By Anthony De Marinis, CDBC, ADT, LFDM, FFCP, VSA-DT
Living with a dog who displays aggressive behavior is stressful and creates challenges. Dogs may show signs of aggressive behavior from an early age or develop aggressive behavior over time. Sometimes dog owners don’t realize that their dog has a behavior problem, or may not recognize the behavioral signs that indicate an issue. Others notice behavior concerns, but they feel it is “not that bad” or that “it is a phase and will pass with time”. And some dog owners know: their dog has a problem.
With rare exceptions, dog owners really care about their dog. Most don’t know how to go about addressing their dog’s behavior issues. Unfortunately, waiting or not addressing concerns appropriately frequently causes aggressive behavior to become worse. The consequences can be heartbreaking and life changing, i.e. the dog might injure a person or other animal, with serious consequences for all involved.
This article will explain options for owners of an aggressive dog. Because every dog is different, and there are many reasons for canine aggressive behaviors, creating a proper behavior modification plan can be complex. Understanding your options as explained in this article will help you navigate life with your challenging dog.
Aggressive Behavior Explained
Aggression represents a spectrum of behaviors, ranging from minor posturing to serious and dangerous attacks. Aggressive behaviors typically occur when a dog is feeling threatened, fearful, stressed, anxious, conflicted/concerned, protective, overstimulated, frustrated, angry or in pain. Dogs typically display aggressive behaviors to warn, intimidate, defend/protect and/or cause harm. In effect, aggressive behaviors serve the function of increasing distance from or cause harm to a perceived threat or danger. Aggressive behaviors range from warning signals to overt behaviors which include, but are not limited to: lifting the lip; growling; baring teeth; snarling; lunging; muzzle punching (bumping or punching with a closed mouth); air snapping (biting the air); biting without causing injury; and biting while causing injury (to various degrees). To learn about aggressive behavior in more detail, click here.
Important Preliminary Considerations
When hiring a professional to help you (whether a certified behavior trainer, your regular veterinarian, or a veterinary behaviorist), you should discuss the risks and prognosis in your initial consultation. Some dogs who display aggressive behavior do well because their families know how to manage their dog appropriately so that no one is harmed, while others have responsibly hired professional help and have implemented the recommended behavior modification protocols to help their dog. Other families may find that their dog is too much of a risk for them and their lifestyle. Important questions for anyone who owns a dog with aggressive behavior include:
- Is my dog a danger to me and my family?
- Can I safely contain, manage and/or work with my dog in the situations that the aggressive behaviors are a problem?
- Can I safely manage, confine and/or work with my dog when I have visitors over my house?
- Am I willing to consistently implement safety and management strategies, such as wearing a muzzle, putting up safety barriers in my home, and recognizing and avoiding situations that will trigger my dog’s aggressive behaviors?
- Is my dog a danger to my child(ren) or their friends?
- Am I willing to make the necessary lifestyle changes that may be needed to keep my dog and others safe?
- If you have other animals living in your home: what is their quality of life? Are the other animals at risk, physically, emotionally, psychologically?
- Are my dog’s behaviors affecting my family to the point we no longer enjoy his company?
- Do my lifestyle and living environment give my dog the opportunity to live a happy, fulfilled and safe life?
- If management fails and my dog becomes loose, will a family member, visitor, neighbor, child or another animal become seriously injured or worse?
What are your options?
- Seek assistance and advice from a qualified dog trainer or behavior consultant
- Consult your Primary Veterinarian
- Consult a Fear Free Certified Veterinarian or
- Consult a Board-Certified Veterinary Behaviorist
- Return your dog to where he came from or
- Rehome your dog to a private home, to a responsible rescue or sanctuary and,
- in more difficult and serious situations, consider humane behavioral euthanasia.
Navigating these options and finding the right professional may seem overwhelming, but following these guidelines will help your decision making.
Finding a Qualified Dog Trainer and Behavior Consultant
The first option is to receive help from a qualified dog trainer or dog behavior consultant. It is important to note that not all dog trainers and behavior consultants work with (or are qualified to work with) dogs who exhibit aggressive behavior.
As a general rule, a qualified behavior consultant who provides a comprehensive behavior evaluation will:
- Gather a thorough history and information about your dog.
- Identify the issues occurring, why those issues occur and the potential outcome and prognosis of the specific situation.
- Review any video footage that you may have that can be taken safely and without provoking any issues or has been previously recorded (i.e. security cam)
- Create a safety and management plan. (Management means setting up the environment in a way to prevent the opportunity for behaviors to occur. Examples of management include choosing the right equipment to use with your dog, training your dog to wear a muzzle, implementing barriers or tether systems, and having safety stations around the house).
- Implement behavior modification and training strategies. Behavior modification plans typically implement strategies that address and change your dog’s behavioral and emotional response towards the stimuli (also known as triggers) that cause their behavior. Behavior modification plans also may involve teaching your dog alternative behaviors and skills to help address the behaviors of concern.
- Your behavior consultant may also make recommendations to speak to a veterinarian, board-certified veterinary behaviorist or other veterinary specialist depending on the specific situation.
- Some behavior consultants, especially those who specialize in aggression, offer consultations to discuss difficult situations such as returning or rehoming a dog, sending the dog to a rescue or sanctuary, or in the most extreme situations, humane behavioral euthanasia. These conversations and decisions are difficult for both the families and the professional.
Your behavior consultant should not judge you, and should be open and honest in helping you explore your options through this process. Because you are seeking help to make a responsible decision for yourself and your dog, you should ask your behavior consultant if this is something they have experience with before hiring them. To learn more about what a consultation for a challenging situation or difficult decision consists of, click here.
In-Person vs. Virtual: What is right for you?
In this Covid era, many dog trainers and behavior consultants offer both in person and/or virtual options. You should choose what you feel most comfortable with. You can receive an in-person evaluation at your home or the consultant’s facility, or schedule a virtual comprehensive consultation through platforms like Zoom. To learn more about virtual consultations for aggression, how they work and if they are right for you, take a look at this blog by clicking here.
What is behavior modification? Can it help aggressive behavior?
Behavior modification is a treatment approach that dog trainers and behavior consultants use to change undesirable behaviors. Behavior modification can address a broad range of aggressive behaviors. A behavior modification program typically combines multiple elements, including counter conditioning and desensitization, training skills, teaching alternative behaviors, and management and safety strategies.
How to find a Certified Dog Trainer or Behavior Consultant
Because there are no regulations for the dog training and behavior industry, anyone can call themselves a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, behavior specialist, behaviorist or aggression specialist. When looking for a qualified dog trainer and behavior consultant it is important to find someone who uses a positive reinforcement based approach and follows the guidelines of Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive (known as LIMA). The best way to find both qualified trainers and behavior consultants is through independent certifying professional organizations. Even with professional certifications, it is important to ask the trainer or behavior consultant whether they are experienced working with aggressive behavior.
To learn more about choosing a qualified dog trainer or behavior consultant, see this link provided by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB).
These links below, are of the two most highly regarded certifying organizations in the United States. On each of their websites you will be able to search for a qualified professional:
Your trainer may recommend that you consult a veterinarian, or you may notice physical or other signs that suggest a medical cause for the dog’s behavior. Some veterinarians are experienced with aggressive behavior in dogs, while others are not. Just as you would with a dog trainer and behavior consultant, you should ask the veterinarian if she has the requisite experience and education to help your dog.
Seeking help from your veterinarian can be essential, especially if your dog’s aggressive behavior is “new”, has started “out of nowhere”, or increasingly worsened. Your vet will be able to provide a thorough exam, check for pain, or illness, and check blood work to search for medical issues that might be causing or contributing to your dog’s behaviors. Your vet may suggest specific natural supplements or prescription medication to address the behavioral concerns. Your veterinarian may also suggest you seek help from a specialist such as a Board-Certified Veterinary Behaviorist, Internist, Neurologist, Rehab and Pain Management Specialist or other specialist to help figure out what might be causing your dog’s behavior change. Because aggressive behaviors can occur due to medical concerns (including, but are not limited to neurological issues, undiagnosed illness, thyroid issues, infections and undiagnosed pain), a medical evaluation is important, particularly in situations of new or changing behaviors.
Fear Free Certified Veterinarians
Fear Free Certified veterinarians pass a rigorous credentialing so that they and their staff provide safe, efficient and stress-free appointments to their patients. Some of these veterinarians also have behavior management and behavior medication expertise and can be a helpful resource for families struggling with their dog’s aggressive behavior. To search for a Fear Free Certified Veterinarian near you, click here.
Board-Certified Veterinary Behaviorist
More complex or severe aggression cases are most appropriately evaluated by a board-certified Veterinary Behaviorist. These veterinarians specialize in working with dogs of all ages with behavior issues. Some Vet Behaviorists now offer virtual consultations in addition to in-person.
The Vet Behaviorist can:
- Recommend a Safety & Management Plan
- Recommend Behavior Modification & Training strategies
- Prescribe behavioral medication
- Recommend a dog trainer and/or behavior consultant
- Recommend specific physical exams and blood panels that your primary veterinarian can perform, or recommend an additional specialist when appropriate
- Counsel families on difficult decisions such as rehoming a dog, sending them to a rescue or sanctuary, and humane behavioral euthanasia for more serious issues.
To find a Board-Certified Veterinary Behaviorist near you, here are two helpful links:
When a veterinary evaluation (primary, Fear Free or Veterinary Behaviorist) is needed, your dog trainer or behavior consultant should communicate with the doctor via email or phone to discuss the presenting concerns, observations and current behavior plan. The information and observations provided by the dog trainer or behavior consultant can provide valuable information and background for the veterinarian, and can assist in creating a successful treatment plan.
Returning, Rehoming, Rescues and Sanctuaries
In some situations a dog is not a good fit in his current home, and simply changing the home can sometimes eliminate the causes of the dog’s aggressive behavior. For example:
- The dog might not be comfortable with the family’s children, or the family is expecting a baby;
- The dog poses a threat to other animals in the same environment (including resident animals or neighborhood animals);
- The dog is extremely uncomfortable with visitors in a “social” home with frequent visitors
In situations where a dog poses a threat, is unpredictable towards others or displays serious aggressive behavior to his owners, the considerations become more complex.
When, despite a family’s best efforts assisted by the efforts of appropriate consultants, their dog is not a good fit in his current environment, their options include returning their dog; privately rehoming their dog; or placing their dog with a rescue or sanctuary equipped to work with the dog’s issues. This is a difficult decision for most owners, but when even after appropriate training and advice from qualified professionals the aggression issues cannot be safely addressed, it is the safest and most responsible decision to make for both the owner and the dog. When faced with this situation, it is ethically and legally imperative that you fully disclose all concerns, and provide the contact information and reports from the professionals you have consulted.
Returning to the Breeder, Rescue or Shelter
If you acquired your dog from a responsible breeder, rescue or shelter, you should contact them and explain in detail the issues you are having. They are usually willing to take the dog back and find a more appropriate placement. That being said, if you feel that they will not do well by your dog or you feel like they will not responsibly or ethically place your dog in the right situation, then it is best to look into other options such as:
- rescues that take in and rehome dogs who simply need a different type of home;
- rescues that specialize in specific breeds (these rescues often have a large network of people who can often find a more appropriate fit for your dog);
- rescues that specialize and have experience with dogs with behavior issues.
Placing your dog with someone you know who likes your dog and is equipped to keep the dog and others safe, is often the best option.
If you plan to find a new home for your dog on your own, even after rehoming the dog you could be legally liable if the dog injures a person or animal. If your dog has a history of displaying aggressive behavior or biting, you should consider retaining an attorney to draft a letter for liability and safety reasons that clearly states :
- the behavior concerns;
- the reasons and situations your dog displays the aggressive behavior;
- all aggressive incidents that have occurred;
- any additional language as recommended by the attorney.
Providing this information in writing will give the new owner/family a document to review so that they understand what they are undertaking, and will protect you if the dog causes harm in the future when no longer under your care.
Ethical considerations of rehoming a dog
Although rehoming a dog may be a good decision from the family’s perspective, you should consider whether rehoming is ethically and morally responsible, especially if your dog has a history of biting or displaying other serious concerns. Rehoming a dog should not be a way to avoid dealing with the dog’s issues. Rehoming a dog does not mean that his aggressive behavior will stop. The new owner will be taking on those behavior concerns and responsibility. Rehoming a dog with a history of known behavior concerns or bites not only puts the new owner at risk, but also the community (neighbors, neighborhood kids, neighborhood pets). If you rehome your dog knowing the dog could pose a threat to the new owner and/or community, this becomes ethically and morally problematic, you are not doing the best thing for the dog, and you could be held legally liable if an adverse event occurs.
Sanctuaries are generally places for dogs who cannot safely be placed in a home and are often considered by families who are out of options, but feel that they cannot humanely euthanize their dog. Most sanctuaries have a long wait list and may require a substantial donation to cover the cost of caring for the dog.
Some sanctuaries are well run, carefully managed, ensure safety of staff and animals, and provide a good quality of life (physically and mentally) for animals, including appropriate physical space and social interactions with staff. Unfortunately, some are overcrowded, understaffed, and the dogs live in social isolation in small kennel spaces, providing poor quality of life and welfare concerns. If you consider the sanctuary option, you should research carefully before relinquishing your dog.
Humane Behavioral Euthanasia
Humane behavioral euthanasia is a controversial and painful topic. Professionals who are experienced with severe behavior problems make this recommendation only in extreme cases, such as when the prognosis for success is poor; the dog’s behaviors endanger the lives of the family, other animals, or the community; the dog cannot be safely rehomed; or if the dog is mentally suffering. The term “humane” is used, because the dog is allowed to pass peacefully, usually with the owner present.
Sometimes owners feel judged by others who do not agree with this decision or have never been through this process. At the end of the day, only the owner lives with the dog and is responsible for the fallout of the dog’s aggressive behaviors. Most owners who make this decision, do so out of deep love for their dog: they cannot keep their dog safely; they will not “pass the buck” so that someone else is injured or has to make the hard decision; they take responsibility for the dog’s best interests; and they choose to allow their dog to pass peacefully.
Most owners who consider behavioral euthanasia have spent significant time and money trying to help their dog; have experienced the emotional toll of the effort to keep their dog out of trouble; and have adjusted their lives and their homes to protect their dog as well as others. Many of these owners have watched their dog’s quality of life suffer, because of safety concerns and restrictions. Owners considering this deeply love and care about their dog. For a loving dog owner, nothing is more difficult than considering this decision. Sadly, sometimes (contrary to what we would like to believe), love is not enough to fix severe behavior issues, regardless of why they occur.
If your dog has become dangerous and you have no other options, an honest and open discussion with a qualified behavior professional (behavior consultant, vet behaviorist or primary veterinarian) can help you consider whether behavioral euthanasia is the choice you should make for your dog. These conversations and decisions are not easy for families, nor are they easy for your behavior professional who is consulting you on this topic. Dog trainers, behavior consultants and veterinarians love animals. It is why they are in the field in the first place. But sometimes they will need to help guide families to make the most responsible decisions not only for the owners, but for the dog.
Veterinarians typically understand the issues, stresses and difficulties that your dog is both experiencing and causing, and will help a dog to transition peacefully. Some veterinarians also offer in-home humane behavioral euthanasia services.
If behavioral euthanasia is something you are considering, reading about the stories and experiences from others can be helpful. Here are some stories from those who had to make this difficult decision:
Living with a dog who displays aggressive behavior is difficult. It can be emotionally and physically draining, it can affect the relationship between the dog and owner, it can affect the relationship between the family and friends, and it can affect and limit the way the owner lives. The best solution for yourself, your loved ones and your dog is to seek the help of a qualified professional so that you can learn how to help your dog. The most important thing to know is that you are not alone. There are many families who are also dealing with their dog’s aggressive behavior. Searching for help and learning about what your options are is the first step in successfully addressing your dog’s concerns.
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About Anthony De Marinis
Anthony De Marinis specializes in working with dogs with severe behavior issues, specifically with aggressive behavior. He provides comprehensive in-home and virtual behavior consultations, as well as dog training services across Long Island, NY. (Online Virtual Consultations for aggression and behavior modification are also available for clients who are local and out of state.) Anthony has several 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, Licensed Family Dog Mediator (LFDM), Fear Free Certified Training Professional (FFCP), Certified Graduate of distinction from the Victoria Stilwell Academy for Dog Training & Behavior, and The Third Way Certified Trainer. Anthony currently has an interest in training and behavior modification in Working & Sport bred dogs. He is also learning about and currently competing in agility and sheep herding. Anthony has two Australian Kelpies, Journey and Quest, both of which are training in agility and sheep herding.