How to Socialize an Aggressive Dog
When you have a dog that just cannot handle other people or other dogs, then you might be wondering how to socialize an aggressive dog. See, socializing an aggressive dog is kind of a tricky statement because I don’t think it means what you think it means.
When people speak of socializing an aggressive dog, they often mean turning it loose with other dogs, or that is their goal. Many people tell me that they take their dog aggressive dog to the dog park so that he can learn to get along with all dogs.
I’d just like to say, “YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG.” I want my aggressive dog, or my client’s aggressive dog, to simply learn to coexist with his trigger in the environment without any aggressive display. My current Malinois doesn’t like people, and he doesn’t really like other dogs, but you can’t tell that by looking at him.
I have taught him “coping mechanisms” around things he doesn’t like. He doesn’t need to go into an aggressive display. I recognize when he is uncomfortable, and I relieve his stress by giving him something to do and think about. He also trusts me not to stress him out.
For instance, I wouldn’t toss him in a dog park and expect him to socialize, and I don’t force him to allow people to pet him. If I did those things, I would have a dog who couldn’t trust me. Then his only coping mechanism would be aggression and using his teeth. After all, he can’t talk and tell me, or others, how he is feeling.
I must get familiar with his body language and levels of stress, and work together to decrease them, not make them worse. So, stop forcing your dog to do things he doesn’t want to do when it comes to socialization.
If he is growling, snarling, hackling, lunging, and trying to get away, trust what he is trying to tell you: HE IS UNCOMFORTABLE.
Dealing With an Aggressive Dog
When your dog regularly growls, snaps, or bites, you have a serious behavior problem on your hands.
Aggression is one of the top reasons dog owners seek the help of a professional dog trainer or animal behaviorist.
And it’s not just larger dogs and so-called “dangerous breeds” that are prone to aggression; any breed is capable of becoming aggressive under the right circumstances.
Although aggression can’t be cured overnight, there are steps you can take to curb the aggressive behavior and help your dog remain calm.
Why is Your Dog Aggressive?
Aggressive behavior in a dog refers to any behavior connected with an attack or an impending attack. This includes becoming still and rigid, growling, snarling, baring teeth, lunging, and nipping or biting.
Your first step toward stopping this behavior is to figure out what is causing your dog’s aggression.
Some dogs growl as someone approaches them while they’re eating or chewing a bone, for instance.
Others react aggressively toward children or strangers.
The aggression doesn’t have to be directed toward a person either. Some dogs become aggressive around other animals, only specific animals (cats but not other dogs), or toward inanimate objects, such as wheels on vehicles or yard equipment.
The key thing to keep in mind is that you can’t come up with a plan to modify your dog’s behavior until you know the reason behind it.
Types of Aggression in Dogs
Territorial or protective aggression may be exhibited toward people or other animals that approach the pet’s property. Generally, people and other animals that are unusual, less familiar to the dog, or most unlike the members of the household are the most likely “targets” of territorial aggression.
In other words, something different about the sight, sound or actions of the stimulus is causing an alerting, anxious or defensive response on the part of the dog.
While most forms of territorial aggression are likely to occur on the property, some dogs may protect areas where they are temporarily housed, and may protect family members regardless of the location. Territorial aggressive displays may range from growling and barking to lunging, chasing, snapping and biting.
Territorial displays may occur at windows, doors, behind fences and in the car. Some dogs may quickly claim territory and show similar behaviors at picnic areas, park benches, etc. Dogs that are physically prevented by a barricade or leash from gaining access to the stimulus (i.e., are frustrated) may have their aggression heightened, or may develop displacement behaviors (e.g., spinning, circling, self mutilation) or redirected behaviors (e.g., turning their aggression on the owner who attempts to reach for or grab the dog).
Many dogs continue their aggression once the person has entered the territory or home, which could result in biting and severe injury. In some cases, due to the high arousal level of the dog, an element of frustration may also be present and can lead to redirected behavior toward objects or other animals or people.
Defensive aggression, or reactive aggression, may be growling, snapping or biting when a dog is confronted with what he views as a threat and he is unable to avoid or escape the perceived danger. It is based in a fear which may or may not be reasonable.
A machete-wielding masked man rapidly approaching may be a reasonable fear; a child riding past on a bike is not. It is the dog’s perception of the threat that is important.
The defensively aggressive dog may exhibit a mixture of fearful and offensive postures. He will often go through several behaviors to tell another dog or person he wants to avoid a conflict.
This breaks my heart. Defensive dogs are begging to be left alone because they’re terrified. Before preventing or managing defensive dog aggression, learn how to identify and understand the cause of defensive dog aggression.
Defensive means to defend oneself. Aggression means “hostile or violent behavior toward something.” When combined, defensive aggression means defending oneself by using aggression.
Every living being has an automatic defensive response when encountering a perceived threat; we flee, fight or freeze. This reaction is hardwired into our brains. It’s a defense mechanism. We flee if this is an option. If not, we freeze or fight.
Defensive aggression encompasses all three reactions: fight, flee and freeze. If your dog displays any one of these three reactions, he’s scared. Remove him from the situation immediately.
When polling pet parents during my group classes, most label “fight” as defensive aggression, as this is the most problematic of the three.
Usually, pet parents ignore “flee” and “freeze” because they’re unaware these components are, indeed, a part of defensive aggression.
During safe puppy play, puppies practice these behaviors if they’re unsure they will “flee” or “freeze.”
Other puppies learn what these behaviors mean and ignore the scared puppy. If the other playing puppies ignore “flee” or “freeze” behavior, the scared puppy is most likely to “fight.”
While pet parents think, “Good. This puppy is teaching my bully puppy a lesson,” the scared puppy is actually learning offensive aggression, meaning if I attack when scared, it works. Yikes! This is the perfect recipe for dog aggression behavior. That’s why puppies should only play during safe play sessions organized by either proactive and responsible dog owners or professional dog trainers.
Social aggression stems from the behavior of dogs’ wild relatives. Wolf packs have a social hierarchy in which their family packs all have a designated position. The alphas of the pack are highest, followed by lower-ranking adults and then juveniles.
Contrary to popular belief, these social statuses are not often defined by fighting or aggression, although both sometimes occur when a challenge for dominance arises. Domestic dogs still have the instinct to form this hierarchy, and dominance is a status many dogs want to achieve.
The dog with the higher status will oftentimes eat first, play first, receive attention first and be the decider on many activities. Not all domestic dogs show the need to be the dominant member. According to the ASPCA, male dogs show this behavior more than females, while purebreds are more prone to social aggression than mixed breeds.
Fights don’t always begin during displays of dominance. Some common behaviors in dogs asserting dominant behavior include putting their head or a front paw on the back of the lower-status dog, stiffening or low growls. In social aggression, the body posture is typically a stiff, upright position leaning forward with the tail out, not tucked.
Social aggression most often is the synonym for dominance aggression, although other types of aggression fall into the social realm. Territorial, possessive, defensive and fear aggressions can all be a part of the dog’s life with other dogs — and humans. Territorial aggression ensues when a dog or a stranger comes into the dog’s territory.
Possessive aggression is protecting valuables such as food dishes or toys. Defensive aggression is feeling the need to defend himself against a bigger dog or human, while fear aggression is somewhat similar to defensive and comes on when the dog encounters a bigger dog whom it is afraid of.
Trust is Critical
I can’t tell you how often people will say “he lunges and barks at people or dogs on leash but once he meets them…”
I’m thinking, “EGADS!!” Why is he meeting them if those are the behaviors you are describing? This is how people and other dogs get bitten.
Just because he hasn’t attacked a person or another dog yet, doesn’t mean that he won’t!
I only allow a dog who is happily wagging his tail at about mid body (not too high, because that is a dominant wag, and not too low, because that is a frightened wag) to openly socialize with another dog or person. Find out more about tail wags here!
He needs to trust you not to expose him or force him into bad situations. Without trust, you won’t have successful training, because he feels like he has to defend himself and take care of himself.
I mean, you wouldn’t be able to accomplish a task if you were in a situation and you were afraid something bad would happen to you, and you didn’t trust the person you were with to take care of you.
In other words, I am going to drive you to the bad part of town and give you a math test to take. My brother is a police officer so I wouldn’t have any trouble doing this task if he was with me. I wouldn’t, however, be able to do this if I was with the coworker that doesn’t like me.
It is crucial that your dog trusts you. If you want him to ignore the “danger” he perceives, and perform obedience tasks, he has to trust that you can take care of him and you!
And, the reward for successfully functioning around his trigger must be greater than the distraction itself!
I will also want a hungry dog! If I am going to work on something as important as changing aggressive feelings, I am going to want to ensure that my dog is hungry. A hungry dog is a motivated dog! Then the rewards that I use are more meaningful.
If I took you to the buffet and let you eat till you were full, offering you a candy bar to pick up a snake or to let a spider crawl on you probably wouldn’t be effective. If you were hungry and had missed a meal or two, you would probably be more motivated!
Now it is your job to teach your dog how to function around his trigger. He doesn’t have to be “petted” by people if he doesn’t like people. He merely has to be able to be around them without an aggressive display. He doesn’t have to “play” at the dog park or with other dogs. He merely has to be able to walk past other dogs without losing his cool.
Once you know what your dog needs, being able to trust you and being motivated to listen to you, you will be able to work on his aggression and socialization!
Managing Defensive Aggression
Listen to your dog. Be his voice.
If your dog is stressed when another dog approaches, turn around and walk the other way.
When a strange person tries to pet your dog and she moves away, support her decision.
Never force your dog to meet or accept petting.
During play, never allow your dog or puppy to be bullied. When in doubt, end the play session.
Use yummy treats at the vet’s office.
Practice body handling and restraint at home.
Several times a week, pop in for fun vet visits, such as standing on the scale, reception folks giving out treats and so forth. Trust me, your vet wants dogs to have positive experiences. It’s no fun restraining frightened dogs.
Stopping Social Aggression
Make a note of when your dog becomes aggressive and the circumstances surrounding the behavior.
This will play an important part in determining your next step. It is essential to deal with the underlying cause of the aggression.
The behavior is just a symptom of an underlying problem.
There are a number of ways you can manage the hostility and help your dog remain calm.
It will take time, consistency, and possibly the help of a professional.
Visit Your Veterinarian
Dogs that aren’t normally aggressive but suddenly develop aggressive behaviors might have an underlying medical problem.
Health problems that may cause aggression include hypothyroidism, painful injuries, and neurological problems such as encephalitis, epilepsy, and brain tumors.
Talk to your veterinarian to determine whether this is the case with your dog.
Treatment or medication may make big improvements in your dog’s behavior.
Call in a Behaviorist
If your vet has ruled out a medical problem, it’s time to call in a professional dog trainer or animal behaviorist.
Because aggression is such a serious problem, you shouldn’t attempt to fix it on your own. A professional can help you figure out what’s causing your dog’s aggression and create a plan to manage it.
To find a professional veterinary behaviorist, contact your veterinarian for a referral.
Set Up a Plan
A behaviorist or trainer can help you figure out the best approach for managing your dog’s aggression.
In most cases, you’ll use positive reinforcement to teach your dog new behaviors.
For example, if your dog is aggressive toward strangers, start off by standing far away from someone your dog doesn’t know.
You should be far enough away so that your dog doesn’t start to growl or snap.
Then, reward with lots of treats and praise as you gradually decrease the distance between your dog and the stranger, continuing to use positive reinforcement.
Ideally, your dog will begin to learn that strangers equal treats and you’ll see a reduction in its aggression. This same procedure can work for getting your dog used to a variety of other situations.
Train Your Dog
The first step in specifically dealing with the dog’s aggression might merely be rewarding the dog for any behavior that does not involve fighting or aggression.
His behavior is then modified through a planned program of:
– shaping (reinforcing each small action the dog makes toward the desired goal);
– desensitization (presenting other dogs at a sufficient distance, so that an aggressive reaction is not elicited, then gradually decreasing the distance);
– counter-conditioning (pairing the presence of other dogs with pleasant things);
– training the dog to offer behaviors incompatible with aggression on cue.
All four of these steps are extremely important to the socialization process. If you skip any of these four, you will find that it will be impossible to socialize your dog.
Avoid Negative Reinforcement
Punishing your dog for aggressive behavior usually backfires and can escalate the aggression.
If you respond to a growling dog by hitting, yelling or using some other aversive method, the dog may feel the need to defend itself by biting you.
Punishment may also lead to your dog biting someone else without warning. For example, a dog that growls at children is letting you know that he is uncomfortable around them. If you punish a dog for growling, he may not warn you the next time he gets uncomfortable, but may simply bite.
Think about the situations that lead to aggressive behavior.
Think about how your dog is likely scared and uncomfortable – possibly even untrusting – in these types of situations. Do you really think hitting your dog or punishing it is the best way to get it to overcome its trepidation?
NO, of course not.
In these situations, punishment may only make your dog more confused, more wary, and more scared. It’ll likely grow frustrated, leading to worse outbursts and lashing out in aggression. Your pup might lose trust in you. At the very least, it’s likely to associate the punishment with the new dog or stranger, leading it to become even more aggressive towards them in the future.
In some instances, training alone is not enough.
Dogs that are aggressive because of fear may need medication to help manage the problem.
It’s important to understand that a dog experiencing fear, stress, or anxiety is incapable of learning new things.
Think of medication as a tool to help your dog overcome this fear. Many dogs will only need medication temporarily.
Talk to your veterinarian about your options.
Finally, you need to consider whether your lifestyle allows you to stick with a plan.
For instance, if you have a dog that acts aggressive towards children and you have kids, it’s nearly impossible to avoid the situation that brings out the aggression.
In this case, the best option for you and your dog may be finding it a new home with adults only.
Respect Your Dog
Dogs are some of the best animals in the world, and they’re unconditionally loving. However, even though they are some of the most affectionate pets, they can still exhibit aggressive behaviors. You need to respect your dog and avoid abuse as well as forcing your dog into bad or uncomfortable situations.
Train and teach your dog so that it will be able to handle other dogs or strangers entering your house or passing by on the sidewalk. You don’t need to force it to let someone that it doesn’t like pet it, or force it to play with a dog that it really doesn’t like.
With time, training, and socialization, you can help your dog to be able to overcome its aggression, but remember to respect your dog. It’ll make the process much easier.
I have been a professional dog trainer and pet sitter for over 20 years. I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, through the international Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers. I have trained and worked with police, Schutzhund and personal protection dogs. I trained Assistance Dogs in a men’s prison and ran my own nonprofit organization to take adult dogs from shelters and to train them to assist children and adults with disabilities, at no charge to my clients. My nonprofit organization and I were nominated for several awards of merit and even made the front page of the Denver Post. I was a veterinary technician for many years, where I learned about all aspects of health and preventative medicine. I have trained and worked with exotic animals and cheetahs. I introduced a temperament testing program in my local shelter and sat on the board of directors. I volunteered with my dog “Mr. Snitch” and helped local children learn to read. I have attained obedience titles and several blue ribbons. I am constantly in search of ways to continue my education and excellence when it comes to animals, their behavior and their health.