Dog Behavior Problems – Aggression to Family Members – Introduction and Safety

Why might my dog behave aggressively toward me?

There are multiple reasons that a dog may exhibit aggression toward family members. The most common causes include conflict aggression, fear-based, defensive aggression, status related aggression, possessive aggression, food guarding aggression and redirected aggression. Living with a dog that is aggressive to family members may be difficult, dangerous, disappointing and frustrating (see Aggression – Diagnosis and Overview).

Should I keep a dog that is aggressive toward family members?

There are many wonderful reasons to share your life with a pet. They provide companionship, share experiences, nurture, amuse and enrich our lives so the decision to share your life with a dog that is aggressive to you cannot be taken lightly. The ability to provide safety for people who will be around the dog has to be an overriding factor in the decision. In some households’ family composition, daily obligations and other issues may make keeping and rehabilitating an aggressive dog unrealistic and dangerous. Placement in another home may sometimes be an option but often a suitable home is not readily available. Euthanasia for aggression is the only guarantee a dog will not be aggressive again.

How do we assess the risk of keeping an aggressive dog?

According to the CDC, 800,000 people seek medical attention for dog bites each year, half of which are children (see Aggression – Children). Dog bites are not rare; these are common events that occur in normal family’s lives and it is estimated that 15% of dog owners have been bitten by their own dog. Once a dog bites, he has shown his willingness to use biting as a behavioral strategy at least in that situation and therefore is more likely to bite. Dogs that are willing to use aggression to change the outcome of a situation are rarely cured again. The severity of a bite may be assessed by careful consideration of the situation, the damage caused by the bite, the choices the dog made including the dogs willingness to avoid escalation to a bite by growling, snarling or snapping and the diagnosis of type of aggression. Complex cases may require the experience of a board certified veterinary behaviorist to evaluate and prioritize this assessment.

Aren’t all bites the same?

While all bites should be considered serious; the circumstances and choices the dog made during the episode may give some indication as to the options the dog considered before using aggression. In general, most dogs have good control of the intensity and force of their biting.

“Dogs that are willing to use aggression to change the outcome of a situation are rarely cured.”

Some bites are inhibited and may leave no marks on the skin. Other bites may bruise, pinch, or indent the skin without creating bleeding. More intense bites break the skin, puncture wounds may be superficial or deep, multiple punctures may be present or tearing/shearing injuries may result. Some dogs may bite hard enough to crush bones. Some dogs bite once and withdraw, others bite multiple times within the same episode. Some dogs bite when threatened and when in close proximity; other dogs charge from across the room.

How do we avoid aggression and keep family members safe?

Safety and prevention of bites is the essential first step; both in keeping family members safe and in beginning the process of behavior modification. First, identify all situations that might lead to aggression and prevent access to these circumstances (by caging or confinement, muzzle, or environmental manipulation) or otherwise control the dog when a confrontational situation might arise (e.g., leash and head halter control, tie down). Then it is essential that these situations are avoided to prevent further injury and learning. Although the long-term goal would be to reduce or eliminate the potential for aggression in these situations, each new episode could lead to injury and further aggravation of the problem. A head collar and leash is a good way to control and prevent aggression even inside the home. A properly fitted basket muzzle is even more effective at preventing bites and may be useful in some situations. The dog is unlikely to change his behavior without retraining and the dog learns from each opportunity to practice his aggression; so limit his opportunity for additional aggressive encounters (see Aggression – Getting Started – Safety and Management).

Once the family elects to begin a behavior modification program for aggression, their ability to keep people safe and prevent aggressive episodes must be reevaluated constantly. If there are frequent safety lapses, accidental bites or new bites occurring in new and unforeseen circumstances then the decision to keep and treat this dog must be reassessed.

Don’t we just need to show our dog that we are alpha or dominant for the aggression to stop?

Aggression toward family members is not likely to be related to dominanceor social status. This is a common misconception, which can lead to inappropriate treatment strategies and perhaps worsening of the aggressive behavior. Most often a dog’s aggression is motivated by fear, anxiety, conflict about what to expect and what to do and the anticipation of possible punishment (see ( Aggression – Diagnosis and Overview, (Dominance, Alpha, and Pack Leadership – What Does It Really Mean?, and Canine Communication – Interpreting Dog Language). It follows that if underlying anxiety and fear is causing aggressive responses then training programs designed to enforce the human family members as alpha or dominance using confrontation or intimidation-based interventions will increase rather than decrease anxiety and associated aggressive responses. Strategies designed to achieve pack leadership, alpha or dominance over your dog do not address the underlying problem; the fear or anxiety and lack of understanding of what to expect or how to react in the situation. While control and consistent interactions with the pet are desirable, they should be achieved in non confrontational ways that decrease anxiety and conflict not increase those underlying emotions.

What can be done for my dog’s aggression?

A thorough history and assessment of aggressive episodes and your dog’s behavioral history are essential for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan. See www.AVSABonline.org for guidelines when selecting someone to help you with your pet’s behavior problem. A behavior modification program will generally include avoidance of triggers, teaching new responses, positive reinforcement for desirable behaviors, control with a head halter and leash, training exercises for response substitution and desensitization for the dog’s significant triggers (see Behavior Consultations – Seeing a Behaviorist, Getting Started, Diagnosing a Behavior Problem – Is It Medical or Behavioral?, and Aggression – Introduction).

“Dogs that are willing to use aggression to change the outcome of a situation are rarely cured.”

How do I gain effective control of my dog?

It is important that family members set themselves up as good parental leaders very early in their relationship with their dog. Good leaders for dogs treat their dogs more like a good parent would treat children or a good teacher would treat a student. As a pet owner, it is important to provide consistency, patience, persistence, routine and predictability. Rewards for desirable behaviors provide information for the dog and this serves as a guide for the dog’s interactions with you. Becoming the leader or being “in control” does not imply harshness or punishment, but that the dogs behavior is appropriate and will continue to be appropriate. This is accomplished with reward based training, physical control devices and supervision. Consistent responses reduce your dog’s anxiety and conflict, by teaching your dog what behaviors will get rewards and what will not. In a sense you gain control over your dog’s behavior while your dog gains control over its rewards by “offering you” the behaviors you want it to learn. (see Learn to Earn – Predictable Rewards). The individual temperament and genetic predisposition of the puppy will determine the methods needed by the owner to become the leader, because some puppies are more assertive, excitable, fearful, easily distracted, or difficult to motivate and therefore more difficult to train (see Training Basics – Getting Started, Aggression – Diagnosis and Overview, Behavior Management Products, Learn to Earn – Predictable Rewards, Learning, Training, and Modifying Behavior, and Teaching Calm – Settle and Relaxation Training, as well as handouts on how to train specific commands).

It is equally important to recognize deference when it occurs. When your dog looks away, lowers its head or avoids you, especially when you are reprimanding it, this is deference, appeasement and submission and an attempt to end the encounter (see Canine Communication – Interpreting Dog Language). From the dog’s perspective, the encounter is over and if the human persists with reprimands or punishment, the dog may respond with fear and defensive behaviors. Remember, just because the dog defers once does not mean he will in another setting. Each context is separate and the dogs’ desire for the resource in question figures into the response.

How can I treat my dog’s aggression?

Treatment programs will begin by teaching the dog what you DO want him/her to do. This is generally achieved with a positive reinforcement based training program. Tasks taught will vary for the individual dog and situation but may include teaching a dog to go to a confinement area on cue, sit and stay for treats or get off/on furniture on command (see Reinforcement and Rewards, Learn to Earn – Predictable Rewards, and Working for Food). Control devices such as head halters and leashes facilitate control and safety without harsh, firm corrections while limiting opportunities for aggression to occur (see Training Products – Head Halter Training and Training Products – Head Halter Training – Synopsis).

Advanced exercises can begin once safety and aggression avoiding measures are in place and basic control tasks have been learned. Behavior modification strategies for specific problematic interactions include: classical counter-conditioning, desensitization and exposure gradients such that the dog is not overwhelmed to the point of aggression or defensiveness but instead is slowly exposed to previously arousing stimuli at such low levels the arousal does not occur and then rewarded for the proper response. Simultaneously, the dog is responsible for following new commands and rewarded generously for making new, appropriate decisions.

What can be done if my dog refuses to obey my commands?

It is essential that the owner avoid any confrontation or situation that might lead to injury or where the owner may not be able to safely gain control. It may be possible to set up situations and the environment so that the dog must comply. It is counterproductive to “force” or confront your dog, as this could lead to resistance and aggression. Instead, in each situation evaluate whether or not compliance can be achieved. If not, do not proceed; instead, change the situation so that you can successfully get the outcome you desire. As mentioned, you can achieve more immediate control if the dog is fitted with a remote leash and head halter that can then be used to take the dog for walks and is left attached when the dog is indoors and the owner is at home (except for bedtime). Each time the dog is given a command that is not obeyed the leash and head halter can be used to get the desired response. Although the head halter and remote leash is an excellent means of ensuring success and physical control, you have not succeeded until the dog will respond to the verbal commands without the need for leash pulls.

What is the prognosis for dogs that show aggression toward their family?

Dogs that are willing to use aggression to change the outcome of a situation are rarely cured but often can be controlled. Improvement may occur by having predictable interactions, avoidance of aggression provoking stimuli, a good daily routine of exercise, play and social interaction. However, some dogs may continue to be aggressive toward family members and present a risk to those who live with them. Certain family situations may make it impossible to safely rehabilitate an aggressive dog and keep people from harm. Each case requires an assessment with a veterinary behaviorist and ongoing follow up to determine if progress is being made (see Aggression – Introduction and Aggression – Getting Started – Safety and Management).

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM © Copyright 2012 LifeLearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.

Dog Behavior Problems – Aggression Diagnosis and Overview

Though aggression can be a normal canine behavior, aggression is a complex, serious and dangerous behavior problem for dog owners. Expression of aggression may range from inhibited communication such as a warning growl, snarl or a snap and include, of course, severe uninhibited repetitive bites that may be quite injurious. The decision to keep or rehome a dog that has demonstrated aggressive responses is complicated and serious and may have legal consequences. Since there are many different types of aggression, making a diagnosis, determining the prognosis (the chances of safe and effective correction), and developing an appropriate treatment plan are usually best handled with the help of a veterinary or applied animal behaviorist.

To treat the problem effectively, it will first be necessary to determine which type of aggression your dog displays: conflictrelated, fear, possessive, protective, territorial, maternal, play, redirected, pain-induced, interdog aggression, aggression toward familiar and unfamiliar people, status-related aggression, pathophysiological (or medical), or learned. In many cases, more than one form of aggression may be exhibited (see Aggression – Introduction). Treatment is addressed separately.

What is fear aggression, and how is it diagnosed?

One of the most common types of aggression seen by veterinary behaviorists is fear related aggression. Fear-related aggression may occur in many situations (home, veterinary hospital, public setting, or on walks) and many different people (familiar, unfamiliar or professionals) or animals (same or different species) may be the target of this aggression.

Fear related aggression may occur when a dog is exposed to people or other animals that the dog is unfamiliar with, or to those that have been previously associated with an unpleasant or fearful experience. Some dogs learn and generalize based on one experience; others need multiple opportunities to develop a pattern of behavior based on previous experiences. Although some dogs may retreat when fearful, those that are on their own territory and those that cannot retreat because they are cornered or restrained are more likely to fight. If aggressive responses alter the outcome – that is, the person or animal retreats, acts overly fearful, or if the pet is harmed or further frightened in any way (e.g., a fight, punishment) – the fear is likely to be further aggravated.

“Fearful body postures in conjunction with aggressive displays are diagnostic of fear aggression.”

Fear aggression toward family members might arise out of punishment or some other unpleasant experience associated with the owners. Many cases of fear-related aggression are seen as combinations or complicating factors of other forms of aggression (e.g., conflict, maternal, possessive, learned, pain related, social conflict). Fearful body postures in conjunction with aggressive displays are diagnostic of fear-related aggression; however, in some cases, as dogs learn that aggression changes the outcome of the encounter, their body postures may become more confident even when the underlying motivation of fear is unaltered. Behavior therapy, perhaps in combination with drug therapy, can be used to treat most cases of fear aggression (see Fears, Phobias, and Anxiety, Canine Communication – Interpreting Dog Language, Fears and Phobias – Animals and People, and Fears and Phobias – Inanimate Noises and Places)

What is conflict-related aggression, and how is it diagnosed?

The term dominance especially to describe human-dog relationships has recently come under intense scrutiny. Recent research suggests that dogs and free ranging wolves do not develop or strive to accomplish a strictly structured pack hierarchy as previously described nor do their social interactions appear to be strictly linear with an alpha dog on top and all other individuals subordinate at all times. Therefore, to use that terminology and the assertion of “pack leadership” and control of resources as the underlying motivation for human directed aggression appears to be inaccurate and simplistic. Reassessing the behavior in line with learning theory suggests in some situations, dogs that are confident and assertive are motivated by a pattern of successful encounters to continue their behavior. In these situations, the problem often surfaces around resources, rather than disobedience to commands, or anxiety conditions such as fears and phobias. Dominance or status related aggression is a poor interpretation of an individual dog’s motivation and the most common misdiagnosis. Few dogs, if any, deserve this diagnosis and most dogs displaying owner directed aggression are more accurately diagnosed as fear, conflict, defensive, territorial, or pain-related aggression. In fact, all of the situations that might even be considered dominance are more readily explained by learning principles (i.e., successful access of a resource, successful outcome for the dog).

Some behaviorists still use the term dominance-related aggression for aggression directed toward familiar people by a socially mature, confident dog resulting in a relationship pattern for the acquisition of desirable resources or privileges OR for avoiding undesirable interactions. The dog usually is confrontational and offensively aggressive; that is, when the dog perceives it is challenged, it may respond with varying degrees of aggression. Social maturity (24 to 36 months) and a pattern of past successes without early fear or defensive displays are generally components of this diagnosis. Dogs that display this type of behavior can be quite frightening to live with. Furthermore, these dogs may not be aggressive to unfamiliar people or professionals such as veterinarians or trainers as they cannot develop a relationship and pattern of interaction with individuals they meet once or intermittently. Instead of labeling these aggressive displays as dominance, they are better described as a learned response by a dog that wishes to maintain a high valued resource, is irritable or does not want to be handled, and has learned that the aggression will successful achieve the goal. When the owner defers or backs down then the dog has learned that aggression achieves the desired outcome. However, challenging or confronting the dog is likely to increase the dog’s aggression (rather than backing down), potentially cause injury and not only reinforce the success of the aggression but make the dog potentially fearful of further similar encounters. Therefore understanding the dog’s limitations, avoiding circumstances that might be confrontational (or cause fear) and working to improve the situation by getting successful outcomes that can be reinforced would be the goal of treatment.

What is play-related aggression, and how is it diagnosed?

Play-related aggression is seen in young dogs toward people or other pets in the family. Overly rambunctious play, and grabbing, nipping or biting at people or their clothing are some of the common signs of play-related aggression. Although it is a normal behavior, it can lead to injuries and, if handled incorrectly could lead to other control related problems and perhaps other aggressive encounters as your dog matures (see Aggression – Sibling Rivalry – Diagnosis, Aggression – Sibling Rivalry – Treatment, Play Biting, and Play and Exercise).

What is possessive aggression, and how is it diagnosed?

Possessive aggression may be directed toward humans or other pets that approach the dog when it is in possession of something that is highly desirable such as a favorite chew toy, food, or treat or virtually anything the dog wishes to keep. Food-guarding aggression may or may not entail components of possessive aggression or be a separate entity.

“Although protecting possessions may be necessary if an animal is to survive and thrive in the wild, it is unwanted and unacceptable when directed toward people.”

What is protective or territorial aggression, and how can it be diagnosed?

Protective aggression may be exhibited toward people or other animals that approach the pet’s property (territorial aggression). Generally, people and other animals that are least familiar to the dog or are most unlike the members of the household are the most likely “targets” of territorial aggression. While most forms of territorial aggression are likely to occur on the property, some dogs may protect family members regardless of the location. Territorial aggression can be prevented or minimized with early socialization and good owner control of aggressive signaling (see Socialization and Fear Prevention and Training Basics – Getting Started).

“Territorial aggression can be a learned form of aggression.”

In time, most dogs will begin to alert the family by barking when strangers come to the home. However, the dog that has been well socialized and is under good control can be trained to quickly settle down and relax. Territorial aggression can be a learned form of aggression. For example, when a puppy first begins to bark at novel noises and visitors that arrive at the property (alerting, alarm barking), the dog’s genetics, socialization and previous experience along with the consequences of the event (outcome) will begin to shape further responses. Owners that are angry, frustrated or that yell at or punish the dog, may lead to a fearful association (pairing/conditioning) with the stimulus (arrival of visitors, knock at the door, doorbell). Similarly, if the stimulus is particularly unusual (e.g., wearing uniforms, carrying mailbags) or threatens the dog in any way (shoving items inside your door, threatening the dog, spraying pepper spray), it may further enhance the dog’s fear of visitors. In addition, should the dog bark or growl and the stimulus retreat, the aggressive display behavior is reinforced. Therefore, learning may be a major contributing factor to territorial aggression. For treatment of dogs with territorial aggression, see Aggression – Territorial.

What is predatory behavior, and how can it be diagnosed?

Predation is the instinctive desire to chase and hunt prey. The sequence of watching, stalking, chasing, attacking, and ingestion is a manifestation of hunting skills. Dogs are scavengers and hunters by nature and while their skills do not compare to their wild ancestors some dogs have a strong genetic, natural drive to perform predatory behaviors. Often predatory behavior is associated with vigilance, watchfulness and focus. Predatory pursuits are often silent and without aroused warnings or displays. Some dogs that have never shown chase or predation on their own, may display predatory behavior when running together with a group of dogs. Predation of wild animals, birds or rodents is normal and may not be related to aggression to people or pets. Some dogs demonstrate predatory behavior to other dogs, other pets or even people or children. This is a very dangerous, persistent form of predation, which must be managed since as an innate, natural behavior it is unlikely to be cured (see Getting Started, Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning, Learning, Training, and Modifying Behavior, (Teaching Loose Leash Walks, Backing Up, and Turning Away, Training Products – Head Halter Training, and Chase Behaviors).

What is pain-induced or irritable aggression, and how can it be diagnosed?

Maternal aggression is directed toward people or other animals that approach the bitch with her puppies. Bitches that experience a pseudopregnancy (false pregnancy) may also become aggressive and begin to protect nesting areas or stuffed toys at the approximate time when the puppies would have been born. Once the litter of puppies are weaned and the dog is spayed the problem is unlikely to recur.

“Medical conditions can contribute to aggression.”

In the interim, the owners can use a leash or leash and head collar, along with the “come” command and rewards to teach the dog to leave the litter, at which time the puppies can then be handled. With desensitization, counter-conditioning, good control and highly motivating rewards, it may be possible to train your dog to accept approach and handling of the puppies despite the normal inclination for a mother dog to defend and protect her puppies.

What is redirected aggression, and how can it be diagnosed?

Although learned aggression can refer to dogs that are intentionally trained to act aggressively on command (or in particular situations); more commonly incidental and unintentional learning and conditioning are also important components of many forms of aggression. Dogs are always learning; some dogs learn faster than others do. A dog will use aggression if they determine it is an appropriate behavioral response to change the outcome of the situation. When a dog learns that aggression is successful at removing the stimulus or changing the outcome of a situation, the behavior is further reinforced and more likely to occur at least in a similar circumstance in the future.

“Learning and conditioning are also important components of many forms of aggression.”

Therefore, learning contributes to all forms of aggression. Owners who pet or use verbal reassurance in an attempt to calm the pet and reduce aggressive displays may inadvertently encourage and reward the behavior because petting and calm vocal intonation are similar to praise. Pets that are threatened or punished for aggressive displays may become even more aggressive in future similar situations as they learn to associate the punishment with the presence of the stimulus and NOT with their actions. In addition, if the response of the owner or the stimulus (person or other pet) is one that evokes anxiety or fear, the aggression is likely to escalate (see Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning).

What are some of the other causes of aggression?

Aggression associated with medical disorders may arise at any age, may have a relatively sudden onset and may not fit any canine species-typical behavior. Some medical conditions can, on their own, cause aggression, but in many cases a combination of behavioral factors and medical problems cause the pet to pass a certain threshold after which aggression is displayed. Infectious agents such as rabies, hormonal imbalances such as hypothyroidism, psychomotor epilepsy, hyperkinesis, neoplasia, and a variety of genetic and metabolic disorders can cause or predispose a dog to aggression. Painful conditions such as dental disease or arthritis, and medical conditions causing fever, fatigue or sensory loss might increase the pet’s irritability (see Diagnosing a Behavior Problem – Is It Medical or Behavioral? and Senior Pet Behavior Problems).

In rare circumstances, aggression has no identifiable etiology and no particular stimuli that initiate the aggressive displays. There may be a genetic propensity to aggression in some lines of some breeds, but the diagnosis of many of the cases previously labeled as “idiopathic”, “rage” or “mental lapse aggression” has been disputed, and some cases have been subsequently reclassified. Only when there is no identifiable stimulus or cause for the behavior, or when an abnormal EEG (electroencephalogram) is documented, should the diagnosis of idiopathic aggression be considered. Alterations in neurotransmitters or receptor sites in the brain may be the cause of these types of aggression and drug therapy might be one aspect of treatment.

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM © Copyright 2012 LifeLearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.

Dog Behavior Problems – Aggression – Unfamiliar Dogs – Treatment

How can I prevent my dog from becoming aggressive with other dogs?

Prevention starts with puppy training and socialization. Early and frequent association with other dogs will enable your pet to learn proper interactions and reactions to other dogs. This can be very helpful in prevention of aggression to other dogs. Socialization must occur with other dogs that are calm and able to communicate well with other dogs, and should progress to a variety of shapes, sizes and personalities of dogs. Ear carriage, eye contact, tail position and even body postures may be difficult to “read” if there are significant size disparities, or if one or both of the dogs has cropped ears, hair that covers the eyes or a docked tail (see Canine Communication – Interpreting Dog Language).

You must have good control of your dog. This means that your dog will take contextual cues from you, and may be calmer, less anxious, and less likely to be protective in the presence of new stimuli. Moreover, the dog should reliably respond to commands to “sit,” “stay,” and “quiet” so that appropriate responses can be reinforced rather than undesirable responses being punished (see Reinforcement and Rewards). If necessary, the dog may need a head halter to give you additional control (see Training Products – Head Halter Training and Training Products – Head Halter Training – Synopsis). When in situations where the dog may encounter other dogs, a leash is necessary.

“Because of the potential for injury, liability, and increasing the intensity of the problem, a behavior consultation would be advisable to structure the treatment plan.”

For territorial behaviors, what is most important is to prevent the dog from engaging in prolonged and out of control aggressive displays in both the home and yard. Aggressive displays include barking, lunging, fence running, jumping on doors, windows and fences. These types of behaviors should be discouraged, or prevented by blocking windows if needed and going outside with the dog to prevent them. Using a leash and head collar both indoors and outside will increase control and allow you to interrupt aggressive responses and redirect the dog to more appropriate ones. One important component is teaching your dog a “quiet” command for barking (see Barking and Training “Quiet” and Barking and Training “Quiet” – Synopsis).

My dog is already aggressive toward other dogs. What can I do?

First and foremost, you must have complete control over your pet. This not only serves to calm the dog and reduce its anxiety, but also allows you to successfully deal with each encounter with other dogs. Fixed length (not retractable) leashes are essential and the use of head collars and/or muzzles are strongly recommended for dogs that will be in situations with multiple dogs. Because of the potential for injury, liability and increasing the intensity of the problem, a behavior consultation would be advisable to structure the treatment plan. Until you have more control and a treatment plan in place all encounters with other dogs must be avoided.

Begin by establishing reliable responses to basic obedience commands. If the dog cannot be taught to display a relaxed ‘sit’, ‘stay’, ‘come’ and ‘heel’ (see Teaching Calm – Settle and Relaxation Training and Teaching Loose Leash Walks, Backing Up, and Turning Away), in the absence of potential problems, then there is no chance that the dog will respond obediently in problematic situations. Reward selection can be critical in these cases, because the dog needs to be taught that obedient behavior in the presence of the stimulus (other dog) can earn the dog-favored rewards (for most dogs this is a food treat such as cheese, small pieces of hot dogs etc.). The goal is that the dog learns to associate the approach of other dogs with rewards. Long term treatment consists of desensitization (gradual exposure) and counter-conditioning the dog, so that the approach of the other dogs leads to a positive emotional response (see Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning, Implementing Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning – Setting Up for Success, and Fears and Phobias – Animals and People).

“The goal is that the dog learns to associate the approach of other dogs with rewards.”

In training terms, the dog must be taught to display an appropriate, acceptable response when other dogs approach (e.g., “sit,” “watch,” “relax”), which can be reinforced (differential reinforcement or response substitution). This must be done slowly, beginning with situations where the dog can be successfully controlled and rewarded, and very slowly progressing to more difficult encounters and environments. The first step is to conduct training for its favored rewards in a situation where there are no dogs present and training will proceed successfully. Initially, food or toy prompts can be used at first to get the dog’s attention, but soon the rewards should be hidden and the dog rewarded intermittently. The selection of favored food or toys is essential since the goal is that the dog will learn that receiving these favored rewards is contingent on meeting other dogs. A leash and head collar can be helpful to increase control and aid in compliance with training. During this pre-training, exposure to other dogs must be avoided since ongoing expression of the behavior tends to reinforce it.

Once the dog responds quickly and is receiving rewards on an intermittent basis, training should progress to low-level exposure to other dogs. If the owner’s training and the rewards are not sufficient to control the dog in the absence of the other dogs, then utilizing a leash and head collar, selection of more motivating rewards, and seeking the assistance and guidance of a behaviorist should be considered. The next steps in desensitization and counter-conditioning rely on a stimulus gradient. In other words, your dog needs to be under control (preferably with fixed length leash and head halter) and respond to commands and rewards in the presence of gradually more intense stimuli. Start low, mild, and work up to gradually more intensity. Find the threshold at which your dog might begin to display fear, anxiety or arousal and keep to a level of intensity that is mild enough that the pet remains calm and responsive to training so that you can give favored rewards for success. The goal will be to increase the increment of intensity only a level where your dog remains sufficiently calm that it can learn and receive favored rewards for each exposure. Keep in mind that distance is often a factor, so initially the stimulus must be far away. Remember it is better to keep sessions short rather than risk an unwanted response.

“Success can be achieved in a number of ways, but head halters are generally the most important tools.”

Begin with a calm and well-controlled second dog, in an environment where your dog is the least anxious or threatened, and at a sufficient distance to get your dog to respond to your commands (sit, loose leash walk, back up or turn away), (see Teaching Loose Leash Walks, Backing Up, and Turning Away). Gradually, expose your dog to other dogs at closer distances and in more familiar locations. Using the head halter and a prompt (lure reward, favored toy, set of keys) it should be possible to keep the dog focused on the owner and sufficiently distracted. While dogs with fear aggression may improve dramatically, dogs that are very assertive and are trained in this manner do not necessarily get better about greeting other dogs, but should learn to walk calmly with their owners and not initiate fighting behavior. By training the dog for rewards in the absence of the stimulus, using a head halter, and beginning exposure training with low enough levels of the stimulus, your dog should be calm enough to focus, settle and learn that the other dog is not a threat.

In fact, with counter-conditioning (favored rewards paired with association with the stimulus) your dog should begin to enjoy meeting and greeting other dogs. If your dog remains too fearful, excited, aroused or out of control, you will need to consider further training prior to exposure, a head halter (if you are not already using one), lower levels of stimulus exposure (e.g., a less intense starting point for desensitization) or perhaps drugs to help your dog calm and focus (see below).

Dogs that are exhibiting territorial aggression are retrained in much the same manner, but the gradient of stimuli needs careful control. Begin in the front hall or on the front porch with no other dogs around. Then with the dog controlled in the hall or on the porch, other dogs are brought to the perimeter of the property. Over subsequent training sessions, the dogs could be brought closer to your dog, or your dog could be moved closer to the other dog (see Implementing Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning – Setting Up for Success).

Another way to disrupt the undesirable response in territorial aggression, and get the dog’s attention is to use an air horn, shake can or citronella spray collar. If the dog barks before the aggressive display, the barking will activate the citronella spray collar, ensuring immediate timing and disruption; if the barking is inhibited, the behavior may not progress. Once the inappropriate behavior ceases, and you get your dog’s attention, the dog should be redirected to an appropriate behavior such as play. The greeting should be repeated, until no aggression or threats are observed.

Success can be achieved in a number of ways, but head halters are generally the most important tools. Head halters provide enough physical control that the desired behavior can be achieved (sit, heel) since pulling up and forward, turns the head toward the owner and causes the dog to retreat into a sit position. With the dog’s head oriented toward the owner and away from the other dog, lunging and aggression can be prevented, and the dog will usually settle down enough to see and respond to the prompt. A second hand can guide the muzzle under the chin to ensure eye contact and help to calm the dog. Rewards can and should be given immediately for a proper response (sitting, heeling), by releasing tension on the leash. If the dog remains under control with the leash slack, the reward (toy, food, affection) should be given, but if the problem behavior recurs, the leash should be pulled and then released as many times as is necessary to get and maintain the desired response. If however, that is not possible, then the stimulus is too intense and it may be necessary to leave the situation or if possible send the approaching dog away.

When the training program is done properly, the dog’s anxiety quickly diminishes. Learning occurs, and the dog realizes that the other dog is not to be feared, that there is no opportunity to escape, that its responses will not chase away the other dog, that responding to the owner’s commands will achieve rewards, and that the owner has sufficient control to achieve the desired behavior (which further calms the dog). In addition, since there is no punishment or discomfort that might further aggravate the situation, and rewards are not being given until the desired behavior appears, fear and anxiety will be further reduced (see Training Products – Head Halter Training).

Are there drugs that can help the treatment program?

Occasionally, for fear aggressive dogs in particular, anti-anxiety drugs may help to calm the dog enough so that the retraining session is successful. Dogs that are too highly aroused may be unable to focus, settle and learn that other dogs are not a threat. For situations where the problem has become highly conditioned and intense, antidepressants may be useful for regaining control. In most cases however, the best calming influence is a head halter, good owner control and some strong rewards. Caution should be exercised with medication because medicine alone will not teach the dog proper responses.

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM © Copyright 2012 LifeLearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.

Dog Behavior Problems – Aggression – Unfamiliar Dogs – Diagnosis

Why would my dog fight with dogs he has never met?

Generally, most well socialized dogs strive to avoid physical or aggressive confrontation. Dogs use body language to communicate desire to interact or desire to avoid an aggressive encounter. Like people, not all dogs are natural or skilled communicators with members of their own species.

“The diagnosis is based on the body postures and reaction of the dog when faced with another dog.”

Aggression between unfamiliar dogs can be due to fear, poor communication, defensive, possessive behavior over resources (including perhaps family members or other pets) or territorial behavior over territory or owner. Aggression between dogs can result in injury to dogs and/or to the people trying to separate them. The behavior can consist of growling, snarling, barking, lunging, snapping, and biting (see Canine Communication – Interpreting Dog Language).

How do I recognize fear-based or defensive aggression toward unfamiliar dogs?

This aggression is very common in aggressive encounters with other dogs.

The diagnosis is based on the body postures and reaction of the dog when faced with another dog. However, these postures and reactions may change over time depending on the consequences of the interaction. For example, if the dog learns that the aggressive display stops encounters, the behavior tends to increase in intensity and the body postures may become more confident. Therefore, it is important not only to observe the expressions and posturing at the present time, but also those from the initial few encounters. The fearful dog will often have the tail tucked, ears back and may lean against the owner or attempt to get behind them. They may be barking at the approaching dog, while lunging and backing up at the same time. Often the dog is avoiding eye contact. This behavior may begin due to previous aggressive attacks from which the dog could not escape and sustained injury. Some dogs who have had limited or insufficient early socialization with other dogs, may lack the social skills required to interact playfully and comfortably. When multiple dogs are present, if one dog is highly aroused and unable to be calmed or controlled by the owners this dog may incite the second dog to become fearful or defensive, which ultimately leads to aggressive displays from both dogs.

Often the owner plays a role in how the dog behaves. For example, the owner may signal tension via leash tightening responses or even “corrections” that signal the dog that the approaching dog or at least the situation is of concern. In addition, if the owner is frustrated, anxious or worried about the dog’s behavior, then the dog is likely to notice the owner’s reactions and associate them with the approach of the other dog (rather than their own behaviors). This may result in a dog becoming even more defensive and aggressive. An owner that tries to calm their aggressive dog may serve to reinforce the actions the dog is engaging in at the time. Conversely, if the owner threatens or punishes the dog in an attempt to stop the behavior, this will only serve to heighten the dog’s fear and anxiety in relationship to the stimulus. Good control can help to calm the dog; owners who have their dogs restrained on a leash (especially with a choke or pinch collar) and have poor control often will have highly defensive dogs. Dogs that are restrained on a leash or tied up The diagnosis is based on the body postures and reaction of the dog when faced with another dog. are more likely to display aggression when frightened, because they cannot escape.

How do I recognize aggression resulting from poor communication between unfamiliar dogs?

This aggression can be elicited by assertive gestures or postures from either dog. These can include placing head or feet on the back of the other dog or other dominant body postures such as eye contact, and high tail and stiff-legged approach. If one of the two dogs does not show appropriate appeasing or submissive responses toward the other dog, then aggression might ensue. Owners may inadvertently heighten the anxiety and arousal by how they respond; pulling and tightening or correction with the leash or when they use threats or disciplinary techniques. These may signal to the dog that the impending approach is problematic. Leash restriction also does not allow the dog to react with a complete rate and range of responses, including body postures, approach and withdrawal.

Some dogs may be uncertain how to communicate properly with other dogs. This may occur because of insufficient or inadequate socialization with other dogs or dogs of different types and breeds, or because of previous unpleasant experiences with other dogs, adding fear or anxiety components to the problem. Problems may escalate quickly in dogs that are anxious or fearful, and in dogs that lack good social skills with other dogs. For example, if assertive or dominant expressions and gestures, or highly excitable and overreactive displays frighten the other dog, aggression by one or both dogs may occur. Conversely, the signaling dog may not be reading the signals of the second dog and might increase the intensity of its displays, perhaps to the point of aggression, even when the other dog shows deferential behavior. This can lead to the second dog becoming defensively aggressive. Good communication within a social group of familiar dogs will result in a minimum of fighting, through actions, posturing, and visual and vocal signals, this does not necessarily work when unfamiliar dogs are meeting and greeting for the first time. In addition, changing circumstances and environments on walks, behavioral genetics, lack of sufficient socialization to other dogs, previous experience and the wide array of differences in physical appearance and behavior between breeds and individuals may compound the problem and increase the uncertainty and anxiety. Some extremely bold or assertive dogs will fight rather than back down when challenged. Assertive dogs may be overassertive and/or overprotective if the owners do not have good verbal and physical control. If the dog pulls the owners along during walks, it will take the lead in reacting to stimuli that it meets along the way, rather than looking to the owner for direction and reassurance. Other dogs may be in a state of conflict, in that they are friendly or socially attracted to the other dog, but uncertain or fearful of the possible outcome. These situations of conflict or uncertainty (competing emotions) can result in aggression (see Canine Communication – Interpreting Dog Language).

This form of aggression is primarily exhibited when unfamiliar dogs are on the resident dog’s property, or what the aggressor considers his territory. Some dogs get highly aroused at the sight of other dogs on their territory and may jump fences, or go through windows or doors to get to the intruder (see Aggression – Territorial).

How do I recognize possessive aggression?

Although aggression can have multiple components (fear, learning), possessive aggression is primarily exhibited when a dog displays aggression when approached when in possession of a particular resource. This might be a type of food or treat, a favored toy, a novel or stolen object, or when accompanied or in the vicinity of one or more particular family member. The problem arises when a dog is particularly covetous of the resource, even if the other dog defers, or when both dogs are sufficiently motivated to use physical confrontation to obtain or hold on to the resource. In some cases, the dog may show little or no evidence of aggression except when the particular resource is present, in which case the problem might be prevented if the resources (toys, food) are removed during social interactions with other dogs (see Aggression – Possessive – Objects and Toys and Aggression – Possessive – Food Bowl).

Learning and conditioning aggravate most forms of inter-dog aggression. Should threats or aggression result in the retreat (or removal by the owner) of the other dog, the behavior has been successful. If the owner tries to calm the aggressive dog, this may only serve to reward the aggressive responses. One of the most common mistakes is to punish the dog that is showing aggression toward other dogs.

“If the owners cannot successfully control the dog and resolve the situation without heightening the dog’s anxiety or increasing its fear, the problem will escalate with each subsequent exposure.”

This usually serves to heighten the dog’s arousal, and teaches the dog that the stimulus (other dog) is indeed associated with unpleasant consequences. Many owners, in an attempt to gain more control, then increase the level or type of punishment (e.g., prong or electronic shock collars), which further heighten the dog’s arousal and in some cases may lead to retaliation and defensive aggression toward the owners. Unfortunately, owners may be confused by the fact that at least initially these products may suppress the undesirable behavior. However, this does not mean that these techniques are working since even if the response has been inhibited, the negative association might become more intense. If the dog-to-dog interaction results in pain or injury to one or both dogs, the dogs will quickly learn to become more fearful and aggressive at future meetings. In short, if the owners cannot successfully control the dog and resolve the situation without heightening the dog’s anxiety or increasing its fear, the problem will escalate with each subsequent exposure.

How can I prevent my dog from becoming aggressive with other dogs?

Prevention starts with puppy training and socialization. Early and frequent association with other dogs will enable your pet to learn proper interactions and reactions to other dogs. This can be very helpful in prevention of aggression to other dogs. Socialization must occur with other dogs that are calm and able to communicate well with other dogs, and should progress to a variety of shapes, sizes and personalities of dogs. Ear carriage, eye contact, tail position and even body postures may be difficult to “read” if there are significant size disparities, or if one or both of the dogs has cropped ears, hair that covers the eyes or a docked tail (see Socialization and Fear Prevention). If the owners cannot successfully control the dog and resolve the situation without heightening the dog’s anxiety or increasing its fear, the problem will escalate with each subsequent exposure.

You must have good control of your dog. This means that your dog will take contextual cues from you, and may be calmer, less anxious and less likely to be protective in the presence of new stimuli. Moreover, the dog should reliably respond to commands to “sit,” “stay,” and “quiet” so that appropriate responses can be reinforced rather than undesirable responses being punished (see Reinforcement and Rewards and Teaching Calm – Settle and Relaxation Training). If necessary, the dog may need a head halter to give you additional control (see Training Products – Head Halter Training and Training Products – Head Halter Training – Synopsis). When in situations where the dog may encounter other dogs, a leash is necessary.

For territorial behaviors, what is most important is to prevent the dog from engaging in prolonged and out of control aggressive displays in both the home and yard. Aggressive displays include barking, lunging, fence running, jumping on doors, windows and fences. These types of behaviors should be discouraged, or prevented by blocking windows if needed and going outside with the dog to prevent them. Using a leash and head collar both indoors and outside will increase control and allow you to interrupt aggressive responses and redirect the dog to more appropriate ones. One important component is teaching your dog a “quiet” command for barking (see Barking and Training “Quiet,” Barking and Training “Quiet” – Synopsis, and Aggression – Unfamiliar Dogs – Treatment).

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM © Copyright 2012 Lifelearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license

Dog Behavior Problems – Aggression – Getting Started – Safety and Management

How do I start treatment of my aggressive dog?

If your dog has threatened or displayed any signs of aggression, then the problem is likely to continue until appropriate steps can be taken to identify the cause and modify the pet’s behavior. Therefore, a necessary first step is prevention and avoidance of further incidents. Not only is this essential to ensure safety, but each aggressive display may actually serve to increase the chances that the aggressive behavior will continue.

Why will aggression worsen with each event?

Aggression is most often intended to increase the distance between the dog and the stimulus (e.g., person, other pet, car).

Whenever a bark, threat, or aggressive display leads to retreat of the stimulus, the dog’s behavior has been reinforced (negative reinforcement) and the behavior is likely to increase. Similarly, if the owner removes the dog from the situation (which may be necessary for safety), then the threat has been removed (another form of negative reinforcement). In addition, if the approaching stimulus is anxious, fearful or in any way threatening, the dog’s anxiety or fear will be enhanced.

“Whenever a bark, threat, or aggressive display leads to retreat of the stimulus, the dog’s behavior has been reinforced.”

The manner in which the owner responds may also further aggravate the problem. If the owner shows any anxiety or fear, the dog may see this as further reason to be anxious or fearful assuming the owner is afraid of the stimulus rather than being upset by the dogs’ behavior. If the owner uses discipline, punishment or corrective techniques such as choke, jerk, prong, or shock, the dog may become increasingly more fearful as it pairs these negative outcomes with the approach of the stimulus. Even when these techniques are successful at stopping the behavior in the short term, they actually add to an anxious emotional state (see Why Punishment Should Be Avoided).

What if the stimulus confronts the pet rather than retreating?

Confronting the pet is potentially dangerous and counterproductive in trying to reduce fear and anxiety. Safety and owner control must first be ensured before any exposure to the stimulus is attempted.

How long will I need to prevent exposure to problems before I can start behavior modification?

This will vary from case to case and problem to problem. You will need to work with your behavioral consultant to determine how to safely and effectively begin exposure exercises to the people, places and situations that lead to aggression. In general, the dog is going to need to learn new tasks and be able to perform them well before exposure to situations can occur. Since any dog can bite depending on its genetics, previous experiences, and the specific circumstances, some prevention and management may be still be required even when behavior modification is successful. There may always be situations that are not safe and those must be avoided. The behavioral assessment and consultation should provide you with guidance as to which aggressive situations might be improved.

How can I ensure safety?

The first step is to identify each and every situation in which fear, anxiety, or aggression might arise. Your dog may show aggression in various ways including stiffening, raising of the hair (hackles) on the back of the neck, growling, snarling (lifting lips and showing teeth), lunging, snapping or biting.

By recognizing all stimuli (e.g., person, another animal, type of vehicle), situations, locations, and types of handling that might incite aggression, it should be possible to develop an initial strategy whereby each of these situations can be prevented or avoided. If it is not practical to prevent every situation that might lead to aggression, then additional safety measures may need to be considered or the pet may need to be removed from the home (see Getting Started and Aggression – Introduction).

What forms of physical control can be used as aids?

  1. Leash or tie down: Aggression can be prevented if a responsible adult to whom the dog does not display aggression restrains the dog on a leash at a sufficient distance from the stimulus. Similarly tying the dog to a secure base may serve to temporarily prevent access to the stimulus. However, these techniques rely on the security afforded by the person holding the leash, and are best used in combination with avoidance. Remember that even if the dog is well controlled this does not guarantee that the stimulus (people, other pets) can be controlled. A dog should never be left unattended while in a tie down.
  2. Crates and confinement: If your dog is trained to settle in an area where it can be effectively confined (e.g., a crate, room, pen or outdoors), it can be placed in this area at times when a problem might arise. Times when this might be appropriate include a) when food is being prepared b) when food is being consumed c) when visitors arrive d) any other situations where aggression is possible. Be certain that the dog is comfortable, securely restrained, and contented during confinement (see Crate Training – Positive Confinement – Why to Crate Train, Crate Training – Guide – How to Crate Train and Crate Training – Synopsis).
  3. Muzzles: A muzzle can also help to ensure safety, especially if the dog must be placed in a situation where aggression might be possible (see Muzzle Training).
  4. Head halter: A leash and head halter is often the most practical means of maintaining physical control. It can prevent the dog from approaching a potential problem situation, and if the dog displays aggression, its head can be reoriented and its mouth can be closed. In addition, head halters can be an excellent means of safely controlling and calming the dog during exposure training (see Training Products – Head Halter Training and Training Products: Head Halter Training – Synopsis).

“If it is not practical to prevent every situation that might lead to aggression, then additional safety measures may need to be considered.”

How can I ensure safety if my dog may become aggressive toward people or animals outdoors?

If your dog shows aggression, threats, or chase attempts while on its walks, you may initially need to avoid walks unless you can find a location or time of day when there are no people or animals around. If you should meet another person or animal on a walk, be certain that your dog is restrained on a leash and kept at a sufficient distance where it can be calmed and controlled. A head halter can aid in safety and control, and can help to redirect the dog’s focus away from the people or other animals. When taking your dog out in public, you must use either a head halter or a muzzle to prevent any possibility of injury. In addition, you must never allow the dog off leash except in areas where there is no possibility that other animals or people will arrive, or unless your come and recall command is effective at all times. If it is not practical to prevent every situation that might lead to aggression, then additional safety measures may need to be considered.

How can I ensure safety if my dog may be aggressive toward visitors?

Dogs that display threats or aggression to visitors to your home should be confined before the visitor enters. Alternately, your dog might be restrained with a leash at sufficient distance from the visitor to ensure safety. Adults with control over the pet should be the only ones to assume this role. Remember that you must not only control and prevent your dog’s access to visitors but also control and prevent your visitors’ access to the dog. This is particularly important with children and even some adults who may not understand the risks associated with approaching your dog. A head halter or muzzle can provide added safety if the dog is allowed to approach the visitor or if the visitor begins to approach the dog.

“A head halter can aid in safety and control and can help to redirect the dog’s focus away from people or other animals.”

How can I ensure safety if my dog may be aggressive over food or toys?

Initially, food should only be given in a location where the dog can be confined until its food is finished, or until such time as your dog will willingly exit the area and leave its food behind (at which point any left over food should be removed). If the dog is protective of chew toys or treats, these items should only be given when the dog is confined to its area (see Aggression – Possessive – Objects and Toys and Aggression – Possessive – Food Bowl.

How can I ensure safety if my dog may be aggressive with stolen objects?

Dogs that might become aggressive when in possession of something of value to it should not be given these objects. The dog must be prevented from stealing by dog proofing the home, keeping the pet supervised on leash, or by confining the dog away from these objects. Leash and head halter supervision or a basket muzzle can be used to ensure that the dog does not get hold of anything over which it might become possessive and protective. If you notice that your dog has something in its possession that could lead to aggression, you should ignore your dog until it walks away unless you can get the dog to leave the object and come to you by offering a favored treat, toy or walk (see Teaching Give and Drop).

How can I ensure safety if my dog might be aggressive if outside or left alone in the yard?

Dogs that might be aggressive in these situations should always be supervised by an adult when outdoors, with the aid of a leash and head halter or muzzle if there is any chance of strangers getting too close. Never leave your dog outside unsupervised unless the yard or dog run is inescapable and is securely locked so that people cannot get in and out and so that they cannot reach through or over the fence to get access to the dog. No dog should ever be left outside when no one is home.

How can I ensure safety if my dog is aggressive toward other dogs or other pets in my home?

These types of aggression can be difficult and sometimes impractical to improve. Therefore, safety and prevention steps may be necessary both in the short term and in the long term. To start, it is necessary to completely separate the pets except when directly supervised by a responsible adult. While under direct supervision, use a leash, head halter and leash, or muzzle for safety. It may be possible to identify the specific situations in which aggression might arise, and either avoid these situations, separate the dogs at these times, or use a leash, leash and head halter or muzzle at these specific times.

How can I ensure safety if my dog is aggressive toward family members?

Aggression toward family members is another problem that can be difficult to prevent unless you can determine the specific types of handling and interactions that lead to aggression. If they can be identified, either avoid the situations or put a leash and head halter or muzzle on the dog at these times. For example, dogs that are aggressive when you are preparing or consuming food should be confined at these times. Dogs that might be aggressive when disturbed if sleeping or resting should be taught to sleep in their own resting areas where they can be avoided or ignored. Dogs that are aggressive when they go under beds or tables should have their access to these areas prevented. Sometimes, by leaving a leash attached, the owner can calmly and safely coax the dog to approach, especially if the dog is wearing a head halter and rewards are used.

“Aggression toward family members is another problem that can be difficult to prevent unless you can determine the specific types of handling and interactions that lead to aggression.”

However, some of these dogs will become aggressive when you grab for the leash. If the aggression cannot be entirely prevented and especially if children are at risk, it may be necessary to confine the dog at all times, and to allow it out only for play, training and social interactions (provided there is no aggression at these times). If necessary a leash and head halter can be left attached, or the dog should wear a basket muzzle at all times when it is not confined. If the dog displays aggression when applying the leash and head halter or the muzzle, or if one of these is not attached to the dog when it attempts to bite, it may be impossible to ensure your safety. In some cases, there may be no starting point that is sufficiently safe. Aggression toward family members is another problem that can be difficult to prevent unless you can determine the specific types of handling and interactions that lead to aggression.

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM © Copyright 2012 LifeLearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.

Dog Behavior Problems – Aggression – Family Members – Treatment

What is conflict-induced aggression?

Conflict-induced aggression is a term that recently has been used to describe what was previously known as dominance motivated aggression, a term that is overused and may be an inaccurate diagnosis for why the dog is behaving aggressively toward family members. It is important not only to recognize all situations in which aggression might arise, but also why and how the aggression has developed in order to determine the prognosis (the possibility for safe and effective improvement) and to design an appropriate treatment plan.

Aggression toward family members may be due to: fear and anxiety; conflict (i.e., uncertainty or unpredictability as to how the human might respond); defensive responses (as when the pet perceives that it might be punished); possessive behavior (resource holding potential), redirected aggression; or rarely social status aggression. Social status aggression is likely a combination of learned or conflict induced responses or related to impulse control disorders. Assessing the history with respect to the early encounters may help determine underlying motivation even when circumstances or body postures have changed over time.

How might conflict-induced aggression begin?

Puppies that control owner interactions with play biting, barking, or attention soliciting will quickly learn that these are effective behaviors to achieve what they want. Unfortunately, they do not learn that the owners control rewards nor do they learn that deferential, obedient or settled behaviors are how to achieve rewards. This type of assertive and demanding behavior might eventually escalate into increasingly pushy and even aggressive behavior as the puppy learns that this is a successful means of gaining control of resources. Another concern is the conflict (competing motivations) that arises when dogs interact with owners who have inconsistent and unpredictable use of rewards and punishment. A common scenario for causing conflict occurs when family members sometimes give in to the puppy’s demands and at other times punish the puppy for the very same behaviors. Pet owners are often inconsistent in their training techniques; using positive reinforcement (rewards) to get desirable behavior and then use varying intensities of punishment when the pet does not respond (e.g., hitting, leash corrections, prong collars). Physical punishment of any type can easily lead to conflict or defensive aggression either at the time or when you attempt to handle your dog in future interactions. Some dogs may aggressively challenge their owners to maintain a favored resource (e.g., sleeping area, toy, or attention of a family member) (see Aggression – Possessive – Objects and Toys and Aggression – Possessive – Food Bowl) and the subsequent withdrawal by the owner leading to a successful outcome. Although when threatened by a dog it is prudent to retreat; over time some dogs may learn that aggressive behavior works and is repeated. Confrontation, punishment, threats or owner fear and anxiety are only likely to make the dog more defensive and anxious over further similar confrontations.

In each of these examples, conflict, fear, possessiveness, or learning, rather than dominance, is the cause of the aggression. However, genetic factors also play an important role in how assertive, pushy, and persistent a dog may act. This may be displayed in situations where an owner attempts to approach or pet the dog when it is resting or not interested (not in the mood) for social interaction. At these times, rather benign challenges by family members such as trying to pass by, move, sit beside, lie down beside, pet or hug the dog might lead to threats and aggression. Regardless of the cause, the treatment program requires that you create the proper relationship with your dog through the use of proper and consistent application of rewards, physical control devices, cessation of all punishment, and regaining control of resources and reinforcers so that you can teach your dog what is desirable. In some cases, the aggressive displays are so intense and out of proportion to the challenge, that excessive anxiety or a lack of impulse control may be a component of the problem (in which case, drugs might be considered).

How can I determine if conflict/social status aggression is developing?

Early signs of conflict aggression are usually subtle. Dogs mostly use facial expressions and body postures to signal intent. Unwanted encounters between family members and the pet usually begin with prolonged eye contact and maybe growling and/or snarling (lifting of the lip to expose the teeth, usually without noise) over resources such as food, resting places, moving the dog and perhaps handling the body. If the owner sometimes acquiesces but at other times continues the “challenge,” the relationship may be unclear. This can create anxiety for the dog and things may escalate to snapping, lunging and biting. It will be necessary to determine the context of the aggression such as certain types of petting or handling, approaching when the dog is resting or sleeping, touching the food or toys, discipline or scolding the dog, ability to handle the body, or stepping over the dog. These aggressive displays may not occur in every situation, only those where the dog is more motivated to keep an item, when it is not in the mood for social interactions or if it is fearful and/or defensive (see Canine Communication – Interpreting Dog Language).

The body posture of the dog during the encounter is very important. Most dogs are uncertain in these situations and their body postures and facial expressions will reflect this conflict. They often are averting their eyes, licking their lips, turning away their head and/or body and perhaps crouching down. Although they may also be growling, they are attempting in a dog way to diffuse what they see as a threat rather than continue aggression. It is also possible to have multiple motivations. In fact, as mentioned, many dogs show aggression when they have some degree of fear and anxiety and are uncertain or are in a state of conflict.

Not all of these dogs behave the same and a description of what the dog looks like, how they responded to challenges, and where and with whom they occur are important pieces of information to obtain before making a diagnosis. A dog may only show aggression in limited contexts, say food guarding only, in which case the diagnosis is not conflict aggression, but guarding a highly favored resource; in this case, treatment should be focused on the possessive aggression (see Aggression – Possessive – Objects and Toys and Aggression – Possessive – Food Bowl). Within a family, a dog may show conflict or may challenge some family members while avoiding or deferring to others (see Canine Communication – Interpreting Dog Language and Dominance, Alpha, and Pack Leadership – What Does It Really Mean?).

How the dog behaved during the initial aggressive episodes is likely a better indicator of cause, since with each aggressive event, the dog learns new ways of behaving in that situation or with that person. It is possible for the dog to growl at family members because of fear and, if the person backs away, the pet learns that aggression is a successful way to resolve a social conflict. Over time, with repetition of the same scenario the dog learns that aggression results in a favorable outcome. This may result in a dog that acts confident rather than fearful, but underlying anxiety and fear may be the cause of the aggression. This would result in a different diagnosis; rather than social status aggression, this dog may be exhibiting fear or conflict aggression.

What should I do if I believe that my dog is displaying conflict aggression?

All aggressive challenges should be taken seriously. Dogs are capable of hurting and inflicting a great deal of damage with their bites. Physically confronting a dog that is acting in an aggressive manner can result in the escalation of the aggression and subsequent injury to humans. When dogs growl, snarl or snap they are showing their intention to use aggression if the stimulus does not retreat and they may escalate their challenge. Therefore, it is important to be able to accurately determine how the dog will behave. All aggressive and potentially aggressive situations should be identified and avoided. The situations and responses are not always predictable. At no time should family members attempt to “out muscle” the dog and force it to obey. This can result in serious human injury. All physical reprimands and punishments must be stopped since they cause fear, anxiety and pain and are very likely to increase rather than decrease aggressive responses.

“All aggressive challenges should be taken seriously.”

First, identify all situations that might lead to aggression and prevent access to these circumstances (by caging or confinement, muzzle, or environmental manipulation) or otherwise control the dog when a confrontational situation might arise (e.g., leash and head halter control, tie down). Although the long-term goal would be to reduce or eliminate the potential for aggression in these situations, each new episode could lead to injury and further aggravation of the problem. A head collar and leash is a good way to control the dog inside the home, while a muzzle may be even more effective at preventing bites (see Training Products – Head Halter Training and Muzzle Training).

Second, identify and work to teach the dog how to allow owner control using the rewards that your dog wants to train the behaviors you want your dog to learn. Dogs should not be allowed into areas or onto furniture where they might be possessive, protective or unwilling to obey. It might be best to have a mat or crate where the dog can be left alone when it is resting, sleeping or chewing on its favored toys. When not confined away from potential harm, your dog should be under constant supervision. During training, and when giving commands, ensure that your dog always obeys, and reward compliance immediately. Leaving a leash and head halter attached can help to ensure safety and success. Mouthing, play biting and tug of war games should be avoided. While they might not increase aggression, they get a dog emotionally aroused and they do allow the dog to learn how to use its mouth to control outcomes. If the dog is not comfortable being confined in any way, then begin with training of positive confinement (see Teaching Calm – Settle and Relaxation Training, Crate Training – Positive Confinement – Why to Crate Train, Crate Training – Guide – How to Crate Train, and Crate Training – Synopsis).

Third, take control of all resources (i.e., treats, attention, and toys) and use them to reward desirable behavior. Like human interactions, we want to have a “please and thank you” system in place with our dogs. When rewards are given on demand, the dog is reinforced for its actions and is in control of when and where the rewards are given. Therefore, if a dog seeks any form of attention, affection, play, or food, the dog must be ignored so that it cannot achieve control over these resources. Make a short list of target behaviors where the dog is calm and deferent and insist on these behaviors before every reward is given (learn to earn). Alternatively, the dog can be taught to settle and relax before receiving rewards. In this way, calm, obedient and deferential interactions are reinforced while anxious, excitable, pushy, mouthy, and attention-seeking behaviors are not. Note that it is the attention seeking behavior that is ignored and not the dog itself. Rewards are most motivating when they have been withheld and are most effective as reinforcers when given only for those behaviors you want your dog to learn. In addition, instead of a few short training sessions each day, you can continuously ensure that you respond consistently by having your dog exhibit appropriate behaviors or defer to you every time you would normally give a reward. Some dogs, especially at first may not respond to your command to settle when asked. If they do not obey, you have two options; one would be to ignore your dog or walk away until it is settled. The second would be to find a way to ensure that your dog succeeds, either by using lure training or by leaving a leash and head halter attached. Your dog should learn quickly if you focus on training what behaviors will achieve rewards, and by withdrawing social interaction for undesirable behavior (see Working for Food, Learn to Earn – Predictable Rewards, and Learning, Training, and Modifying Behavior). Fourth, reward-based obedience training is essential so that you can quickly and effectively communicate with your dog to get desirable responses rather than punishing undesirable ones. Begin in safe and controlled environments with rewards given for compliance. Work to achieve “come” and “settled” responses (sit/focus, down-settle, go to your mat) on cue (see (61) Teaching Calm – Settle and Relaxation Training). Once successful, these commands should be practiced in a variety of environments and with all family members. Again, use a leash and head halter to ensure success, while controlling the head and mouth. Clicker training can also be a positive and immediate way to shape desirable behavior (see Training Products – Head Halter Training and Learn to Earn – Predictable Rewards). The use of training devices that choke or cause pain, such as pinch collars, may exacerbate aggression and increase anxiety rather than settling the dog and increasing owner control (see Training Products – To Choke or Not to Choke).

What is the prognosis for dogs that show aggression toward their family?

“Dogs that are willing to use aggression to change the outcome of a situation are rarely cured.”

Dogs that are willing to use aggression to change the outcome of a situation are rarely cured but often can be controlled. Improvement may occur by having predictable interactions, avoidance of aggression-provoking stimuli, a good daily routine of exercise, play and social interaction. However, some dogs may continue to be aggressive toward family members and present a risk to those who live with them. Certain family situations may make it impossible to safely rehabilitate an aggressive dog and keep people from harm. Each case requires an assessment with a veterinary behaviorist and ongoing follow up to determine if progress is being made (see Aggression – Family Members – Introduction and Safety and Aggression – Getting Started – Safety and Management).

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM © Copyright 2012 LifeLearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license

Aggression in Dogs – Territorial

What is territorial aggression, and how can it be diagnosed?

Territorial or protective aggression may be exhibited toward people or other animals that approach the pet’s property. Generally, people and other animals that are unusual, less familiar to the dog, or most unlike the members of the household are the most likely “targets” of territorial aggression.

“Something different about the sight, sound, or actions of the stimulus is causing an alerting, anxious, or defensive response on the part of the dog.”

In other words, something different about the sight, sound or actions of the stimulus is causing an alerting, anxious or defensive response on the part of the dog. While most forms of territorial aggression are likely to occur on the property, some dogs may protect areas where they are temporarily housed, and may protect family members regardless of the location. Territorial aggressive displays may range from growling and barking to lunging, chasing, snapping and biting. Territorial displays may occur at windows, doors, behind fences and in the car. Some dogs may quickly claim territory and show similar behaviors at picnic areas, park benches, etc. Dogs that are physically prevented by a barricade or leash from gaining access to the stimulus (i.e., are frustrated) may have their aggression heightened, or may develop displacement behaviors (e.g., spinning, circling, self mutilation) or redirected behaviors (e.g., turning their aggression on the owner who attempts to reach for or grab the dog). Many dogs continue their aggression once the person has entered the territory or home, which could result in biting and severe injury. In some cases, due to the high arousal level of the dog, an element of frustration may also be present and can lead to redirected behavior toward objects or other animals or people.

How can territorial aggression be prevented?

Territorial aggression can be prevented or minimized with early socialization and good control. Young dogs should be taught to sit and receive a reward as each new person comes to the door. To reduce potential fear and anxiety toward visitors, you should ensure that a wide variety of visitors come over to visit the puppy while the puppy is young and developing its social skills (see Socialization and Fear Prevention). In time, most dogs will begin to alert the family by barking when strangers come to the home. However, the dog that has been well socialized and under good control can be trained to quickly settle down and relax.

Why are territorial behaviors ongoing and perhaps even increasing?

For many dogs, territorial displays are a normal part of their behavioral repertoire. While any dog may show territorial responses, certain breeds of dogs have been bred for guarding and watchful behaviors. Without appropriate supervision, owner interaction and training of appropriate responses, these dogs may engage in territorial displays that vary in intensity from mild barking to intense displays that might include growling, snarling, lunging, piloerection and even biting a person or animal entering the territory. Opportunity and environmental access to the stimulus will influence whether the behavior will take place. Without proper owner supervision and training, these behaviors may become excessive. Dogs that are tied may show extreme territorial behaviors and aggressive responses. Dogs that are left outside all day without owner supervision are also at risk for developing escalating territorial responses. Many dogs that show territorial responses are often fearful and anxious and just want the intruder to leave.

The longer the person stays within the territory, the more aggressively aroused the dog may become. The goal of the territorial display is to get the “intruder” to leave. If the pet is frustrated from chasing the stimulus away because it is tied, penned, or behind a closed door or window, then the longer the stimulus remains in place within sight or hearing of the pet, the greater the anxiety. Although dogs with mild fears might habituate with continued exposure, dogs that are constantly exposed (flooded) by an anxiety-evoking stimulus will have their fear heightened until the stimulus leaves. The removal (retreat) of the individual then further reinforces the strength of the response.

Should I punish my dog for his aggressive displays?

Often the first strategies people try are related to punishment: yelling, scolding, startling, or any physical punishment may be effective in interrupting a dog’s aggressive display. There may be some serious long term side effects of this approach such as fear, increasing aggression and anxiety and a decrease in the occurrence of warning signs from the dog. Repetitive use of punishment in association with approach of unfamiliar people can create an association that it is threatening to have unfamiliar people around. Punishment may stop the dog from displaying aggression but it will contribute to the anxiety, fear and need to protect. Because the warning displays have been suppressed, the result is a dog that doesn’t bark but that may indeed bite without the aggressive display. The aggressive encounter is dangerous and surprises people making the dog seem unpredictable and unmanageable. In fact these bites are a function of training a dog to inhibit territorial aggressive displays by punishment, thus giving the appearance that the dog accepts the approach of the intruder. It is more effective to teach the dog what you do expect him to do when someone comes over (see Using Punishment Effectively and Why Punishment Should Be Avoided).

How can I treat territorial aggression?

For dogs exhibiting territorial aggression, you will need to gain enough control to have your dog sit, stay, and when calmed down, take a reward at the front door. Generally, a leash and head collar will give the fastest and most effective control (see Training Products – Head Halter Training). Teaching the dog to settle on command near the vicinity of the front door is an essential first step (see Teaching Calm – Settle and Relaxation Training). If the dog cannot do that, then they must be removed from the area before admitting people into the home. Providing safety for any individuals who must come to the home is essential (see Aggression – Getting Started – Safety and Management). If the dog is showing territorially aggressive responses to visitors, it must be removed and securely confined when company is present to avoid injury. If redirected behavior is a component of the initial problem, it may be necessary to separate dogs to prevent fighting and injury if the problem dog encounters the stimulus. Owners should not reach for the dog when he is aggressively aroused to avoid injuries to them. If barking precedes the aggression, you might be able to stop the sequence of events and train the dog to settle with products that inhibit barking, such as the bark activated citronella collar or a handheld alarm (see below). However, you must be present to immediately reinforce the quiet and settled behavior with a favored treat or reward.

“Punishment must be stopped because punishment tends to increase rather than decrease the anxiety and fear that may be underlying the behavior.

Another essential first step is to no longer allow territorial aggressive displays to continue. An effort should be made to prevent ongoing territorial displays either at windows or along fence lines. This might mean blocking visual access out windows by covering them up or preventing the dog from getting to them, and not allowing outdoor access unless the dog is wearing a leash and head collar and is actively supervised by an adult who is holding onto the dog’s leash. Punishment must be stopped since punishment tends to increase rather than decrease the anxiety and fear that may be underlying the behavior.

Once your dog can settle on command, more specific training can occur. All the stimuli that provoke the territorial response should be identified and a response gradient determined. That is, at what distance is the territorial response noted, and how does the response vary with changing distance (approaching and retreating)? Using a desensitization and counterconditioning program (see Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning and Implementing Desensitization and CounterConditioning – Setting Up for Success), you can begin retraining with low levels of stimuli. For territorial aggression, lowlevel stimuli may include people arriving in a car, walking past the front of the house, or perhaps even a family member knocking on the door or ringing the bell. The idea is that each time someone arrives at the house or rings the bell, the dog will come to expect a favored reward (toy, cheese, hot dog slice, or play session). Once the dog can be controlled and receives rewards in this environment, gradually more intense stimuli can be used.

A big part of my dog’s problem is barking. How can I control that?

Some dogs confine their territorial display to barking and nothing else.

“Teaching the dog to reliably respond to a command that signals quiet is essential.

Teaching the dog to reliably respond to a command that signals quiet is essential. In some cases an anti-bark collar, bark-activated alarm, shaker can, or other audible device that is activated by the owner will disrupt the barking (at least temporarily). In this interval when the dog is quiet, you must reinforce the quiet behavior with a favored treat or toy. Over time, gradually increase the length of the quiet time before the reward is given, and provide multiple rewards if the dog does not bark at all. With some dogs, it may be more difficult to control barking (see Barking and Training “Quiet” and Behavior Management Products).

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM © Copyright 2012 Lifelearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.

Aggression in Dogs – Possessive – Objects and Toys

What is possessive aggression, and how is it treated?

Possessive aggression is aggression that is directed toward humans or other pets that approach the dog when it is in possession of something that is highly desirable, such as a favorite chew toy, food, or treat.

“Although protecting possessions may be necessary for survival in the wild, it’s unacceptable when directed toward people.”

Although protecting possessions may be necessary if an animal needs to survive and thrive in the wild, it is unacceptable when directed toward people or other pets in a household. What can be confusing for some owners is that it is not always food that brings out the most protective displays. Novel and highly desirable objects, such as a tissue that has been stolen from a garbage can, a favorite toy, human food, or a piece of rawhide are some of the items that dogs may aggressively protect.

How can possessive aggression be prevented?

Teaching puppies when they are young that handling their food and possessions results in good outcomes can help deter possessive behavior. If a puppy is eating, calmly approaching and talking softly while perhaps petting and dropping delectable food treats into the bowl may help some puppies learn that your approach is nonthreatening. Once they are comfortable with this type of approach, you can gently restrain the puppy and remove the bowl, then praise the puppy and promptly return the bowl. You can follow a similar pattern while a puppy is playing with its toys.

“The goal is to teach the dog that it will receive a favored treat or reward that is even more appealing than the object in its possession.”

Approaching calmly, offering a food reward and taking the possession, praising the puppy and returning the object teaches the puppy that your actions are not to be feared. Using a leash can help ensure success at the outset with a minimum of confrontation (see Handling and Food Bowl Exercises).

How can I treat my dog if he is possessive with objects and toys?

It is important to prevent any possibility of injury when you begin treatment. At first it may be best to confine or supervise your dog so that it cannot gain access to any items that it might pick up and protect. Blocking off areas so that the dog does not have access to certain items might also be necessary. Dogs that protect their treats or toys should have them taken away, and only allowed access to them when alone in the crate or confinement room. In fact, by giving these items exclusively in your pet’s confinement area, your dog may learn to be more comfortable resting and relaxing in this area since it is a place where chew toys are given and where the dog is left alone. Highly valued items (e.g., the ones the dog is most likely to protect) such as rawhide bones, pig’s ears, etc., should not be given to the dog at all during this initial training period. Of course, if there are items that your dog might steal and then protect, you should keep them out of the dog’s reach by using sealed containers, or keeping them behind closed doors or high enough that the dog cannot reach. To prevent stealing and to teach leave, you should keep your dog supervised with a long leash attached to a head collar so that your dog can be prevented from wandering off, and immediately interrupted if it attempts to raid a garbage can or pick up inappropriate objects (see Stealing and Stay Away and Teaching Give and Drop). Booby traps (Snappy Trainers™, motion detectors, unpleasant tastes) can also be used to teach your dog to stay away from selected objects and areas (see Using Punishment Effectively, Why Punishment should be Avoided and Behavior Management Products). Dogs that protect their food can be given a less palatable diet, and fed in a separate room away from family members.

Although prevention can help to ensure safety, if you are to correct the problem, you will need to teach your dog to accept approaches and give up objects on command. The goal is to teach the dog that it will receive a favored treat or reward that is even more appealing than the object in its possession (see Handling and Food Bowl Exercises and Teaching Give and Drop). However, you must first have good control and a well-trained dog. If your dog will not sit and stay, come, or allow approach when it has no object in its possession, then there is little chance of correcting a possessive problem.

If the dog already has the item, he will need to have been taught a “give” or “drop it” command that tells him to give up the object for a reward. However, this needs to be part of a training program where your dog is taught to drop objects of low value and reinforced with rewards of much higher value. Even if your pet learns to drop on cue, this does nothing to prevent stealing. It might also be possible to train your dog to “leave” items and not pick them up again if you can effectively supervise (see Teaching Give and Drop and Stealing and Stay Away).

Usually my dog knows “drop it” or “leave it”; however, for some really valuable items, he just won’t comply. What can I do to get him to comply?

For some dogs, a diversion with something else they really want to do will result in them leaving an object. This may be a walk, a ride in the car, ringing the doorbell, etc. If you offer the dog an alternative activity, you must follow through, even if it is short. In some situations, this may not work or be appropriate.

“Only the adult who has the most control over the dog—never children—should attempt this exercise.”

For example, you may need to trade for stolen items of value or for those that are dangerous to the pet; these items need to be retrieved quickly before they are damaged or the pet is injured. Only the adult that has the most control over the dog, never children, should attempt this exercise.

When the dog has the stolen item, the owner goes and gets a highly valued food reward that the dog reliably wants. Then the food reward is shown to the dog from 5 to 6 feet away and the dog is called to “come.” When the dog leaves the item, the owner backs up and calls the dog again and adds “sit.” This is repeated 2 to 3 times without giving the dog the food reward until he is at least 15 to 20 feet from the object (preferably in another room). The dog is then given the food, gently taken by the collar (if he will reliably allow that), and put outside or into another room with a closed door. Only at that time does the owner retrieve the item. The exchange never takes place right in front of the dog and the item. If, at any time, the dog shows aggression such as growling, snarling (lifting the lips), snapping, lunging or biting, leave the area immediately and do not attempt to take the item from the dog. This problem is dangerous and serious and requires the intervention of a veterinary behaviorist.

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM. © Copyright 2012 Lifelearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.

Aggression in Dogs – Food Bowl

How can I deal with food guarding behavior?

Some dogs continue to guard their food aggressively even after being worked with as puppies (see Handling and Food Bowl Exercises).

“Punitive attempts to change them tend to exacerbate rather than diminish the behavior.”

Punitive attempts to change them, such as making the dog wait and perform numerous tasks for food, or factors that cause increased hunger might tend to exacerbate rather than diminish the behavior. In fact, while you should be able to remove your puppy’s toys or food bowl and approach or pet your dog when it is eating or chewing on a toy, dogs that are possessive are more likely to increase their aggression if you keep taking away their food or toy and giving nothing positive in return. On the other hand, if you back off from a dog that is growling or threatening, (which may be prudent to avoid injury) then the behavior has been successful (see Aggression – Introduction, Aggression – Diagnosis and Overview, and Aggression – Family Members – Introduction and Safety).

“The dog should be fed a scheduled meal and not free choice.”

The first step is to remove any conflict or anxiety from the feeding situation. You should pick up and put away the food bowl when it is not mealtime. The dog should be fed a scheduled meal and not free choice (although in rare cases free choice feeding may reduce arousal and aggression around the food bowl, but not the possessiveness of novel foods and treats). While you are preparing the food, the dog should be outside or in another room. The food is then placed in a secure location, preferably a room with a door that can be completely latched and/or locked or a crate (if the dog is accustomed to one). Locking the door is essential if young children are in the home. The dog is then placed in the room or crate with the food and the door is shut. When the dog is finished eating they often will bark or scratch at the door to be released. The dog is released and let outside, and while the dog is gone the bowl is picked up and put away. At no time should the dog be fed in a location where other people are present since this presents a danger to those in the vicinity of the dog while it eats. For some dogs, this will help decrease their anxiety and remove the source of conflict between the family and the pet, and may be the lifelong solution.

Can food bowl aggression be reduced?

In some situations, if the aggression is not severe and if the dog is not aggressive about an empty food bowl or when being fed by hand, retraining by a responsible adult can be attempted. This often entails measured and controlled feeding. Only a responsible adult should perform this exercise, and then only when the dog is wearing a leash and head collar. The leash and head collar are a safety measure, providing a means of additional control should the dog not respond to your commands or should aggression begin to emerge. The dog’s daily ration is split into multiple portions. The dog is told to sit/stay and a small amount of food is placed in the bowl; then the bowl is placed on the floor and the person steps back 2 to 4 feet. The dog is released from the sit/stay to eat this amount. Once the dog has consumed the food, he is told verbally to back away from the bowl, asked again to sit/stay and the bowl is picked up, repeating the process until the whole meal is consumed.

“Occasionally, a special treat can be added to the next portion of food.”

Occasionally, a special treat can be added to the next portion of food. If at any time the dog stiffens or growls, the session ends and, once the dog leaves the bowl, it is picked up and put away.

Another option might be to use two food bowls placed well apart from each other. Have your dog sit and stay, place a small amount of food in one bowl and walk away to where the other bowl is located. When your dog is finished, have it sit and stay and then put food in the second bowl. If you divide the food into four to eight portions, you can move back and forth between food bowls, offering an occasional special treat in one of the bowls. Over time, if there are no signs of anxiety or aggression, the bowls can be moved closer together; finally, proceed to the single bowl technique described above. Training should eventually progress so that you are standing beside the dog while the food bowl is lifted and refilled (sometimes adding a separate treat). Again very small portions should be given and a head halter should be used to ensure success. Have the dog sit after each small feeding is finished, lift the bowl, add food or a treat, and return it to the floor before releasing the dog to eat. Finally, move on to slightly larger portions and try to get the dog to stop periodically while eating (with a verbal command plus the leash and head halter). When he sits, take the food bowl away, add more food and an occasional special treat and return it to the dog. It may not be safe to progress to patting the dog during eating or walking away and approaching, although under the supervision of a behaviorist, and with the use of a head halter and leash, additional progress might be possible. At no time should you confront or reprimand the dog; the session should merely end. If aggressive behavior occurs and it is necessary to end the session, offer the dog his food in confinement as described above.

“Do not use these techniques if the dog tends to lunge or attack as you approach.”

One other technique that you might consider is to feed a small amount of food from your hand, and if the dog eats without showing any anxiety, then fill your hand again and repeat until you have fed him the entire meal. At a later feeding, you might alternate giving some of the food from your hand with dropping food into the bowl. At subsequent meals, place the food in your hand and drop it into the bowl, repeating this multiple times until the meal is finished. If the dog is comfortable with this procedure, you can then proceed to place a portion of the meal in the bowl with your hand, leave the bowl while your dog is eating and return when the dog is finished to fill with another handful. Occasionally add a small special treat when you refill the bowl. This technique can make some dogs very anxious and while they may eat the food, any sudden movements may result in an aggressive response. If an aggressive response occurs, this technique must be discontinued immediately.

If there is any possible risk during this type of training, having the dog on leash and head halter may help to ensure control and safety. If your dog does display any food bowl guarding, you should either ignore your dog until it is finished eating or remove the food bowl. To ensure your safety if you choose to remove the bowl, use a rope around the bowl, a stick or an “assess-a-hand” to test your dog’s response.

If a dog engages in food guarding behavior, you and your family should only eat food at a table to avoid food stealing and possible aggression at that time.

Do not use these techniques if the dog tends to lunge or attack as you approach the bowl or enter the room. If your dog shows this type of behavior, you need the assistance of a veterinary behaviorist for the retraining process.

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM. © Copyright 2012 Lifelearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.