Managing Aggressive Dog Behavior

Once a dog has already gotten to the stage of showing signs of aggression, part of the treatment or behavior modification is often labeled as management. What management means is that you are helping to create a situation or environment for the dog to succeed in. The best way to do this really relates to the type of aggression that the dog is dealing with.

Why do you need to “manage”?

An important component of any type of aggression is the fact that aggression is really learned. It doesn’t mean you’ve taught the dog to be aggressive. What it means is that the dog has learned that using aggression is a strategy that appears to work. The longer that the dog is allowed to use aggression as a tactic, the more the dog learns that it is a very useful strategy for him to use.

Let’s look at a few examples:

Your dog has a toy he really, really likes a lot. You go to remove the toy, and your dog growls at you. You back away. In this one instance, the dog learns that if he growls, the human will back away, and he will get to keep what he wants to.

Someone approaches your yard or home, and your dog runs to the perimeter barking and growling. The person continues to move on past the home. The dog learns that if he makes an aggressive display, intruders will keep moving.

A young child is allowed to follow a dog around the home, even after the dog attempts to leave the area. The young child continues to try and pet and bother the dog even after the dog has attempted to avoid the contact. The dog finally growls and air snaps towards the child, and the child either runs away scared or an adult finally removes the child. The dog has learned that annoying small people don’t go away without the growling.

There are many more examples that illustrate how aggression can be learned. In fact, it is often learned in just one episode, and if it proves to be a valuable tactic, it will be repeated. The more the dog is allowed to practice these displays of aggression, the more firmly entrenched they will become in his behavior repertoire.

Because aggression has so much learning involved in the process for the dog, we very often have to manage the situation so as to totally break the cycle for the dog. If the dog is allowed to continue to do the very same things in which the aggression occurs, the dog will continue to use this strategy as it hasn’t learned a new way of dealing with the problem. That means that a very big part of the behavior modification process will be changing the situation so the dog can learn something new.

No rehearsing!

We don’t want the dog to rehearse aggression. Generally the first part of management when you begin the training process is to avoid any situation that typically produces aggression. Many owners initially ask how on earth can avoidance correct a dog’s aggression. Avoidance, by itself, doesn’t correct the aggression, but stops the dog from continually rehearsing the aggression pattern so that he can learn the new information.

A good example would be a dog that exhibits reactivity and aggression on his daily walks by barking, growling, and lunging at any dog he sees. If this dog is walked exactly the same way, no amount of training will be of great assistance because he will continue to use the strategy that works for him. But, if the handler instead allows the dog to see new dogs but at a distance that is comfortable for him (he’s not barking) and then turns and moves another direction (thereby moving away from the new dog), the dog learns that seeing a new dog is not a bad thing and in fact allows him to move away. Most aggression on walks directed at new dogs is intended to put distance between the strange dog and the barking dog. So, this new strategy allows you to manage the situation (by not putting him as close in proximity as before that caused the aggression) and teaches him something new (new dogs aren’t bad and he can leave the area before it’s too stressful).

Every type of aggression has some level of management as part of the package. How much management and for how long really depends on the severity of the aggression. Some cases of aggression will always require some management while others may require very little once the dog has learned a new way of coping in a situation.

When consulting with a trainer or veterinary behaviorist, there should always be a discussion of how management (or how to not rehearse the aggression) plays into the behavior modification plan for your particular dog. Make sure to ask if you’re not immediately clear on what the trainer is suggesting because management should be an integral part of the plan.

Dog aggression and behavior expert with 30 years of experience.

Posted in Dog Aggression