Friday, July 15, 2011

Is your dog aggressive?

Aggression in dogs is a serious problem because it can be a safety issue for people, other pets in a home, and the dog with the issue. Nothing gets a dog euthanized faster than a bite history after all. Here are a few things to consider if you have a dog with aggression issues.

First it is important to rule out medical problems. I usually recommend at least doing Lyme testing and Thyroid testing before some consults. Both of those can cause a previously nice dog to be unusually cranky and less tolerant. Thankfully these are easy to check and also easy to treat if this is a contributing problem. If you don't rule out medical issues you may be painting yourself in a corner. All the behavior modification in the world won't help you if an underlying medical condition is interfering.

(FMI on Lyme Disease in dogs:
For a thyroid test relating to a behavior issue I recommend the full thyroid panel sent out instead of the in house t4 test that most vets do. This gives you the full picture of the thyroid at work. FMI : )

There is an awful video going around of a dog biting its’ own foot while it is trying to chew on a bone. I've seen it featured on funny video shows now and then as well. That dog is actually having a seizure so I don't find it funny at all. This is aggression yet it is the result of a medical issue.

Physical health is important in many ways. Is your dog overweight? This can put unnecessary stress on the body and also cause a dog to not feel well. Thankfully this can usually be changed by adding some exercise and perhaps changing your dogs’ diet. I've recently mentioned high protein levels in food being a possible problem for some dogs. Again something that is easy to change to see if the behavior improves. Older dogs can also be less tolerant due to arthritis or dysplasia.

If you have a dog that is aggressive to people management is going to be part of your life with that dog. Get used to this idea. Yes the behavior may improve with a b-mod program but until then you MUST keep everyone safe. This may be as simple as putting the dog away when guests come to the house (EVERY SINGLE TIME) or as complicated as teaching the dog to accept the wearing of a basket muzzle. It depends upon the dog and the situation. (and what you are capable of doing within your lifestyle) Training a dog that bites to walk on a head collar is a great way to manage the dog when it is on leash.

Dealing with aggression gets complicated because there are many different types of aggression in dogs. Fear aggression, (which is considered the most frequently seen) resource guarding, inter-dog aggression, pain induced aggression (pinch collar users take note) dominance aggression (which can be triggered by trying to force a dog to do something they do not want to do-CM method fans take note) predatory aggression, on leash aggression and so on. It is important to figure out your dogs’ trigger and type of aggression to best know how to address it. Different types of aggression have different treatments!

A note about protection aggression: Most "protection" aggression is actually resource guarding of the dogs person. If I go to shake your hand or sit next to you and your dog bites me it is being possessive. "Get away from MY valuable resource!" If I can shake your hand with no problem, but then I go to hit you and your dog bites me that may be actual protection. The difference is that protection must mean there is a real threat to their person. I find people get disappointed when I point out the difference. Everyone wants to think their dog is protective of them. In reality most of us will never really know if our dog will protect us because we will never be in a situation where they have to make that decision. And that is a GOOD thing!

Knowing how to read a dogs’ body language is also very important in management of an aggressive dog. Knowing your dog well and watching body language can tip you off to a change in the dogs’ emotion and a potential incident about to happen. A dog leaning forward can indicate an upcoming lunge for instance. Knowing that growling is a good thing can also help. This is a dogs’ way of communicating their discomfort to us so we never want to take away that communication. FMI on growling:

If your dog is leash reactive you can try the Behavior Adjustment Training program, also known as B.A.T. Check out the details here at: It is a great positive method way to teach your dog that we are listening to them and teach them more acceptable reactions to other dogs. Again another example of why communication is critical in dog behavior modification and training.

There are also other options if the cost of behavior modification is unaffordable for you. The following books are all a great start: “Click to Calm by Emma Parsons, and “Bringing Light to Shadow” by Pamela Dennison. There is also “Help for your fearful dog” by Nicole Wilde, “Scardy Dog!” By Ali Brown, and “A guide to living with and training a fearful dog” by Debbie Jacobs. The book “Aggression in Dogs” By Brenda Aloff covers many types of aggression with behavior modification plans as well.

There are some trainers who abhor the idea of the need for medication in dog training and behavior. I believe that SOME dogs can be helped with the use of medication but there is alot that needs to be done to figure out if that is nessasary. It is also NOT to replace behavior modification work. Medication alone will NOT change a dogs behavior problem long term! It is only to help the dog who has a chemistry problem (usually with things such as the absorbsion of seretonin levels in the brain) be more normal so they are capable of relaxing to be able to learn during the behavior modification process. Again, if there is an underlying medical condition, such as a chemistry imbalance, then all the behavior modification in the world will NOT help that dog get better. For dogs who have serious anxiety or obsessive compulsive disorders and the like I recommend the behavior program at Tufts university ( or working with a trainer that is familiar with the proper medications to use in conjunction with a B-Mod program. This also needs to be done under the supervision of a behavior knowledgeable veterinarian. (Sadly some vets still prescribe Acepromazine for noise phobias when that is actually counter-indicated: and )

Tip: Did you know that an easy way to raise the seretonin levels in the dogs brain, which makes dogs feel less anxious, is to increase their exercise?

I hope this post is helpful for anyone having aggression issues with their dog. While a certain TV personality would have you believe it is all about being calm and assertive and a “claw bite to the neck” and "Sssst" sound is it much more complicated than that. It is also important to understand the distinction between suppression of behavior, which means management 100% of the time, and changing the emotion of the event so that the behavior changes for the long term without the possible need for management.

As you can see aggression issues have many facets to consider. Find a trainer that understands this if you have a dog with aggression so you addess it in the most appropriate way. Positive non-confrontational methods are the safest way to accomplish this as well. Remember, a bite history is what we want to avoid to keep them safe. Here is the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior's position on using punishment in behavior modificaiton:
I am very careful about taking on aggression cases. For one thing liability is a concern. Dogs that bite people can be dangerous and we live in a litigious society. This is why I decide what clients to take on a case by case basis. People like to blame others if something goes wrong and client compliance is critical. If I think someone isn't going to do what I tell them I won't take their case. End of story. There needs to be a certain amount of trust between me and a client if I am going to stick my neck out for them. I can however refer the cases to other trainers, if approprate, who do see aggression cases as needed. Contact me with any questions.

Note: The photo above is my Jack giving a visiting puppy a warning. It looks dramatic but is a normal and clear communication between them. Some would label this as aggression however it is completely appropriate behavior. Context of actions is important!


MegaKelly said...

Hi Marie,

I recently adopted a 2 to 4 yr old Australian Cattle Dog - his background is a mystery to me. I've noticed that he is typical of the breed in that he is shy - will not immediately approach other people or dogs, normally. I have had the opportunity to discover (after a mild heart attack) that he is very patient with children, even ones who think it's ok to run up at him shrieking, and straddle him. Of course we won't be testing that any time soon... Anyway, my point is, his problem is not with people, thankfully, and he does not "go after" other dogs. However, when we're out in our neighborhood park tossing a ball around and another dog comes up and says hello, he will occasionally snap and growl at them. I've noticed that when this happens the other dog is usually a male. Most of the time they are "pushy" or being obnoxious (trying to hump him repeatedly after being given "the look", etc). He has never intentionally caught flesh - the end of a floppy ear got knicked once, and a lab puppy bit through his own mouth... but I'm fairly certain if he wanted to do real damage he could. The problem is that all the other dogs in my neighborhood are labs or another kind of floppy cuddly breed that never growls at anyone, and even though I see him giving reasonable warnings, he escalates from "the look" straight to snapping and snarling and making a big show, which in turn makes all the other dog owners think he's a monster! I've been staying close when new dogs are around so that I can be his "protector" (I am definitely his leader) and be reassuring to him, praising him when the interactions end without incident. Do you have a good method for making him feel safe with other dogs that I can try? And, is there anything you can suggest that I do to encourage him to growl or give some other less "flashy" warning before going straight to the gnashing of teeth? As I said, I am definitely his leader, and he's never growled at me, not even while playing, so I don't know how to teach/reinforce the behavior. Sorry for the essay, but I haven't been able to find any other advice on this problem... Thank you!

Marie said...

Hi Kelly,

It can he hard to tell from a post but it sounds like he is being pretty appropriate. It is our perception of what is to flashy that may be the issue. Check out this article which might help: Let me know if that doesn't help answer your question at