How to deal with your dog’s aggressive behavior

(WTNH) — It can be hard for dog owners to know what to do when their dog is showing aggressive behavior. Certified dog trainer Michelle Douglas and dog aggression expert Michael Shikashio share tips and techniques.

What can pet owners do to help their dog overcome aggressive behavior?

It is important to find a certified professional to help guide you through safely handling and modifying your dog’s aggressive behaviors. Finding someone that is experienced using evidence based methods is crucial, as aggression can be made worse in some cases when using the wrong tools or techniques.
Aggression in dogs is also more “high stakes” than other types of behavior issues as the ramifications are much more severe. For instance, a dog who steals food off the kitchen counter means perhaps one less turkey sandwich for their owner, but a dog who bites can result in much more serious consequences for both the owner and himself.

Some of the reputable organizations you can find a qualified professional are:

What are some techniques or approaches to helping dogs who are aggressive?

The first step is to safely manage your dog so they cannot practice the undesirable behaviors. Working with your behavior professional to identify safe handling tools such as muzzles, leashes, harnesses, halters, baby gates, fences, or other tools to prevent the dog from rehearsing those behaviors is extremely crucial. Aggressive behavior such as lunging, growling, or biting is highly reinforcing to dogs because it works — they learn that their behavior makes the threat go away. And usually it works really well because most people don’t stick around if they are getting bitten by a dog.

The next step is to determine what you want your dog to do instead of the undesirable behaviors in the context the aggression is happening. Many pet owners will focus on punishing or stopping the undesirable behavior. However, this doesn’t address the underlying reason the dog is behaving aggressively. This may only suppress the behavior, until the dog chooses to do something else that makes the threat go away, which is often more intense aggressive behavior. The key is to ask yourself, what do you want your dog to do instead when faced with a trigger that they usually behave aggressively towards? For instance, when the UPS driver shows up, what do you want your dog to do instead of barking, growling, and lunging at him? When we focus on what we want the dog to do right, he will learn an alternative response to the aggressive behavior. At the same time, when using positive reinforcement based training, we are changing the association of the trigger in that context. Your dog starts to learn the arrival of the UPS driver predicts fun training time with treats or toys.

What are some reasons that dogs behave aggressively towards people or other dogs?

There are many different causes for a dog to show aggression. In fact, there have been a wide variety of labels used over the years to categorize aggression. Some of these could be territorial aggression, dominance aggression, maternal aggression, or pain induced aggression. The issue with those labels is that they don’t describe the actual behavior and the context in which it happens. Aggressive behavior almost always happens in a particular context or “stage.” If the stage is set just right, the aggressive behavior is most likely to surface.

For instance, a dog who bites their owner when they try to take away a toy, and hasn’t shown aggressive behaviors in other contexts, will likely only display that behavior when they have a toy. There is no need to label the problem as dominance aggression or possessive aggression. We know that the dog bites when people try to take his toy away. Once we have identified that specific context, we can then work on what we want the dog to do instead, in that context. For instance, we can then train the dog to drop the toy and move away in exchange for a high-value reward. This is what we call the replacement behavior. In addition, when we use positive reinforcement to train new behaviors in those contexts, a positive association is being created for the dog in that context.

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