A Trainer's Perspective: Understanding -- and changing -- dog aggression

Aggression is one of the most common, and serious, behaviors found in a man’s best friend. Growling, snarling, lunging, baring teeth, and biting are all alarming signs of aggressive behavior. While this behavior can be upsetting for dog owners, it is crucial to go the extra mile to learn the reason for the aggression, understand what the dog is trying to communicate, and know how to solve the problem.

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Merritt Milam is founder and owner of Wags N Whiskers in Homewood. (Photo courtesy Merritt Milam)

My favorite types of dogs to work with at Wags 'N Whiskers are those who struggle with aggressive tendencies. This form of training is more challenging and must be approached in a different way. In order to undo the negative behaviors found in aggressive dogs, you have to work backward. There is no clean slate with aggressive dogs.

When you work backward from the problem source, you get such a different dog as a result – you first see the disastrous outcome that has resulted from their aggression, then you see what they can become after working with them. You can potentially save a dog from going to a shelter or being thrown out on the streets – when addressing this problem behavior, you’re truly making a tremendous difference in that dog’s life. Furthermore, aggressive dogs tend to be fearful of their owners in the beginning, so it’s extremely rewarding to see the owner and dog ultimately develop a deep, trusting bond throughout training.

Positive reinforcement training, which I discussed in my last article for Animal Advocates of Alabama, is the only training method that should be used when working with aggressive dogs. Punishment almost always makes the issue worse and can make your canine more intimidated and afraid, which will ultimately lead to intensified aggressive behavior.

While dogs can display a variety of aggressive behaviors, recognizing the specific type of aggression your dog possesses is paramount to solving the problem. Fear-motivated aggression, protective aggression and redirected aggression are the three common types of aggressive behavior.

While I’ve worked on numerous aggressive dogs' cases, there is one in particular I am most proud of. During a bout of inclement weather a few winters ago, some pet owners invited a few friends to their home to wait out the hazardous storm. The guests were told to not to let the family’s dog out of the basement because he was known to be territorial. While the owners had never had a serious issue with their dog, he had shown aggressive tendencies in the past. Unfortunately, the dog was accidently let out of the basement and – almost out of nowhere – bit the guest’s leg, leaving a level three bite, bruising and breaking the skin. The bite was unprovoked as the woman did not display any threatening behaviors toward the dog; he simply bit her because of his territorial tendencies.

The owners did not want to euthanize their beloved pet, so they considered finding him a new home so he wouldn’t harm their young children. Desperate for a solution, the owners eventually brought their dog to me for training. During his initial exam, he displayed bizarre behavior and had no confidence. The owners expressed their concern that they felt like he wouldn’t listen to them, and that he always seemed to be protecting the house by running around and aggressively barking. For six weeks, I trained the dog at the family’s home, and throughout that training period I saw him transform into a different dog. In six weeks of basic training, the dog's owners learned to communicate to their dog that they are the one’s responsible for protecting him, not the other way around.

This brings to mind a common theme with aggressive dogs -- they usually have a leadership issue and a confidence problem, as their overprotection is rooted in fear. Fear-induced aggression stems from when your dog is on the defense because he is fearful of the situation at hand. Protective aggression stems from a dog’s need to protect, or from feeling territorial over something he views as his own. Redirected aggression results from when a dog redirects his aggression onto someone or something that he wasn’t initially trying to attack.

Aggressive behavior is a hot topic in the Birmingham community right now because of breed specific legislation, which qualifies that certain breeds portray dangerous and aggressive behavior. Aggressive behaviors can be found in any and all types of breeds, and should generally be handled in a similar manner. It is important to always understand why this type of behavior is being triggered and to find ways to change the dog’s response. Each case is drastically different, so training can widely vary. While animal aggression is not fixable, it is manageable, and all dogs should have the opportunity to work past their aggressive tendencies toward positive, rewarding behavior.

Contact trainer Merritt Milam via email at Merritt@wagshomewood.com.

Merritt Milam

Merritt Milam, is the founder and head trainer at Wags ‘n Whiskers, a comprehensive pet care facility that is located in the heart of Homewood, Ala. She is an Animal Behavior College certified dog trainer with an accreditation in pet psychology.

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