Michael Baugh CDBC, CPDT-KSA
Owner-directed dog aggression is fairly easy to address and also usually mild in severity. Aggression, as you probably know by now, is not a malady that lives inside our dogs. It’s certainly not a personality trait–some demon that needs to be exorcised. Aggressive behavior, in fact, is just like any other behavior. It’s a response to the dog’s environment, one that we can address and change with positive reinforcement training techniques. Owner-directed aggression usually resolves well because the owner is the primary player involved. They are both the trigger and the potential source of reinforcement. As a trainer and coach, this puts me in an enviable position. If I can influence the human’s behavior, I can help change the dog’s behavior.
In owner-directed cases, I’m able to help clients implement changes on the first visit that end bites immediately. I typed that last sentence after a great deal of reflection. If we know that human behavior A reliably elicits dog’s aggressive response B, then we can quickly end that pattern of behavior. Eliminate A, at least temporarily, while we address the bigger picture. If you were to ask “what do I do if the dog attacks me,” I could confidently say we’ve put some changes into immediate actions to prevent said attacks.
That said, it’s still a question worth answering.
Safety, of course, is always our priority. Owner-directed dog bites are quick single bites, a level one or two on the Dunbar Scale. Most times, the dog will snarl, growl, or air snap long before they will bite. This gives us ample time to stop or at least pause whatever is eliciting the response. Keep in mind, if we are the trigger, then we have a great deal of power to stop the unwanted behavior.
If a dog threatens to bite, or if he bites and then continues to charge, putting distance between the human and the dog is always our safest first choice. Many dogs return to baseline behavior quickly after an incident and will willingly respond to cues to isolate in a kennel or behind a baby gate. Where this is not possible, the person must be the one to increase distance. Move away. Do not let your ego or erroneous concerns about winning or losing impede your safety. You’re already a member of the most advanced species on the planet. You have nothing to prove to your dog.
On rare occasions in which a multiple-bite incident occurs or appears imminent, put a barrier between yourself and the dog. Think: solid door. A furniture cushion can even shield you long enough to get to safety. This is an emergency response. Extremely aggressive incidents are also extremely rare. When faced with imminent danger, people yell and attempt to physically protect themselves from an advancing dog. This kind of reaction is reflexive and normal. Our underlying goals remain: increase distance between us and the dog, and put a barrier between us, even as we attempt to push away from or ward off a dog. Keep in mind, though, our physical and verbal responses are not training.
Intentionally confronting or physically challenging a dog is dangerous. We risk significant physical injury. Dogs are fast and some bite very hard. Hitting, grabbing, tackling, rolling, or otherwise putting our hands and arms anywhere near the biting end of a dog is ill-advised and foolhardy. Further, there is well documented evidence that shows physical punishment as a cause of, not a solution for, aggressive dog behavior. “Dogs subjected to physical reprimands scored significantly higher on aggression sub-scales” (Hsu and Sun, 2010). “The use of positive punishment or negative reinforcement based training methods was associated with increased chance of aggression to family and unfamiliar people outside the house.” (Casey et al., 2013).
Here’s the rub. We think we need to show the dog who is the boss. It’s woven into our pop culture about dogs. How else will we show that their behavior is not acceptable? We want to punish our dogs because it makes us feel like we are doing something. Yes, there may be an immediate interruption of the behavior. No, there won’t be long-term benefit from it. The research is already very clear on this.
The fallacy is that our dogs are behaving aggressively 1) as a logic-driven choice and 2) as guided by some moral compass of right and wrong. Most aggressive outbursts in animals (including human animals) are impulsively driven from a very primitive part of the brain. Little thought goes into them. Add to that, there is no evidence at all that dogs engage in philosophical pondering of good versus evil or right versus wrong. Aggressive behavior in dogs is about making the target person (or other animal) go away or stop what it is doing. Fear drives aggression: fear of an unknown person, fear of a person’s erratic or aggressive behavior, or fear of losing a prized resource, to name just a few.
Cases of owner-directed aggression usually involve:
- Guarding a resource: food, object, or place.
- Resistance to physical handling (fear of being restrained or physically manipulated).
- Conflict with the owner related to owner’s attempt to punish the dog for a perceived misbehavior (including behavior related to the above).
We can address these aggressive dog behavior triggers with positive reinforcement training. Most dog guardians want to resolve their dog’s behavior issues at the source, and rightly so. How can we teach our dogs to behave differently? How do we help him better self-regulate and more effectively navigate situations he used to see as frightening or threatening?
Reacting to an aggressive outburst is not training. If we do our jobs right, we address the issues at the core and eliminate the aggressive behavior altogether. In cases of an emergency, we behave with safety as our primary goal, creating distance and barriers between us and the threat of harm. We deescalate rather and inflame an already volatile situation. Any advice to the contrary would be ill-informed and dangerous.
Michael Baugh has worked with families with dogs since 1999. He specializes in aggressive dog training.