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How to Manage an Aggressive or Defensive Dog

Steps to neutralize these behaviors and head them off before they start.

How to Manage an Aggressive or Defensive Dog

The first step toward a solution is by first understanding your dog in order to take control of the situation. (Bondburn/ photo)

The Problem

A seven-year-old Griffon just bit its sixth person. The victim, an adult male, well known to the dog in field situations, reached over the fence to pet the dog who was home alone. The bite was serious enough to require surgery. The first time the dog had shown aggressive behavior was three years earlier when the dog was four. In that situation, a neighbor was in the dog’s yard talking to the dog’s owner when the dog ran from the house to attack. Three of the four bites occurred in the dog’s yard—all young men. The remaining one was an adult man inside the house. The man picked up a parcel left for him—again there was no one home. The common thread is that all bite victims were men, young or older adults, and all instances were in the dog’s yard or house, his personal space—his area and possessions.

The dog goes on daily walks, mostly with the woman of the house and has never bitten or even threatened anyone on these outings. To everyone he meets, he is considered to be friendly and actually loveable. There are two other dogs in the house of the same breed, one older and one younger. There has never been any possession problems or resource guarding problems among the three dogs. I was asked if the aggressive behavior problem could be fixed and if so, how?

Two Labrador retrievers playing
Understanding canine behavior and learning to recognize their body language will go a long way in managing your dog's behavior. (Jerry Imprevento photo)

The Solution

The first thing to consider for any versatile hunting breed is they were developed to do everything necessary for hunting and they were also designed to live in the home of a family and to act as a protective dog when necessary. Another thing to consider is that every dog is aggressive to at least some degree, just as every person is, given the right (or wrong) circumstances. Considering these conditions, this dog was doing what he was selectively bred to do—he was genetically programmed for it. His only failing was being a bit too much over the top, too much into the job. 

Being genetically predisposed to home space defensiveness, this dog cannot be totally cured. But it can be controlled by training and by limiting the cues that set off the aggressive behavior. The training for this involves desensitizing and counter conditioning—gradually increasing the intensity of the stimulus (person) invading the dog’s space and rewarding the dog for not acting aggressively toward the person in or near the dog’s defended space. However, implicit in this training is the handler being present and in control. The dog at home alone cannot be trusted—not ever. The aggressive behavior can be masked under controlled conditions but not eliminated except when under strict supervision. The problem is not eliminated, just walled off.

Limiting the cues that release the aggressive behavior would entail either never having the dog home alone and/or never allowing anyone to enter the dog’s space when no one is there to control the dog and the situation. Both the training and the eliminating the cues in combination will work but it also says loud and clear that you cannot trust your dog. This is a stressful situation for both owner and dog. The dog, being a perfect reader of body language, will know he is not trusted and so will be in a constant state of anxiety making for an increasingly bad dog/owner relationship.

What Should Not Be Done

Punishment is usually the first thing tried. The ‘thought’ process goes something like, if the dog is clobbered in some way when he attacks someone, he won’t do it again.

dog showing its teeth
Punishment for unwanted behavior is never recommended and can lead to a dog becoming more aggressive or defensive. (Justin F Woomer/ photo)

Two things are basically wrong with this ‘thinking.’ First, the punishment, also known as negative reinforcement, must be given within a second or less of the crime or the dog doesn’t associate the punishment with the crime. The correction hardly ever can be given in time so is practically useless. The second thing is the dog is highly agitated when aggressive behavior is happening and so is still concentrating on the bite victim when punishment finally arrives. The association the dog does make is the hurt from punishment is because of the person he is defending his space from. The bite victim becomes the cause for the punishment and so is a reason for more defensiveness toward this or any invader. This is totally counter-productive.

What Should Be Done

Everything that comes at a pup in his first six months sticks like Crazy Glue on your fingers and is chiseled in granite. If you want to modify the genetic directions a pup inherits, you must do it during this sponge period. This is the period when a dog’s innate aggressive behavior can be guided in the direction you want. The best way to get things running in your direction is enroll a pup in a good obedience course when the dog is about four months old. At least take the dog through a level one course that emphasises the positive direction with mild correction. One of the major things your pup will learn is how to greet people. Done correctly, though the dog might be a bit genetically heavy on the aggressive behavior toward people, the genetic influence can be mellowed out by learning that people are not bad things to allow into his space. Had the dog been given the basic obedience training and learned how to greet people, chances are the question of whether the dog should be euthanized would not have to be considered as a solution.

Three dogs playing
Socializing your dog with people and other dogs is an important part of their development and provides the opportunity for your dog to become properly balanced. (Kreminska/ photo)

If the natural inclination to be defensively aggressive is not anticipated and steps aren’t taken to modify it early, it could escalate into a world of hurt and a basic distrust between the dog and his person. If ten, one-hour obedience lessons spread over ten weeks with some homework between lessons can head off the problems, why not do it?  Both dog and handler will learn something.

For some reason, owners of hunting dogs, especially first timers, want to put more emphasis on getting the pup into birds, testing his pointing potential by flipping a wing on a string in front of him and always trying to increase his enthusiasm, desire, drive and other neat euphemisms. They pay little attention to basic obedience, putting it off until later when the dog has gotten out of control and learned a lot of bad things. Unleashed aggressive behavior is only one of the things that can happen.

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