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How We Misunderstand Dog Aggression

Avoid Taking Your Dog’s Problems from Bad to Worse

By Meredith Alling. November 17, 2013 | See Comments

A Dog Laying Down And Growling

Dog aggression is a major behavioral problem for many pet parents because they can't discern the reason behind the aggression or the correct steps to change it. Avoid making things worse with your aggressive dog by finding out the dos and the don'ts. Learn more here.

Dog aggression is a widespread and serious problem -- according to the ASPCA, it is the number one reason why pet parents seek out professional help from veterinarians, trainers, and animal behaviorists. Despite the fact that this issue is so common, it is often misunderstood, and pet parents sometimes end up doing more harm than good when trying to correct their dog’s aggressive behavior. Here we’ll walk through common mistakes made by pet parents and what you can do to fix the problem.

Common Mistakes Made by Pet Parents

Having an aggressive dog is not pleasant, and many pet parents try to fix the problem with methods that just don’t work and can actually make the issue worse. Some common mistakes made by pet parents trying to fix dog aggression include:

  • Punishment: Punishing a dog for their aggressive behavior only exacerbates the problem. Dogs with fear or defensive aggression are likely to become more fearful and more defensive, and dogs who are territorial, protective, or possessive will have their aggression heightened by punishment.
  • Inappropriate Rewarding: It might be tempting to calm your aggressive dog down with a treat or other reward, but providing positive reinforcement at times when your dog is exhibiting unwanted behavior sends the wrong message. Your dog may begin to believe that acting aggressively will earn them rewards, thus ingraining their bad behavior even further.
  • Your Attitude: Having an aggressive dog can be stressful, frustrating, and even scary. A major mistake made by pet parents is bringing those emotions into training sessions. Dogs feed off of our behaviors and attitudes, and bad energy only begets bad energy. Before starting a training session with your dog, take a deep breath and relax. If you notice that you are beginning to get worked up, end the session and return when you are calm again.

Positive Reinforcement Training to Fix Dog Aggression

Positive reinforcement is a method of training that relies purely on praise and rewards to modify behavior. With positive reinforcement training, traditional means of punishment never enter the picture. This type of training has proven to be extremely effective on dogs with aggression issues. Here are some tips for positive reinforcement training:

  • Perfect Timing: The reward or praise that you offer your dog for good behavior must occur within seconds of the behavior so that they understand the connection. For example, if your dog has territorial aggression but instead of barking sits nicely when someone arrives at the door, offer the treat that instant -- not twenty seconds or five minutes later. To help with timing, many trainers use a clicker to mark the good behavior with a sound right as it happens, and then they offer a treat.
  • Be Consistent: Always reward good behavior; never reward bad behavior. Make sure that everyone in your family is on the same page about this. Everyone should also be consistent with the words they use for training -- if you have a possessive dog and are trying to teach them to “leave it,” everyone should say “leave it” and not some variation of the phrase.
  • Be Patient: Positive reinforcement training won’t change your dog overnight, but stick with it. Repetition, consistency, and a good attitude are all important factors for success.

Professional Resources for Dog Aggression

Training an aggressive dog can be difficult and also dangerous. In many cases, a qualified professional is needed. If you feel like you need help, your veterinarian will be able to provide recommendations for the following types of specialists:

More on Dog Behaviors

How to Handle 6 Common Dog Behavior Problems
8 Things You Didn't Know About How to Talk to Your Dog
Reading Dog Body Language

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Dog Aggression at a glance

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  • 1Finding the source of your dog’s aggression will help you to treat it
  • 2You should never punish, inappropriately reward, or act upset around your aggressive dog
  • 3Positive reinforcement training is an effective method for dogs with aggression
  • 4When in doubt, seek professional help