Having a dog with behavior concerns can be difficult, especially if the dog has bitten or is at risk of biting a person or animal. Using the term aggression is more appropriate, as “aggressive” can mean something different to everyone. Fortunately, there are various tools and techniques that can help prevent dog bites. First, though, if the dog’s aggression is something new, make an appointment with your veterinarian to rule out a medical cause. A dog who isn’t feeling well or is in pain might react with aggression.
Decoding dog bite warning signs
It's important to learn to read your dog’s body language. A dog normally gives other warning signals before escalating to growling, lunging, or biting. Because some of this communication is subtle, you’ll need to observe your dog’s body language closely to learn what the signals are and what has triggered them. Warning signs leading up to a bite can include pupils dilating, hackles raising, ears going back, and lip licking. Take care to notice these sometime subtle warning signs. If you see any, cease interaction and try to remove the trigger, or stress factor, that is causing the dog to react in this way.
Some people discipline a dog for growling, thinking that the dog is being “bad” and that telling the dog not to growl will stop the behavior and fix the problem. However, growling is your dog’s way to communicate that they feel threatened by something or someone. If you punish your dog for growling, they might learn you don’t want them to tell you how they feel. And the next time, they might give you less warning before a possible bite.
Punishing the growling does not change the underlying emotional state that causes the behavior, but it does teach your dog not to communicate with you. Frequently, when a dog bite occurs seemingly out of nowhere, that dog has a history of having warning signals ignored or punished.
Why dogs bite
Dogs can display aggression and bite for a wide variety of reasons.
- Trigger stacking: Every dog has noises, sights, etc. that induce a stress response. If they experience one of those triggers and are not able to decompress before experiencing another, it might lead to a bite. An example would be a reactive dog on a walk seeing multiple dogs in a row without being able to decompress. Then a biker passes by, and they lunge out to bite them.
- Taking away their ability to warn: Like stated above, most dogs will give warning signs leading up to aggression. When they have been conditioned not to give those warning signs, they might escalate right to a bite.
- Defensive aggression: This is fear based. These dogs are asking for space with their warning signs, but if pressured they might bite to get that space.
- Offensive aggression: Dogs displaying this will go forward toward a person or animal even if given space.
Managing a dog with behavior challenges
Managing is doing what is required to prevent your dog from practicing undesirable behaviors while offering your dog a great quality of life. It involves getting to know your dog, helping them to be as social as possible, and supervising them when necessary — with the goal of keeping your dog comfortable and safe for life. It’s about setting up the dog’s environment for success.
Every time your dog practices a behavior, they get better at it. If you allow your dog to continue practicing threatening behavior, you are putting yourself, the dog, and others in danger. Don’t wait for your dog to bite someone before getting help. Without help, a fearful dog might make a decision that could result in physical damage to someone. In some cases, that behavior could ultimately cost the dog their life. Don’t take that chance.
There are many ways to manage a dog and their environment, so they don’t get the opportunity to behave in a way that could get them into trouble. Every dog and every home are unique, of course, so management strategies for each situation will vary.
Some examples of good management strategies include:
- Put signs around the house communicating current training protocols to keep everyone in the household on the same page regarding the dog’s training.
- Erect physical and visual barriers, such as doors, X-pens, and baby gates, if necessary.
- Train your dog to use a crate as their safe place.
- When you are out in public with the dog, have them wear a vest that says “Dog in training” on it.
- Train the dog to wear a basket muzzle.
- Use high-value treats (things the dog finds particularly yummy) that can be given through a muzzle.
- Use nutraceuticals (e.g., L-theanine) and aromatherapy (e.g., BlackWing Farms products) to help manage the dog’s overall emotional state.
Regarding basket muzzles, some people are reluctant to consider using a muzzle. But it can be a great management tool to keep both your dog and others safe. Dogs are very good at picking up our emotional state, so if you are nervous about your dog biting, your dog will feel your anxiety and might be more likely to bite. By having your dog wear a muzzle during training, you will feel calmer, helping your dog to be calmer, which means training will progress faster.
Working with your dog
Dogs are often fearful because they have had bad experiences or a lack of experience with whatever makes them uncomfortable; there is also a genetic factor where the dog could be more prone to fearful behaviors because of that. But if you work with dogs gently and consistently, most likely you can help them feel better about what has historically made them uncomfortable.
After ruling out a medical cause for the behavior, start the training by teaching basic cues using relationship-based training methods. Basic cues help build a solid foundation for working with your dog. Be a kind, gentle, patient teacher. Don’t expect your dog to know what you want; you’ll need to teach them to focus on and learn from you.
At first, work with your dog at home, away from any distractions. Teaching your dog in your home is going to help them know what you are asking for when you need your dog to focus on you in all other situations. Once your dog has mastered basic manners, you can start working in other locations, including places that have more distractions.
In every interaction with your dog, think in terms of building a trusting relationship. Give plenty of rewards, but have the dog earn them. Ask the dog to give you a “sit” or a “down” before you give a treat. Remember, too, that even though training is a serious thing, learning should be fun for your dog.
If at any point during training you feel that your dog might injure you, stop! Think about what you were doing. Keep in mind that progress takes time; if you were pushing too far or too fast, slow down. Back up a step or two to a place where the dog was having fun. Check your tone and emotion. Did you become frustrated or angry? Could the dog have felt threatened? Most medically sound dogs will respond to kind, gentle training by making steady progress.
If you do reach a plateau and your dog stops making progress, make an appointment with your veterinarian for another checkup. Any kind of pain, infection, or injury can have a damaging effect on a dog’s behavior. Also, consider seeing a relationship-based professional dog trainer or a certified animal behavior consultant. A qualified professional can help you work with your dog on specific behavior challenges.
Finally, be aware that learning and using socialization skills is a lifelong process for the dog. Keep practicing and rewarding your dog for the rest of their life. Your goal is a relaxed dog who is comfortable in the world and can enjoy a wide variety of experiences while staying safe.
Disclaimer: Best Friends Animal Society is not responsible for any injuries to anyone using the techniques described in this article. Any person using the techniques described here does so at their own risk.