Dogs are social creatures by nature. Most of us love nothing more than to hang out with our family and friends, whether that’s our humans or playing with other dogs. I am the kind of dog that will not hesitate to rush over to another at the park and hopefully entice them to play with me, and most dogs are ready and willing. But some aren’t. Some are aggressive and just plain scary.
Dogs can indeed be inherently aggressive, and some breeds like Pitbulls and Rottweilers are more prone to aggressive behavior than others, but that doesn’t mean that other breeds are immune. Any dog can be aggressive for several reasons.
An unfortunate reality is that many dog owners notice aggressive behavior and aren’t sure how to handle it. This can lead to the behavior becoming more prominent, and as dogs grow older, they can be harder to control.
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The good news is that there are things you as an owner can do to help control aggressive behavior and properly socialize your pup. We’re here to help, with our step-by-step guide on how to socialize your aggressive dogs.
Understanding Why Your Dog is Aggressive
Dealing with an aggressive dog isn’t easy. It can be stressful, scary, and even dangerous if the aggression is becoming out of control. Add children to the mix and all of the issues can increase tenfold. But before you can properly socialize an aggressive dog, it’s important to understand exactly why they are aggressive.
- The Breed – There are certain breeds of dogs that are more likely to become aggressive than others. Pit Bulls, for example, were bred for bullbaiting, a “sport” that sees bulls fighting other animals, usually dogs. Breeds like Rottweilers and Dobermans were, and still are, used as guard dogs, where aggressive behavior was and is encouraged. These traits are in their blood, so it’s easy to see how certain breeds can be more aggressive than others.
- It Can be in Their Genes – The breed of a dog and the genes should not be used interchangeably when it comes to aggression. You may not have a dog breed that is considered aggressive, but that doesn’t mean that aggressiveness can’t be in their genes.
If one or both parents were aggressive dogs, then there is a chance that it can be passed to their puppies. The aggressiveness doesn’t necessarily have to come directly from the parents either; it can be traced further back in the bloodline. If, at one point or another, a dog in that bloodline exhibited aggressive behavior, then there is a chance that any puppies from there on out could as well.
To top it all off, there doesn’t have to be aggressiveness in the bloodline for it to be in their genes. It can also be the result of a mother being overly stressed while pregnant. The stress can lead to an extreme hormonal imbalance that can be passed to the puppies and sometimes result in aggression.
- Bad Experience – A bad experience can induce fear in a dog, resulting in aggressive behavior. Bad life experiences like being exposed to violence, physical abuse, or extended shelter stays can traumatize a dog to the point where they have trouble dealing with their emotions and, therefore, begin to lash out. Something that may seem minor, like shouting, whether toward the dog specifically or just exposing them to it in the household, can have major impacts on a dog’s temperament.
- Illness – If a dog that is usually sweet and loving suddenly begins to show signs of aggressiveness, it may be a sign that they need to be taken to the vet for a checkup. Illness isn’t always easy to spot and can not only leave your pup feeling less than their best, but it could be inducing pain as well. Because dogs can’t effectively communicate what might be ailing them, they often use some minor forms of aggression like growling or showing their teeth to get their point across.
- Defensiveness – Defensive aggression occurs when a dog perceives an imminent threat that they feel they need to defend themselves or their loved ones against. It may even be something that their owners don’t see as a threat. Like people, dogs have a “fight or flight” instinct and will usually show some signs of wanting to be removed from a situation before fighting. If they growl, show their teeth, or even start snapping, you may need to remove your pup from a situation before it escalates.
- Territorial Aggression – Young or old, dogs are quick to know and defend their territory. This isn’t uncommon for canines around their own home, as they usually feel the need to have to defend it. While it is completely normal for a dog to be territorial, being overly aggressive is not.
While dog aggression is common at the home, it can also occur in other places. An overly territorial dog can be quick to claim just about anything as its own. If you find that your pup is aggressive while out on a walk, it could be that they have claimed an area as their own and now feel the need to defend it.
- Social Aggression – Social aggression can be traced back to when dogs were wild and traveled in packs. The instinct to assert their dominance remains in their blood, no matter how long ago that may have been. While there may be many things that can trigger social aggression, it comes down to the dog believing that they are the dominant one in the household. This feeling of dominance can then be reflected in all aspects of their life, including socializing with other animals outside of the home. This type of aggression can be a dangerous one if left alone as it could lead to growling, snapping, and even biting family members.
Don’t Be Counterproductive
Before we get into how to socialize an aggressive dog, we should take a quick look at how some things can be counter-productive to proper training. As with everything, what we know about training methods has evolved over the years, and things that were considered effective techniques in the past may not be seen in that light today. Staying up to date throughout the training and socializing period is imperative to ensure that the process is easier and more pleasant for both you and your pup.
- Physical Punishment – No animal in the world should be physically abused. While many people see abuse and punishment as two different things, the line can be blurred and very easily crossed. It wasn’t that long ago that physical punishment was considered a perfectly acceptable way of training, and in some cases still is to this day. The punishment can range from hitting a dog when they act up to aggressively restraining them at the first sign of any type of aggression.
While a hard yank on the leash may immediately stop your dog from lunging forward, the long-term effects can actually be counterproductive. Dogs will begin to associate these types of actions with automatic punishment, and it can cause them to be even more aggressive as they become more defensive in certain situations.
Hitting can, and often will, have the same results. By hitting, you are attempting to train your dog by instilling fear, and fear is often a trigger for aggression.
It’s important to be able to restrain your dog and avoid dangerous situations, but it is equally important to not overdo any sort of physical punishment as it can quickly make things much worse.
- Verbal Punishment – It may not always be easy to not raise your voice. After all, it is important that you assert your dominance and make sure that your pup knows that you are the boss. Shouting, though, can be detrimental when it comes to training and socializing your aggressive dog. More often than not, constantly being shouted at will lead to stress, which can then lead to aggressiveness, causing your dog to act out more not just toward you, but to those around you and your dog as well.
It’s also possible that your dog doesn’t show their stress at all, giving the appearance that they are calm while having the stress take its toll on them. What’s concerning about this is that they could attack other dogs or people without warning and, seemingly, no reason.
How to Socialize an Aggressive Dog
Now that we have a good idea of what may be causing a dog’s aggression and the various counterproductive socializing methods, we can look at how to properly train your pet. Whether you’re dealing with an aggressive puppy or an adult dog, socializing them isn’t going to be easy, but with these steps and a little patience, it can be done.
- Identify Your Dogs Triggers
No matter the severity or frequency of your pup’s aggression, there will be something that triggers it. It may be one thing or several. It might be obvious, but it might also be like trying to find a needle in a haystack. However difficult it may be to pinpoint, identifying what triggers your dog’s aggression is an important first step in fixing the problem.
Sit down and take some time to remember when your pup showed its aggression. Make note of some of the details involved in those incidences, however minor they may seem, then pay close attention to their future behavior and compare notes. This will hopefully help you to narrow things down and, over time, pinpoint what triggers the aggression.
Every dog’s triggers are going to be different. They can be as simple as other dogs or as obscure as a person wearing a hat.
- Ensure a Safe Environment for Everyone (Including Your Dog)
Before getting started with any sort of socialization and training, it’s important that both you and your dog have a safe environment. Safety measures are temporary and are meant to ensure everyone’s safety while keeping your pup comfortable. When socializing has progressed and aggression has been combated, these safety measures can then be removed. These measures will most certainly vary depending on the severity of the aggression, but here are some things that may need to be implemented in the home.
- Crate Training – Crate training is usually something that is done as a puppy to provide your dog with a safe place to spend time alone. Many people crate train whether their dog is aggressive or not, but it can be used as a space to keep both your dog and the people around them safe should the need arise. While it is easier to do this when your dog is young, it can be done as an adult as well.
- Separation with Baby Gates – It’s an unfortunate reality that there will be times you will have to separate your dog from others, be it your family or your guests. Baby gates or indoor dog gates are a great way to do this without having to completely isolate your dog and induce even more stress. Gates can effectively give your dog some personal space while still being near the rest of the family. Consider it as distance socialization that can often result in your pup understanding and recognizing what is a threat and what isn’t.
- Window Coverings – It’s not uncommon for many dogs in the home to be somewhat aggressive toward things outside. Whether it’s toward other animals or people, a lot of dogs tend to bark at things outside. It’s a territorial thing that can be subdued by covering the windows in an out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach. This approach helps your pup to decompress and relax, especially when home alone.
- Muzzle Training – If your aggressive dog has ever snapped at, or bitten, someone or something, then muzzle training is a must. Even if the aggression hasn’t gotten that far, if you are worried that it might, then you should muzzle train your pup. The most important part of muzzle training is that your dog enjoys wearing it, and this means using a muzzle that allows them to eat, drink, and pant comfortably. Having to force your dog to wear a muzzle will only lead to more stress and possibly more aggression.
- Get a Good Harness – A simple walk can be a stressful situation, not only for the owner of an aggressive dog but the dogs themselves. The right escape-proof harness will provide added safety for you, your dog, and others. A head-halter is also a good option if your dog is harder to control.
- Know Your Dog’s Thresholds
Your dog is going to have a specific threshold for each one of its triggers. This is something that should be approached with caution. Instead of trying to expose them to their triggers to figure out their threshold, pay close attention to when the aggressive behavior happens and make note of it. An approach like this will reduce any unnecessary stress on both you and your dog.
- Avoid Bad Situations
Each time an aggressive dog is put in a situation that triggers that aggressiveness, their brain sets pathways that will make that behavior grow a little stronger. The stronger that behavior gets, the harder it will be to control. Avoiding some of these situations may mean a lifestyle change. You might have to take your dog for walks at night when there is less activity in the area, or you may have to limit having guests at the house until socialization is achieved. At the time, these changes might seem like a huge inconvenience, but it is a small price to pay for the well-being of everyone involved.
- Ease into Training
A lot of a dog’s aggression can be controlled with some very basic obedience training. Teaching your dog important commands like “sit,” “stay,” “leave it,” and “watch me” can go a long way toward not only alleviating some of their stress but help to put you in better control of any situation.
Instead of doing this type of training on the fly as you socialize your aggressive dog, do this in a controlled setting like the comfort of your own living room. Also, make sure that your pup understands the commands and properly obeys them before starting the socialization process.
- Socialize Gradually
Now that you have an understanding of your dog’s triggers, the threshold of those triggers, and have implemented some safety measures, it’s time to start socializing. But don’t go too crazy right away. The best way to eliminate stress and help reduce aggressiveness is by doing things gradually.
If your dog’s trigger is other dogs, introduce them to their fellow canines from a distance. Then each time you are out on a walk, allow them to get closer, all the while rewarding good behavior with positive reinforcement, like treats. Your pup will be quick to learn that positive behavior will lead to rewards and the aggressiveness will slowly start to subside.
It isn’t going to be something that will happen overnight, and it will more than likely take a considerable amount of time, with more than a few setbacks along the way. But sticking with gradual socialization and positive reinforcement will produce the best results.
Depending on how aggressive your dog is, socializing isn’t going to be easy, and while the steps we’ve outlined above will provide you with a solid foundation, they won’t necessarily be 100% effective. That is up to you and your dog. If all else fails, you can always seek the assistance of a professional trainer or coach.