It’s not unusual for a dog to “protect” his territory or be wary, around new people, or guests. These behaviors might be further dramatized within dogs bred for guarding like mastiffs and some herding and terrier breeds.
Unfortunately, some dogs' inherent “protective” behavior can become quite extreme, which can lead to some potentially serious problems including nervy guests, potential litigation surrounding any bites or attacks, or inability to socialize around other dogs or animals. To correct these behaviors, you must first learn what drives your dog to this behavior.
What qualifies as an aggressive dog?
A barking dog, jumping or lightly growing dog around guests is fairly common for the first couple of minutes as they adjust to a new guest or person. However, if this behavior extends past an initial couple of minutes, this is a clear display that your dog is experiencing a heightened sense of fear and/or anxiety, and might need behavioral intervention to overcome it.
Dogs that aggressively protect “their” territory are often dogs that unfortunately were not socialized at the puppy age and have an acute fear of people and or other animals. What may seem like a benign visitor to your yard, such as the mailman, can be perceived by an unsocialized dog as a real threat and that dog will act aggressively to protect itself.
Aggression often does not manifest right away as puppy-aged dogs are generally more adaptable, mouldable, and social. This trait generally begins to show as the dog moves into adulthood. According to the ASPCA and AHAA, one to three years of age is typically when aggression begins to develop, depending on the size and breed/breed mix of the dog. With any behavior, particularly one involving fear and lack of general socialization, the sooner you provide behavioral intervention, the better for both yourself and your dog because if you get anxious regarding your dog's aggressive behavior, imagine their levels of anxiety.
What do I do about my aggressive dog?
If your dog displays overt aggression or further traits, seek a behavior professional immediately. If you can catch these “overly protective” signs quickly, it will be much easier to help your dog begin the behavioral adjustment process.
Your first step should be a consultation with your veterinarian to determine what exact behaviors they exhibit, and in what moments to get a better picture of what instances might be the social trigger for your dog's aggressive behaviors.
At Muirfield Animal Hospital, we do direct behavior consultations to eliminate any hoops or hurdles in this step.
What can I do to find a behavioral expert?
It’s extremely important to find a behavior professional who specifically deals with dogs with behavior issues and who uses scientifically valid practices.
When looking for a behavior consultant, make sure the professional you choose is properly credentialed and will work with your veterinarian and you to develop an effective treatment plan built for your dog.
While your veterinarian might be able to make some recommendations for you, here are several reputable organizations worth looking at as well; The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, the Animal Behavior Society, and the IAABC.
If your veterinarian feels that a veterinary behaviorist is the best option for your dog, many will work remotely in partnership with your veterinarian.
How will a behavioral expert help my aggressive dog?
A credentialed behavioral expert will first want you to ensure there are proper rules in place for this behavioral adjustment process. Depending on your dog's level of aggression these may be as mild as keeping the dog crated when visitors arrive, or as strong as making plans to board your dog if they present a genuine danger to others.
Every program developed for a dog is different and based on the dog’s history and needs. Generally, these plans involve desensitization and counter-conditioning to people coming into a dog’s territory, coupled with training the dog to go to a specified place, such as a crate or a mat, when someone they are uncomfortable around arrives.
What might my veterinarian do for my aggressive dog?
Depending on the circumstance and medical evaluation, your veterinarian may even prescribe medication to help with the dog’s anxiety which allows the behavioral modification program to be more effective if the dog was previously too stressed to function. Other options may include increased exercise and mental enrichment for the dog, and equipment such as head halters, and muzzles, to not only keep people safe but also to reduce the dog’s ability to interact with what scares them.
It’s important to know that while your dog’s behavior may come across as frightening to yourself or others, the most effective way to help your dog is to work directly with qualified behavioral and medical professionals and commit to following any plan they have created for you specifically.
The more effort and commitment you are willing to give the higher the likelihood that your dog’s behavior will improve step by step.
You can never truly “cure” an aggressive dog, but you can help ensure your dog feels much more comfortable with others coming into their space. If your dog's behavior is of concern to you, contact us today to schedule a consultation and begin the process of your dog's behavioral adjustment process.