Recognizing, preventing, and handling dog aggression
In the wild, aggression came in very handy: dogs needed aggression to hunt, to defend themselves from other creatures, and to defend resources such as food, a place to sleep, and a mate. Domestic dogs have come along way since then, but they still use it to defend themselves, their toys, food and anywhere they consider their “spots”. An aggressive Chihuahua is actually a fearful Chihuahua. Make no mistake, they would much rather lay back and let you do the protecting. However, if you don’t show them from the very beginning that you intend to make that your job, then they feel they have no other choice but to do it themselves. So, they fall back on their instincts — aggression.
But that doesn’t mean that we, as dog lovers and owners, are entirely helpless when it comes to handling our dogs. There’s a lot that we can do to prevent aggression from rearing its ugly head in the first place – and even if prevention hasn’t been possible (for whatever reason), there are still steps that we can take to recognize and deal with it efficiently.
There are several different types of canine aggression. The two most common ones are:
- Aggression towards strangers
- Aggression towards family members
Aggression towards strangers
What to look for. It’s pretty easy to tell when a dog’s scared around strange people. He may hide behind your legs or the sofa. He will try to make his body small. His tail will be tightly tucked and his ears flat. He may be jumpy and on the alert.
Why does it happen?
There’s one major reason why a dog doesn’t like strange people: he’s never had the chance to get used to them.
Remember, your dog relies 100% on you to broaden his horizons for him: without being taken on lots of outings to see the world and realize for himself, through consistent and positive experiences, that the unknown doesn’t necessarily equal bad news for him, how can he realistically be expected to relax in an unfamiliar situation?
What can I do about it?
The process of accustoming your dog to the world and all the strange people (and animals) that it contains is called socialization. This is an incredibly important aspect of your dog’s upbringing: in fact, it’s pretty hard to overemphasize just how important it is. Socializing your dog means exposing him from a young age (generally speaking, as soon as he’s had his vaccinations) to a wide variety of new experiences, new people, and new animals.
How does socialization prevent stranger aggression?
When you socialize your dog, you’re helping him to learn through experience that new sights and sounds are fun, not scary. It’s not enough to expose an adult dog to a crowd of unfamiliar people and tell him to “Settle down, Roxy, it’s OK” – he has to learn that it’s OK for himself. And he needs to do it from puppy-hood for the lesson to sink in (that doesn’t mean, however, that they can’t learn later in life). The more different types of people and animals he meets (babies, toddlers, teenagers, old people, men, women, people wearing uniforms, people wearing motorcycle helmets, people carrying umbrellas, etc) in a fun and relaxed context, the more at ease and happy – and safe around strangers – he’ll be in general.
How can I socialize my dog so that he doesn’t develop a fear of strangers?
Socializing your dog is pretty easy to do – it’s more of a general effort than a specific training regimen. First of all, you should take him to puppy preschool. This is a generic term for a series of easy group-training classes for puppies (often performed at the vet clinic, which has the additional benefit of teaching your dog positive associations with the vet!). These sessions (also called puppy kindergarten or any number of different titles) are relatively inexpensive and so important! You will never regret the money spent.
This is an ideal environment for them to learn good social skills: there’s a whole bunch of unfamiliar dogs present (which teaches them how to interact with strange dogs), there’s a whole bunch of unfamiliar people present (which teaches them that new faces are nothing to be afraid of), and the environment is safe and controlled (there’s at least one certified trainer present to make sure that things don’t get out of hand).
Socialization doesn’t just stop with puppy preschool, though. It’s an ongoing effort throughout the life of your dog: he needs to be taken to a whole bunch of new places and environments. Remember not to overwhelm him: start off slow, and build up his tolerance gradually.
Aggression towards family members
There are two common reasons why a dog is aggressive towards members of his own human family:
- He’s trying to defend something he thinks of as his from a perceived threat (you). This is known as resource guarding, and though it may sound innocuous, there’s actually a lot more going on here than your dog simply trying to keep his kibble to himself.
- He’s not comfortable with the treatment/handling he’s getting from you or other members of the family.
What’s resource guarding?
Resource guarding is pretty common among dogs. The term refers to overly-possessive behavior on behalf of your dog: for instance, snarling at you if you approach him when he’s eating, or giving you “the eye” (a flinty-eyed, direct stare) if you reach your hand out to take a toy away from him.
All dogs can be possessive from time to time – it’s in their natures. Sometimes they’re possessive over things with no conceivable value: inedible trash, balled up pieces of paper or tissue, old socks. More frequently, however, resource-guarding becomes an issue over items with a very real and understandable value: food and toys.
Why does it happen?
Dogs are pack animals, however, domestic dogs have come very far from their wild ancestors. In a household, it is more like a group and there is a leader in that group. (incidentally, there can be co-leaders in a group) If you don’t show him from the very beginning that you are the leader of this group, he will feel that he has no choice other than to take on the role himself. Keep in mind that to him this is really a very stressful role. He feels he has to be on the alert most of the time. Anything different in the environment that he is used to becomes a stressful situation to them.
Your dog has his own perception of where he ranks in that environment as well. This is where it gets interesting: if your dog perceives himself as higher up on the social totem-pole than other family members, he’s going to get cheeky. If he’s really got an overinflated sense of his own importance, he’ll start to act aggressively. Why? Because he believes that is his right.
So what can I do about it?
The best treatment for dominant, aggressive behavior is consistent, frequent obedience work, which will underline your authority over your dog. Just two fifteen-minute sessions a day will make it perfectly clear to your dog that you’re the boss, and that it pays to do what you say. You can make this fact clear to him by rewarding him (with treats and lavish praise) for obeying a command, and isolating him (putting him in “time-out”, either outside the house or in a room by himself) for bad behavior.
- If you’re not entirely confident doing this yourself, you may wish to consider enlisting the assistance of a qualified dog-trainer.
- Brush up on your understanding of canine psychology and communication, so that you understand what he’s trying to say – this will help you to nip any dominant behaviors in the bud, and to communicate your own authority more effectively.
- Train regularly: keep obedience sessions short and productive (no more than fifteen minutes – maybe two or three of these per day).