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Canine Aggression Part 5: How to Help

Working with People

If asked as a canine coach or behavioural professional to help a family help their dog who is struggling with aggressive behaviours it is important to first have an understanding of what the family is feeling and to be able to empathize with them. Some people who seek help may come across as truly frustrated with their dogs behaviour and almost seem angry that their dog is acting the way they are, as if it’s something personal on the part of the dog. Others may be at the point where they are afraid to take their dog out of the house because of the danger they feel other animals and/or people may be in if their dog reacts. Some may even be at the stage where they are considering giving the dog up, or euthanizing their pet as they see no way of improving their situation. Living with a dog that you love who displays aggressive behaviours towards other people or animals in any situation can be a very draining and difficult thing to manage. It is not uncommon for people to feel embarrassed of their dogs behaviour and their inability to help, guilty if they come to realize that they have inadvertently done something to encourage or reinforce the behaviour, isolated if they are unable to have their dog around other people and sad/depressed at the loss of the life with their dog that they dreamed about when they first brought their dog home. Relationships can end because of aggressive dogs and in extreme cases other animals and people can be seriously injured. Taking time to listen to the concerns of the people involved in the situation with the dog can go a long way in gaining a greater level of motivation in doing the things that need to be done to help the dog. Helping a dog overcome aggression takes commitment, consistency, time and patience and unless the family responsible for the dog is on board the likelihood of enough progress being made is slim.

Learning Theory and Training Styles

People can sometimes be the cause of a dog’s aggressive behaviours, knowingly and unknowingly, due to the training methods used when working to teach a dog new behaviours and skills. Dogs learn in a variety of ways, and how quickly a dog will learn something (or whether they will learn it at all) depends on many different factors. A dog’s previous learned experiences, their individual personality the amount of exercise they receive, the quality of their daily nutrition, the amount of additional enrichment they receive can play a role in the ability of a dog to learn a new behaviour. In addition, the methods used will impact the learning either in a positive or negative way. It is important to carefully consider the individual needs of a dog, monitor their physical and emotional well-being as well ensure that we are using only positive methods when attempting to teach our dogs something new.

To be ‘conditioned’ means to have ‘learned’ something. In her article “Counter Classical or Counter Operant?” Patrica McConnell describes two types of conditioning methods – Classical and Operant. In classical conditioning we are helping a dog learn a new behaviour by linking an emotion or event with a stimulus. For example, when we get our car keys out to leave the house we might always present our dog with a frozen kong, which makes them happy…the keys become the conditioned stimulus for the happy feeling that occurs when our dog gets the kong. Operant conditioning is about reinforcing a behaviour through either positive or negative reinforcement (or punishment). Both positive and negative reinforcement increase the likelihood of a behaviour occurring, but positive reinforcement is adding something good to the situation (e.g. a treat) and negative reinforcement is removing something bad (e.g. a ‘scary’ person leaves). Punishment can also be positive and negative, and both types decrease the likelihood of a behaviour occurring. Positive punishment involves adding punishment to stop a behaviour (e.g. using an electrical shock to stop a dog from lunging at other dogs in the moment) and negative punishment involves taking away something that a dog would like (e.g. removing a toy because your dog did not sit when asked). The preferable way to work with and interact with a dog is through positive reinforcement.

Positive Reinforcement

There are many ways of coaching a dog to learn a new behaviour, but not all take into consideration he physical and emotional well-being of the animal. When choosing a method of conditioning to use with our dogs, we must consider these two factors as well as the dog as an individual. A dog’s prior learning history, they’re level of optimism and confidence, and their past experiences with humans, food and toys will all need to be considered…in short, we need to train the dog in front of us and be flexible in our approach.

Positive reinforcement is a type of operant conditioning where a behaviour is rewarded with something that is seen as reinforcing to the dog – “’Positive reinforcement’ is always, by definition, decided by the receiver, not by the ‘giver’.” (McConnell, 2015). In her article on this very topic, Patricia McConnell writes about how whether something is considered a reward by a dog really depends on the individual dog. Some dogs may absolutely go crazy for a rubber kong ball, while others pay them no mind and would much rather chase something fluffy that is moving away from them.

Choosing an appropriate, high-value reward, and timing its delivery correctly (as well as considering the rate and method of delivery) can make using positive reinforcement an easy, low stress method of conditioning a new behaviour in our dogs. Dogs who love to chase might be rewarded by bowling food or a toy across the floor or chasing us to practice a recall, allowing our dog to run into a pond to swim can be a reward for recalling away from another dog, some dogs respond to verbal praise, while others may prefer a calm and gentle stroke on their chest. By knowing our dogs and what they love to spend their time doing we can incorporate these things into our reinforcement repertoire making our training sessions fun and enjoyable.

When we are spending time reinforcing behaviour that we do want to see, by default we are decreasing the likelihood of others occurring. Ken Ramirez writes, “I look for ways to reinforce desired behavior instead of focusing attention on getting rid of unwanted behavior. I acknowledge that if one behavior is increasing in frequency, there is likely another behavior that is decreasing at the same time. Looking at behavior that way, reinforcement and punishment are, by default, occurring all the time for every trainer in all learning situations.” (Ramirez, 2015). By ensuring that we have highly desirable reinforcers for our dogs, we can diminish the feeling of ‘punishment’ that might be occurring as we work to build up a new behaviour.

Studies have shown an association between punishment-based methods of training and aggressive behaviours. “Casey et al (2013) found that owners who used methods based on positive punishment and negative reinforcement were more likely to report their dog was aggressive towards family members or strangers outside. Rooney and Cowan (2011) filmed dogs and owners interacting at home, and found owners who reported using punishment had dogs that were less playful and interacted less with the experimenter than those whose owners used positive reinforcement.” (Todd, 2014). Training methods matter when it comes to doing what is best for a dog’s emotional and physical well-being. Choosing a punishment-based method can increase stress, fear and in some cases pain which all increase the likelihood of a dog resorting to aggressive behaviours.

Dealing with an Aggressive Dog

Knowing canine body language and being familiar with canine calming signals can come in useful if ever faced with a situation where you encounter an aggressive dog, or will be working with a dog to help them through their struggles. Avoiding eye contact can help let the dog know that you mean no harm, as can turning your head to the side, blinking your eyes slowly and even licking your lips in an appeasement gesture. Upon seeing a dog who appears to be in an aggressive state, stay quiet and move slowly away and an angle to the dog. Running may trigger the predatory chase drive. If possible, keep an object in between yourself and the dog, protect your head and neck if necessary and cross your arms up over your chest if approached by it. Having a strong understanding of canine communication signals and the Canine Ladder of Aggression can help in identifying the subtle signs that things as escalating for the dog. Being able to see these and then work to de-escalate the behaviour before a dog is pushed beyond its limits is important. The more rehearsal a dog has of a behaviour the more likely it will occur again. Un-doing past well-rehearsed choices can be difficult. Using counter conditioning and desensitisation separately and combined have been effective in helping dogs overcome their tendency to respond with aggressive behaviours.

Counter Conditioning and De-sensitisation

On of the most important things that we should remember when working to help a dog overcome its fear of something is that we must allow them time to approach the stimulus on their own terms, in their own time. Forcing a dog to confront something head on can have negative consequences. Two common behaviour modification techniques that allow a dog to do this are desensitization and counter-conditioning.

De-sensitisation involves slowly exposing a dog to a trigger at its safe distance, when the dog is in a calm and relaxed state, and then slowly moving closer to the trigger (or have the trigger move closer to the dog) as the dog is comfortable. “By letting the dog investigate from a safe distance, he is empowered to choose appropriate behaviour and observe the natural outcome.” (Grisha Stewart, ‘Behaviour Adjustment Training 2.0’, 2016). It is important to continually monitor the dog for signs of stress and to increase the distance if these are noticed, and to not move the dog into its critical zone where reacting will occur. If this happens, you may risk actually “sensitising” your dog to the trigger even more, and that is the opposite of what you would like to see. Different triggers will require different distances depending on the comfort level of the dog, and even identical triggers engaging in different activities (e.g. a running dog versus a dog sitting down) can cause different fear responses in a dog. Being in tune with these details will help an owner best identify the safe distance that is needed in order for their dog to remain calm in the presence of the trigger.

Counter-conditioning can be time consuming, but it is a simple process that works to retrain a dog’s brain, creating new neural pathways that contain positive associations to stimuli that used to be associated with negativity. It “theoretically changes the emotional charge (valance) of a stimulus” (Grisha Stewart, ‘Behaviour Adjustment Training 2.0’, 2016). If using this method to help a dog with their fear, you begin by rewarding tiny steps that the dog takes in being calm and confident around the trigger. For example, you might reward being in the same room with the trigger, then looking at it, sniffing it, nosing or pawing it etc. As the dog appears to become more comfortable with each step, you can try progressing to the next. Do not force the dog to interact, keep sessions short, go slowly and watch the dog carefully for signs of anxiety or fear. It is important to time your reward appropriately…see the trigger, then treat. If it is children a dog is reactive to and you treat *before* the child appears, you may inadvertently condition your dog to refuse taking treats (Grisha Stewart, ‘Behaviour Adjustment Training 2.0’, 2016). With counter-conditioning, you must be ready to reward your dog with every single exposure to the trigger (e.g. dogs…if the sometimes get a treat when they see a dog, and sometimes do not, this method will take a very long time and you may not get the results you are looking/hoping for.

Both de-sensitisation and counter-conditioning are preferred behaviour modification techniques to flooding, which is an old and outdated method of behaviour modification with a high rate of failure and the risk of causing irreparable harm to the dog. The idea behind flooding is that if you repeatedly expose you dog to a trigger then they will eventually relax as their body cannot maintain the high level of stress that they will be in when in the presence of the trigger for extended periods of time. It is thought that at this point of ‘relaxation’, the dog has a chance to realize that there is no need to be afraid and that it is alright to relax around the trigger. The risk with using this method is that we can easily escalate a fear response into an aggressive act if the dog is pushed over its threshold.

Providing a fearful or aggressive dog with support and encouragement builds relationship and trust. Often, de-sensitisation and counter-conditioning are used alongside one another (e.g. feeding treats while seeing another dog from a safe distance). Recovery from a fear response takes time and it may be necessary to avoid all triggers for a period of time to allow the dog’s ‘stress bucket to empty’ (Dr. Tom Mitchell, ‘How to Be a Concept Trainer’, 2018) before beginning with either of these two techniques. The end goal is to change the dog’s emotional and behavioural response to the stimuli so that all future encounters with it is a ‘non-issue’.

Concept Training

In addition to utilizing counter-conditioning and de-sensitisation to help a dog see triggers in a more positive light, we can actively work to build up other concepts in our dog’s brain that will help decrease the chance of aggression occurring. From a concept training perspective, dogs who resort to aggression often lack optimism and confidence. This is especially true for aggressive responses stemming from fear. Dogs who see novel people or other animals and are pessimistic assume that those novel things must be something to be worried about and the fear response in the body is triggered. By playing games to build a dog’s confidence in novel situations and build their optimism we can grow new neural pathways in their brain that lead them to making more appropriate choices over aggression. Disengagement, impulse control and calmness are also areas that often need building in dogs who have strong reactions to their environment. If we build the ability to disengage and learn that there is value in coming away from things (such as a bone or another dog), we can prevent aggression relating to resource guarding and aggression that results from inappropriate dog-dog interactions. Dogs who learn that a person approaching while they have valued food or toy means that something even better than that food or toy will appear will happily leave their resource rather than feeling the need to protect it.

One of the most important concepts for a dog to have is being able to remain in a default state of calm. Calm dogs are able to make better choices as they remain well below their threshold of coping capacity, which reduces the likelihood of reactive responses to situations in general. The Russell Dimensional Model of Emotions, developed by James Russell puts emotions on a spectrum of negative to positive and then low to high arousal. Calmness falls into the positive and low arousal quadrant of the model, whereas aggressive behaviours fall into the negative and high arousal quadrant. In between calmness and reactive/aggressive behaviours are excitement (positive and high arousal) and worry/fear (negative and low arousal). A dog in a default state of calmness is then always at least two steps away from demonstrating reactive behaviours. Dogs living in a state of fear/worry or constant excitement can very quickly find they are pushed beyond their coping threshold and we then see aggressive responses to things they might normally be able to ‘brush off’. Enriching the lives of dogs with games, puzzle toys, scent work, chews, appropriate play and physical activity, time to rest can all help to promote a calmer state of mind and increase mental well-being.

Pharmacological Treatments

In some more severe cases of aggression the use of medications may be necessary to make working with a dog possible. It is important to understand that medications do not treat the aggression directly but work to help manage underlying conditions that may be contributing factors in the dog’s behaviour. Their use can help to make dogs less fearful and calmer, making it easier to implement other behaviour modification techniques and increase the ability of the dog to learn. Consulting with a qualified and experienced veterinary behaviourist should be done to determine whether medications may be helpful for a particular dog. Because these medications act on the neurotransmitters in the dog’s brain, only dogs who have an imbalance in these neurotransmitters will be affected by the medication. A dog who is physically balanced in this way but who experienced a negative interaction with a dog as a puppy and so is now reactive to other dogs may not benefit from taking medication.

Some common medications used to help dogs who struggle with aggression are:

· Fluoxetine (‘Reconcile’) - used primarily for owner directed aggression, dog-dog aggression and separation related behaviours

· Sertraline (‘Zoloft’) - used for owner directed aggression and separation related behaviours

· Amitriptyline (‘Elavil’) - used for fear aggression as well as owner directed aggression and separation related behaviours

· Buspirone and Clomipramine (‘Clomicalm’) - used to treat anxiety and compulsive disorders (fear, noise phobias and separation anxiety)

· Propanolol (‘Intensol’) – used to treat general anxiety and fear aggression

· Risperidone – used to treat social directed aggression and impulsive aggression, as well as hallucinatory symptoms (still considered and experimental treatment)

Natural Remedies

As with pharmacological options, natural remedies for dog aggression work to help manage underlying contributing factors to the behaviour and so cannot be relied on to ‘fix’ the behaviour on their own. Their use can help to diminish fear, anxiety, pain, and stress however, which can then make it easier to implement a behaviour modification program that will be more effective. Holistically based medicine that includes the ingredients of skullcap, chamomile, tryptophan, passion flower and thiamine have been found to be useful for some dogs displaying aggressive behaviours. Both Skullcap and chamomile have been shown to help reduce stress and anxiety. For dogs who display aggressive behaviour that appears to ‘come out of nowhere’, belladonna might be beneficial. Passion flower promotes relaxation and soothes tension making it useful for dogs who may be on edge in their home due to other animals, children or noises. Tryptophan aids the body in increasing levels of serotonin which helps to calm the mind and Thiamine enhances the body’s immune system, making it able to tolerate and cope with stress more easily.

Natural remedies can often be purchased over the counter and come in liquid, capsule/pill, essential oils and powdered form. Consulting a holistic veterinarian to determine whether a natural remedy may help a dog struggling with aggression should be done, alongside consulting a trainer or behaviourist for help in working on modifying the behaviour at the same time.

The Dunbar Bite Scale and Considering Euthanasia

Aggression may not always escalate to a bite, but when it does it can help to take note of the severity in order to better understand the intentions behind it and what the next steps in helping the dog should be. The earlier any signs of aggressive behaviour can be noticed and dealt with, the better the prognosis for the dog. Dr. Ian Dunbar has developed the Dunbar Bite Scale which outlines a progression of severity seen in dog bites:

· Level 1 – no skin contact by the teeth, but an attempt was made

· Level 2 – skin contact but no punctures, small nicks on the skin are possible as is bleeding from horizontal scraping of the teeth

· Level 3 – 1-4 shallow punctures that go no deeper than half of the dog’s tooth, lacerations in one direction caused by the person or dog pulling away

· Level 4 – 1-4 punctures with one deeper than half a tooth, single bite, bruising, and lacerations in multiple directions due to the dog shaking its head from side to side

· Level 5 – multiple level 4 bites in either a single or separate attack

· Level 6 – severe enough to cause the death of a person or animal

If a dog is reacting at Level 4 they are considered a ‘dangerous dog’ and it is at this point that training and behaviour modification becomes increasingly difficult. It is likely that dogs reaching this level have regularly practiced the behaviour and have seen ‘success’ as far as what they were hoping to accomplish and so it is far more likely that they will resort to the same behaviour again in the future. This does not mean that they are not able to be helped, just that it will take an extremely high amount of consistency and commitment from the guardians, with the help of qualified professionals, in order to manage the behaviour and see progress. These dogs may always need to be kept at home and muzzled when going out for the safety of others.

Once a dog is at the point where their bites are resulting in the death of others, euthanasia may be the kindest option for them. While not an easy decision, rehabilitation will be a long and difficult road. The dog will likely have a small chance of rehabilitation and will need to be confined and have their access to people and other animals restricted. This is not a good way to live, and while it is likely that the dog ended up progressing to the stage that it did through no fault of its own euthanasia may be the safest option for everyone if the quality of life of the dog cannot be maintained while working towards an acceptable level of rehabilitation.


Every country, and every province/territory/state/municipality within a country, has its own laws as they relate to dogs and what happens to dogs who have been reported to bite or who have been deemed ‘dangerous’. In some areas muzzles may be required whenever the dog is outside of its primary residence, and some may not be allowed off of their property. A dog deemed ‘dangerous’ in one location may need to be euthanized or re-homed to another area of the country. Each owner is ultimately responsible for the behaviour of their dog and even if an incident happens that is instigated by another person or animal, a dog who bites may find themselves at risk. Preventing interactions that may result in conflict for your dog when out and about is important. Working with a trainer and/or behaviourist at the fist signs of aggressive behaviour could end up saving a dog’s life.


Dogs displaying aggressive behaviours are communicating their feelings about the situation they are in in the only way they know how given their internal emotional state. So many things can contribute to an aggressive response that they at times may appear to come out of nowhere. That is not often the case. Dogs communicate their fear, anxiety, stress and unhappiness to us and other dogs in subtle ways, and if things are not rectified after attempting to utilize those signals escalation occurs, and we see aggressive outbursts. Living with a dog who resorts to barking, growling, snapping and possibly even biting can be emotionally draining, isolating, and frustrating. The dog is likely also feeling similarly. When we can get to the bottom of what is causing the internal state of the dog to be unbalanced we are in a better position to support them and work with them to make them feel less of a need to react the way the are. Considering the whole dog, from their physical, emotional and mental well-being, environmental factors, their early learning and social experiences, as well as possible genetic influences we can put the pieces of the puzzle together so that an appropriate plan can be created to help them.


Canine Behaviour Professional Diploma Coursebook by Canine Principles (2019)

Canine Coaching Diploma Coursebook by Canine Principles (2019)

Canine Reactive Behaviour Coursebook by Canine Principles (2019)

Canine Anxiety Coursebook by Canine Principles (2019)

Canine Fear Coursebook by Canine Principles (2019)

“Behaviour Adjustment Training 2.0” By Grisha Stewart (2016)

“How to Be a Concept Trainer” By Thomas Mitchell (2019)

“On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals” Turid Rugaas. Dogwise Publishing (2005)

Super Trainer Live 2014, Absolute Dogs: Presentation by Jan Windsor “Sense and Sensibility in Dogs”

“If Your Dog is Aggressive, Maybe it is in Pain” Science Daily (2013):

“Managing the Risk of Aggressive Dog Behaviour” Science Daily (2019):

“The Danger of Redirected Aggression in Dogs” Nicole Wilde (2017):

“Words at Work: Learning Terms Like “Positive Punishment” Can Be Positively Punishing.” By Patricia MCconnell (Feb, 2008):

“Counter Classical or Counter Operant?” By Patrica McConnell (Feb, 2011):

“Positive Reinforcement is Defined by the Receiver, Take Two” By Patricia McConnel (April, 2015):

The Animal Training Academy Podcast: (Episode 97) Dr. Patricia McConnell – The Human-Animal Relationship (July 23, 2019 by Ryan Cartlidge):

“Life History and Owner's Nature Shape a Dog's Personality” by Stanley Coren (Jul, 2013):

“Does Genetics Determine a Dog's Personality?” by Stanley Coren (Apr, 2013):

"Serotonin Syndrome in Dogs: Symptoms, Causes and Treatments":

"Neurotransmitters and Behaviour: Dog Behaviour (2020)":

“The Importance of Early Life Experience for the Development of Behavioural Disorders in Domestic Dogs” (Dietz et al, 2019) Behaviour, vol 155: issue 2-3:

“The Effects of Early Experience on the Development of Inter and Intraspecies Social Relationships in the Dog.” (Fox et al, 1967) Animal Behaviour, vol 15: issue 2-3:

“The Canine Predatory Instinct” by Pat Miller (2019) The Whole Dog Journal:

“Warning: Predatory Drift Happens at Dog Parks. Do You Know What it Is?:

"Nutrition and Behaviour” by Stephen Zilber (2017):

“Dog Aggression – Help for an Aggressive Dog”

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