Dog Behavior Problems: Aggression - Getting Started - Safety and Management

By Ellen Lindell, VMD, DACVB; Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM

What is the first step in a behavior treatment plan for aggressive behavior?

The first step in treatment is to prevent further episodes of aggressive behavior. This is important for several reasons. Ensuring everyone’s safety, both physically and emotionally, is the first priority. Secondly, each aggressive event, even if there is no injury, reinforces the behavior. Dogs learn from each experience, and in most cases, this learning strengthens their aggression (see handout “Dog Behavior Problems – Aggression Diagnosis and Overview”).

Behavior treatment plans always include modifying both the behavior and the environment. Modifying behavior takes time, but immediate changes can be made to the environment. To start, make a of list any situation where your dog has shown aggression. Include aggressive behaviors such as stares, snarls, growls, snaps, and bites. Avoid these situations for now. For example, if your dog behaves aggressively during walks, change the location or time of day you walk your dog. If aggression happens with people living in the home, avoid those interactions. For instance, if your dog growls when you are close during mealtime, stay away until your dog finishes eating. If your dog snarls or snaps while being petted, do not pet them. Do not test your dog’s tolerance, as even one aggressive incident can set back your progress.

"Do not test your dog’s tolerance, as even one aggressive incident can set back your progress."

As treatment advances, safety guidelines will be adjusted. Your behavior treatment plan will help your dog learn new responses and tolerate the stimuli causing the aggression.

Why does aggression worsen with each event?

Aggression typically aims to create distance between your dog and the stimulus, such as a person, another pet, or a car. When barking, threats, or aggressive displays lead the stimulus to retreat, the dog experiences relief. This behavior gets reinforced (negative reinforcement) and will be repeated. A common example is when a delivery person approaches, and the dog barks loudly until the person leaves.

Another reason aggression can escalate is inconsistent responses from a targeted recipient. This can cause a dog to become frustrated. They may not understand why their communication works one day and not the next. Frustration, in turn, intensifies the aggressive response. For example, some delivery people linger longer than others, causing confusion for the dog. Inconsistent responses can also occur within the home. If a dog growls when being approached while chewing a bone, one family member may ignore your dog, another may take the bone, and another may retreat. These inconsistent reactions are likely to frustrate your dog.

The way a person responds to a dog’s aggression can influence its intensity. When people feel fearful, their behaviors changes, making dogs anxious. They might move cautiously, tremble or stare, or emit scents signaling their fear. Dogs pick up on these cues, and can become anxious when interacting a fearful person. Fear and anxiety can increase the intensity of an aggressive response.

On the other hand, if the recipient of the aggression responds aggressively, or if you punish your dog for its aggressive behavior, your dog may also become fearful.

Though they may appear effective in the short term, studies show confrontational and punishment-based training techniques are associated with increased aggressive behavior. These techniques include using physical aversive devices, including prong collars and shock collars to suppress behavior, as well as verbal reprimands. See the handout “Why Punishment Should Be Avoided” for more information.

How long will I need to prevent exposure to problems before I can start behavior modification?

The duration can vary from case to case depending on your dog’s personality, your comfort level, and the diagnosis or type of aggression. Your treatment plan will likely include desensitization and counterconditioning exercises for specific triggers. You and your dog will need to learn some introductory skills before beginning any exposure to stimuli or situations that trigger an aggressive response (see the handout “Introduction to Desensitization and Counterconditioning”).

"Some trigger situations may need to be avoided or managed permanently to ensure safety."

Aggression can improve, but there will always be a bite risk.Your behavior consultant will help you assess the risk and overall prognosis for your dog. Some trigger situations may need to be avoided or managed permanently to ensure safety.

How can I assure safety if I cannot control all the triggers for aggression? 

Although a behavior professional can help assess risks, guide you, and determine the prognosis, ultimately the decision to live with a dog that has bitten or is likely to bite is a  personal one. For short term protection of household members, consider arranging medical boarding at your veterinary office. Sometimes, permanently removing your dog from your home must be considered. This is not an easy choice to make, but your veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist can assist you.

Are there any management tools I can use to improve safety?

The following tools can help manage or improve safety:

Leash or tether: A responsible adult (to whom the dog does not display aggression) can restrain the dog at a sufficient distance from the stimulus to prevent aggression. Tying the dog to a secure base may temporarily prevent access to the stimulus.

These techniques rely on the security afforded by the person/base securing the leash and are best used in combination with avoidance. Remember,  a controlled dog does not guarantee the stimulus (people, other pets) can be controlled. Never leave a dog unattended while in a tie-down. It is important that your dog is able to relax while restrained and is not lunging or barking. Training and practicing a ‘settle’ command while on a leash when there are no triggers nearby will help your dog to adjust (see handout “Dog Behavior and Training – Teaching Settle and Calm”).

Crates and confinement: Train your dog to settle comfortably in a confined area, like a crate, room,  pen or outdoors. Practice when all is calm so your dog is familiar, then bring your dog to this location to avoid exposure to triggers. Confinement can be a helpful to prevent aggressive interactions during food preparation, when family members are eating, or when visitors are in the home. Ensure that the confinement is secure, comfortable, and your dog is content during confinement (see handout “Life Skills for Pets: Crate Training and confinement for Puppies and Dogs”).

Basket muzzle: Muzzles can add a layer of safety but should only be used with supervision and in well-managed situations. It is important that you continue to maintain a comfortable distance from the stimuli for aggressive responses. Your dog should be relaxed and not lunging or barking while muzzled. People or pets should not be permitted to approach your muzzled dog if it would possibly trigger an aggressive response. Your dog’s space should be respected as though they were not wearing a muzzle. Your dog will become frustrated, and aggression will escalate if their space is not respected (see handout “Muzzle Training for Dogs”).

Head halter: Head halters reduce pulling and can redirect your dog’s focus from triggers. You may use the halter to gently turn your dog’s head, thereby reducing the risk of a stare or lunge. Though the halter is not a muzzle and will not prevent a bite, a gentle pull on the halter will close your dog’s mouth. Head halters can be used during desensitization training. Be cautious with any device used around dog’s neck or face. There are risks of injury if the dog leaps or lunges, or if you snap the leash sharply (see handout “Head Halter Training for Dogs”).

How can I ensure safety if my dog becomes aggressive toward people or animals outdoors?

Avoid walks if your dog exhibits aggressive behavior, unless you can find a location or time without people or animals around. If you encounter another person or animal on a walk, ensure your dog is restrained on a leash and remain a safe distance away so your dog can be calmed quickly after the stimulus has passed.

"A basket muzzle can be used to prevent the possibility of a bite."

A head halter can aid in safely controlling and redirecting the dog’s focus away from people or animals. A basket muzzle can be used to prevent the possibility of a bite. Use care, as your dog will be vulnerable when muzzled. Avoid walking in areas where free-roaming dogs or other animals could threaten your dog. Your dog should not be free to walk or run off-leash in areas where there is a possibility that other animals or people will arrive.

How can I ensure safety if my dog may be aggressive toward visitors?

Confine your dog safely until the visitors have settled. If your dog can settle on a leash in the same room as the visitors, have your dog settle next to you on leash. The leash should be held securely by an adult family member. Visitors should not interact with your dog until appropriate. Your behaviorist can help you determine if and when your dog is ready to be permitted to approach and interact with guests. Until then, leash restraint or confinement out of the area should be used to assure safety.

A basket muzzle can provide added safety should your dog’s comfort zone be breached unexpectedly. Visitors should not attempt to approach or pet your muzzled dog. An attempt to pet a muzzled dog represents an invasion of the dog’s safe space, potentially causing an increase in fear and a greater risk of a bite in future interactions.

How can I ensure safety if my dog may be aggressive over food or toys?

If your dog behaves aggressively while eating or playing, give them space. Do not approach them for any reason until their meal/play time is finished. If your dog is a slow eater, or if you are unable to give them space while they eat/play it may be helpful to use a physical barrier. Providing undisturbed space can prevent accidental confrontations (see handouts “Possessive Aggression in Dogs” and “Food Bowl Aggression in dogs”).

How can I ensure safety if my dog is aggressive with stolen objects?

Sometimes dogs steal objects to solicit play but become aggressive when approached. Teach your dog to release or trade items on cue (see handout “Teaching Your Dog to Drop an Object”). Supervise your dog closely and be prepared to distract your dog. Holding your dog on a leash or confining him out of the area when you are too busy to supervise can be helpful. Unless you are in training mode, puppy-proof the area by removing objects your dog might find irresistible.

How can I ensure safety if my dog might be aggressive if outside or left alone in the yard?

If there is a risk of aggression, your dog should always be supervised by an adult when outdoors. If you do not have a securely fenced yard, your dog should remain leashed until training is complete. You may use a long line attached to a harness so your dog can still play. Never leave your dog outside unsupervised unless the yard or dog run is secure and inescapable. Ensure people cannot get in, or reach through or over the fence to gain access to the dog. No dog should ever be left outside when no one is home.

How can I ensure safety if my dog is aggressive toward other dogs or other pets in my home?

Safety guidelines for dogs behaving aggressively toward other dogs will be determined by the type of aggression and the risk of injury. Aggression among household dogs can be very complex. Consulting with a veterinary behaviorist is highly recommended. A behavior professional can help assess risks and benefits to determine the appropriate safety measures to implement in your home.

Use physical separation whenever there is a risk that a pet could be injured when an adult is unavailable to supervise. Unless triggers for aggression are clear, consistent, and avoidable, your dog should be restrained on a leash to ensure they cannot lunge. A head halter may provide additional control. The recipient of the aggression may also need to be restrained to prevent them from approaching the dog in training.

There are some situations in which a basket muzzle might be helpful. Your treatment plan may include desensitization and controlled, supervised play with another dog. If so, your behaviorist may recommend the dogs wear basket muzzles. It is always helpful to acclimate your dog to wearing a muzzle (see handout “Muzzle Training for Dogs”).

Having a way to safely interrupt a physical confrontation between two dogs is important. When dogs are aroused enough to fight, they often redirect their aggression to the person who is physically pulling them away, you could be bitten.

Spray Shield® is a citronella product that can be sprayed toward the dogs to encourage separation. It should only be used in an emergency and should not be considered as a training tool. Other options to interrupt a physical confrontation between two dogs include spraying the dogs with water from a hose, pouring a bucket of cold water over them, or, if they are small dogs, tossing a heavy blanket over them.

How can I ensure safety if my dog is aggressive toward family members?

Initially you will need to predict and avoid triggering aggressive situations. Based on your dog’s assessment, a skilled behavior professional can help you create a list of interactions and situations that could put you or your family members at risk. You must avoid the triggers entirely until your dog progresses with their treatment program.

Discontinue social interactions that lead to aggressive displays. This may mean avoiding petting your dog altogether, or avoiding your pet when they are resting. You may need to eliminate hugs or refrain from sitting beside your dog on the couch. Your list of safety rules will be determined by your dog’s concerns.

Use barriers and leashes to prevent  your dog from getting close to targeted family members. If there are household members who are not able to follow or understand the safety rules, such as children or adults who are physically or cognitively limited, you will need to confine your dog unless a capable adult can supervise. Sometimes, trying to protect other family members can be very the emotionally straining. Children may not easily understand why they are not allowed to interact with their own dog. If you find yourself in this position, consult your veterinarian about the possibility of re-homing your dog.

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