl or snap. Then, give him lots of treats and praise. Gradually decrease the distance between your dog and strangers, continuing to use the positive reinforcement. Your dog will begin to learn that strangers equal treats, and you should see a decrease in aggression. This same gradual process can work for getting your dog used to a variety of other situations.
Be Consistent, Patient, and Positive
It is important to keep things positive. Punishing your dog for aggressive behavior usually backfires and can escalate the aggression.
If you respond to a growling dog by hitting or yelling, he may feel the need to defend himself by biting. Punishment may also lead to your dog biting without warning. For example, if your dog growls at children, he is letting you know that he is uncomfortable around them. If you punish him for growling, he may not give this warning the next time he gets uncomfortable. He will simply bite.
Aggression is not something that goes away overnight. It is important that once you have a plan of action in place, you are consistent. Stick to your plan, and do not try to jump ahead to the next step until your dog is ready. Although it can take several months or more, with patience and persistence you should see changes in your dog's behavior. For help, seek out a dog trainer or animal behaviorist.
In some instances, training alone is not enough. Dogs who are aggressive because they are fearful may need medication to help manage the problem. Talk to your veterinarian about your options.
Another consideration is whether or not your lifestyle allows you to stick with a plan. For instance, if you have a dog who growls at children and you have kids, it is impossible to avoid the situation which brings out his aggression. In this case, the best option for you and your dog may be finding him a new home.
The worst case scenario is that the aggression cannot be overcome. In situations in which your dog becomes a threat to you, your family, or other people, you may need to consider humane euthanasia.
Edited by Jenna Stregowski, RVT