Aggression Toward Dogs and People
There is a lot to discuss here. This article will be broken into pieces so you can skip ahead to your area of interest if you so desire.
Dealing with a dog that is dog aggressive or people aggressive is handled in a very similar fashion. Some dogs may be fine with other dogs and only aggressive to people. Other dogs may be fine with people and only aggressive toward other dogs. Just because a dog becomes aggressive to one doesn’t always mean they will become aggressive to the other.
Dog to Dog or People aggression is when one dog acts aggressive to another dog or person. People may also refer to this as a dog being reactive and is very close to the same thing. Often times a person may call an aggressive dog reactive so it doesn’t sound as bad. If you come across another dog and someone says their dog is reactive you should assume they are aggressive and take the necessary precautions. You don’t know what the other person defines as reactive.
Aggressive is defined as: ready or likely to attack or confront; characterized by or resulting from aggression.
Reactive is defined as: showing a response to a stimulus.
A reactive dog may look a little crazy when seeing another dog or person but has no desire to confront or attack. If a dog or person approaches a dog that is reacting, the reactive dog will often hide behind their humans legs. This behaviour can quite easily escalate into a dog that is aggressive if it isn’t dealt with.
In the case of dog to dog aggression this often happens if a dog gets attacked by another dog. The dog that gets attacked can lose faith that their human is capable of defending the pack. The dog may then assume higher positions within their pack and take it upon themselves to keep the rest of their pack safe. This happens most often with dog parks after a dog gets attacked by another dog.
There are two main types of dog to dog or people aggression:
Fear Aggression is when a dog is just fearful of other dogs or people. This dog may have been attacked before by another dog, had a bad experience or sometimes no experience at all with other dogs or people (dogs will tend to be afraid of things they have never seen before if they were not socialized to it during their key socialization period). This type of aggression is much easier to deal with.
Dominance Aggression is when a dog acts aggressive to other dogs or people not because they fear them but because they don’t want any competition. This is the type of aggression that is much more difficult to deal with. These dogs will often never be buddy buddy with other dogs or people or they take a great deal of time to properly introduce other dogs or people to be accepted into their pack. It is best to treat dogs of this nature as a “loaded gun”. You have to be careful who you point them at and ensure safety at all times.
Methods You May Have Heard to Stop Dog Aggression
As always there are pros and cons to everything and almost every one of those steps will work for certain dogs.
This is very common to hear these days. Many people will say your dog needs to be “socialized” more. Often times the advice is to get your dog to the dog park more often so they can socialize with more dogs.
If all the other dogs you brought your dog to were nice then this method may work out. If at the dog park your dog happens to encounter another dog that is aggressive and attacks or confronts your dog in an assertive manner this will often make things much worse for your dog.
What we have found is that you don’t need a dog to go and interact or sniff nose to nose with anything to be socialized. All that needs to happen is the distraction you are trying to socialize to is present while your dog focuses on you. That is all it takes to socialize a dog to anything. See notes on Socializing a Dog for more information.
If the dog is naturally an Alpha then greeting other strange dogs or people is a bad idea.
This method is designed to show the dog that you are boss and you are correcting them for when they act aggressive. This method has worked for many dogs. It can also backfire. In some cases it can make the dog more aggressive or even lash out at the person trying to alpha roll them.
If you are going to use this method you will want to use caution. Some dogs will take the hint and say “Alright if you want to be boss and you say that other dog can be present then I guess I will agree with you”. Other dogs can say “Oh no you didn’t! I will show you who is boss!”
This method works better with lower ranking Betas. As you get to high Beta and Alpha they can often lash out at you if you use this method. Some people find success with a shake of their scruff or a pinch of their skin somewhere to make the dog yelp. The yelp is often a sign of when the dog has given in. This is why when you see two dogs fighting and one is pinned to the ground, the one on top will keep snarling and biting from side to side at the neck until the other dog yelps and gives in. Then the fight may stop. (If the dog that is attacking is quite aggressive then the fight may not stop unless the other dog is badly injured, killed or stopped by someone else).
This shares a few similarities with the Alpha Roll. The handler is forcing the dog to stay in position and allow another dog to sniff their bum. The concept behind this is that the dog reacting will realize that the dog that is sniffing their bum just wants to greet and means no harm. This can be effective for some dogs and others it can also make it much worse. Sniffing is a Pack Structure item. A higher ranking dog can sniff a lower ranking dog but not the other way around. Some dogs get very aggressive if another dog tries to sniff them.
The idea here is to try and have someone else make friends with your dog by petting them. This is also flooding and in the dog world it means demanding of attention. In the primate world, grooming and stroking is a sign of affection whereas in the dog world it is forcing attention. A higher ranking dog can force attention on a lower ranking dog. So if the dog accepts petting they are agreeing that you are higher ranking and allow you into the pack. Some dogs will bite you if you go to pet them especially if your hand hesitates or when you remove your hand from petting.
For very mild cases of fear aggression this can work. For dominance aggression we wouldn’t do this. Overall this is a method we would stay away from if you want to keep all 10 fingers your whole life. As a rule I don’t let myself get bit by any dogs over 20 pounds. If they are under 20 pounds then wearing leather gloves helps to keep from hurting too much. You can show the dog that biting will not get them their way.
Example: We worked with a Maltese x Bichon that weighed 18 pounds. He was quite aggressive to his family. He would bite the mom if she went into the daughter’s room. He would also bite if they tried to take his harness off before he thought the walk was done. They would have to put him in the car and drive around the block and he would let you take the harness off in the car and then they could carry him to the house. So I put on a pair of gloves and proceeded to take his harness off before he thought it should be removed. I had a pair of leather gloves on. He went to bite so I gave him my whole hand to chew on. He kept biting so we gave him a squirt of bitter apple spray. Then he backed down and let us remove the harness and put on a different harness. Next time we went to take the harness off he snarled, I moved my gloved hand closer and he looked away and let us remove the harness. He still broke the skin on my hand with his teeth through thick leather gloves when he did bite. Any dogs over 20 pounds we find it is too dangerous to risk a bite unless you have real bite work gear on.
This is also a Force based method of correcting the situation. A Force based trainer will tell you that you are better off to do one really hard correction rather than a thousand nagging corrections. The idea behind this method is that if you correct the dog hard enough to stop them from reacting the dog may see you as the leader and take your cue instead. This method has worked for many dogs. The downside is that it can make an aggressive behaviour much worse.
Leash Aggression is when you have a dog that only seems to act aggressive on leash. We have seen dogs that look like Cujo on the end of a leash but as soon as the leash is dropped they are perfectly fine. The issue with this method is that the dog that is being corrected on leash doesn’t always make the connection with what the correction means (University Professor Syndrome). Many dogs can associate the pain of the correction toward other dogs or people. Thus in turn the dog can increase the level of aggression they show. The dog thinks the more aggressive they act the faster the other dog or person goes away and the faster the pain they feel from the correction goes away. This is why a Force Based Trainer will say you are better off doing one really hard correction rather than a thousand nagging corrections. The correction needs to be hard enough to stop the behaviour immediately.
This style of training is falling out of favour to the reward based style of training. Much can be done with reward but it seems some dogs will only break the habit of being aggressive with a hard enough correction. The dogs in which this type of correction is the only one to work are often very high ranking dogs by nature. They want to be Alpha real bad. The only way their handlers maintain control is to follow all the rules with this dog and let them know they will not put up with anything and a correction will be issued if they do not follow through. There are very mixed views on this method.
It seems this method is best left as a last resort if at all. However some dogs the first time they react if they receive enough of a correction they may think that was a big fail and never try it again and go on to live a long and happy life. This is a method you will never ever get the opposite sides (reward vs force) to agree on.
Question of Debate: What if all positive methods had been tried and didn’t work but a force correction that was quite harsh did work. Would it be better to do the correction or put the dog down? The reason we ask this question is that we have heard of multiple accounts where aggression with reward methods didn’t work but a force correction did work. The dogs then went on to live long happy lives. What is a reward minded person’s view point on this? Would everyone agree that yes it should be tried, tried to a certain limit or the dog not be given a chance and put down?
This method is reward based. The concept behind it is Premack Principle where you take something the dog doesn’t like (dogs or people in this case) and associate it toward something they really like (treats or food). This method works very well for a lot of dogs and is a reward based trainers “go to”. There is the potential for problems with this method if your timing and what you are rewarding is not correct.
If a dog is reacting and you reward them with food the dog can think they are being rewarded for aggressive behaviour. Ideally you want to make sure that other dogs or people are present at an acceptable distance and your dog is focusing on you while you reward them.
This is a pretty safe method to begin with. Force based trainers often do not like any kind of food rewards because they do not want it to become a bribe and they think the dog should listen and respect you without food. A dog can still be weaned off food and taught to listen and have respect down the road.
This is the same principle as using treats (Premack Principle). This method can also work very well if your dog is highly toy motivated. Again you want your dog to be focusing on you while dogs or people are off at a distance. People are often concerned their dog will run away to the other dog or person while playing fetch which is a very valid concern. For this you can use an anti-
Force based method designed to do the same thing as a hard yank on the leash. This can work for many dogs and can also make things worse just like yanking on the leash. One client we had before they came to see us used a remote shock collar and when their dog looked at another dog in an assertive way they shocked their dog. He went running after that other dog and attacked the dog. It seems in that situation the aggressive dog was giving the evil eye and then he felt pain which he may have figured the other dog caused. He then ran after to attack to teach that dog a lesson.
The shock collar (also known as an e-
Some people however have found that they can correct the dog with a shock collar for acting aggressive and it stops that behaviour. It seems this method would be more effective for a lower pain tolerance dog that doesn’t have a guarding nature. If a person were to try this with a high pain tolerance dog that has a guarding nature it can make things a lot worse.
If a person is going to use this method they would want to practice recall on a long line in low distractions first and then increase the distractions. If the dog understands they are receiving the correction for not coming when called as opposed to acting aggressive toward the other dog, the results are much better. A low level correction can be used and the dog can be made to follow using the rope. This helps the dog make the connection that the leader (the human) wants the dog to follow them and not engage the other dog or people. This then alleviates University Professor Syndrome.
Will My Dog Ever Be Good Around Other Dogs or People?
Many people want to rehabilitate their dog so they can bring them around other dogs or people, in the case of dogs, possibly going to the dog park. As always with the Law of Opposition, some dogs will do great and some will never be buddy buddy with other dogs or people.
Dogs with Fear Aggression can often fair pretty well. Dogs with Dominance Aggression almost always have problems with other dogs or people. It will depend on whether they are low, mid or high level Alpha. The higher the drive to be Alpha, the less likely they will do well with other strange dogs and people. With people aggression these dogs may assume that any new person is lower ranking than them until proven otherwise and they may use force to maintain their position otherwise. This often means biting other people or dogs. With small dogs it is easier to manage, with big dogs it can get quite dangerous. With a good set of leather gloves on we wouldn’t want to take a bite from a dog bigger than 20 pounds. Even at 20 pounds the bite through good leather gloves can puncture your hand.
Dog Aggression -
Whether you have a dog that is dog aggressive or not you are best to only bring your dog around other dogs you know and trust. Just because you know them doesn’t mean you trust them. Some of your good friends or family members may have some nasty dogs. Just because they are friends or family doesn’t mean you have to bring your dog around theirs.
People Aggression -
We had some neighbours that had a German Shepherd that was fine with anyone so long as this dog’s people were home to say they were ok. If they weren’t home and you tried to come into the house that dog may have tried to eat you.
To ensure a dog lives a long happy life and is good with other dogs or people it is best to teach your dog that you are the most fun and exciting person out there. This way your dog will know that you will keep them safe. A viewpoint of ours is that we feel like we pay for all of our dog’s food and vet bills so that we can have a good time with our dog. We love it when you can go out and do stuff with your dog and they just want to focus on their human and have fun with them.
What are the best methods to rehabilitate a dog from aggression?
Over the years this is what we have found tends to work best. As mentioned at the beginning of the article you have seen the pros and cons to a bunch of different methods. Here we will explain why we like this way.
First of all this is a good thing to keep in mind: If your dog is 100% focused on the other dog or person you will have very little chance of success. If your dog is 100% focused on you then that would mean your dog is fully cured of dog or people aggression (at least when you are present). If they are indeed 100% focused on you that means they do not even have 1% to focus on another dog or person which means they cannot act aggressive toward that other dog or person.
So the question becomes “How do I get my dog to focus on me?”
The methods we are about to tell you not only work for aggression but also work for Distraction Training as well, such as a dog wanting to chase a rabbit, bicycle, etc.
1. Pack Structure -
3. Obedience -
4. Distance Commands -
5. No Free Lunch Policy -
6. Consequence -
See the article on Pack Structure for a clear definition on the 8 key items. We have had clients come here that have been to previous trainers. Some of these trainers told them that there was no such thing as Pack Structure in domestic dogs. There is research to suggest Pack Structure has been bred out of domestic dogs. Take a look at the article on Pack Structure Debate as well as Dog Types Debate for further information.
We have had great success with any aggression case by following Pack Structure Rules. The reason we suspect is that dogs prone to aggression issues seem to naturally desire a higher ranking position. By taking control of the benchmarks for ranks, you can position yourself above the dog in ranks. It helps with respect and training. To give you an idea on how important: We used to do Board and Train. We would follow Pack Structure rules and the dog would excel with training. If we sent the dog home and the people did not follow Pack Structure rules, the dog would stop listening to them and become problematic. If we took the dog back they would immediately listen to us. The only link we could find was Pack Structure.
The more your dog likes you and looks up to you the easier that dog is to train. There are many ways to build bond and our two favourites are Fetch or Tug (read the rules on Tug as one way to play tug increases respect and the other builds a dogs confidence to think they are more capable of running the pack). Just having a strong bond (in which your dog sees you as the leader and most fun thing out there) can solve all of your dog aggression problems.
Teaching obedience is an excellent way to tell your dog what you want them to do during any second of the day. Obedience is almost always necessary unless your dog has a crazy high toy drive in which they only want to focus on their toy and nothing else. Still it is a good idea to really proof up obedience. See articles on sit, down, stay, loose leash walking, recall, climb, distance commands and distraction training.
This one is so helpful it is worth having its own category. The reason why is you can tie your dog to a post (or other immovable object) and practice giving commands from a distance. Start in Low Distractions first and the build up the distractions around. In this case it will be dogs or people at a distance. This allows you to go and greet other dogs or people and also give your dog commands to follow through on. This method really seems to help your dog see that you are the leader and you will greet outside pack members first and decide what to do with them. See the article on Distance Commands for some more in depth explanation.
If you give your dog everything they want or need for free you don’t have much left to use as motivation. Many people say they “spoil” their dogs, this often means giving everything away for free. From here on out it is best if you make them work for everything. The top motivators are Pack Structure items and they all utilize Premack Principle:
1. Food -
2. Possessions -
3. Attention -
Many dogs love food so this can be an excellent motivator for them. If your dog isn’t toy or attention motivated then this can work really well. Some people may say “my dog isn’t food motivated”. That isn’t true, all dogs are food motivated if they haven’t had food in a long enough period. For some dogs the only way we could get them to focus on us in a distraction is to make them work for their kibble. We would give them multiple chances throughout the day to work for it doing sits and downs while the distraction was present and usually off at a far distance. If they didn’t want to work for it then fine but they weren’t getting it for free back at home. Some of these dogs would be on Day 3 before they thought “I am getting pretty hungry, I think I will work for my food now”. There is a saying in dog training that “food overcomes fear” and that is very true.
If you have a toy crazy dog then consider that an ace up your sleeve. We spend a considerable amount of time proofing up a dogs desire for fetch or tug (but especially fetch). Our German Shepherd had no desire to fetch when she was a puppy. It took us 3 months to get her to love fetch and that is now her favourite motivator. Playing your dog’s favourite game with dogs or people off at a distance can have them associating good things with other dogs pretty quick. Be careful because if a strange dog comes running up to steal your dog’s ball that can trigger some pretty bad fights.
Likely the biggest underused motivator with dogs. Most dogs can freely come up to get attention and pets from their humans any time they want. If you start making your dog work for all of that attention that can really help out with training. We often instruct clients to really cut back on the attention they give their dogs at home and save their highest and best praise for outside around distractions when their dog pays attention to them. We have heard some trainers instruct people to go as long as 2 weeks with zero attention to their dogs. What this does is signify to your dog that they are so low ranking in the pack you won’t even acknowledge them. That dog can begin to crave your attention so much that they do not care about other dogs, people or distractions. We have never found we had to go to that extent but we hear it is highly effective. The reason why you can make your dog work for your attention is one of the same reasons you can’t pet a Seeing Eye Dog. If the Seeing Eye Dog got all of that attention for free they wouldn’t work for it and they wouldn’t focus on their handler.
Try as you may to be as exciting as possible but some dogs still prefer to do the Negative behaviour (Bank Robber Principle). If you are #2 in a race running from a bear and you can’t beat #1 you can always kick the shins of #1. There are all kinds of consequences but we generally find them to fall into 2 categories:
1. Withholding -
2. Administer Negative -
Reward based trainers use this type of Negative. For example if a dog jumps they may tell you to ignore the dog. That is withholding something the dog wants, attention. When the dog stops jumping you can then give them attention (be careful of Core Rule: Training Every Second -
Force based trainers typically use this type of Negative. Often times it will be a physical correction such as an alpha roll, yank on the leash, kick, hit, slap, scruff shake, flank grab, e-
Reward based trainers use this to a lesser extent with something like a water bottle squirt, shaker can or compressed air.
One of our favorites to use is Grannicks Bitter Apple Spray. It doesn’t hurt the dog but they really don’t like it. It tastes super bitter and terrible. (Caution: We did have one client whose dog was allergic to bitter apple but that was the only dog we ever met with an allergy to bitter apple).
A big advantage to this is it can work on super high pain tolerance dogs. Some dogs it seems you couldn’t correct them hard enough to have them feel it and have any desire to stop a negative behaviour. Example: A few years ago we worked with this pit bull that was pretty dominant and had a very high pain tolerance. They went to a training class previous in which they used force to train. They start the dogs on a Martingale Collar and this dog wouldn’t listen so they used a spiked plastic collar to correct him. They had to yank so hard that they broke 3 collars off his neck and he still didn’t care. When he came here we did Leash Manners with him in which he followed a bit and then decided he didn’t want to and proceeded to grab the leash and try to drag me around the room (they wanted to play tug with him but he would never drop, they tried to out-
When you have tried everything else and nothing else works often times a force based correction can stop the negative behaviour. This again is of great debate and very unlikely that both sides would ever agree. This is the question: If nothing else works but a force based correction did and the dog went on to live a long and happy life is that ok? Or should they be put down or locked away instead?
Exercises to Do
Your goal is to get your dog to focus on you while other dogs are present. So how do we do this safely?
Have your dog tied to an immovable object. Practice sits and downs with dogs off at a distance. Many dogs will not focus on you in this instance. This is where we will often make the dog work for every piece of kibble they get. They don’t have to work for it if they don’t want but they get no food for free elsewhere. Some dogs may go 2-
Tip: If the dog really doesn’t want to work for their food, it can often be helpful to move further away from the distraction to start (Core Rule: A to B Rule). Sometimes people try to train too closely or the distraction is too intense to start.
Here is a picture to give you an idea on how the exercise would look:
Your dog would be tied to Point North. Another dog would be off at Point East, the distance will depend on how reactive / aggressive your dog is.
You will head to Point West. It is surprising how many dogs will stop barking when you walk away in the other direction. Your dog may turn to face you and ignore the other dog. In this case your dog is often saying “Where are you going? I was only acting tough because I thought I had the rest of my pack to back me up! If you are going to leave then I want to go with you!”
If that is the case then that is good news, your dog does look to you for a bit of guidance. If your dog doesn’t then they often see themselves as being Alpha and they don’t care if they have the rest of their pack to back them up.
You can do this over several days to try and get your dog’s attention on you more and more. Use their kibble as motivation. It helps if they only earn their meal when distractions are present.
As your dog does well you can tie them closer and closer to other dogs or people. Make sure no other dogs or peoplecan come up to your dog. Even in on-
As your dog does well with this you can then tie your dog up on the other side of a pathway so you can cross the pathway and give your dog commands with other dogs and people going between you and your dog.
You may want to have a helper close to your dog incase another dog does come running over to your dog. Or if you are able to see dogs from a distance you can tell whether they are on leash or not.
If you can get your dog to focus on you while other dogs or people are going between you and your dog then that is a really big and successful step. It will be much easier to try Loose Leash Walking at a distance from other dogs or people after you have achieved this level.
Games to Do
You can use a 50 foot rope and an anti-
Keep in mind this can be a very time consuming endeavour. Some dogs can be a year or more of training where you work with them everyday for 2 hours. That would equate to 730 hours a year or 18.25 forty hour work weeks. Some dogs may only take a couple of weeks.
If your dog is Dominance Aggressive they will likely never be buddy buddy with other strange dogs or people. When introduced slowly they can learn to accept another dog or person into their pack but this can take several days or weeks and each new dog or person would have to be introduced the same way. If the other dog also wants to be Alpha then that has a strong probability of not working.
Not many dogs are so dominant they may never get better. However they are out there. The good news is if there is ever an apocalypse and it is every person for themselves, that dog will keep you safe from all other people and dogs. Best post-
If your dog is super dominant and aggressive you can still make a bit of headway with the steps mentioned. It is best to pretend you are carrying around a loaded gun with a hair trigger. Be careful where you bring it and who you point it at. It is often a good idea to have that dog wear a muzzle to ensure the safety of others if you are out and about.
Your goal is this:
1. Pack Structure -
2. Bond -
3. Focus on you -
4. Consequence -