How To Safely Manage Aggressive Behavior
By Anthony De Marinis, CDBC, ADT, CBATI, VSPDT, VSA-DT
Most of my work is working with dogs who have behavior issues, most of that being aggression. Some owners knowingly adopt or purchase a dog who displays aggressive behavior (growling, lunging, biting), while other dog owners have no idea until problems start to occur and manifest or until an incident happens.
In both situations, dog owners genuinely want to help their dog. There are no “cures” for issues such as aggression, but we can implement behavior modification protocols, strategies and management techniques to help modify the issue(s) of concern to make things better for the dog and their owner. (Click here to learn more about behavior modification is.)
In order to keep everyone safe one of the first steps to a well-structured behavior modification program is MANAGEMENT.
What Is Management?
One of my favorite descriptions of management is from the book “Behavior Adjustment Training 2.0: New Practical Techniques for Fear, Frustration and Aggression in Dogs”, by Grisha Stewart, MA. In the book, Grisha describes management as “Changing your dog’s environment to make it impossible or unlikely that he’ll do the unwanted behavior(s) you do not want him to do.”
So, our goal is to manage triggering events (things that trigger or cause our dog to display the behaviors of concern) so that we can prevent reactions and incidents from occurring. This will further help modify the dog’s behavior(s). Here are some further descriptions of what I mean by management.
- Setting up the environment so that your dog can’t practice unwanted behaviors. For example, if your dog looks out the window and barks all day long, then block the windows so your dog does not have access to the window.
- Giving your dog the opportunity to be successful by removing triggers or creating distance between the triggers.
- Avoid placing your dog in situations that can cause aggressive behavior, reactive behavior, fear, anxiety, or stress.
- Taking control of situations in order to help your dog be successful.
- Using specific equipment and tools to ensure safety such as:
- A leash or multiple leashes
- Secure harness and/or head halter
- Using a muzzle
- Safety barriers like secure baby gates and/or a physical fence.
These tips DO NOT replace a strategic behavior modification plan. Always remember, I suggest you hire a qualified behavior consultant who uses positive reinforcement-based techniques to help you and your dog.
So now that I have explained what management is, lets jump into some helpful tips!
- Identify the triggers! Figuring out what causes your dog to display aggressive behavior will be crucial. This can be the sight of a person or dog, a visitor entering the home, someone reaching towards the dog’s food bowl while eating etc. An easy way to identify the trigger(s) is to write down all the incidents that have occurred. Be as specific as you can. Think about the details: How the incident began, what occurred and how it ended. Working with a behavior consultant, you will be able to identify triggers so that you can implement an appropriate behavior modification plan and management strategies.
- Set-up time to work with and train your dog. Make sure to set-up time to practice and work on your behavior modification exercises with your dog. These practice sessions should be meant to be positive learning experiences for your dog. Your goal should be to keep your dog below threshold so that no reactions occur. The purpose of practice sessions should be to give your dog the opportunity to learn and process everything in order to become successful. Practice sessions do not need to be long. They can be a few quick minutes.
- Don’t expose your dog to situations which your dog is likely to display aggressive or reactive behavior. Exposing your dog uncontrolled situations can make behavior issues worse. Instead, come up with a list of new things to do with your dog in those specific situations. This could mean placing your dog in a secure area of the house when visitors are over, or placing your dog on a leash. This will depend on your specific situation. Your behavior consultant will be able to advise you further.
- Punishing your dog can worsen behaviors such as fear, anxiety, stress, reactivity and aggression. Punishment includes: yelling or scolding, physical punishment, intimidation and fear tactics, leash corrections, the use of harsh tools like chokers, prong collars and shock collars. Taking these types of approaches can cause behaviors, even unrelated behaviors, to get worse. Instead, start teaching your dog what to do. Reward behaviors you like, reward behaviors you ask your dog for and reward good behavior your dog offers instead!
- Do not use unsafe training equipment. Using equipment like retractable leashes, chokers, prong collars and shock collars can cause your dog and others to get hurt. Keep everyone safe by using equipment such as a 6ft or 8ft leash, and a secure harness such as the Freedom Harness or Balance Harness. Other safety equipment that can be considered is a martingale collar, head halter such as a Halti Head Collar or even a muzzle. Your behavior consultant can help make specific recommendations to you.
- Do not go to the dog park or allow your dog off leash if your dog is aggressive, reactive, or fearful. Instead play with your dog in a securely fenced area such as a backyard, a sports court at a park that has a lock, or any other private area that is secure so that your dog and others are safe. One my recommendations to my clients is to use an app called Sniffspot, which allows dog owners to rent people’s backyards for a low-cost fee. It is like the Airbnb for dogs! Many of these yards are fenced, which can be a great option for those who need a safe secure location. Make sure before renting a space, you make sure it is fully fenced. When inquiring, you should also ask how tall the fence is, as some medium and large breeds can climb or scale fences believe it or not. https://www.sniffspot.com/
- Pay attention to the environment and your dog. Do not talk on the phone, listen to music or stop and chat with others. Instead, pay attention to your environment and your dog. Observe your dog’s behavior and body language. Look for signals that may cause your dog to react. Is your dog becoming aroused? Is your dog becoming hypervigilant, stressed, or anxious?
- Do not let people greet or touch your dog if your dog does not like enjoy this. Avoid places and situations that may be problematic for your dog such as family gatherings, a busy trail or walking in town. If your dog does not like being greeted or reacts towards people in an aggressive way, then do not allow people to approach and greet your dog. And if your dog does not like being greeted by other dogs, then do not allow it either. It can make things worse for your dog and it can cause harm to the greeter, be it a person or dog. Depending on if this is an issue inside your home or out on a walk will depend upon the safety equipment that might be suggested to help safely manage this situation. Speak with your behavior consultant about this.
- Two layers of safety is always better! One of the most important take pieces of information for you should be this: Two layers of safety is always best! Two layers of safety means literally having two layers of safety! If one layer of safety fails, then there is another in place. This will depend on the specific aggressive issues you are dealing with. Example include: using a crate, locking doors, putting up secure bolting baby gates in the wall, using a muzzle, attaching your dog to a tether etc.
- Home Entrances: If your dog displays aggressive behavior when people enter the home, make sure to keep your doors locked so that friends, family and other visitors do not walk in unannounced so that an accident occurs.
- Give Visitors Instructions: Have a sign posted on your front door with instructions to call or text you when the visitor has arrived so that you can have your dog safely managed and so that you are prepared. Prior to the visitors arrival, give them specific instructions to prevent mistakes from occurring.
- Baby Gates and Barriers: When using baby gates and barriers make sure they are securely bolted in the wall or door frame. Pressurized gates are typically not strong enough to keep your dog contained. Also make sure the baby gate or barrier is tall enough that your dog cannot climb or scale it. I always recommend getting extra tall metal baby gates which are usually 4 feet tall. In some cases you may need to place a second baby gate above the first one so that it is double the height. In other cases, owners may have a contractor custom build a sturdy gate or barrier that can be bolted on hinges with a secure lock.
- Muzzle Training: There is a bad stigma out in the world about a dog wearing a muzzle. However, muzzles are safety tool that needs to be used in many situations to prevent people and/or other animals from getting injured. The first thing is to learn about the different types of muzzles on the market so that you have one that is safe and secure for your dog. Most behavior professionals recommend basket muzzles (or muzzles similar to these) because they do not restrict your dog from drinking, eating or panting. To learn more about the importance of muzzles click here. Down below in the “Helpful Resources” section you will find many helpful resources on muzzles, muzzle training and the different types of muzzles.
- Tethering: Tethering a dog can be used as a layer of safety to keep your dog secure. I do not suggest just randomly tethering your dog up without training your dog to become comfortable with the tether. If you do not train your dog to become comfortable with the tether it could add additional stress and discomfort. Your behavior professional can help you determine if tethering is a good idea and if so, how to properly train your dog to become comfortable with the tether. There are a few ways to tether. At the end of the day you want to make sure you tether your dog to some place that is strong enough and secure enough. For large or powerful dogs, I suggest bolting an i-hook to a stud in the wall. Most people bolt the i-hook to the base or floor molding. There are also tethers called “Door Stop Tethers” designed to slip under a door which can be another option.
- Schedule fun time with your dog. Do not solely focus on just your behavior modification program. You can come up with a list of things your dog enjoys so that you can provides daily quality time with your dog. This can be cuddling together, physical exercise, training time or even a dog sport. Remember provide enjoyable activities with your dog as this is very important for your relationship together as a team.
- Additional Safety Equipment & “Safety Stations”: Discuss with your behavior consultant what types of emergency or safety equipment you might need to have on hand to prevent or break up an incident. You may also want to discuss having what I call “Safety Stations” with this equipment readily available around the home, backyard or attached to you on a walk in the event something happens.
To help you further I have complied a few helpful resources below. Based on your specific situation your behavior consultant will be able to advise you with additional helpful materials.
- Muzzle Up Project: How to choose the correct muzzle for your dog
- The importance of muzzle training
- Everything you need to know about muzzles
- How to train your dog to wear a muzzle
- How to feed your dog through a muzzle
- How to prepare for your aggression consultation
- Understanding Canine Body Language
- Canine Body Language Webinar Series by ASPCA
- Keeping your dog safe on a walk
- Dog bite prevention in your home
- The use of dominance in behavior modification by AVSAB
- Harmful effects to using choke chains and prong collars
- Effects with the use of electric collars by AABS
- Dog training tips for success
How should you choose a qualified professional?
The dog training and behavior industry is not regulated in the United States. This makes it very hard for dog owners, rescues, veterinarians and others to find help from qualified professionals. There are however, credible sources and organizations out there spreading the word about how to find a qualified behavior consultant and how to get help. Here are three links from credible sources on how to choose a professional behavior consultant.
About Anthony De Marinis
Anthony De Marinis is the owner of De Marinis Dog Training & Behavior and provides comprehensive in-home behavior consultations and positive reinforcement dog training services across Long Island, NY. (Online Virtual Consultations for aggression and behavior modification are also available for clients who are both local and out of state.) His specialty is working with complex aggression and behavior cases. Anthony has 7 professional certifications which include: Certified Dog Behavior Consultant from the International Association for Animal Behavior Consultants, Accredited Dog Trainer by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, Certified Graduate of distinction from the Victoria Stilwell Academy for Dog Training & Behavior, Certified Behavior Adjustment Trainer, Certified Victoria Stilwell Licensed Positively Dog Trainer, The Third Way Certified Trainer and is a Fear Free Certified Animal Trainer. Currently, Anthony has a young Australian Kelpie named Journey. They are learning about agility and sheep herding. You can visit Anthony’s website and learn more about him and his services at: www.demarinisdogtraining.com