June 6, 2017

Most dogs will, at some point in their lives, exhibit an unacceptable behavior, such as house soiling, jumping on people, chewing inappropriate objects, digging or excessive barking. These behaviors can generally be minimized or stopped through regular exercise, obedience training and/or various preventative measures.

For example, teaching a dog to chew on appropriate items, such as chew toys, can reduce his chewing on inappropriate ones. Pet retailers can and should offer tips to their clients and/or referrals to local dog trainers who can assist them in addressing common behavioral challenges.

While most owners expect and are usually tolerant of occasional glitches in behavior, especially in puppies, the one behavior that is not tolerated is aggression. Aggression in this case refers to when a dog growls, snaps, snarls at or bites a person for any reason.

Dogs become aggressive for many reasons, and in order to address the behavior, owners need to first understand their dog’s motivation. Fear can cause aggression, but so can dominance. An owner or trainer must work with a fearful dog much differently than they would with a confident, dominant one.

When dealing with fear-based aggression, owners need to know that the aggression isn’t the problem—it is the symptom. The problem is the fear and the solution involves counter–conditioning, which means teaching the dog to make positive associations with whatever is causing him to be fearful. Once owners eliminate the fear, they will have addressed the aggression’s underlying motivation, and it either goes away or is much easier to treat.

In addition to fear or dominance, dogs can become aggressive due to pain, their genetic predisposition and territoriality. Regarding the latter, I have known dogs who would bite strangers without hesitation when they were in their home environment. However, in a neutral environment, these same dogs would exhibit no aggressive tendencies at all when meeting strangers.

Dogs can also learn to become aggressive. Many owners don’t realize that most aggressive behavior is at least partially learned. I once worked on a case that perfectly illustrates learned aggression.

A gentleman was concerned about his 3-year-old, 85-pound female Doberman, Honey, who would growl and snarl at guests coming to his door and into his home. He told me this behavior started when the dog was about 10 months old. She had been obedience trained in a group class, but the behavior hadn’t manifested itself there. Before I went to his home, I instructed the owner to have his dog on a leash for safety reasons.

When I arrived, the dog ran to the door and started barking. About 15 seconds later, the owner came to the door and told Honey to stop barking—she didn’t. I calmly greeted the owner while his dog snarled at me. To my surprise, the owner reached down and scooped Honey into his arms. He was a large man and had no problem holding his 85-pound dog. He then started cooing at her while he stroked her head to calm her down. She stopped growling at me after about three minutes. He continued holding her this way for 10 minutes before he put her on the floor. At that point, the dog was fine and greeted me in a friendly fashion.

It turned out the owner always responded this way to his dog’s behavior. I explained that holding and petting her as a way of stopping the behavior actually rewarded it. Once he understood how his behavior was exacerbating his dog’s aggression, we worked on a treatment program to teach alternative acceptable behaviors.

Owners complaining about their dogs’ aggressive behavior will often say the aggression suddenly started at a certain point in time. While this is possible, it is more common for dogs to exhibit less obvious forms of aggressive behavior for many months before doing something that the owners can’t misread or ignore.

Because aggression is potentially dangerous, retailers should refer customers to a knowledgeable professional, such as an applied animal behaviorist or a certified applied animal behaviorist. Dog trainers who specialize in aggression and have a minimum of seven years of experience working with this behavior can also be considered

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