Q: What makes a dog aggressive?
A: There can be a few causes. In the cases of dogs that show fearful aggression, it’s because they have too much energy, which keeps their mind agitated and makes them more likely to lash out. Fearfully aggressive dogs require a lot of exercise to burn off that energy and settle their minds.
Dogs that are aggressive to other dogs are not getting the Pack Leadership from their humans that they should. When there is no strong leader, dogs will try to step into that role, and so their instinct upon seeing a strange dog is to protect their human because, to the dog, the human cannot protect his or her self.
The ultimate cause of dog aggression is the same as it is for every other canine misbehavior: The dog’s owner is not fulfilling the dog’s needs and is not taking on the role of Pack Leader.
Q: Are aggressive dogs harder to rehabilitate?
A: Surprisingly, no. In fact, if the owners work with me, these can be some of the fastest cases to turn around. It takes a lot more time and effort to rehabilitate timid or fearful dogs than it does to fix aggressive ones. A big part of the reason is that an aggressive dog responds a lot sooner to being put into my pack at the DPC and learning how to be a dog again, while it takes time and effort to even get a timid dog to join the pack.
Q: What about dogs that are aggressive toward visitors to your home?
A: A dog that shows aggression toward visitors is letting you know that it thinks it’s the Pack Leader, and that its job is to protect the household from threats. When dogs live with humans, the humans must always be the pack leaders.
One thing that you should not do when a dog is showing aggression is try to comfort it. How many times have you seen someone pick up a dog that is barking and tell it, “Oh, oh, it’s okay. Sssh”? This is exactly the wrong thing to do. By giving affection to a dog that is not calm and submissive, you are telling the dog, “This is exactly how I want you to behave.”
To stop your dog from being aggressive to visitors, you must create a boundary around the front door, a zone that the dog cannot enter without your permission. Combined with strong leadership, this lets the dog know that you own that space, and you are in control of any perceived threats that come into it. Of course, as the Pack Leader, if you’re allowing strange humans to enter that space, your dog will not perceive them as a threat.
Q: What is the biggest myth about aggressive dogs?
A: That they cannot be rehabilitated and will always be dangerous. The percentage of aggressive dogs I’ve worked with over the years that could not be rehabilitated is very, very small — probably about two in the course of over twenty years and thousands of dogs.
But — and this is a very big but — when a formerly aggressive dog fails to stay rehabilitated, the cause is always because the humans I trained did not follow through and continue to do what I told them. In those cases, it might become necessary to rehome the dog with people who can be consistent and provide what the dog needs to remain balanced. In all cases, having the dog put down is never, never the right solution.