Dogs love to bark at one another. It's practically one of their favorite things! Most of the time, it's a simple way to communicate. Sometimes, though, the barking is accompanied by other actions, like growling, lunging, snapping, and other signs of clear aggression.
If your furry friend is aggressive toward other dogs, it can be a dangerous situation. Maybe your fur baby is a huge softie and is all bark and no bite. Or maybe, the moment they get loose, they'll do irreparable damage to the target of their aggression and anyone who tries to stop them. Dog attacks are unfortunately all too common, but they don't have to be inevitable.
When a dog is aggressive towards other dogs, there are a few things you can do to try to solve the problem. Here are my tips on handling the issue before it becomes a problem.
The first step to solving any problem is understanding why that problem occurs. While some people have a fear of "aggressive dogs," the truth is that dogs are rarely entirely aggressive. All dogs are sensitive to stimuli – just like we are – and they have their own set of reactions to different situations. Just like some dogs get aggressive, bark, and snap, others will whine and cower, and some (as we all know from our favorite neighborhood chihuahuas) might even be doing both simultaneously.
When your dog is aggressive, you should ask yourself, "Why?" so you can think about what might be causing that aggression. Generally, these reactions come down to a few root causes.
Fear. When your dog is scared of another dog, it's likely because they've had bad experiences with other dogs in the past. Maybe they're bullied at doggy daycare. Maybe when they were in a shelter or a stray, they were harassed, intimidated, or attacked by other dogs. Maybe they're just a naturally fearful dog, and they react with aggression and bravado because they've found it works better than hiding and cowering and being submissive.
Anxiety. This one often comes with a change of scenery or lifestyle. If you make big changes, whether it's to your schedule, to the layout of your house, or even where you live entirely, the anxiety and uncertainty can express itself in a bunch of different ways. Some dogs lash out when they're uncomfortable.
Pain. Dogs who are in pain – those poor puppers – react in some way to that pain. Dogs that have spent time as strays or shelter dogs often act aggressively when they're in pain because pain is weakness, and weakness is danger. Aggression warns off others that might take advantage of their pain.
Territorialism. Some dogs identify either places or people as "theirs" and become fiercely protective of those areas or people. Some might be aggressive when it comes to protecting your yard and your home but are fine in other contexts. Some of them are aggressive simply when it comes to protecting you. Another dog encroaching on their territory can be warned off with aggression.
One thing to mention here is the idea of a dominant dog, the "alpha" of the pack or the neighborhood. Many people think aggression is a dog's way of establishing their dominance. Truthfully, while there is a social hierarchy in dog packs, the "alpha" theory of canine behavior was skewed by captivity and terrible conditions and isn't reflected in healthy populations of dogs. It's debunked, in other words, and treating aggression as a sign of dominance is likely to reinforce bad behaviors, not help you cure them.
The best thing you can do is pay attention to what triggers aggression in your fur baby.
Are they aggressive when they're startled or surprised? It may be fear or anxiety. Are they aggressive when another dog gets too close to them, to you, to a beloved toy, or to a particular space? It may be territorial aggression. Are they aggressive only when someone or something gets close enough to make them move or interact with them? It could be pain-related.
Understanding why your fur baby gets aggressive is the first step to solving the problem. The actual solution – like it is with so many other problems, whether it's barking or grooming – comes down to training.
So, here are my top tips on training aggression out of an aggressive dog.
Check for Medical Problems
While training is usually the way to solve these kinds of problems, you can't train away pain. A dog that is in pain from a medical issue is going to be resistant to training and could even take their aggression out on you.
If their aggression came on suddenly and unexpectedly, it's possible that they've developed an illness or an injury. Sudden and unexpected aggression might warrant a trip to the vet to make sure they don't have something like a painful infection, fractured bone, or tumor that has started to become painful. Older dogs might also have pain from tooth infections or arthritis that can make them miserable. All of these can be handled by the vet and don't necessarily need training to cope with them.
Work on Increasing Socialization
A lot of times, aggression is caused by fear, anxiety, and the unexpected. When it's expressed as aggression towards other dogs, there's a good chance that one of these is the trigger. It might have come from previous bad experiences, or it might just be because of anxiety, but either way, exposure therapy is one of the primary ways you can help deal with the problem.
To do this, you want to expose your pooch to different situations and circumstances while ensuring that they're safe and protected. You might bring them near – but not into – a dog park, take them on walks to unfamiliar areas, or bring unfamiliar dogs to them.
The key here is that you need to keep this socialization only as lengthy as your fur baby can handle. You don't want to force them into a situation that makes them anxious, as that will only stress them out and make their reactions worse. You want to expose them, but when they've had enough, give them somewhere to retreat and bring them away.
Slow, iterative, growing exposure therapy can help teach your pooch that it's safe to be around other dogs in general and that they don't need to react with aggression.
Focus on Positive Dog-on-Dog Experiences
On a more small-scale form of the same idea, you may be able to arrange positive experiences with other dogs.
The simplest option is to have a large, friendly, very calm dog on hand, ideally the dog of a friend or family member, so there's familiarity across the board. This large dog can be a chill, calm presence near your dog, and your dog can try aggression, which won't work because of the chill and obedient nature of the "intruder" dog. All you need is a few minutes before taking the dog away.
You can repeat this process, iteratively getting more and more intense with it. Bringing the other dog closer, allowing them to interact and even play together. The idea is that this friendly dog won't make any actions that could be perceived as a threat and that your dog will see that aggression not only doesn't work but also is not necessary.
Through a series of experiences like this, you can help teach your dog that aggression isn't the solution to every problem.
Never Force the Issue
One key to both of these kinds of exposure training is to never force the interaction. Your dog has boundaries, and when those boundaries are crossed, the aggression comes out. Your goal is to shrink and soften those boundaries, but they will always be there. If you try to go too far too fast, the aggression will come back.
Furthermore, forcing that kind of interaction can make everything worse and, in extreme cases, can even lead to an altercation that can be dangerous for the people involved.
Give Your Fur Baby Space
Depending on where you're trying out this exposure training, you want your fur baby to have somewhere they can retreat to so they can feel safe. Doing this training in your yard, for example, can ensure that they can go inside when they have too much.
Doing it inside, designate a room for them to retreat to. Doing it in a public place, make sure they can retreat, possibly to a car or out of a park. One of the worst things you can do is keep them on a tight leash, refusing to let them retreat, which makes them even more stressed.
Be Consistent with Expectations
As with any form of training, you need both positive reinforcement and consistency to be successful. Rewards are a key part of training; when you train your fur baby to be exposed to other dogs, reward them for their good behavior. You also want to make sure you're as consistent as you can be.
Sure, you can't reward them for not being aggressive at a dog walking by if it happens while you're at work, but by reinforcing their behavior as much as possible, you can help cut out the aggression wholesale.
Avoid Punishing Reactive Behavior
Punishment, meanwhile, is one of the worst things you can do. For one thing, punishing a dog for their behavior doesn't work.
They might not make the association, or they might make the association between other dogs and the punishment coming from you, which can even make them turn their aggression towards people or even to you specifically. Punishment also adds pain or stress to the situation, making everything worse.
Aggressive Dog FAQs
I'm sure you have questions, so I've answered the common ones here. If you have a question about a dog-aggressive canine companion and I haven't answered them below, feel free to ask them in the comments!
Is there such a thing as an aggressive breed?
Some breeds are stereotyped as aggressive, either in general or specifically to other dogs. The thing is, that's all it is: a stereotype. Aggressive breeds are just breeds that have often been trained to be aggressive, as guard dogs or as working dogs like police dogs.
That said, some dogs may be more prone to aggression than others by their nature. Smaller dogs like chihuahuas don't have as many options to protect themselves and may be aggressive because of it. After all, their world is very large and scary. Other dogs may be more prone to anxiety, and some proportion of those anxious dogs might be aggressive. Others are much more territorial than average or have much higher average energy levels, both of which can be expressed as aggression if they're stymied.
Can an aggressive dog be cured?
There's no such thing as a "cure" for aggression. What you're aiming for is a combination of socialization and self-control through training.
An aggressive dog will always have that urge to be aggressive; you're just training them that it's not the appropriate choice.
When is professional help necessary?
Professional help may be necessary to help train an aggressive dog. Primarily, it's a good idea when you either aren't sure how to handle it yourself or you simply don't have the time to do so. A professional dog trainer with experience with aggressive dogs can help you train them appropriately.
The key here, though, is that you need to maintain and continue the training. A professional canine behaviorist can only give you the starting point. Otherwise, they may be perfectly behaved with that person in that situation but wild at home.
Are there medications that can help?
Possibly! Generally, there are three ways that an external substance might be able to help with an aggressive dog.
The first is through pain relief. If a dog is old, tired, and sore, they may be aggressive because of that ache, and ways that reduce their pain – whether it's doggy Tylenol, joint supplements, or something else, removing that source of stress can help reduce their aggression.
The second is through general anxiety relief. Some natural substances and vitamins may have a calming or regulating effect on your dog, and it can be worth experimenting with different substances to try them out.
The third is through direct calming. For example, many people swear by the effects of CBD oil and tinctures as a way to reduce anxiety and promote calm in their fur babies. You might consider giving it a try yourself.
Whatever the case may be, a pill isn't going to truly solve the problem; training will always be involved, and positive reinforcement is a must. With time, though, any dog can have their aggression minimized and can become a loving canine companion.
After reading this article, do you have any questions? As always, I'm more than happy to help you out however I can, so be sure to leave your comments, questions, and concerns in the comments section down below!
K Marie Alto
K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 50K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-). Read more