Aggressive behaviour in dogs often starts in puppyhood when a young dog fails to understand the hierarchy or pack order within their home and decides they are taking over as the boss of the household. Aggression toward other dogs or people can also develop when a significant life change occurs that causes a dog to feel stressed or threatened, such as going to live with a new family or spending time in a dog shelter. Additionally, if a dog displays aggressive behaviour suddenly and seemingly from nowhere, they may be in pain or afraid.
Common signs of aggression in dogs include lifting their lips to show their teeth, growling with their ears tucked back and staring you down. Aggressive behaviour doesn't tend to resolve on its own, so address the problem as soon as it arises to minimise the risk of harm and distress to both you and your dog.
Your first step should be to have your dog checked over by your vet to rule out pain as a cause for your dog's behaviour. They can then refer your dog to an animal behaviourist for assessment, and the behaviourist will formulate a treatment plan and work closely with you to ensure treatment is effective. Here's an overview of three treatment approaches used to tackle aggressive behaviour in dogs:
Behaviour Modification Therapy
This treatment option can be effective when specific triggers have been identified during your dog's assessment. Triggers are often environmental, and if you are able to control trigger situations and use gentle techniques to modify how your dog responds to their identified triggers, you can prevent displays of aggression. Behaviour modification never uses aggression to treat aggression, so you won't be asked to shout at or hit your dog. Instead, you'll be asked to consistently respond to displays of aggression by providing your dog with an unpleasant, yet harmless, experience.
For example, when your dog growls, you may be asked to immediately give them a short squirt with a water pistol. This sends the message that their behaviour is not acceptable, and over time, they will make the connection between the undesirable behaviour and the unpleasant response.
Desensitisation And Affection Control
These two approaches are used together to reduce fear while rewarding obedience. Your dog is gently and gradually desensitised to situations they find frightening, such as being in a room with other dogs, by exposing them to these situations in a controlled manner. The length of exposure increases slowly and rewards of praise or treats are reserved for when their behaviour during a desensitisation exercise matches the desired outcome.
Neutering male dogs is often carried out alongside the treatment approaches listed above. Having your dog neutered will not suddenly cause aggressive behaviours to stop, but the procedure prevents testosterone production, which is thought to contribute to displays of aggression in dogs who feel threatened by other male dogs. Neutering is a routine procedure, and your dog should be able to go home a few hours after the surgery.
If your dog is displaying aggression within your home or when they're out in public, make a note of any potential triggers you have identified and schedule a consultation with your vet as soon as possible.