But success depends entirely on these factors:
1. The right methods used (more on that below).
2. The history of the dog (how intense the aggression is, how long the aggression has gone on for, etc.).
3. Committing to make change happen.
Creating a Dog Aggression Treatment Plan
Creating a plan is not as difficult as it may seem when you have the right information and support. Unfortunately some techniques, or performing techniques incorrectly can either slow down progress or in some cases make your dog worse.
Behavior modification is a very important technique but if it is not carried out correctly it can cause problems (see the blog post The importance of getting your dog’s attention at the earliest stage of aggressive arousal for one example). Much of the time we fail because we either got second-hand information or incomplete information on what is involved. It is more complex than simply giving your dog a treat when they are exposed to the thing they are aggressive towards.
A normal dog might be able to cope with methods that rely on scare tactics, pain, discomfort or intimidation but they can cause additional problems for a dog who has shown any kind of aggressive behavior (see more on 5 treatment methods to avoid). When that happens many people don’t know where to turn. Some consider euthanasia, others rehoming.
That’s why it is critical to find the right treatment plan for your dog right away; one that is designed to actually improve the life of your dog and keep those around safe. With a good treatment plan that is based on science (and not charisma and story telling), and getting support either from a support-group if your problem is not too serious or from a good professional who can help, it is usually possible to improve your dog’s behavior.
Treatment and management: 3 main areas for changing aggression in dogs:
There are three clusters involved in treating aggression that should be, although are not always, considered.
The three areas could be broadly grouped into psychological, cognitive and physical, but they all overlap and blend in together. In these areas we are not considering past experiences, because we can’t change the past. However, this is, in part, what behavior modification can tackle.
Cognitive and Learning
1. Behavior modification and training for an aggressive dog
Through behavior modification, (learn more about what is behaviour modification) you can change how an aggressive dog responds to certain situations. Behavior modification is the primary place people start out (although this may be the least effective place to start) and most behavior can not change without it.
A retraining, or relearning program should offer a systematic – and positive – approach to changing your dog’s behavior. And while you may consult a trainer or behaviorist, you are ultimately the one who will carry out the program with your dog so it is important you understand what is involved and you have the support you need to carry it our effectively.
Recommendations should include some easy to implement passive practices that teach your dog to sit, and look and wait for cues on what he should be doing next. These programs sometimes called Foundation or Deference Training as well as Relaxation Training help you and your dog prepare for more targeted and direct behavior modification.
Targeted Behavior Modification for dogs is built on these foundation exercises. They need preparation before they deal with their fears or anxieties. These exercises then enable you to work with your dog to reduce his or her anxiety that leads to the aggression. This important work is often skipped or rushed through simply because people don’t understand exactly why it is so important. In addition there are other exercises that you can practice with your dog that will help them develop better self-control over their emotions. This too, makes behavior modification much easier and more effective.
While targeted behavior modification is one of the most important parts of any program, it is often where people fail because people have not been taught:
- How to plan a complete treatment program to ensure you dog is set up for success.
- How to recognize clear warning signs that your dog communicates telling you how slow or fast to proceed.
- What else you can so besides behavior modification to make things much easier.
- How to avoid the traps and pitfalls that go hand in hand with any training program.
Humans grossly under-estimate the needs of dogs.
Changing things in your dog’s life is often on the most over-looked addition for improving issues with an aggressive dog. Reducing stress, developing a more positive relationship between us and out animals, reducing and even eliminating species-typical frustration and so on, all of these are key to a happy well-adjusted dog.
For a dog who is showing signs of inappropriate aggression, these considerations are extremely important. Boredom, unnecessary stress, unpredictable change, anxieties, confusion conflicts and frustration can make the best of us difficult to deal with. Sadly, much of what we do contribute to this in the lives of our dogs.
This might include a change in diet, or where you walk your dog for exercise or how you greet guests in the home. It may even include changing what your dog plays with.
Most importantly, it involves preventing your dog to further behave aggressively. Each time your dog has the opportunity to behave aggressively, their brain becomes more and more effective at it.
From diet to exercise to health, all of the physical elements of our dog can and will effect our dog’s behavior and mental health. Getting your dog checked out by your vet is one of the first things we recommend. But pain and sickness is one things, exercise and diet can have a direct influence on aggression, too.
Medication on the one hand seems like a quick fix (if it worked that way). On the other hand people are afraid of it, afraid of how it might change or “drug” our dog. Understandably some of us worry even more than we would ourselves, because our dogs can;t tell us what they’re feeling.
The dogs that need medication for aggression need it in order for behavior modification to be effective. Dogs that need it are actually different and are often far too anxious to be able to learn properly. Medications might help these aggressive dogs to think more normally, be less reactive and can help them learn better. It can also help some dogs be less impulsive and allows a moment before acting aggressively to assess the situation or to gain self-control. Without the medication these dogs are more likely to resort to aggression that much more quickly. Learn more about medications used for treating dog aggression.
There are few medicines designed specifically for treating dog aggression. But there are many medicines that help normalize a dog’s chemistry and are used to help treat the underlying causes of aggression. These should be prescribed by a vet. However, medications do not work alone and there must be a behavior modification plan in place in order to see real change. As much as other factors impact aggression, dogs learn to be anxious in some situations and aggression becomes a fall back way to cope.
How Likely Is It That Dog Aggression Can Be Successfully Treated?
Behavior clinics such as University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine have a very high success rate with 90% of aggressive patients improve to the extent that the owners are happy to keep them. (We do not have any verified data on other behaviorists or trainers success rates).
We also don’t know how much of these owners have accepted their dog’s issues and have just decided to manage the aggression by avoiding it altogether rather than improve the aggression. But what the numbers suggest is that there is hope that you can enjoy life with your dog provided you take steps to keep everyone safe.
The challenge is that there can be a long waiting list to get an appointment with these clinics. But there are things you can do immediately.
If you are interested in learning more about what you can do to treat dog aggression, check out the e-book, The Dog Aggression System Every Dog Owner Needs. It will give you suggestions on how to live with an aggressive dog on a day-to-day basis as well as provide you with a number of options and considerations that can help you help your dog.
Should you avoid the circumstances that cause your dog to be aggressive?
In a short answer: yes! This is the safest way to manage aggression!
But the more complex answer is that what you actually want to avoid is the actual aggression rather than the circumstances. Initially you want to avoid the circumstances because your dog’s attitude and behavior has not be modified or changed in any way. As you go through a behavior modification program, the goal is to reduce your dog’s reactivity and anxiety around those circumstances. Aggression is simply a by-product.
Is punishment a good option to stop aggression if it happens?
No. Not only can it be dangerous and can contribute to greater aggression long-term. See the world worst dog aggression advice for more. Certainly we do not want to inhibit any of the warning signs such as growling, because the warning signs are infinitely preferable to biting.
Ideally you avoid the aggression, but if you are walking your dog, or you are doing behavior modification and you misjudge how calm you dog is, you need to be able to prevent biting and move your dog away as quickly as possible.
You are better off fitting your dog for a head halter such as the Gentle Leader (see how to fit your dog with a Gentle Leader like a pro). This head halter gives you a lot of control over your dog’s head and allows you to close their mouth when used correctly, and steer your dog away. If you can distract them with treats or a toy. Don’t worry, this does not “reward” aggression. The so-called reward for aggression is being able to be aggressive in the first place because it provides relief from anxiety.
Other articles you might be interested in
 Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals, Karen L. Overall, M.A., V.M.D., Ph.D. Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Behavior, Department of Clinical Studies, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. Pennsylvania, Mosby, Inc. 1997