How to Figure Out Why Your Dog Is Aggressive, and What to Do About It

How to Figure Out Why Your Dog Is Aggressive, and What to Do About It
Illustration: Vicky Leta

We are dog-obsessed. Cuddly, fluffy, loyal, and funny, these animals are all over our social media feeds and our homes. But when your dog typically cuddly dog starts acting aggressive, however, it can come as a surprise. The reality of a growling, biting dog doesn’t match up to the adorable balls of floof we see on Instagram or the loveable companions that litter tear-jerking movies.

You’re not alone if your dog is occasionally — or even regularly — aggressive, but you do need to call for backup and figure out what’s going on before someone gets hurt.

Own up to the problem, but don’t be ashamed

The very first time your dog gets aggressive, you have an issue. Dog behaviour expert Christina Shusterich, owner of NY Clever K9, tells Lifehacker that immediate intervention is required the very first time your dog acts out, and advises you to seek out a professional. Tips from flashy television personalities won’t cut it, nor will attempts to “socialise” your pet at the local dog park.

If you don’t identify the cause and work with someone who understands how to deal with dog aggression, the problem will not go away. You put yourself, other people, and other dogs in jeopardy by downplaying the issue and insisting on bringing your pup to the park. Consider that someone could get hurt — including your dog — and there might even be legal repercussions. Your landlord could force you out, or a court could even order your dog be put down.

It’s imperative that you get to the bottom of this and reach out for help, but when you do that, do not minimise what’s going on.

“People in general will call me as the dog gets worse,” says Shusterich, who has worked to rehabilitate aggressive dogs for the last two decades. She regularly fields emails and calls from people who’ve been dealing with the issue a long time but are still inclined to downplay what’s happening.

“When I get an email, I have learned to tally read between the lines,” she says. “‘Nipping’ is biting, so that’s one way that people minimise it. Another way is they will simply omit things. They’ll say their dog gets ‘excited.’ They’ll use a lot of euphemisms like that.”

She said the majority of dog owners downplay or outright lie about the behaviour their pet is exhibiting, and that doesn’t help an expert figure out what’s going on — or prevent it from escalating. Shusterich makes it clear that, in spite of what certain high-profile trainers might say on television, a dog’s aggressive behaviour is not the fault of the owner, so banish that thought from your head. Get rid of your shame and embarrassment now. You didn’t cause this. (We’ll get into some of the factors that likely did in a minute.)

“Aggression is not debatable,” she adds. “By their posters and actions — this has been studied for years — that’s an aggressive dog. There is no going around that. That’s one of the first things I tell my clients.”

The other thing Shusterich tells them? “An aggressive dog is not the opposite of a good dog. Every dog has aggression. Every person has aggression.”

Figure out what’s causing the problem

“Dogs aren’t aggressive 24/7,” Shusterich says. “There are specific times they’re aggressive.”

She highlights resource guarding, stranger aggression, and leash aggression as three typical instances when dogs can act out. You’ll know aggression by your dog’s body language, which is not the same as a person’s, but is predictable. Be attuned to how your dog acts, whether they get stiff and stare, have their fur stand on end, show their teeth, or snap their teeth in the air. Obviously, any bite is aggression, too, and Shusterich is clear about the fact that a bite is a bite, whether it breaks the skin or not.

Your dog may not exhibit every one of these and, she notes, simply staring is not aggression in itself. Watch out for stiffness and “the hard stare,” for instance, if you’re walking your dog and see another dog walker heading your way. Your job is to be alert and read the body language, take note of behaviours and postures, and report those honestly when you reach out to a behaviorist.

It’s normal to want to give your dog the benefit of the doubt or, as so many do, to minimise what you’re seeing. Look at other dog owners in your vicinity. Watch their body language. If they’re pulling their dog away from your dog, what threat are they noticing that you’re not? Is it “the hard stare” or raised fur? Is your dog baring their teeth at the other pet? Leash aggression is particularly common in urban settings, Shusterich says, so keep that in mind.

What to do — and not do

We’ve already established that your dog’s aggression is not your fault. The real cause is dependent on a number of factors.

“There are critical periods of development in a dog’s life [and] the most critical ones are in puppyhood,” Shusterich says. “They shouldn’t be weaned before eight weeks old, and up to 15 weeks is the time you need to get them acclimated to other dogs, people, sights, sounds, noises — everything. After that, you’re going to be fighting against the tide. It’s not like it can’t be fixed, but that period’s over.”

Shelters and stores can and will lie to you about how early a dog was weaned or whether the puppy was isolated in its formative weeks. Sometimes, they don’t even know. Unless you were there for the puppy’s birth and saw with your own eyes that it nursed for eight weeks and was socialised properly, it’s impossible to be sure — but if it wasn’t, your dog could have lingering fear and that fear can manifest as aggression.

“Socialisation,” Shusterich says, is “one of those internet phrases that means nothing.” Taking an aggressive 2-year-old dog to a park will not socialise the animal, but will “put the other dogs in danger and make the behaviour problem much worse,” she warns.

“Why wouldn’t it? It’s not a socialisation period. There’s a way to fix that, but you have to use a technique called systematic desensitization and counterconditioning, which is a proven behaviour modification technique which is a science that’s been around for a long time,” she says.

What you can do right now

Aside from attempted socialisation, Shusterich has heard of some wild ways people have tried to make their pets less aggressive, including “helicoptering a dog,” or swinging them around to show them who’s in charge. But your dog is not a menace to be dealt with by force; they’re acting this way because of emotions, primarily fear, and something that may have happened to them in puppyhood.

It should go without saying, but please don’t helicopter your dog. Seek out a behaviorist and be totally honest about what’s been going on. They’ve seen this all before, even if you haven’t seen it reflected on social media when your friends are posting about their seemingly well-behaved companions. No one advertises when their pet isn’t picture-perfect, but that doesn’t mean this is uncommon.

What you can do right now is mitigate risk. Don’t force a leash aggressive dog to walk by another dog in the street. Keep a dog with stranger-aggressive behaviours away from guests, even if the dog whines or the guests beg to see them. Don’t exacerbate the fear your animal already feels in the situations where they’ve demonstrated they’re uncomfortable. It’s cruel to the dog, dangerous to everyone else, and an actual liability for you.

You made a commitment to this dog when you got them, and don’t forget that. If you can’t afford a behaviorist or don’t want to be bothered, don’t just leave your baby in a cage all day or let the chips fall where they may and give them the freedom to actually bite someone, which could lead to significant harm to that person, but also to the dog being put down. If the aggression is more than you think you have the capacity to deal with, be as honest about your own feelings and behaviour as you are about the dog’s.

For a fee, you can surrender a dog to a special shelter, and though it may pain your pet to lose their person, if you’re not willing or able to do what needs to be done — and pay for it — it may be the best option. Don’t be selfish. Let that dog have every chance at a good life. If you live in an urban centre and work long hours but your dog is leash aggressive, maybe they need to be somewhere where they don’t need to be trotted out on a lead just to use the bathroom. It’s your responsibility, if you can’t otherwise solve the issue, to safely and responsibility get them into the care of knowledgeable, compassionate people who can get them there.

Like Shusterich says, a dog’s aggression does not disqualify them from being a “good dog.” Your dog needs help and guidance, a scientific approach from an expert, and all the love you can give.

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