Throughout my years training and rehabilitating dogs, I have been often asked the question if aggression in dogs can be cured.
The short answer to this question would be a simple „No“, but that doesn’t mean that all hope is lost to help to manage your dog’s aggressive behaviour in order to achieve a more balanced and happy life together.
Taking in account the many different types of aggression, which I have described in detail in Part 2 of this blog (you can find it here), there are some forms of aggression which when applying behaviour modification techniques can reduce the intensity and frequency of aggressive incidents sometimes dramatically and allow you and your dog a stress and trouble free life.
In general a three tier approach consisting of environmental management, behaviour modification and in some cases optional (natural) medication will work best to handle aggression in your dog.
Reducing environmental influences
In some cases the only practical solution to get hold of your dog’s aggressive behaviour is to limit its exposure to things, situation or people which trigger an aggressive response.
If you know that Fluffy always freaks out when walking by Spike’s home, it might be advisable to take another route to avoid the arch enemies from meeting each other.
If food aggression is on your dog’s behaviour-issue plate, then just serve his meal in a separate room to let him eat in peace. Fluff is guarding Pooh the Bear and not allowing to touch it? Ok, no playtime involving throw and catch the bear!
Of course avoidance doesn’t solve your dog’s aggression issues, but it helps reducing incidents, especially with friends who don’t know your dog’s routines and triggers like you do. It’s easier to tell a visiting child not to touch Fluffy’s beloved bear so that it doesn’t risk of getting hurt than to desensitise the dog. But if your dog’s aggression issues are not limited to situations which are easily avoidable, you have to start to work with your dog on its aggression issues.
Never forget that you are responsible not only for the wellbeing of your furry friend, but also of the wellbeing of others, humans or animals, who come in close contact with your dog. You cannot allow your dog to hurt another being because you neglect its issues with aggression.
Supporting your dog in changing its behaviour when exposed to situations, things or people, which trigger an aggressive outburst, may not cure its aggression completely, but will definitely help you to bring down the aggression to manageable levels, if the training is done consequently and in the right way. An experienced dog trainer will teach you how to read your dogs body language and know when your dog is about to cross over the threshold into the „Red Zone“. This allows you to act in trigger situations quickly and in the right way to avoid a full blown outburst of uncontrollable aggressive behaviour.
If you have the joy of raising a puppy, it’s very important to apply socialisation training to teach it acceptable ways to behave when interacting with other dogs and humans. Allowing your puppy supervised contact with well-mannered and trained adult dogs teaches them a lot how to act in the right way.
Desensitisation Training (you can find a post about it here) is crucial in helping your dog overcome its fear, which in most cases is the underlying reason for its aggression. Applying this kind of training allows your dog to learn that there’s nothing to fear and thus no need to adopt an aggressive behaviour pattern. This process involves giving rewards and praise for behaving in a calm and controlled way around fear-provoking triggers or situations. Every desensitisation training should be done under the guidance of an experienced dog trainer, as a lot can go wrong if a well-meaning dog owner moves too fast or reconditions the dog in a wrong way. This could actually not only ruin any progress you have mad, but can actually make your dog even more reactive when exposed to fear triggering situations.
Another important factor in helping your dog to avoid picking up aggressive responses to perceived threats is to establish a clear hierarchy between you and your dog pack, even it’s just the two of you. It is crucial for every training and socialisation that your dog understands and accepts you as the leader. Developing a relationship with your dog which evolves into a bond of mutual trust and respect will let your fully balanced dog look at you for guidance in any fearsome situation which might occur. Leading by example will teach and train your dog to adapt your calm attitude and non-aggressive behaviour as it trusts you completely to handle every situation and keep it and the pack safe.
Never ever punish your dog when it displays signs of aggression. For far too long outdated and scientifically proven wrong models of „dominance“ were taught on the false thinking that all dog aggression is caused by dogs who think they are alpha dogs, and the only way to correct them is to use harsh force to teach them who the boss is. These models of dog behaviour, which involve punishing your dogs at the first signs of aggression, are not only incorrect, but cause a lot of harm in your dog and often achieve the opposite in the long run.
Dominating a dog with violent methods will increase the insecurity in an already fearful dog by adding the real threat of harm inflicted by the dog owner, the person it should trust. Some dogs learn that in order to avoid getting punished, it’s best not to give out any warning signals before an attack. All which is achieved with those false dominance methods is that the dog has become now extremely dangerous, because it has stopped giving out warning signals and resorts to instant attacks when its fear becomes too much to handle.
The use of a muzzle
While for outsiders, who don’t have a lot of understanding about dogs, a muzzle looks barbaric and inhumane on a dog, it is in some cases, in which the dog displays extreme aggression and resorts to immediate biting, an important safety precaution. And not only that: The basis of all kind of dog training is that a dog accepts you as its leader and will only do it, if you display the characteristics of what in a dog’s view makes out the real leader of the pack. You can read my blogposts about it here and here.
In situations in which your dog does not display proper warning and calming signals, but immediately crosses the threshold into red and lounges an attack against other dogs or humans, or even decides to bite you, it is virtually impossible to maintain your calm assertive energy. When the integrity of your physical body is under threat, it instantly and automatically releases adrenaline, a hormone which in the course of evolution proofed very helpful in providing your ancestor, the caveman, a boost in clarity, awareness and energy to escape or fight with a sable-tooth tiger.
Dogs with their superior sense of smell instantly detect the hormone in your system, which for them signals that you are scared. Instead of looking up to you as leader for guidance, a fear-aggressive dog thinks that you are same shit-scared as it is and rather takes things in it own paws or settles it using its teeth. Knowing that your dog is muzzled allows you to remain in control of yourself and stay completely calm when your dog looses its cool. Overtime your dog will understand that you are indeed the greatest leader of all and begins to listen to you instead of just attacking whatever it fears.
Can I drug my dog?
While there is no Xanax or magic pill for dogs to make them chill in any situation which usually lets them go overboard, there are natural means to support your dog to be calmer and react less. I have good experience in applying CBD treatment to support training dogs with severe aggression issues but any medication, even they are entirely natural and harmless has always be accompanied with proper training.
Please always discuss with your veterinarian if supportive treatment with CBD or medication is an option in helping to reduce aggression in your beloved furry friend.
Neutering your dog as early as possible not only prevents unwanted puppies, but also reduces greatly hormone-driven aggression. Especially if you have several dogs living in your home, it’s enough if one of them goes into heat to drive everyone else nuts. Even you have trained your dogs well, instincts always override control, so it’s a good idea to discuss with your vet sterilisation options.
Treating aggression in dogs is a complex issue, as every dog is an individual and deals differently, when exposed to fear triggers. There is no easy fix to solve aggression in dogs overnight or in just one or two training sessions to turn your beloved furry friend with anger issues into a well-behaved canine, especially if their aggression level is severe.
But with the right understanding and approach, a mix of exercise, disciple and affection, combined with certain training methods, you and your dog can learn how to stop some forms of aggression in its tracks.
Living with an aggressive dog is a challenge but it’s not the end of the world. Through learning your dog’s body language and recognising triggers, while applying consequent training and proper socialisation, you and your canine friend can find a way to share a great life together. Never abandon your dog, even aggression might seem scary at times! You and your best friend will work it out together.