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Working With Your Aggressive Dog

By: Renee Premaza, Dip.C.B., C.C.B.T

All dogs are capable of biting. Aggression is normal canine behavior. What provokes a dog to bite depends on his genetic makeup and what he's learned will work for him. Aggression is not curable. However, with behavior modification training, and sometimes with medication, we may be able to raise the dog's bite threshold so that he can handle more stress in his life without getting to the point of exploding.

You can think of your aggressive dog the way you would view an alcoholic. An alcoholic is always said to be in recovery. Once you begin to work with your dog, you should consider him also to be "in recovery" for the rest of his life.

If you decide to embark on helping your dog become a safer, happier companion pet, you must recognize that this will take time, patience and consistency. You must also recognize that if medication is indicated, this could be costly. Anytime we interact with an aggressive dog there are risks involved. If you have young children in your home, are you willing to put those children at risk? What would happen if one of your children's friends came to visit and your dog bit that child? You could be sued. Will you be able to teach your children how to properly interact with your dog so as not to provoke a biting incident? These are all things to consider if you want to make the commitment to rehabilitate your dog.

In many instances, while you work on modifying your dog's behavior, everyone who lives with your dog will also have to modify their behavior in order to prevent your dog from becoming reactive toward them, or to other people your dog will encounter in his life. While it may be heartbreaking to make this decision, you may have to consider euthanasia as a viable alternative. If you attempt treatment and it proves unsuccessful, euthanasia may be your only choice.

In order to teach your dog more appropriate behaviors to use in place of aggressive behaviors, you must prevent him from ever showing aggression again. Each time a dog practices aggression, he learns this is a very powerful strategy to use to avoid something negative or to get something he wants. To help your dog avoid showing aggression, you must avoid putting your dog into any situation that would trigger that response. Since stress is a huge factor in creating aggressive behavior, recognize situations that may cause your dog to feel stressed. Author and trainer Turid Rugaas has written a book called, On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals, published by Legacy By Mail, Inc, 1997. The following is a list of situations that stress dogs (Rugaas, p. 25):

Being threatened directly by us or other dogs Being exposed to violence, anger or aggression Jerking his leash, forcing him down, yanking on his collar to move him Making unrealistic demands on him in training and in life Over-exercising young dogs Not enough exercise and activity Hunger and thirst Not having access to outside potty area when necessary Temperature extremes Pain and illness Noise Being alone and feeling isolated Sudden and frightening situations Overstimulation from playing with balls or other dogs Always being disturbed and not getting enough down time Any sudden changes in his routine or his life The following is a list of indicators your dog might give when he is feeling stressed (Rugaas, p. 26):

Restlessness Over-reacting to something happening; i.e., doorbell, an approaching dog, etc. Scratching himself Biting himself Chewing on inedible items, such as furniture, shoes, etc. Barking, howling or whining Bouts of Diarrhea Dog smells bad, both mouth and bod Tenseness of muscles Sudden onset of dandruff and shedding Shaking Change of eye color Dog licks himself Tail chasing Raised hackles (piloerection) Constant panting Lack of concentration Shivering Loss of appetite Frequent urination/defecation Allergic reactions Fixating on certain stimuli; i.e, lights, flies, crackling firewood Appearing to be nervous Use of displacement behaviors You will benefit by being able to identify those calming signals dogs give when they are experiencing stress (Rugaas, pp. 5-14):

Turning of the head: Dog swiftly turns his head to the side and back or the head can be held to one side for awhile. Eyes shift from side to side while the dog's head remains still. Turning away: dog turns to the side or back Nose licking Freezing in place Walking slowly and using very slow movements Quick sits Quick downs: dog lies down with his belly to the ground Yawning Sniffing: quick movement with head down to the ground Splitting up: dog goes between people or other dogs Wagging tail Finally, you will recognize the following signs of aggression as preludes to a possible biting incident (The Canine Aggression Workbook, by James O'Heare, published by Gentle Solutions, 2001, p. 13):

Growling Snapping Lunging Snarling (lips raised and teeth bared) Barking furiously Staring Piloerection (raised hackles) Stiff, high tail wag Dilated pupils Freezing in place Dog closes his mouth prior to biting
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