Few things are more upsetting to a dog owner than seeing their pet show signs of aggression toward humans. Even normally well-mannered dogs can occasionally raise a lip, snarl, growl and snap if put in a position where the dog feels threatened. A bite that connects with skin and/or leaves a wound is even more concerning. Any of these signs require a plan and changes to avoid an increase of frequency or severity.
In the case of a bite that causes a wound, the first thing to do is to separate and secure the dog, and attend to the person. There will be both physical and mental effects to address.
For other signs of aggression that have not (yet!) resulted in physical injury, the very first step is to stop doing whatever triggers the behavior. Whether that is trimming the dog’s nails, approaching him with a “goodie” the dog values (whether that’s a piece of trash, a treat or a toy), or even hugging the dog — stop! Keeping everyone safe must be the first goal; forget “correcting” the dog or trying to punish him. The dog could perceive that as more aggression, and the situation could escalate.
Instead, you want to defuse the tension. Soften your gaze, look away, relax your body language and turn away. Your goal should be to safely increase distance between the person and the dog. After that, you can begin to decide what should or can be done next.
Immediate Steps To Take When A Dog Shows Signs Of Aggression
Your goals are ensuring the safety of everyone, defusing the situation and understanding what happened. Here’s what to do:
1. Are the people safe? Is there enough distance from the dog? Can you remove children or others from the room or vicinity? Take a moment to keep the situation from escalating.
2. Is the dog safe? If the dog has something potentially harmful to him, set up a high-value exchange. Get a bunch of the dog’s food or a higher-value treat (think cheese, chicken, hot dogs, steak or coveted snack foods). Toss a healthy offering of what you have over the dog’s head, to a space behind him. Once the dog is working on the new goodies, use a tool (broom, box, blanket) to cover and retrieve the harmful item. But, if your dog has just “stolen” a tissue, let it go.
3. Cool off! Once the people and the dog are safe, take a few minutes to allow everyone to catch their breath and cool off. You need some time to think and plan, too.
4. Make notes. While it is fresh in your mind, make notes about what happened. Where were the people in the room, where was the dog, were there noises or actions that overstimulated the dog? You want to figure out what happened immediately before the signs of aggression, remembering that sometimes two or more things converge to create a stressful situation for the dog. Has your dog been acting unusual lately? Something that didn’t seem important before might be a clue to the aggressive behavior.
Preventing Future Aggression
Use these four tips to develop a plan to successfully overcome any further tense situations with your dog.
1. Manage the situation. Use crates, baby gates, leashes, harnesses and doors to keep all members of the household and guests safe. Do not put your dog into situations that bring on stress, fear or defensiveness. Avoid the triggers of your dog’s aggression until you can work with a professional.
2. Get help! You do not want to — and probably should not — try to go this alone. Find a dog professional to help you develop a plan to change the behavior you saw. Who can help? Choose from your veterinarian, a veterinary behaviorist, a certified applied animal behaviorist, a canine behavior consultant or an experienced dog trainer. You may need to develop a team approach to balance cost and expertise.
3. Get your dog a checkup! There are many physical/medical reasons a dog may show aggressive behavior, so a veterinary checkup is an excellent first step. Share with your vet what happened, ask him or her to tell you what types of medical conditions could contribute, and do appropriate testing to rule them out. Your vet can also discuss possible options for using medication to calm a dog’s anxiety if that is contributing to the situation.
4. Choose help carefully. The dog training industry is not regulated. Your hairdresser and electrician have to be licensed, but in most states, anyone can claim to be an “expert” in dog training and/or behavior. It is buyer beware, so do your homework.
No Quick Fixes
Behavior modification takes time and careful planning. You can expect to:
Re-build your relationship. Depending upon what your “dog team” recommends, it may be helpful to work on re-building trust between you and your dog. If the dog perceived a threat that elicited the aggression, go back to basics like reward-based obedience skills, and appropriate and safe exercise and activities, to allow you and your dog to bond again.
Do the work to make behavior changes. Your canine professional team should be able to educate you on body language to watch for; exercises for avoiding issues and calling your dog away from potential problems; and to change your dog’s mind about the thing (action, person, activity or item) that brought on the aggression. This article does not pretend to cover all the information you will need, nor provide all the skills or steps involved in behavior modification.
Be proactive! It is always easier to avoid problems than to try to recover from them afterward. Don’t overlook signs of fear, anxiety or aggression in your dog, hoping it will go away. It is better to seek out experienced, qualified help to address a small problem than to put it off until the issue becomes serious.