How to Help An Aggressive Dog

Dog barking aggressively

When it comes to aggressive dog training, the term “aggression” can refer to a wide variety of issues. Some people have dogs that show aggression towards strange people coming into their home.

Other people suffer from dogs with leash reactivity, who try to maul any dog that crosses their path, no matter how much bigger they might be. Still others fear walking into the same room with their dog while they’re eating, because their dog shows aggression over food or toys.

As you can see, aggression comes in many different forms. However, the most important aspect in any aggressive dog training case is looking deeper.

It is crucial to understand why your dog is displaying these behaviors before you can determine where you need to go from here.

But before we dive into the deep end of behavior, let’s chat about the term itself, and what it really means.

Precursor vs. Aggression

Many people in aggressive dog training make the mistake of slapping the “aggressive” label on just about anything that scares them. People automatically lump a number of behaviors in the same category as “aggressive” behavior. A dog growls? Aggression. A dog curls their lip at you? Aggression.

In reality, none of the behaviors described above are actually aggressive behaviors. You see, When a dog displays any of these, they are not doing so in an act of aggression, but as a warning sign or attempt at communication.

In fact, these signs are meant to help the dog avoid having to aggress in any way, and are a means to prevent any aggression. They are known in behavior as “precursors to aggression” or simply precursors.

A precursor is just that, something that warns you before a potential aggressive event. Dogs employ a large number of precursors. When a dog is uncomfortable, unhappy, fearful, or defensive, they might show your standard precursors, but subtle precursors can be seen as well.

Your standard precursors include the classic growl and lip curl, the ones that even the most unobservant person can see. However, those signs are the last straws rather than the go-tos. Dogs speak in body language, rather than clear and precise verbal communication. To learn more about a dog’s aggression, you need to learn their language.

Reading Your Dog

Let’s face it. The average person is garbage at reading a dog’s subtle body language cues. They see wagging tail and automatically assume happy, without taking a look at the rest of the body, speed of the tail, and where the dog is holding it. All of these things matter.

Stiffness is just one of many body language cues that let you know when your dog is uncomfortable in some way.

This is one of the more noticeable of the “subtle” clues. Your dog stiffening their back or their entire body can be a way to let you, another dog, or anyone interacting with them, that they are unhappy with the interaction.

Another common but less noticeable precursor is avoidance. When you, your children, other dogs, or other animals are interacting with your dog, if your dog noticeably turns their head or walks away, they are giving a subtle sign that they’ve had enough.

This happens frequently with dogs interacting with children. Well socialized dogs tend to do a good job even if a child is petting them too roughly, or handling their face more than they’d like. However, when a dog begins to turn themselves away, they’re trying to signal that they want whatever is happening to stop.

If that stop doesn’t happen, it can lead to a dog growling or curling their lip, a more noticeable sign to back off.

The Danger in Punishment

I’ve seen the reaction to this many times, and it’s frankly unsurprising. People consider their dog “well trained” and don’t pay close attention to their young children interacting or playing with the dog. When the child begins to pull the dog’s ear, pet their face too hard, grab their paws, the dog begins giving their usual signs that they want the interaction to end.

Other dogs would pick up on these signs and back off, but people don’t “speak” dog. As the interaction progresses, the child doesn’t notice anything amiss, and likely the owner doesn’t either. Until the dog begins to growl.

This behavior is met with a resounding whack to the head and a swift scolding. Because what’s scarier than a dog who growls at your child… right? Unfortunately, many people inadvertently punish these precursors to aggression, without realizing the source of the issue. Their children can’t read their dog’s body language, and neither can they.

Then they punish the more blatant precursors, which eventually leads to a dog that suppresses the growling or lip curling and goes straight to snapping at the child, and subsequently, the pound.

Understanding Aggression

To properly tackle aggressive dog training, you need to understand the aggression occurring. The source of a behavior is the most important element when you are working with your dog. Is your dog showing these signs out of fear? Are they in actual physical pain or discomfort? Are they uncomfortable or stressed and lashing out?

Determining what is causing a behavior is the only way for you to address it in a long-lasting and meaningful way. Because just trying to “fix” those aggressive precursors is a recipe for disaster.

However, every single dog is different, and every aggressive dog training case is different.

This is why I always recommend that clients utilize our Ask The Trainer membership when they have trouble with aggression. It’s important to work through the issue with a professional to determine how you can tackle the source of this aggression.

With a bit of trial and error, and a bit of time and effort, you can properly address your dog’s needs while also working on the aggression in a safe and healthy manner.


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