Even with the most amiable of pooches, training is a challenge. Dogs don’t scamper into the world knowing how to sit or come at a human’s command. Still, if you’re working with a well-adjusted dog, training isn’t exactly a heart-stopping affair. You may deal with the occasional stained carpet or battered shoe, but the stakes aren’t all that high.
That changes if your dog is displaying signs of aggression. Behaviors like growling, lunges, loud barks, or nips should send devoted pet parents into high-alert mode. Without the right training, an aggressive dog may be beyond help — and a dog in the early stages of aggression can become even more aggressive or even violent. And nobody wants to bear the inevitable results of unchecked canine aggression — least of all the canine.
Training an aggressive dog the right way is not only urgent, it’s especially difficult, especially as the dog gets older. The good news is, there are things you can do to reduce or manage your pup’s aggressive tendencies. The trick is identifying signs of aggression, figuring out what might be causing that aggression, then coming up with a well-thought-out action plan.
But just keep this in mind: If you observe canine aggression or even its earliest warning signs, you’ll need a professional trainer to help you formulate that action plan. Seriously — this isn’t a task you should take on by your lonesome. The stakes are just too high.
Warning Signs of Aggression
First, it’s important to know that canine aggression can begin rearing its head before it manifests as biting, aggressive lunging, or other threatening behaviors. Here are some signs to look for, from least to most advanced:
Yawning, blinking, or nose licking
Turning their head away
Turning body away, sitting or pawing
Creeping, ears back
Standing crouched, tail tucked under
Lying down, leg up
Stiffening up and staring
By the way, we borrowed this list from the Ontario SPCA and Humane Society’s “canine ladder of aggression.” Check out that link for a quick visual guide to the severity of various warning signs. As you can see, there are many ladder rungs between yawning and biting. If your dog has become genuinely violent, you may have missed or ignored early signs before they became that way. (Either that or you’ve adopted a new rescue dog who was already high up the ladder.)
As a pet parent, you need to read these signs early and take immediate action. Biting is a lot more dangerous than yawning and a lot harder to fix. So pay attention and take the appropriate steps — quickly.
Visit the Vet Right Away
If your dog is displaying signs of aggression — even mild ones — your vet’s office is a great place to start your search for a solution. A simple veterinary exam might reveal that the problem is the direct result of an injury or illness. Pain or discomfort, whether internal or external, can often lead to aggressive behaviors. And as soon as this medical condition is treated and the discomfort is relieved, your dog’s aggressive behaviors might subside or disappear.
But remember: You should always explain your concerns to your vet before the appointment so they can know what to watch out for. If your pup is feeling particularly nippy or has taken to menacing growls, your veterinarian should know what to expect going in.
If veterinary treatment solves your dog’s aggression once and for all, wonderful! If not, there’s plenty more work to be done.
Work with a Certified Behavioral Consultant
We’ll have plenty of advice for you over the course of this guide, from exercise guidelines to aggression management techniques. But this is key: Before you dive into training or management, you must consult with a canine behavioral consultant. And you should take this step as soon as you’ve ruled out medical causes.
With some other problematic dog behaviors, turning to a certified behavioral consultant might be the last resort. After all, behavioral consultants don’t work for free. But make no mistake: A dog exhibiting signs of aggression can become dangerous and quickly. You, your family members, your friends, strangers, and other dogs may be at risk. You might fancy yourself a talented amateur trainer — and maybe you are! — but when claws and sharp teeth are involved, you can’t take any chances.
So as you read the rest of this guide, keep in mind: You must seek professional help and develop a training program before you implement any of this advice on your own. And if you find yourself unable to afford or accommodate a behavioral consultant’s involvement in this process, then unfortunately, your only responsible option is to deliver your pup to a new home or shelter that can.
Here’s what a talented trainer will help you accomplish:
Determine why your dog is being aggressive
Help you come up with a behavior modification program that you can continue on your own
Help you train your dog without making their fear or anxiety worse
Just one more (very important) note: Make sure you turn to someone who’s a certified dog behavior consultant, not a self-styled “trainer.” The latter might not be genuinely qualified to help your furry friend, and that’s a recipe for disaster when you’re dealing with an aggressive dog.
Exercise and Stimulation Are Key
Your vet and your behavioral consultant will probably tell you the same thing: Your dog might not be getting enough exercise. If you see signs of aggression, you should immediately take steps to change this.
All dogs need play, exercise and stimulation. And some dogs are particularly high energy and need more than others. Here are some rough guidelines by breed:
High exercise: These dogs need 60-120 of exercise per day, much of it moderate to vigorous. Dogs with high exercise needs include those in the terrier group (Jack Russell, Lakeland, etc.), herding group (e.g. collies, sheepdogs, and shepherds), working group (e.g. Siberian Huskies, Rottweilers, and Doberman Pinschers), sporting group (e.g. Retrievers, Setters, and Spaniels), and scenthound group (e.g. Bloodhounds, Beagles, and Bassets).
Low to medium exercise: These dogs can make do with 30-60 minutes of low to moderate exercise daily. Dogs with low to medium exercise needs include the Brachycephalic group (e.g. Boxers and American Bulldogs), toy group (e.g. Chihuahuas and Pomeranians), sighthound group (e.g. Afghan Hounds and Greyhounds), and giant dog breeds (e.g. Great Danes and Saint Bernards).
If you have a mixed breed dog, try to learn as much as you can about their ancestry, as this may offer some guidance as to their exercise needs. And, of course, remember that your dog’s exercise needs will decline somewhat as they grow into seniorhood. If you’re still uncertain, consult your vet or your behavioral consultant.
If you’re already doing a decent job of providing your pup with an active lifestyle, “more exercise” might be as simple as adding one more daily walk or tacking on a few minutes to the walks you’re already taking.
Indoor stimulation is important too — even a few 5-10 minute ball-throwing sessions a day can provide some much-needed bursts of exercise and stimulation. And puzzle toys, chew toys, and interactive games can provide mental stimulation as well, and that can be just as important.
Here’s the bottom line: You need to determine how much exercise your dog needs and ensure they get it. A dog that gets the right amount of exercise, play, and stimulation is far less likely to be aggressive. And if your lifestyle or environment doesn’t allow you to provide your pup with the right amount or intensity of exercise, then rehoming your pup — as painful as that might be — is probably the best solution.
Understand Why (and When) Your Dog Gets Aggressive
If there’s no medical cause and your dog is getting the right amount of exercise, there are other factors that can cause aggression. These can include:
Fear or anxiety
A tendency toward “resource guarding” (i.e., protectiveness over food, toys, or other items)
Unfortunately, there’s also something called “idiopathic aggression,” which is a fancy way of saying that the cause is unknown. Needless to say, this is the toughest kind of aggression to solve — but a behavioral consultant may still be able to help you get to the root of things.
In any event, pet parents can keep things from worsening by addressing the potential causes of their pup’s aggression when the dog is still young. For instance, having your puppy spayed or neutered will prevent sexual aggression. That’s one of the main reasons why veterinarians highly recommend spaying or neutering your dog.
Meanwhile, training your dog with commands like “leave it” or “give it” can help you minimize resource guarding. And attentive dog owners can take early steps to minimize fearful and anxious behaviors (for instance, separation anxiety) by creating solid routines and providing safe spaces.
Of course, even flawless puppy parenthood can’t always stamp out all traces of aggression. Plus, aggressive tendencies — especially those caused by trauma — can persist into adulthood or even go away and resurface. (This means that adopting a rescue dog carries its own training challenges.)
Still, by learning what’s causing your dog’s aggression, you’ll stand a better chance of solving or mitigating the problem.
Some dogs are aggressive all the time, but others merely react to certain stimuli. In fact, canine behaviorists often draw a clear distinction between reactivity and persistent aggression. If you’re dealing with a reactive dog, you might find it effective to identify their triggers, and then help your dog steer clear of them.
Common triggers include:
Bicycles, baby carriages, scooters, or anything else with wheels
Of course, completely shielding your dog from stressful situations and stimuli won’t help them overcome their fears and anxieties. Ideally, you’ll be able to help your dog develop more positive reactions to these common triggers over time, even as you keep them away from their triggers when you need to.
At the same time, you should recognize that different dogs are, well, different. A ten-year-old senior you’ve just adopted from a shelter will probably be more set in their ways than a new puppy. Depending on the depth and severity of your dog’s negative reactions, avoiding their triggers may be either a short- or long-term strategy. It depends on the dog.
Use Desensitization and Counterconditioning
Your dog’s certified behavioral consultant may help you implement a training program that involves desensitization and counterconditioning.
“Desensitization” takes place when you introduce your dog to stimuli that usually cause unfavorable reactions but do so at extremely low levels. Then you very gradually increase those levels.
For instance, if your dog regularly growls or barks around other dogs, you definitely won’t want to introduce them to a strange dog on the street. But you may be able to walk your dog within, say, 50 feet of other dogs — then 45, then 40, and so on, gradually decreasing the distance over a period of days or weeks or more until finally, your dog is capable of socializing.
“Counterconditioning” goes hand-in-hand with desensitization. That’s when you change your pet’s negative response to a stimulus into a positive one. Let’s take the socialization scenario again: As you begin the slow process of moving your dog ever closer to the thing that’s causing their negative emotions, you should start introducing a treat, game, or something else that makes them happy just before you see their nerves start to perk up.
The key is to always keep your dog “below threshold.” That’s a term commonly used in dog training — essentially, it means that you always introduce the positive stimulus before your pup’s negative emotions translate into actual bad behavior.
This, of course, is a very succinct description of a complex form of behavior modification. Counterconditioning and desensitization can be applied to many situations, and the specific techniques and tactics will vary from scenario to scenario and from dog to dog.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record: Don’t attempt to counter condition or desensitize an aggressive dog without professional assistance. You’ll need to take a nuanced approach that’s specific to your pup’s needs. From the pace at which you desensitize your pup to the types of rewards you’ll offer them, you’ll need to get things just right. Don’t presume you can do that without guidance.
If your behavioral consultant determines that desensitization and counterconditioning are indeed the right courses of action, they’ll help you develop the right training plan for your dog. Eventually, you should be able to take charge of that program on your own — but you’ll need help getting started.
Manage Your Dog
Your expectations should be realistic, and you should always exercise patience. Even with the most effective of training programs, it could take months to see real progress. Or worse, you might never see the type of progress you’re hoping for. Some dogs — for instance, dogs that faced years of abuse or spent a great deal of time at a shelter — might never be able to socialize or shed their anxieties to the degree you’d like.
This is where managing your pup becomes especially important. “Management” refers to any techniques that prevent your dog from hurting anyone or becoming more aggressive. Management won’t modify your dog’s behavior like counterconditioning and desensitization — instead, it should be practiced in tandem with any effective behavior modification efforts.
Here are some tried-and-true tools and techniques for managing your pup’s aggression:
Use Indoor Gates
Simple and affordable, these will keep your dog from running outside where they can lunge at a stranger or prevent them from accessing rooms (or people) in your home when they’re not supposed to. You can also use gates to separate a resource-guarding dog from other pets and people who might bother them while they’re eating, drinking, or playing.
Leash Your Dog
This one’s pretty simple: If you have an aggressive dog, you must always keep them leashed in public whenever they’re likely to be around people or other dogs. Always.
Find Empty Parks
If you want your furry friend to get the exercise they need, you’ll have to let them run free sometimes. But if your dog gets aggressive around other people or dogs, you’d be wise to plan their leash-free exercise extremely carefully.
One strategy is to visit dog parks when they’re likely to be empty, like in the evening or early morning. You can also get creative and take your pup to playgrounds, tennis courts, or other fenced-in areas — just make sure it’s permitted first.
Use “Do Not Pet” Clothing and Harnesses
One fairly universal rule of owning a pup: strangers — especially small children — will want to pet your dog. Clothing, harnesses, and leashes that plainly warn “do not pet” will send a loud signal to misguidedly friendly adults, as well as tactile kids and their parents.
More on dog muzzles in the next section. For now, let’s say this: They work.
Muzzles Get a Bad Rap
There’s an undeniable stigma attached to muzzles. Even the word itself has become a metaphor for painful restraint. That’s a shame: dog muzzles are safe, effective, comfortable, and often very necessary.
In an ideal world, your pup would be calm and composed and would never be a threat to bite people or other dogs. Sadly, that’s not the world we live in. When a dog with aggressive or reactive tendencies wears a muzzle, you and your furry friend can enjoy a pleasant walk without posing a threat to anyone. Just keep in mind that muzzled dogs can still lunge, so always keep a tight grip on their leash.
By the way, most muzzle styles allow dogs to open their mouths wide enough to eat, drink or pant, so muzzling your pup won’t actually cause them to suffer in any way. So if you decide to introduce a muzzle, just remember that this decision doesn’t somehow signify your failure as a dog parent; on the contrary, it shows just how responsible you are.
Punishment Is Never, Ever a Good Idea
Here’s an ironclad rule for training an aggressive dog: Positive reinforcement, yes; punishment, no. Aversive tools and techniques like e-collars, leash corrections, or scolding and yelling will not help your dog master the fears and anxieties causing their aggression.
In fact, these tactics are guaranteed to wreak further havoc on your dog’s emotional state. Then it will become that much harder to reverse their slide into aggressive behavior.
Ask Your Vet About Prescription Meds
Believe it or not, vets can prescribe medications like Prozac or Xanax for dogs as well as humans. And these meds can actually be pretty effective at treating aggression and other behavioral disorders. So be sure to ask your vet if they think your pup would benefit from prescription medications.
Just be aware that these types of medications rarely solve behavioral issues completely. They’re certainly not a substitute for an effective training regimen.
Nothing ever is.