What does “an aggression reactive dog” mean?

In order to understand why your dog is acting in an aggressive manner, it is important to know some things about canine social systems.  Animals, who live in social groups, including domestic dogs, establish a social structure called a hierarchy within their group.  This hierarchy serves to maintain order, reduce conflict and promote cooperation among group members.  A position within the hierarchy is established by each member of the group, based on the outcomes of interactions between themselves and the other pack members.  The more aggressive animals can control access to valued items such as food, den sites and mates.  For domestic dogs, valued items might be food, toys, sleeping or resting places, as well as attention from their owner.

Domesticated dogs through evolution.  Most dogs assume a neutral role toward people, but some dogs will challenge their people or other dogs.  An aggressive dog may stare, bark, growl, snap or even bite when you give him/her a command or ask him/her to give up a toy, treat or resting place.  Sometimes even hugging, petting or grooming can provoke a growl or snap because of the similarity of these actions to behaviours that are displayed by aggressive dogs.  Nevertheless, an aggressive dog may still be very affectionate and may even solicit petting and attention from you.

Be aware. Do not assume that just because your dog barks, growls, lunges etc that it is an aggressive dog, many dogs react in this manner as a result of fear.

For example, a dog that barks at another when walking on the lead is usually communicating to it that it needs some space and to please leave it alone. The challenge you have in this situation is that the dog on the lead cannot do what it really wants to do which is to put distance between it and the other dog, as a result of the restrictions of the lead. It is in fear, fight, flight mode, but it can’t flight, so it must give what are seen as an aggressive response by barking. This usually becomes increasingly aggressive as the dog in question gets older and learns through repetition that barking does work. Many people that I work with tell me that their dog is terrible on the lead, but absolutely fine off it. That is because off the lead it can set its own rules re distance, body language, eye contact etc.

However when it comes to people, you may have an aggression issue with your dog if :

  • He/she resists obeying commands that he/she knows well.
  • He/she will not move out of your way when required.
  • He/she nudges your hand, takes your arm in his/her mouth or insists on being petted or played with.
  • He/she defends his/her food bowl, toys or other objects from you.
  • He/she growls, nips or bares his/her teeth at you or others under some circumstances.
  • He/she will not let anyone (you, the vet, the groomer) give him/her medication or handle him/her.
  • He/she gets up on furniture without permission and will not get down.
  • He/she gets up on you uninvited.
  • He/she snaps at you.

 What to do if you recognise signs of aggression in your dog:

If you recognise the beginning signs of aggression in your dog, you should immediately consult an animal behaviour specialist. Do something about it, it will not get better, it usually becomes much worse very quick.  No physical punishment should be used.  Getting physical with an aggressive dog may cause the dog to intensify his/her aggression, posing the risk of injury to you.  With a dog that has shown signs of aggression, you should always take precautions to ensure the safety of your family and others who may encounter your dog by:

  • Avoiding situations that elicit the aggressive behaviour.
  • During the times your dog is acting aggressively, back off and use “happy talk” to relieve the tenseness of the situation. Exchange items that your dog may have; give a greater value food treat for example. Do this instead/before confronting your dog so that it does not get a high value reward for growling or biting.
  • Supervise, confine and/or restrict your dog’s activities as necessary, especially when children or other pets are present.
  • When you are outdoors with your dog, use a “Gentle Leader” or muzzle.
  • When you are indoors with your dog, control access to the entire house by using baby gates and/or by crating your dog. You can also use a cage-type muzzle, or a” Gentle Leader” and lead, but only when you can closely supervise your dog.
  • Aggression problems are unlikely to go away without your taking steps to resolve them. An animal behaviour specialist should always supervise treatment of aggression problems, since aggressive dogs can be potentially dangerous.

The following techniques (which do not require a physical confrontation with your dog) can help you gain some control and calm:

  • Spay or neuter your dog to reduce hormonal contributions to aggression. NOTE:  After a mature animal has been spayed or neutered, it may take time for those hormones to clear from the system.  In addition, long-standing behaviour patterns may continue even after the hormones or other causes no longer exist.
  • “Nothing in Life is Free” is a safe, non-confrontational way to establish a safe response from an aggressive dog and requires your dog to work for everything he/she gets from you. Have your dog obey at least one command (such as “sit”) before you pet him/her, give him/her dinner, put on his/her lead or throw a toy for him/her. If your dog does not know any commands or does not perform them reliably, you will first have to teach him/her, using positive reinforcement, and practice with him/her daily.  You may need to seek professional help if your dog is not obeying each time you ask after two to three weeks of working on a command.
  • Do not feed your dog people food from the table and do not allow begging.
  • Do not play “tug of war,” wrestle or play roughly with your dog.
  • Ignore barking and jumping up.
  • Do not allow your dog on the furniture or your bed. If your dog growls or snaps when you try to remove him/her from the furniture, use a treat to lure him/her.  Otherwise, try to limit his/her access to your bed and/or furniture by using baby gates, a crate, or by closing doors.
  • Use an indoor lightweight lead to move your dog if putting your hand near to him/her might illicit an aggressive reaction.
  • Always remember to reward good behaviour.
  • Consult your vet to establish if there may be a clinical reason for your dogs’ aggressive behaviour. Many dogs when in discomfort or being effected by pain will reactive aggressively, naturally, in order to protect a sensitive area.  Also ask about acupuncture, massage therapy, homeopathic or clinical drug therapy.
  • Do some obedience training with your dog every day. Regular mental stimulation him/her is a positive step.
  • Obedience classes may be helpful in establishing a relationship between you and your dog in which you give commands and he/she obeys them (be sure to choose a trainer who uses positive reinforcement methods). Obedience classes alone, however, will not necessarily prevent or reduce aggression.

A Note about Children and Dogs.

Children and dogs should not be left alone together without adult supervision.  Older children should be taught how to play and interact appropriately and safely with dogs; however, no child should be left alone with a dog that has displayed signs of aggression under any circumstances.