There are many misconceptions about training aggression in dogs or just training dogs in general and the biggest one is that you need to use violence to teach a dog to behave. In fact, this could not be further from the truth. One of the most crucial mistakes people make when they are training a canine is to resort to violence when nothing else seems to work. In fact, responding to a dog’s aggression in an aggressive way can and does often have completely the opposite effect that most people would expect – the dog carries out the aggressive behavior in response to the threat and execution of violence from its owner.
Be sure to have your dog checked
Before you do anything else, make sure you take a dog that is showing signs of aggression to a vet for a checkup to see if there are any physical reasons why it might be acting in an aggressive way. Dogs often react aggressively when they are injured (bee stings, insect bites, broken claws, etc.) or when they are suffering from some sort of a sickness or other condition. It may not be serious, but in this case it might be a defensive reaction rather than an aggressive one and you need to have your dog checked out to see if you cannot rule this possibility out.
If your dog is behaving aggressively and there are no physical reasons why this is the case according to your vet, then you should have it evaluated by a professional animal trainer or a skilled animal behavioral psychologist. Your vet will probably be able to refer you to a local professional. Many times we think we understand animals, but the truth is that they are extremely complicated and by going to see a trained professional in this field with your canine in tow, after a few sessions, you will probably be able to identify the reasons for the aggression.
What are the signs of aggressive behavior in dogs to watch out for?
There are a number of external signs to watch out for when it comes to aggression in dogs. Many owners do not notice some of the early signs of aggression in canines because they simply do not recognize it as such. This is why it is important to familiarize yourself with the various physical manifestations of aggression.
Eye narrowing – One of the very first signs of an aggressive dog is when they narrow their eyes. In dog language this basically means “I’m watching you.” It is usually the very first sign that something is wrong.
Shifting of body weight – A dog is a fighter and all fighters shift their body weight when preparing to attack. They sense that a fight might be coming soon and they want to get into position to get initiative, momentum and an advantage.
Tail raising - Dogs use their tails to communicate. A dog with a docked tail is like a person with no tongue, so don’t do this to your dog. When a dog raises its tail, it is showing that it is nervous and feeling aggressive. On the contrary, they wag their tails when they are happy or if they are lying down or sitting, they will beat their tails against the ground.
Raising hackles – These are the hairs on their backs near their neck and when dogs raise these they are making themselves look bigger. Intimidation is a strategy that many animals use to avoid a fight. Fighting for animals is usually the very last resort (because they know instinctually that it’s dangerous) and if they can get away with winning just by intimidating their opponent, they will.
Growling, barking and snapping at air – At this point, there’s no question that you are dealing with an aggressive dog. Be aware that just because a dog is barking in and of itself, it does not mean that there is aggression there. Barking, as with all vocal communication, has different tones and types. There is a special type of bark (usually mixed with growling) that means a dog is aggressive. It will also exhibit many of the other non-combat signs as well at the same time. Snapping at the air is the way for the dog to show its power by displaying its teeth and how effective and powerful their jaws are.
Biting – This is a dog’s primary weapon: its teeth and jaws. Being bitten by a smaller dog can result in small punctures of the skin from their canine teeth, but injuries can be far more severe from larger dogs. Additionally, some dogs are instinctually going to “go for the kill” and can leap up at you, trying to bite at your neck or face. There are notorious types of dogs which have been known to attack young children in this way when they feel threatened, such as terriers.
Responding to aggressive behavior
The crucial part of this is not to respond with aggression! The most important thing is to find out exactly why the dog is behaving aggressively. You will need to know a lot about the dog’s past when you do this and if you cannot answer any of these questions, then you might not be able to identify this stage at all (as in the case of stray dogs or dogs from shelters). A lot of assumptions can be made though with help from a professional which can put you on the right track.
The second part is observation. Know when your dog gets aggressive and you can go a long way towards identifying the causes. The last part of dog aggression training is the modification stage. Basically, you will be helping your dog confront the threatening situation slowly and gently while relaxing it and calming it with petting, kind words and then rewards.