On Aggression

Helping owners with dog aggression problems is a task that dog trainers and veterinarians often share.  Owners often want guidance as to whether or not they should spend the money for necessary tests and private behavior consults.  Owners should consider the following when deciding whether or not to try and work with an aggressive dog.

Have they had any bites?  How hard were the bites? Do the aggressive incidents involve repeated multiple bites?
A dog that bites soft, leaving no bruising or skin breaking is different from the dog that bites multiple times in a row and leaves swelling, bruising, and blood.  Most owners do not receive appropriate medical treatment when bitten by their own dog.  Asking an owner if the victim required medical attention does not adequately describe the bite.  Ask the owner to physically describe the bites.

Does the dog give warning before it bites?  Have the owners punished the dog for growling?
Very few dogs bite without warning.  Dogs have complex canine communication systems that are used to prevent biting.  Owners typically understand growling. A growl is the dog’s way of saying; “Stop what you’re doing.”  Dogs that are punished for growling may learn to inhibit their growl leaving them with nothing to do but bite.  Ask the owner to describe the dog’s body language before, during, and after the incident.  Look specifically for signs that the owner can clearly read such as piloerection, growling, weight placed on front of body, weight placed on back of body, or an agonistic lip pucker.  It’s always a nice surprise if you learn that prior to the ”aggressive incident” the dog crouched on the ground with its front paws outstretched, rump high in the air, and wagging tail.  Some dog owners are confused about play bows.

Does the owner have an ability to manage the dog so that it doesn’t get aggressive in the first place? Who are the dog’s victims?
A portion of aggression treatment involves avoiding situations that warrant the aggression.  Animals are instead desensitized to the events that cause them to become aggressive.  If a dog guards food or objects from children and the owner has small children they may be living with a time bomb.  Children are notorious for dropping food and dogs are notorious opportunists.  Dog bites are the number one reason why children have plastic surgery.  If a dog lives with grandparents that occasionally have grandchildren visit, management will not be that difficult.  Managing a dog with an aggression problem may require some confinement, the use of a head collar, or a muzzle.  Ask the client if they’re willing to use these tools even if the dog doesn’t like them.  A client’s lifestyle and personality are a huge component in proper management.

Does the client have the necessary time commitment to train the dog?
A dog with an aggression problem should not be deprioritized.  Owners should be prepared to spend at least one-half hour daily training.  Owners may also need to provide for additional exercise.  There are no quick fixes in training.

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