Having a dog with behavior problems can be difficult. In this article, we help you learn more about your dog, manage your dog, and then work on the current challenges with your dog. If your dog has shown a willingness to bite, this information may help you keep him safe and happy.
First, if the dog’s aggressive behavior 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 may react in a seemingly aggressive manner.
Typically, the behaviors labeled “aggressive” are happening because the dog is afraid rather than aggressive. (For more information, see “Dog Aggression.”) There are various tools and techniques that can help dogs who are currently exhibiting dangerous behavior. To help your dog become less fearful and more comfortable in the world, read this resource (and the others mentioned below), work with a relationship-based behavior consultant and a veterinarian, and make sure your family and friends are included to make training consistent.
Managing a dog with behavior challenges
Management is an important part of working on changing a dog’s behavior. “Managing” means doing what is required to prevent your dog from practicing undesirable behaviors or emotions, while offering him great quality of life. It involves getting to know your dog, helping him to be as social as possible, and supervising your dog when necessary — with the ultimate goal of keeping him comfortable and safe for life. It’s about setting up the environment and potential situations for success.
You probably know that it’s not acceptable to allow your dog to injure a person or another animal. It’s also unacceptable to let your dog practice inappropriate or threatening behavior (such as lunging or nipping), even if that behavior hasn’t led to injury. Every time your dog practices a behavior, he gets 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 his life. Don’t take that chance: Learn how to manage your dog so everyone stays safe.
There are many different ways to manage a dog and his environment so he doesn’t get the opportunity to behave in a way that could get him into trouble. Some examples of good management strategies include:
- Put signs around the house communicating current training protocols, to keep everyone in the family 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 his safe place
- When you are out in public with the dog, have him wear a vest that says “Dog in training” on it
- Train the dog to wear a basket muzzle (see below)
- 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
Every dog and every home is unique, of course, so management strategies for each family will vary. Please train your dog to wear a basket muzzle. 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 states, 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 more calm, helping your dog to be calmer, which means training will progress more quickly.
It’s important to teach your dog to look forward to wearing his muzzle because if he doesn’t like wearing it, he’ll be uncomfortable and distracted during training.
Getting to know your dog
By getting to know your dog, you will be able to identify his triggers (things that cause him to behave in that undesirable manner) and ways to avoid them. Just like people, dogs communicate using body language, so your dog is communicating with his entire body, not just his tail or his voice. To know how your dog is feeling, you’ll need to learn to read your particular dog’s body language. A dog normally gives other 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 his signals are and what they mean. For more information, read "Dog Body Language."
Many people chastise a dog for growling, thinking that the dog is being “bad” and telling him not to growl will stop the behavior and fix the problem. However, growling is your dog’s way to communicate that he is feeling threatened by something or someone. If you punish your dog for growling, next time he may give you less warning before a possible bite. The dog learns that you don’t want him to tell you how he feels. Punishing the growling does not change the underlying emotional state that causes the behavior, but it does teach him not to communicate with you. Frequently, when a dog bite occurs seemingly out of nowhere, that dog has a history of being punished or having his warning signals ignored.
Working with your dog
Dogs are often fearful because they have had bad experiences or a lack of experience with whatever makes them uncomfortable. If you work with your dog gently and consistently, most likely you can help him feel better about what has historically made him 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 (see “Teaching Your Dog Basic Cues”). Be a kind, gentle, patient teacher. Don’t expect your dog to know what you want; you’ll need to teach him to focus on and learn from you. At first, work with your dog at home, away from any distractions. Teaching him in your home is going to help him know what you are asking for when you need him to focus on you in all other situations. Once he has mastered basic manners, you can start working with him 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 may 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 medical checkup. Any kind of pain, infection or injury may have a damaging effect on a dog’s behavior. Also consider seeing a relationship-based professional dog trainer or a certified animal behavior consultant (see “Find a Dog Trainer”). A qualified professional can help you work with your dog on his specific behavior challenges.
Finally, be aware that learning and using socialization skills is a lifelong process for the dog. Keep practicing and rewarding him for the rest of his life. Your goal is a relaxed dog who is comfortable in the world and can enjoy a wide variety of experiences — doing more 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 his/her own risk.