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Dog aggression is a serious problem and learning how to calm an aggressive dog doesn’t come with providing love (or discipline).
As an expert dog behavior consultant, I’ve spent years helping family pets and shelter dogs overcome aggressive behavior issues (you can read about my experience here).
While stopping dog aggression is not an easy task, calming an aggressive dog is often possible with perseverance, patience, and a bit of psychology.
Before we get started, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page.
Aggression in dogs is a complex topic, and it’s important to agree on terms and their definitions.
I’ll keep this as brief as I can.
Aggression is a behavior with the intent of doing harm or the threat to perform a harmful act. Aggressive behavior in dogs generally includes barking, lunging, growling, snarling, baring teeth, muzzle punching (when a dog hits you with a closed mouth), and biting.
Dominance describes which dog gets access to which resources in a given situation. It’s not a character trait (a dog can’t “have a dominant personality” or “be dominant”).
Dominance is generally considered to be an outdated term because its application in dog training was based on shoddy research. The same goes for “Alpha theory” and “pack theory.”
Reactivity is the common aggressive behavior problem of dogs that bark, lunge, snarl, or snap during walks. These dogs are generally friendly in other contexts but become “a different dog” when they’re on a leash or behind a fence.
This is one of the most visible versions of dog aggression. In general, reactive dogs are all bark and no bite – many of them are actually barking and lunging because they’re overly excited to go say hi.
That doesn’t mean reactivity isn’t a serious aggressive behavior concern, though!
Resource guarding is essentially aggression that occurs only in the context of food, toys, attention, or another resource. It is a natural behavior, but severe cases are generally considered a sign of significant insecurity on the dog’s part.
Even though some level of resource guarding is normal (raise your hand if you want to share your ice cream with every stranger on the street), it’s still a cause for concern in many homes.
The distance and intensity where a dog reacts to a trigger. His stress levels, the number of triggers, the speed of the triggers, and many other factors can lower his threshold (making your dog more sensitive to triggers).
The thing that causes aggressive behavior in dogs or reactivity. Common dog aggression triggers include other dogs, strange-looking people, cars, bikes, and kids.
Now that you have an idea of how serious your dog’s aggression is, it’s time to get to work on how to calm an aggressive dog.
Keep in mind that it’s always a good idea to get the help of a certified dog behavior consultant, certified applied animal behaviorist, or veterinary behaviorist when working to tame an aggressive dog.
The very first step to training an aggressive dog is making sure that everyone is safe. There are several components to this step.
The very first step is to identify your pet’s triggers and thresholds without putting anyone in danger. You may already know what your dog’s triggers and thresholds are (for example, a dog that growls around his food bowl is generally easy to identify), but you might not.
Be as clear as you can about what causes your his aggression. Identify triggers and thresholds by taking extremely careful note of what sets your dog off and what happened right before.
Once you have an idea of what triggers your dog’s aggression, it’s time to put in preventative measures.
Preventative measures may include building a fence to prevent your dog going into the street, placing baby gates to separate your dog from the kitchen, muzzling your dog while out and about, not grabbing your dog’s collar, or skipping the dog park.
I talk about using muzzles a lot. I recommend using a Baskerville Ultra Muzzle or Bumas Muzzle for big dogs. Both of these muzzles are safe, comfortable, and allow your dog to eat treats while he’s wearing it.
We will use lots of treats in training because food-based rewards are one of the best ways to show your dog that he’s done something you like (and treats are much more effective than praise).
The goal is to avoid aggression triggers and keep everyone safe. We will gradually reintroduce your dog to his triggers at the next step.
Reducing your dog’s stress levels isn’t just a feel-good, kumbaya recommendation. It’s a safety imperative.
There are five main factors to consider when reducing your dog’s stress levels:
Odds are, you’re already doing a good job with at least a few of these factors already. Let’s look at ways you can improve at each pillar.
Some big dogs simply don’t get enough exercise. While your Great Dane might enjoy lounging around all day, most working breeds like German Shepherds need quite a bit of exercise each day.
It’s hard to muster the energy to exercise your dog after a long day of work, and it’s often challenging to exercise aggressive dogs in public. If your dog is safe to walk outside on a regular basis, jogging or activity walks are my go-to exercise methods for busy people.
If your dog isn’t really safe or easy to walk outside, consider using a flirt pole to exercise him. This fishing pole-like toy keeps your fingers out of the way and doesn’t require much space.
As a general rule, healthy dogs should get at least an hour of activity each day between mental and physical exercise. The exercise doesn’t have to be physically intense, especially for older or less energetic dogs.
Most modern dogs spend a lot of their day being bored while their humans are gone at work. Luckily, there are lots of cheap, fast, and easy ways to exercise your dog’s mind.
As a bonus, mental enrichment is often easier to do for aggressive dogs because you don’t have to leave the house. Puzzle toys, hidden treats, training, and walks in nature are my four favorite mental and sensory enrichment ideas for aggressive dogs.
Allowing your dog to work for his food using puzzle toys will activate his seeking system in his brain, which releases the happy hormone dopamine. In other words, having your dog work for his food is actually more fun!
SEE ALSO: 20 Best Toys for Big Dogs
Best of all, you can leave your dog with puzzle toys while you’re at work. This helps alleviate boredom. I love to hide puzzle toys and treats around the house, allowing your dog to use his nose to find his breakfast.
Training your dog is another great way to improve your bond, build his skill set, and alleviate boredom. Start with some simple but useful tricks like back up, go to your bed, come, stay, and touch my hand.
Finally, take your dog for relaxing walks in nature – use a muzzle if you need to.
Keep your dog on a 30 to 50-foot long line and let him sniff around an interesting area, like a local hiking trail or even a quiet urban river path. This walk is really for your dog – let him sniff as much as he wants and go at his pace.
Nature walks are incredibly relaxing for you and your dog. It’s incredible how much less aggressive some dogs become if you simply add regular, relaxing nature walks to their schedule.
Some people (like me) don’t really struggle with the physical exercise and mental stimulation – we love being outside and active with our dogs. Instead, we struggle with teaching our dogs to quietly and calmly “turn off.”
If your dog seems anxious, hyperactive, or hypervigilant at home, it’s time to look into improving his relaxation and rest.
Start by removing the things that stress your dog out or amp him up, if possible. For example, many guard dogs get upset about things that pass by outside.
Help them out by blocking their view of the windows and putting on white noise while you’re gone. For the play addicts among us, you might find surprising benefits from putting all of the toys away when it’s not playtime.
Use the SMART x 50 training technique to reward your dog fifty times (per day) for calm, relaxed behavior. Simply count out fifty pieces of kibble and then give your dog a treat every time he lies down, sighs, lowers his head, rolls onto a hip, or looks away from the window. Over time, you’ll guide your dog into being much more relaxed at home.
Another excellent tool for teaching relaxation is Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol.
This fifteen-day training plan teaches your dog to lie down and tune out an increasingly distracting world. I recommend following this protocol every day during mealtimes for your dog, rather than adding extra treats to his diet.
Teaching your dog to relax using these methods will also help teach your dog to be more “zen” about his triggers, ultimately helping to reduce his aggression.
SEE ALSO: 10 Best Calming Treats for Dogs
I’m no vet, but it’s also no secret that your dog’s physical health affects his behavior. From an abscessed tooth to thyroid issues to gut imbalances, there are myriad ways that your dog’s physical well-being could be causing or worsening his behavior.
Pay a visit to a behavior-savvy vet and talk to her about your dog’s behavior concerns. She might be able to help you pinpoint physical issues that are related to your dog’s aggression.
Keep in mind that fixing your dog’s physical ailments might not resolve the aggression issues, even if they were the root cause. For example, a dog might start growling when kids come near because he’s arthritic and their rough play hurts his hips.
Giving your dog painkillers might fix the arthritic pain, but he’s likely still got bad feelings about kids thanks to his past experiences. He’s learned that kids make him hurt, and the absence of pain might not fix his feelings about that.
The next step in our training plan will help get rid of those bad feelings.
Now we’re ready to pull out the big guns. You’ve got all of your safety measures in place, and your dog is fully taken care of. If you’ve done steps 1 and 2 correctly, you already should have seen a dramatic reduction in your dog’s aggression.
Some people choose to stop here. Depending on what your dog’s aggression issues are, that’s just fine. Everyone is safe and your dog is happy.
But if you really want to calm an aggressive dog, you’ve got to get into counterconditioning and desensitization.
In essence, these long words boil down to the concept of slooooowly introducing your dog to his triggers in small doses, while teaching him that those triggers always make awesome things happen.
Don’t expect to be able to cure your dog’s aggression in a day, a week, or even a month. Be patient and consistent.
Counterconditioning and desensitization is simple, but it’s not easy. The guidance of a trainer is helpful in determining how hard to push your dog. When in doubt, go slower with your training.
The consistency of trigger = hotdog is also super important. If your dog’s trigger sometimes predicts food and sometimes predicts a correction and sometimes predicts nothing, he’s likely to become more stressed rather than less stressed.
The video below shows me demonstrating counterconditioning and desensitization to loud noises. You can practice these techniques with nothing more than a few treats and a Youtube video!
Finally, it’s time to think of what you’d like your dog to do in a given situation other than react aggressively. Many people rush this step, trying to force their dogs to sit when their dog sees a trigger when their dog is so stressed by the trigger that he can’t even hear them (or feel their hand pushing his butt down).
If your dog is still staring at the trigger, you’re not ready for this step.
Wait until your dog is able to be around his aggression triggers without exploding at them. Teaching him to do something when he’s around his triggers is more effective at reducing stress than just teaching him that triggers = hotdogs (see the research behind this here).
Let’s be clear here: I’m not a veterinarian, and I don’t have any canine-specific medical training.
But I’ve worked with enough aggressive dogs to say that there are times where sedatives for dogs may be helpful or even necessary for treating aggression.
It’s always a good idea to check with a behaviorally savvy veterinarian (or better yet, a veterinarian that specializes in behavior such as a veterinary behaviorist) to seek a real expert opinion.
There are a few red flags for me that let me know aggression may be related to something medical:
Dogs may become aggressive for any number of reasons if they are in pain. Think of how irritable a child may become with an upset stomach or a sore tooth, and you’ll sympathize. Some disorders, such as hypothyroidism, can also be accompanied by behavioral changes such as aggression.
Even if your dog’s aggression isn’t caused by a medical issue, medication may still help.
Some dog aggression medications can help reduce your dog’s baseline stress level enough that behavior modification can take hold.
It’s almost impossible for dogs to learn if they’re 100% stressed out 100% of the time, and medication can help there.
Aggressive dogs are inherently dangerous. They are threatening to cause damage or have already followed through on that threat.
If you do nothing else when calming an aggressive dog, keep everyone safe. This means understanding your dog’s triggers and thresholds, reading his body language, and using appropriate prevention strategies such as muzzles.
Use non-confrontational training methods to teach your dog that his triggers are actually hot dog machines, then teach him a replacement behavior. Work with a professional if at all possible.
Are you training an aggressive dog? What advice has helped you? We’d love to hear your personal experiences.