If you are reading this article because you'd like a recipe for how to fix your dog's aggression problems, I'm sorry...that is not possible through the written word. Aggression is a complicated, often misunderstood subject. You need to see someone. This article is meant to give you an overview on why dogs show aggression, and hopefully help you to identify what's going on with your dog so that you can better provide information to a professional. Also, through understanding of the possibilities of why your dog is showing aggression, you can probably feel a lot better about the choices you have.
Dog Bite Facts:
Dog to human aggression and dog to dog aggression are discussed below.
If your dog has bitten someone, you MUST take steps to make sure it doesn't happen again. This doesn't, however, automatically mean that your dog must die. Some dogs do present such a risk that they should be killed, but most dogs can be trained and managed in such a way that the risks become smaller or non-existent.
The first thing you must do in a case of a dog biting a human is indentify what triggered the bite, and then immediately begin management so that the dog is not triggered to bite again. This may mean that when visitors come over, you put the dog away. It may mean that you go for walks in areas where you are not going to meet people. It may mean that you don't allow people to get into your dog's face or try to pet him. It is up to you to strictly and completely manage the risks so that no one else is hurt.
Management as mentioned above doesn't usually have to be for the lifetime of the dog. Normally, you would begin work with the dog to fix the root cause of the dog's biting while managing the risks.
Aggression problems usually cannot be fixed through intimidation or physical corrections. If you attempt to make your dog less aggressive by using physical punishment, you are most likely going to make the problem worse (and probably get bitten in the process). Do not attempt to force your dog to submit to you. Many dog books will tell you to alpha-roll or scruff-shake your dog. Please do not attempt these methods. There are far more effective and less dangerous ways to change a dog's behaviour.
Fear...Most dog bites inflicted on people occur because of fear. Many folks say to me, "he's not aggressive, he's just afraid." But fear is the primary cause of damaging dog bites. You should take fear seriously. Often fear is mistaken for protectiveness or dominance. Fear reactions can be lessened, and when you lessen the FEAR, you help with the aggression problem.
Dominance...Many other dog bites occur because the dog feels that he can use normal canine communication to deal with the people he encounters. These kinds of bites are usually inflicted on family members (most often on children), and usually occur over things like making the dog move off the bed or couch, trying to take toys away, during moments of high excitement, or over food. Many, many children get bitten because the dog uses aggression to control things in the house. Often it starts insidiously with behaviour that humans do not recognize, and progresses to actual biting. People often call me and say, "he just did it out of the blue," but most of the time we discover that there was ample warning that something was going to happen. Contributing factors can be that the family allows the dog to "push them around" and does not recognize that the dog is "pushing." However, the dog recognizes it and then starts to think that if it just pushes HARDER it can get better results. This kind of aggression is usually the easiest to "fix."
For more information on dominance-type aggression, please read the article "Do You Think Your Dog is Dominant?"
Guarding his Stuff...Is your dog guarding his stuff from you? Snapping at you if you try to take his toys? Growling when you walk by the food bowl? Freaking out if you try to reach into his crate to get him out? This kind of aggression is usually very easy to manage and reduce. All dogs have an instinct to guard their resources. Every dog is different as to the level and intensity of how they guard. Things such as socialization record, fear levels, excitement levels, and the degree with which control is practiced over the dog on a daily basis can have huge effects on this instinct.
Jealousy...Is your dog trying to "protect" you from other people, including your own kids? Does your dog try to get in between you and your spouse when you hug or express affection? Guess what. It ain't jealousy, and it's a sign that you do need to intervene and change some things. It's not cute or funny...when a dog does this, he thinks you are "his" and that he has every right to protect his property. Behaviour that I just described can lead to much more overt aggression if you do not draw the line. The dog must learn that you are in charge of things. Use of the Nothing in Life is Free program should easily fix this problem.
Protectiveness/Guardian Behaviour Gone Wrong...Dogs often bark at the door, window or along a fenceline. Although some protective barking is nice, the *owner* needs to be in control of it. If your dog is barking protectively and you cannot make him stop by telling him to stop, you have a problem. If the dog thinks the house, car, truck or backyard are "his," of course he will not respond to you, the supposed boss, telling him his job is done.
Dogs that bark protectively usually get "bigger and badder" as time goes by. What started as 10 "woofs" when the dog was a year old turns into full-on, teeth-and-spit-and-rolling-eyes hysteria by the time the dog is 2. As the dog learns to become more and more excited, the likelihood that his barking will turn into an actual bite or attack goes up.
If the dog is touched during his big excited storm of barking, he may whip around and bite the person or dog that has touched him. This is called "redirected aggression."
Using a Nothing in Life is Free program along with simple obedience training will usually allow the owner to be able to stop the behaviour at an acceptable level. The dog needs to learn that you are the owner of the house, car, backyard, and kids. Once he knows that, he will be able to listen to you when you tell him to stop. The Nothing in Life is Free program will teach him that he must control his impulses and look to you for direction.
A dog that barks until you get there is OK. A dog that will not respond to you is not. Getting the dog under control first, then using that control during protective barking incidents, is the way to reduce the chances of inappropriate aggression.
He doesn't like men, people wearing hats, kids...Dogs see things very specifically and small differences can make them fearful. Often, the problem stems from simply not having had enough exposure to the things they react to. Your dog might not have a wide enough experience base to be able to accept new things easily. Most dogs who have specific fears can be changed through simple socialization methods that allow the dog to get more and better experiences with the items that they fear, and thus overcome their fear/suspicions.
Dogs cannot communicate through words as we do, and have a complex system of body language which does include many forms of aggression. Ritual aggression is a NORMAL part of dog communication, and although it can sounds and even LOOK terrible, most doggie "spats" do not result in anyone even having a scratch or bruise.
On-lead...Problems often occur when we, humans, who do NOT use snarling, snapping, and inhibited bites to communicate (well, at least most of us don't!) see dogs using NORMAL forms of canine communication, and we freak out. It's easy to then accidentally train our dogs to be afraid of other dogs, to stress out when they see members of their own species, and create a MORE aggressive dog. Do you have a dog that is aggressive on-lead but fine off-lead? Guess what. You've probably unintentionally helped the dog get that way, and there are MANY ways that you can improve the situation with some gentle training and by changing your handling techniques. On-lead aggression usually goes away completely as the person holding the leash learns new handling techniques. In this case, the problem is a human one and not usually an inherent aggressive trait. In some cases, dogs that are aggressive only on the lead are a bit fearful of other dogs and more socialization is a good idea. For a really great understanding of why dogs show on-leash aggression, read this classic article by Suzanne Clothier: He Just Wants to Say "Hi" For Suzanne's suggestions on how to begin working on on-leash aggression problems, visit Handling On-Leash Aggression. These and many other wonderful articles can be found at Suzanne's website, www.suzanneclothier.com
Fear...Dogs that are fearful of other dogs often feel that "the best defense is a good offense." There are many ways that you can reduce a dog's fear response. You can help your dog to feel more comfortable with other dogs.
Dominance...A highly misunderstood term. If a dog is always TRYING to be dominant, guess what? It means he ISN'T dominant. A "king" doesn't go around always trying to make everyone realize he is king! He knows he's king and so does everyone else. Dogs that are showing "dominance" usually are slightly insecure or fearful. Sometimes, however, you get a true "bully" that enjoys being aggressive toward other dogs. Inappropriate aggression can usually be reduced a great deal through training and management. Please read "Do You Think Your Dog Is Dominant?" for more information.
As mentioned above, dogs have instinctual traits to guard their things. When it's happening between a dog and a person, things can easily be changed for the better. When it is happening between dogs, though, it is not as easy. Most of the time, resource guarding between dogs must be managed through prevention rather than training the dogs to act differently. It is almost impossible to train a dog to respond differently to another dog when it comes to bones, food, toys etc.
The nice thing about this problem is that it is usually easy to identify when the dog might react. This allows owners to intervene before the problem occurs. Intervention might mean picking up all bones and toys from the backyard before the "doggie buddy" comes over for a free run. It might mean giving valuable chew items only when housemate dogs are in different rooms. It might mean giving valuable chew items only when both dogs are relatively satiated (after a meal, etc).
Be aware that if you are having a problem between two housemate dogs, the problem will only get worse if you allow the reactions to occur over and over again. Prevent through management.
Fighting/Causing Damage to Other Dogs...If your dog has a history of fighting with other dogs and inflicting damaging bites, you can be liable and can be sued if you do not manage the dog properly and prevent further occurrences. You need to have the dog evaluated, and take steps to change the negative emotional response that is causing the upsets.
No matter what the cause of the aggression, your first priority has to be safety. Your first action should be to develop a way to manage your dog temporarily so that no person or dog is at risk. There should be no "let's just see how he will react" mentality. Take no risks. Then, get in touch with a professional. If there is no one specializing in aggression in your immediate area, visit www.apdt.org and phone one of the trainers for a telephone consult.
Be wary of consulting your veterinarian for behavioural advice. Although vets do have much general knowledge about pet management, their specialty is medical and not behavioural. Most vets are no more qualified to give behavioural modification advice than your next-door-neighbor. Find a specialist.