Updated September 21, 2020: I’m not a big fan of the dog park. I used to love it so much when Henry was a pup, and I looked forward to taking him every day after work because when he was younger and smaller and wimpier, other dogs picked on him, and he handled it really well. But the older and bigger and stronger he got (and the more he got humped or outnumbered), the more his hair went up and the more he let other dogs know he was not having a good time. (Can you tell I’m a smotherer?)
Since Henry is a pitbull/boxer, his freak-outs are not as welcomed and cute as the snarls and growls of an adorable little Chihuahua or Jack Russell Terrier. He never hurt anything or anyone, but after a while, I stopped taking him to dog parks; I realized I had too much anxiety at them because I constantly feared he would hurt another dog or person, and that anxiety and negative energy translated from me to him as I walked him to the park tightly on his leash and never left his side while we were there, fully embarrassing him in front of all his friends.
In my opinion, Henry is much better one-on-one with dogs and prefers running through the yard or woods or creeks – unleashed and untethered – and I am much better, too, with that arrangement. Because with those dog park trips, I realized that owning an aggressive dog can be stressful. You aren’t sure when and if he’ll be triggered, and you’re afraid he’ll hurt you or someone else. What can you do?
First, remind yourself that dogs are animals. We tend to humanize our dogs and pets and forget that many of their behaviors reflect years and decades and centuries of all the animals and dogs that came before them – entire species who lived and traveled in groups, protected themselves from predators, guarded their territories, and showed aggression (yes, aggression) to procure and protect their food. Since aggressive behavior is influenced by both environmental and genetic behaviors (and centuries of innate ancestral animal instinct), before you and your pet can combat her aggression issues, it’s important to first identify what kind of aggression she exhibits and where or when it started.
There are countless types of aggression – predatory, social, defensive – but, below, The Humane Society of the United States defines three of the most prominent:
Fear-motivated aggression: When a dog believes he is in danger, he reacts with aggression, even if he isn’t actually in harm’s way. If he perceives danger, he may bite in order to protect himself.
Protective or territorial aggression: With this type of aggression, dogs protect their "territory" – their food, toys, owners, or home - and can growl, snarl, and snap at those who they perceive as threats. (My dog is guilty of exhibiting this behavior; he marks our entire neighborhood so he often feels like he owns the block and can be unwelcoming to those he doesn’t know.)
Redirected aggression: The Humane Society feels this form of aggression is relatively common, but often misunderstood by dog owners: "If a dog is somehow provoked by a person or animal he is unable to attack, he may redirect this aggression onto someone else. For example, two family dogs may become excited and bark and growl in response to another dog passing through the front yard; or two dogs confined behind a fence may turn and attack each other because they can’t attack an intruder."
Do any of those forms of aggression seem familiar? Has she not been aggressive yet, but you fear she might? According to an article by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), "A dog that shows aggression to people usually exhibits some part of the following sequence of increasingly intense behaviors":
Becoming very still and rigid
Guttural barking that sounds threatening
Lunging forward or charging at the person with no contact
Biting – quick nips and bites and/or puncture wounds
Now that you know the type of aggression your dog demonstrates and the signs to look for to help prevent a possible dangerous situation, below, find ways to help your dog combat his aggression:
Relax. I know owning an aggressive dog feels like a crisis, but it can be completely remedied. Take a deep breath and calm down because you don’t want to be stressed out, and you don’t want to stress your dog out. Dogs feed off of our energy so if we’re nervous or anxious, they, too, become nervous and anxious and can become aggressive thinking they’re protecting us.
Assess. Have you ever heard the passive-aggressive break-up line, "It’s not you, it’s me"? When it comes to your dog, maybe it’s not him, it’s you. Maybe he needs more exercise or more love or more socialization or more mental stimulation. Cesar Milan, everyone’s favorite dog whisperer, says, "A lot of people assume that a dog is either naturally aggressive or not, but this isn’t really the case. Aggression is not a cause, but a symptom. If your dog is aggressive, then it’s telling you that something else is lacking. By paying attention to the behavior, we can understand what our dog is telling us and then figure out the cure to the problem." If your dog has been aggressive and snarled or snapped, think about the time(s) it happened. Who bore her aggression? When? Where? What happened before, during, and after her fit or attack? It’s helpful to know why she did it to help determine what can be done to help prevent it from happening.
Don't bully your breed. Pit bulls, rottweilers, and dobermans get a bad rap. Yes, because of their size, when they’re aggressive or snappy, it is much scarier than when a toy poodle or shih tzu is aggressive, but it is unfair to assume their breed is the problem. Milan says, "remember, these dogs don’t dream of being in the news when they grow up. Bad dog behavior and dog problems are not premeditated. Bad things happen when powerful breeds (or mixes of powerful breeds) live with humans who like the breed but don’t understand and fulfill the animal in the dog. Many people consider the look or popularity of a breed before thinking about whether the dog works for their lifestyle. This is a recipe for disaster."
Talk to your vet. Since dogs cannot communicate the way humans can, it’s important to rule out any medical conditions by getting them checked out. When dogs are in pain, they tend to lash out and exhibit signs of aggression when they really just want to get help. (In fact, the ASPCA defines this form of aggression as "pain-elicited aggression": "An otherwise gentle, friendly dog can behave aggressively when in pain. That’s why it’s so crucial to take precautions when handling an injured dog, even if she’s your own. A dog with a painful orthopedic condition or an infection might bite with little warning, even if the reason you’re touching her is to treat her.")
Seek professional help. Since aggression issues do not go away by themselves. contact a behavioral specialist to help make the situation less stressful and dangerous. The ASPCA says professionals in the pet-behavior field fall into four main categories: trainers; certified professional dog trainers (CPDTs); applied animal behaviorists, certified applied animal behaviorists (CAABs) and associate certified applied animal behaviorists (ACAABs); and diplomats of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (Dip ACVBs). Once you identify which one professional you need, do a Google search or check out The Association of Professional Dog Trainers’ website to find one in your area.
Be considerate. Your dog is your responsibility. If you fear he will bite another person, consider a muzzle or keep him confined and away from situations that trigger his aggression.
Spay or neuter your dog. Like Bob Barker always said, "Help control the pet population. Have your pets spayed and neutered." In addition to controlling the pet population, fixed dogs are less likely to display dominance, territorial, protective, and sex-related aggressions.
Exercise. If you have a puppy or remember your dog when he was one, I have one word for you: energy. People tend to think that puppies have a lot of energy (and they do!), but so do most adult dogs. Dogs have a lot of energy, and they need to burn it off so it’s important they get enough exercise to keep them stimulated both physically and mentally. Dogs who get plenty of exercise are less frustrated and less likely to lash out.
Refrain from punishment. In fact, punishment can often make the situation worse. If your dog is fearful, punishing, hitting, or raising your voice will only make her more fearful and more aggressive. If she’s dominantly-aggressive, punishing her will only make her want to be more dominant and overpower you as the leader.
Evaluate. Think about your options. In most cases, aggression is solvable, but it is hard work and takes a lot of time. Can you handle it? Do you (and those you live with) have the time and patience to commit to it? Can you live safely with your dog, or are you and your family in danger? Remember, you need to do what’s best for you, your loved ones, and your dog. If you know your dog is aggressive because you cannot give him the time he needs to be properly exercised or socialized, consider finding another home for him.
Image: Alex Proimos