Managing an aggressive dog can be stressful. Aggressive dogs can become dangerous if not handled correctly, so there is a lot at stake. In this part of our series on dog aggression, we will help you learn how to manage an aggressive dog by looking at several techniques that can be used.
Exercise and enrichment
Providing your dog with opportunities for exercise and enrichment is one way to manage aggression. Many dogs don’t get enough stimulation in their lives or get inappropriate forms of stimulation. This can lead to problematic behavior. As the behavior worsens, owners may be even more reluctant to walk them and this further exacerbates the problem.
Dogs who don’t have opportunities for mental and physical exercise are likely to become frustrated and agitated. Therefore, it is important for owners of aggressive dogs to learn how to manage an aggressive dog with physical exercise without risking harm to other people or dogs.
Exercise is important not just for burning off excess energy. It is also helpful in raising levels of norepinephrine in the brain and releasing endorphins that can help calm dogs. Experts recommend at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise for a dog each day.
Mental stimulation is also important for aggressive dogs, especially when their opportunities for physical exercise are limited. Enrichment can help by improving problem-solving skills, strengthening the dog-owner bond, and increasing the dog’s skill set. Activities that encourage mental stimulation should be part of your dog’s normal routine.
Preventing inappropriate behavior
Aggressive dogs have learned to react to stimuli that usually result in unpleasant encounters in certain ways. Environments and contexts in which unfamiliar dogs and people might appear are likely to set off a reaction in aggressive dogs even if the actual trigger does not occur.
It is difficult to know how to handle an aggressive dog in order to prevent inappropriate behavior. The best course of action is to remove your dog temporarily from these contexts. Avoidance helps condition your dog to respond more appropriately and behave in more desired ways. It also reduces the risk of injury to other people and dogs.
During the initial rehabilitation process, dogs should not be exposed to any stimuli that might trigger an aggressive response. Whatever environments cause aggressive responses should be avoided or altered. This can be accomplished by keeping the dog beyond its threshold distance for the stimulus, minimizing car rides if they cause aggression, crating the dog, or blocking windows.
Aggressive dogs can be fitted with a head collar and dragline to interrupt inappropriate behavior. They should be confined before visitors arrive in a way that they cannot see the doorway. You can let them out under supervision and on a leash with a head collar if the aggression ends after the visitor enters the home.
Dealing with unplanned exposures
Although management requires that you avoid exposing your dog to stimuli, there will always be cases of unplanned exposures even when you are extremely dedicated and careful. Therefore, it is important to be prepared for unplanned exposures.
To deter free-ranging dogs, pop-open umbrellas or Direct Stop citronella spray can be used. Some dogs can be deterred by telling them firmly to “Go home!” or by distracting them with a handful of treats. Well-meaning people should be told gently, but firmly, to avoid approaching the dog.
Training your dog to perform an emergency U-turn allows for a quick escape from an unplanned exposure. Using a muzzle-loop head collar helps you to control the dog’s head and mouth in order to prevent bites.
Pheromone and natural remedies
Pheromones and aromatherapy are natural remedies for dog aggression that rely on a dog’s olfactory system in order to resolve behavior problems. Dog-appeasing pheromone (DAP) is a synthetic version of the pheromone secreted by lactating female dogs. Recent studies suggest that it can help increase adaptability in puppies and reduce their anxiety and fears.
Lavender has been shown to reduce dogs’ excitability during car rides and increase relaxation in shelters. Lavender can be used spontaneously, as a safety cue in the home, or applied to a bandana to be worn while away from home. Other natural remedies for dog aggression, such as herbs, supplements, and essential oils, can be used in conjunction with other treatments.
Management or handling tools are pieces of equipment that help owners gain control over their dogs. There are several different tools that can be valuable during behavior programs. How to handle an aggressive dog with these tools is explained below.
A muzzle-loop head collar such as the Gentle Leader is especially useful for handling large and/or aggressive dogs. It offers control over the dog’s head so that owners can manipulate the direction of the dog’s focus. It also allows owners to close the dog’s mouth in order to prevent bites.
A muzzle should be worn by aggressive dogs who have a history of biting and severe aggression and/or with owners who have difficulty controlling them. The muzzle must allow dogs to pant and accept food treats. A nylon sleeve muzzle can be used in place of a basket muzzle as long as it keeps the teeth from separating enough to grip a person or dog.
If the dog will be wearing a muzzle for long periods of time, the basket muzzle might be a better choice. Care must be taken in hot weather because muzzles limit panting. Dogs should be adapted to head collars and muzzles gradually and with pleasant associations. They should never be used as a form of punishment.
Harnesses and other types of collars are available for dogs that cannot wear a muzzle for behavioral, medical, or conformational reasons. Avoid using punitive collars such as prong, slip chain, or electronic stimulation. Actions that cause fear and/or pain may be associated with the trigger stimulus rather than with the dog’s behavior and add to the dog’s anxiety level.
A leash should be used to control aggressive dogs at all times because they should never be off-leash in public. Dogs should be handled on a fixed length nylon or leather leash, about four to six-foot. Retractable leashes are dangerous because they provide poor control and can cause injury to the dog or the owner if the cord becomes wrapped around them.
The Calming Cap is a device that reduces visibility by covering the dog’s eyes with an elastic, semi-transparent hood. By reducing the clarity of a dog’s visual field, it can help to calm dogs that are visibly reactive. It can be useful during car rides, at home, or on walks.
Body wraps, such as the TTouch body wraps and the Anxiety Wrap provide tactile pressure on a dog’s body for a swaddling or acupressure effect. They have not been evaluated yet in any controlled studies but seem to be effective in calming some excitable and anxious dogs.
Aggression towards familiar people
When dogs show aggression towards familiar people and family members by getting stiff, growling, snarling, lunging, snapping, or biting during social or physical interactions, these interactions must be identified and avoided. Possible stimuli that might trigger aggression include petting, hugging, lifting, grooming, or grabbing by the collar.
If a dog shows aggression towards children in the home, he should never be left alone with them. Adults must supervise all interactions or the dog must be confined. Even during supervised interactions, potential triggers should be prevented or avoided. Muzzles are appropriate in some situations.
In order to manage aggression towards familiar people, there are several actions and interactions that are best to avoid. Delectable food items should be avoided unless they are being used for training or counterconditioning purposes. Dogs should be fed in secure confinement.
Taking an object from a dog should be avoided. When not confined, dogs should be supervised to prevent stealing. A leash and head halter provide additional control. When it is absolutely necessary to recover a stolen item, try luring the pet away at least six feet away from the item using a reward. Then confine the pet and get the item.
Avoid any interactions that cause aggressive responses, including wiping feet, trimming nails, hugging, pushing, and touching the pet while he is resting.
Aggression towards visitors
Aggression towards visitors is another issue that requires attention. Many dogs respond aggressively when unfamiliar people arrive at the home. If this is the case, dogs should be kept away from windows, doors, and fences. Access to areas where the dog may encounter visitors should be blocked. Cover windows and keep the dog out of rooms with outside views.
Be sure to confine the dog before opening the door and keep a leash handy. Do not allow the dog outside unattended. A leash and head halter should be used for additional control. Only adults should hand the dog, and retractable leashes should not be used.
Aggression on walks
Dogs that show aggression toward people or other dogs on walks should not go on walks. If there is no way to avoid walks, they should be scheduled in ways to avoid encountering people and dogs. Busy neighborhoods, parks, and sporting events should be avoided. If a stimulus is encountered, you must leave the area quickly and calmly.
In order to manage aggressive dogs on walks, be sure to use head halters or no-pull harnesses instead of retractable leashes. Walk only one dog at a time and only during low-traffic times and in low-traffic areas.
If a stimulus is encountered, stay calm and remove the dog from the situation as soon as possible by turning away, crossing the street, or passing the stimulus at a sufficient distance using a leash and head halter. Yelling, scolding, and leash corrections will increase arousal and should be avoided.
Aggression between dogs
Fighting between dogs can lead to severe injuries to the dogs and to people who attempt to separate them. If dogs are fighting, do not try to separate them by grabbing their collars or necks. Instead, pick the dogs up by the back legs and elevate them while walking backward.
When the fighting has stopped, separate the dogs and keep them apart until they are calm. The next time you introduce them, they should be on leashes and under the control of their owners.
Dogs often fight over food and owner attention. Therefore, each dog should be given its own food bowl and owners should use commands to get dogs to sit before any activity.
The best techniques to manage fighting between dogs are to separate dogs when not supervised and during feedings and avoid high-arousal situations. It is also a good idea to use treats that are quick to consume and leashes and tie-downs for increased control.
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Haug, L. I. (2008). Canine aggression toward unfamiliar people and dogs. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, 38(5), 1023-1041.
Horwitz, D. F. (2008). Managing pets with behavior problems: realistic expectations. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, 38(5), 1005-1021.
Luescher, A. U., & Reisner, I. R. (2008). Canine aggression toward familiar people: a new look at an old problem. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, 38(5), 1107-1130.