How to Understand and Train an Aggressive Dog

Dog Aggressive - Behavioural Training

Two dogs fighting for a toy ball

Understanding and Training Aggressive Dogs

When dogs growl and bark, bare their teeth or even bite, human-canine cohabitation is severely put to the test. But why do some dogs turn aggressive and not others? And what can be done to prevent aggressive behaviour?

Are some dog breeds more dangerous than others?

The fact is that no dog was born aggressive. Though some dog breeds do innately possess a greater protective instinct and lower sensitivity threshold than others, hardly any bite without a reason. Dog experts now agree that every dog is capable of learning to behave appropriately – regardless of breed. Pitbulls, Rottweilers and Dobermans are not more dangerous per se than a Golden Retriever or Labrador, for instance. Hence, hereditary factors have much less influence as a cause of aggressive behaviour than the people who train these dogs.

Your dog’s behaviour is your responsibility

Consequently, the dog is not responsible for its behaviour, but rather the owner is. Bearing in mind their dog’s disposition, they must teach it what they expect and how it should behave when living together with other animals and humans. However, this doesn’t mean that you should be consumed by guilt if your dog reacts aggressively. Most dog owners don’t act with bad intentions, but rather out of uncertainty, ignorance or mistaken love of animals. Sometimes your dog’s aggressive behaviour has absolutely nothing to do with you, but traumatic earlier experiences, for instance, if you rescued your dog from an animal home only when it was of adult age.

Do I need help?

It’s important that you recognise the problem and try to do away with your dog’s aggression. You must act – at the very latest if your dog has behaved in a dangerous and threatening manner towards other animals or humans or has even bitten them. There are many experts who can support you on this path: dog trainers, animal psychologists or therapists for difficult dogs. Don’t be shy about making use of such help. Seeking help is no failure or sign of weakness, but an indication of your courage and strength to accept responsibility for your dog.

First step: recognising causes

In the end, there’s something comforting in recognising that a dog’s aggressive behaviour is caused by humans: just as insufficient or error-prone training facilitates aggressive behaviour, with the right training you can ensure that your dog does away with this undesirable behaviour and becomes an affable partner. But what should be done differently in the future? To make your ruffian an obedient family dog, you should investigate the causes of its aggression. The better you recognise the reasons for its aggressive behaviour, the better you can avoid it and thereupon adapt interaction with your dog.

Why do dogs become aggressive?

Dogs don’t suddenly become aggressive on a whim overnight. Aggression is always provoked by permanent or recurring negative feelings, mainly fear or anger. However, illness-related pain can also wear a dog down and lead to aggressive behaviour. Dogs don’t become bite-happy beasts because they are somewhat belligerent or enjoy intimidating and harming humans or other animals. Aggressive dogs are nearly always insecure or feel ill at ease in a certain situation.

Causes and forms of aggression

As previously mentioned, the causes for this uncertainty and inability to behave appropriately to the situation can be found in human interaction with the dog. Being reared in isolation, a lack of socialisation and training and not being kept in species-appropriate conditions are the main reasons for canine aggression. Negative past experiences, traumatic episodes or chronic pain can additionally trigger fear or anger and therewith aggression too.

In reality, however, it’s not always as easy to identify the exact causes as it would appear. Hence, it’s worth initially observing when a dog reacts aggressively. In what situations does it begin to growl and bare its teeth? Is it nervous when another dog is close by, thinking it must defend its charges and is it scared that someone else could wish to challenge its personal territory? There are different forms of canine aggression depending on the reason, such as:

  • Self-defence: a dog feels ill at ease or restricted faced with another dog.
  • Protective aggression: family members need protecting from enemies.
  • Competitive aggression: for instance, an object such as a toy or food bowl subject to strong attachment needs defending from others or to define or secure their own status in the pack.
aggressive dog - german shepherd

Not least, the learning experience the dog has had up until then regarding its aggressive behaviour plays a decisive role. Was it able to work off its anger or did it receive praise for this from its owner? Naturally very few owners would consciously praise their dog when it growls or even bites, but most owners try to restrain their dog by speaking in a soothing tone (“Everything is OK, stay calm!”) or stroking it to calm it down. However, since dogs can generally only understand their owner’s tone rather than the words, they often get the impression that their owner is rewarding them with loving attention when they growl and bark.

Second step: avoiding situations

Once you have found out what triggers your dog’s aggressive behaviour, you should initially avoid these stimuli entirely. Definitely don’t treat your dog’s aggressive conduct lightly, because it can become dangerous for you and your surroundings depending on the dog’s size and strength. For instance, if your dog gets terribly unsettled in the presence of another dog or in a certain environment, try to give such situations a wide berth if possible. Not until you have taught your dog the most important obedience rules and can trust that it obeys your sit and stop commands can you desensitise it to these aggression-triggering stimuli through targeted training.

Stay on the safe side

If your dog already shows very pronounced aggressive behaviour and you are fearful or unsure of whether it obeys your commands, you should make it wear a muzzle. Don’t worry – this is initially purely for safety purposes and certainly doesn’t have to be forever. Once you have successfully retrained your rowdy canine, you can safely get rid of this “accessory”. You should initially gently get your dog used to wearing the muzzle in your own home so that this doesn’t become an ordeal. For instance, place treats in the muzzle so that your dog only gets to them by putting its mouth inside. Take the muzzle off after a few minutes and praise your dog – with kind words and another treat. Keep repeating this procedure and leave the muzzle on for a bit longer each time. After a while, you can remove the treat in the muzzle and take your dog out for its first walk outdoors wearing it. Don’t worry about other people looking and deal with the situation calmly and confidently. After all, you’re making sure that your dog can’t injure anyone!

Radiate calm

Composure and self-confidence are characteristics that you should generally try to convey when handling your dog and the environment you are in. Dogs have an incredible perception of the feelings of their humans. If your dog observes that you are uncertain and nervous, it will transfer this feeling onto itself. It will become unsettled and be on “red alert” in applicable situations. The consequence of such uncertainty is often that your dog believes it has to protect you – and attack is sometimes the best form of defence for these affect-driven animals.

Hence, be self-aware around your dog! Absolutely try to set aside or if necessary cover up your nerves in situations in which your dog could become aggressive. Gradually your dog will regain trust in your competence and will learn that it can trust your judgement.

Third step: retraining at a dog school

With steps one and two, you have the “first aid measures” for handling your aggressive dog. You have clarified the causes of its behaviour and ensured that no risk arises from your dog, for instance, by making it wear a muzzle, and have tried to avoid triggers.

The next and final step is about getting down to business. After all, you won’t always be able to avoid critical situations. Your aggressive and insecure dog needs to be retrained. It is recommended to seek professional help from this point at the very latest. Attend a dog school or targeted training with an anti-aggression trainer.

Obedience exercises and aggression control

Initially practise the most important behaviour patterns in training sessions with your dog. It learns basic stop and visual signals with obedience exercises, such as responding to “sit”, “stay”, “heel” and “leave it”. Only when your dog fully obeys these signals can you start to desensitise it to trigger situations. For this purpose, your dog trainer will manufacture artificial situations in which your dog reacts aggressively and will practise behaviour habits with you and your dog. Positive reinforcement is a way to treat aggression problems. With recurring rewards, you can selectively control your dog’s behaviour and steer it in the desired direction.

Take the reins!

Attending a dog school or anti-aggression training will have a positive impact on both your dog’s behaviour and your relationship with one another too. You will get to know your dog better and learn how you should behave in critical situations you face together. Not least, this will lead to more self-awareness on your side that will allow you to handle your rowdy dog with confidence. Clearly show your dog who’s in charge from now on – with self-confidence, consistency and a positive aura, not excessive stringency or even violence. Hence, your dog learns to comply with your rules, which will make your shared day-to-day existence considerably easier and also ensure your dog is more satisfied. After all, every dog longs for its “pack leader” to provide control and orientation.

We wish you and your dog lots of success on your journey together!

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