If your dog growls, lunges, stares, glares, snarls, barks or bites at people, he’s got an aggression problem. Despite the hype, this isn’t a breed-specific problem, it’s a dog-specific problem, most typically a consequence of his environment and upbringing. Fortunately, even the edgiest, most unfriendly of dogs can learn to love people. But you may elect to get the help of a veterinarian or behavior professional, as aggression in dogs can be dangerous.
Socialize Now, Avoid Problems Later
If you’ve got a puppy, you can minimize the chances of him being aggressive toward people when he’s an adult by allowing him to mingle and share positive experiences with a range of people. In providing such positive experiences, like letting new people pet him, he’ll learn to associate people in general with happy feelings and will not develop the fear associations that dogs unused to meeting new people can often experience. Socialization should begin at around 14 weeks of age.
Identify the Underlying Cause
Fear, anxiety, territorialism, physical pain and resource guarding can all cause a dog to act aggressively toward people. The context of the aggression may give clues to the underlying cause. For example, if your dog is fine with people walking past the yard, but goes nuts when someone looks in or walks up the path, it’s probable that he’s displaying signs of territorial aggression. If he only growls, snaps or barks when you pick up his food bowl, this could be classic resource guarding.
Identify the Triggers
Aggression doesn’t come from nowhere; something always triggers it. It may be the sound of the mailman coming up the path, or the sound of a car door slamming. Keep a log of aggression incidents and note down the stimuli present that may have caused your dog to act aggressively. This way, you can better anticipate when your dog is likely to act aggressively so you can take preventative action.
Desensitize the Stimuli
By exposing your dog to the stimuli that cause him to become aggressive, you can gradually help him become less reactive to it. For example, for the territorial dog, put him on a leash and have a neighbor walk up the path, ring the bell, then leave. Repeated exposure to the trigger stimulus will “normalize” it in the dog’s mind, making him gradually less likely to act aggressively.
Counterconditioning and Positive Reinforcement
After a period of desensitization, the next step is to change your dog’s negative associations with people into positive ones. Use a leash so you have full control over your dog. Expose him to the trigger stimuli and each time he reacts passively, give him a treat. Repeat this process regularly until he gradually learns that a passive, calm response to the presence of a person elicits a positive outcome.