Aggression due to dominance

What should I do if I think my dog is becoming aggressive?” “Is this something my young dog will just outgrow?” “Are there some things I can do at home, and where do I start?”
Aggressionto humans in dogs is an important behavioural problem; in fact, it is the most common problem that I have to deal with. Like any other behavioural problem, there is no ‘quick cure’ for aggression. However, if an owner is willing to get qualified help and put in the time and effort required, aggression can usually be altered. It should be noted that half the dogs born are put down before the age of 18 months due to aggressive behaviour.

Dominance aggression – What is it?
Most dogs are content to let people be in charge. As puppies, they quickly learn to look to us to let them know what we want them to do. Some dogs seem to have a harder time with this. A dominantly aggressive dog will consistently growl, snap, or bite when a person does something, or asks the dog to do something, which the dog does not like. This is different than a dog that is assertive or pushy, but will obey a firm command. This is also not the same situation as a dog which has been pushed beyond her limit by cruelty or pain. A dominant aggressive dog has an inappropriate response to normal situations. The dog is trying to control the situation with their reaction.

These dogs may be protective over food or toys, or favourite sleeping areas. They may react if they are groomed, or if you stare at them, or if they are punished.

In the beginning, the problem usually only occurs at certain times, for example, if you disturb your dog while it is eating. Then it begins to occur more often, when you move to place the leash over their head, or tell them to get off of the sofa, etc. The problem is not the situation, but the issue of control. Yelling, or physical correction such as scruffing, rolling the dog over, or “hanging” the dog by the collar or choke chain are not appropriate or effective form of discipline, and will only make matters worse. These attempts to “show the dog who is boss” will challenge the dog to be more aggressive, and do nothing to teach the dog a more appropriate behaviour in place of aggression.

Dominance aggression usually begins at around 12-18 months of age, when dogs become socially mature. Less commonly, it can occur in puppies as young as 4-5 months sometimes younger!. While intact dogs may have a higher tendency towards dominance aggression, spaying or neutering alone will not solve the problem once it has started. Effective treatment involves behaviour modification, combined with anti-anxiety medication, if needed a vet will decide, since this behaviour could be vaued by a medical problem.

1. Set up an appointment with your veterinarian, to talk about the situation and have a thorough physical examination performed. Some rather common health problems can make an otherwise even-tempered dog aggressive. These include but are not limited to epilepsy, hypothyroidism, arthritis, hip dysplasia, and dental disease. Your vet may recommend some testing such as a complete blood count, a chemistry panel, or a thyroid test.

2. If your dog is aggressive towards people, be realistic with yourself about the situation. If the way your puppy nips at you when she plays concerns you, do not just hope that she will outgrow it, get some help to stop the behaviour. If your adult dog growls when people walk past while she is eating, do not just assume that she will never take things a step further and bite someone. Problems like these are much easier to control early on, before you have a dog that you are afraid of, or that has bitten someone.

Unless you have worked with dogs with behaviour problems, the best way to help your dog is to get assistance from a professional. Choose a trainer, animal behaviourist with lots of experience in this area. Especially if your dog has already bitten someone, doing the wrong thing can make the situation worse, with serious results. It can be very helpful to have someone to talk to and ask questions, especially if your dog does not seem to be responding in the way you expected. If you choose to work on the problem alone, you are taking a tremendous responsibility for the safety of members of yor family and the people and animals that dog comes into contact with.

Breaking the cycle of aggressive behaviour

Avoid potentially dangerous situations. Do not do the things that cause an aggressive response in the dog, whether it is staring at the dog, hugging it, or disturbing it while it is sleeping. If the dog growls when her food dish is handled, give the dog something else to do while the dish is removed; fetching a ball, going for a walk. Do not use any treats or toys which may cause the dog to become possessive. If the dog starts to show any aggression, re-direct her attention. Take out the leash, or a favourite toy, and ask the dog to come to you and sit. You can also just walk away. Later, when the dog is calm and comes to you for attention, ask her to sit or lie down before you pet her. Keeping a long leash on the dog whenever she is inside can help you to move the dog when needed.

If the dog has already bitten someone, it may be best to have the dog wear a basket muzzle in the house, so that it can have social interaction with the family and not be isolated.

Teach your dog that she must earn everything, from you and anyone else, with appropriate, calm behaviour. From now on, anything your dog wants means that she must first do something for you, such as sit. You are in control, not the dog. Do not give the dog your attention on-demand. Ignore the dog if she whines, or pushes at you with her nose or paw. Wait until she stops making demands and is calm. Then ask her to sit, and pet her. Make the dog sit or lie down and remain calm each time you give her treats, before you put the leash on, before going outside, before you throw the ball, etc. Several times a day, work with your dog on ‘sit’ and ‘stay’ commands, using small treats, and lots of praise.
Teach your dog that people have higher status than she does. Do not allow the dog to be on the couch or bed or in other places where humans sit or sleep. Do not let your dog stand up and put her front paws on your shoulders. Do not let your dog jump up on people at all. If the dog is going to jump up, ask her to sit or to lie down. When you come to a doorway, ask the dog to sit; then you go first and the dog follows.
You should be the one to initiate playtime and decide when it will end. Avoid any games like ‘tug-of-war’ that may encourage your dog to be possessive about a toy. Practice having your dog come to you and ‘drop’ or ‘give’ whatever she is carrying. Any game of fetch should end with the dog giving the toy back to you, so that you ‘win.’
For any of these exercises to help, they must be used consistently, and the whole family needs to be involved. Owners need to be prepared to work at it for the rest of the dog’s life.
Once a dog has learned to defer to people, there are additional exercises which can be used. These are designed to ‘desensitize’ the dog to the situation in which it has shown aggression (for example, at feeding time or during grooming). These exercises can be very effective if done correctly. Depending on the dog and the level of aggression, these situations can also be dangerous. This is where I would recommend owners work with an experienced professional, if they are not doing so already.
Sometimes, medication is needed in addition to behaviour modification exercises.
Finally keep in mind that most of the problems encountered could have been avoided had the dog attended training classes!

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