If your dog is aggressive for any reason, but especially one that seems that have no obvious explanation such as defending bones or in self defence as a result of being injured, you are strongly advised to seek professional help as a matter of urgency. In the first instance, consult your veterinary surgeon. He/she will conduct a full examination of your dog to ascertain if there is a medical reason for the aggression, such as pain or a neurological disorder. If no physical explanation can be found and treated for the aggression, he or she may refer you to a professional behaviourist for help. Some insurance policies will cover these fees.
Do not attempt to treat your dog’s aggression problem yourself and do not ignore the behaviour in the hope that it will go away. If not tackled quickly and appropriately, aggression problems can escalate rapidly in frequency and severity, and may result in serious injury to yourself and your family, other people and/or other animals. In certain cases of canine aggression, a possible legal case against you may also arise, and courts may even order the destruction of your dog.
But, the good news is that if you seek the right help early, there is often lots that may be done to help your dog learn how to behave more safely and appropriately in any situation where he has become aggressive. Seek help at the first sign of aggression - whether your dog is growling if someone approaches his food bowl, or barking and lunging at other dogs when being walked, threatening strangers and visitors etc. Professional behaviourists can get to work on these problems and the chance of a successful outcome is greatly increased if the behaviour is nipped in the bud.
Dogs are always aggressive for a reason, and a behaviourist will get to the heart of why your dog is acting as he is. Aggression is often due to fear, and is a strategy for dogs to defend themselves at what they see as threats to themselves or their resources. This could be due to inadequate early socialisation, past experiences, or the perception that valuable resources, such as food, bed, toys etc are under threat of being taken away by the owner, other people or another dog. Since fear is the most common cause of aggressive behaviour, you should never punish your dog for growling or any other display of aggression. Shouting at a dog for growling at something he is fearful of will simply compound his fear and his aggressive response will worsen next time.
Growling is a dog’s way of communicating his disquiet and giving a warning that he will attack if the situation does not change. If you shout at him for growling, he may stop doing so in the future - and instead move straight to the next level: attack. Far from trying to inhibit your dog’s natural responses, you should listen to them. If he growls, you should act immediately on this warning to ensure the safety of others by diffusing the situation. Remove the source of the dog’s irritation. If he is growling because he doesn’t like someone approaching him when he is eating, for example, then make sure he is fed in a room on his own until you can seek professional advice. If he growls when approached by a child, immediately remove the child from the scene and avoid all encounters with children while you are seeking a referral to a behaviourist. Never take chances with anyone’s safety, but especially not with children or elderly people.
Think ahead to ensure the safety of others. If your dog is aggressive to people when outside, or to other dogs on walks, keep him on a lead and muzzled outdoors. If you cannot control him on a lead, you should not take him out in public, even though this runs the risk of increasing his frustration. For the safety of others - canine and/or human - exercise and games in a secure garden will have to suffice until a behaviourist can help you.
Aggression can also occur within the home. If your dog is aggressive to visitors, make sure he is put in the garden or into an indoor kennel or secure room before you open the door to callers and/or invite them inside. If the aggression is between dogs in your home, you will have to keep them in separate rooms and walk and feed them individually until you get some professional help.
If a fight does break out between two dogs, NEVER attempt to separate them with your hands - in the confusion, you could be seriously bitten. Your own safety should come first, so keep a good distance away, as it is not unheard of for fighting dogs to redirect their aggression on to an interfering owner. In many cases, dog fights often sound and look worse than they are and the dogs will ultimately separate of their own accord. But if the fight is showing no sign of stopping and you can intervene with no risk to yourself, then try to distract them, perhaps by ringing the door bell, throwing water at them, or making an unexpected loud noise such as clanging a metal pan with a wooden spoon etc. That brief second of startled surprise could give one of the dogs the chance to run away. If they are locked in battle, and, again, it is safe for you to do so, use a broom handle to prise them apart gently or at least to direct their bites onto an the broom
One of the most difficult cases of canine aggression to treat is fighting between bitches in the house. Although most bitches happily co-exist in the same home, sometimes they never see eye to eye and will squabble and then fight very seriously over just about anything - food, attention, sleeping arrangements and so on. Often, as with sibling rivalry, the two dogs are the best of friends until sexual maturity hits… and then the fighting begins. This is why it is preferable, if you want two dogs, to have a male and a female, ideally of two entirely different breeds/types, and with a gap of at least a year between them. Two dogs of the same sex from the same litter can spell trouble for the future, as they will value the same things and have similar temperaments when it comes to trying to share resources, and this may make feisty competition inevitable for some. For example, two terriers are likely to both want the same squeaky toy and will have the same tenacious temperament when it comes to getting what they want.
So, in summary - the most important consideration is safety: your own safety, and the safety of others. Seek professional advice at the first sign of any type of aggression in your dog, and, in the meantime, keep close control of him/her and do not take any risks.
The information contained in this article is not a substitute for individual veterinary or behavioural advice and is for information purposes only. You should always consult a veterinary surgeon if you have any concerns about your pet’s health. He or she will be able to take a complete medical history and physically examine your pet, to then recommend appropriate individual advice or treatment options. For detailed behavioural advice tailored specifically for your pet, we recommend that you contact a qualified pet behaviourist. For further details of local canine and feline behaviourists practising in your area and how they offer help for with problem pets, please contact The Coape Association of Pet Behaviourists and Trainers at www.capbt.org, or the Association of Pet Dog Trainers at www.apdt.co.uk. Do bear in mind that while dog trainers can take you on as a client directly, pet behaviourists will always require a referral from your veterinary surgeon.