Dog Aggression: Dos and Don’ts

Keke’s just playing here, but I might have nightmares!

Not sure what it is about the brisk fall weather, or the alignment of the planets (or more mundanely, as it turns out, the management of which “keywords” are triggering my Google Adwords account), but I’ve sure been getting bit a lot recently!

In the past month I’ve been growled at, snapped at, and bit by tiny little Yorkies and Chihuahuas with Napolean complexes (I have in my bag of tricks a pair of leather gloves that I call my “Chihuahua gloves”), prey-aggressive Pits, environmentally anxious Blue Heelers, a sizable resource-guarding Ridgeback, a Great Dane with no manners, and one very intimidating German Shepherd who even succeeded at latching onto my coat through the tip of his muzzle!

I’m pretty good at neutralizing an aggressive reaction so that it doesn’t really do me any damage; the most I’ve suffered recently is a few holes in my leather shoes, my jacket, and my folder of handouts. (In that least case the owners can really say their dog ate their homework!) The main thing is that I don’t see aggressive tendencies as signs that a dog is a “bad dog”, but rather as a clue to an unbalanced emotional mindset that is wanting to be healed.
Head over body means dominance
– except when accompanied by a bellyrub. 🙂 
Unfortunately many people’s initial or instinctive reactions to dog aggression are often exactly the wrong thing, precisely what you DON’T want to do to ease or resolve the situation.
  • Many people overreact when confronted with their or other dogs’ signs of aggression. Overreacting never helps, and can often exacerbate a tense situation. Stay calm. Extremely few dogs will continue to attack someone who remains calm and exhibits neither fear nor aggression of their own.
  • Don’t punish the dog. This can often escalate the aggression, and where it does succeed at removing precursors to aggressive behavior like growling, it only creates a more dangerous creatures. Signs of aggression are often adapted for precisely to AVOID violence, confrontation, fighting, or other unpleasantness. Growling, ears lowered, tail tucked, mouth taut…these are all signs saying “Go away! I don’t want to hurt you!”
  • Many people get scared, angry, or embarrassed that they have a “bad dog”. Instead try to figure out what is causing the aggression (is it fear? dominance? protectiveness? guarding?) and make a plan (probably with an experienced professional) to help heal that injured mindset.

In my opinion however, the most common yet detrimental reaction is to immediately remove whatever is causing the aggression. For instance I see it all the time in dog parks, when two dogs get into a minor scuffle because the play got too rough or one is trying to dominate the other, the owners scoop their pups up in their arms, worried, embarrassed, and angry at each other, and high-tail it out of there. Think of what just happened: the dogs growled and snapped at each other, which caused their enemy to disappear! It worked! You’ve just rewarded your dog’s aggression. Reward means reinforcement. If it worked this time, be sure they’ll do it again – only quicker next time.

“If i hide in the corner no one will see me.”

Or in fear cases: the dog gets scared at the sound of a bus, or the approach of a bigger dog on the sidewalk, and you cross the street. The fear emotion and behavior succeed at saving your dogs life, as far as he knows. The fear worked! Once again, it is reinforced.

In resource guarding cases: you try to take your dog’s bone, and he growls or snaps at you so you give him the bone and say “Sorry!” and tiptoe away. Again the aggression is reinforced. 
With pack protection: your mailman comes to the door and your pup barks and snaps, so you duck back inside with Fido. You survived intact; your dog thinks he just succeeded in saving you from the evil mailman.
The right reaction to aggression is to “Correct, redirect, reward”. By “correct” I again don’t mean “punish”; what you want is to simply stop the bad behavior. It’s a subtle art to do so without rewarding or punishing; a clap, snap, turn, block…often just relax and wait for the tension to pass and ease. The exact reaction is situational but the goal is to put an end to that reaction. “Redirect”: you tell your dog what you DO want him doing instead. Sit, lie down, walk, come to you…it doesn’t really matter. Because what you’re looking to do is “Reward”: give praise, belly rubs, treats, walk, run, play, give the bone back to chew, or release to go back and socialize. With 90% of dogs that have snapped at me, a few minutes later I’ll be running with them in the park, throwing a toy for them, sitting peacefully with them on the couch, or rubbing their belly. These “reparative experiences” are crucial and far too rare for most aggressive dogs.
Stop the bad behavior, get the behavior you want, then reward it. 
Easily said. Not always so easily done.
Which is why I need new gloves for Christmas.