Snarling. Growling. Biting. Aggressive dogs can be scary. But it's never too late to teach them better! But you may be wondering how to socialize an aggressive dog. The short answer? It takes time, repetition, and patience. If you stick with it, your dog will become confident, calm, and kind in no time.
The first step is figuring out what might be causing your dog's aggression. Really focus on your dog's behavior, find the source of their issue, and then implement the proper training. If you follow these steps, you'll soon socialize an aggressive dog with confidence.
What is Dog Aggression?
Aggression can encompass a wide range of behaviors that differ from dog to dog, but it essentially means the dog is acting threatening or violent. This behavior can occur for many reasons, and sometimes dog aggression result in attacks. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, aggression is the most common (and serious) behavior problem in canines.
While every dog has a different reason for acting aggressively, signs of an aggressive dog are almost always easy to identify. Look for the following behaviors if you suspect that a dog you're encountering is potentially aggressive:
- Threatening barks
- Baring their teeth or snarling
- Appearing stiff and on edge
- Lunging forward
- Snapping at their target
- Bites that range from a quick nip to repeated bites
Usually, dog aggression builds slowly. You'll first see them standing still and growling from afar. If escalated, this will then turn to lunging and snapping. After that, an aggressive dog might bite their target.
It's important to notice the beginning stages of aggression to avoid a potential attack. Unfortunately, dog bites can lead to traumatic injuries and even death.
Is Dog Aggression Normal?
It's not normal for your dog to act threatening to other people and pets. And it's definitely not normal for them to attack others.
If you notice that your dog growls menacingly at visitors or snaps at passing dogs during a walk, it's very important to identify the cause of their aggression. This is necessary so you can stop them from repeating this dangerous behavior.
When your dog acts aggressively, look for the following information:
- Who was your dog aggressive towards?
- What happened right before your dog started becoming aggressive?
- What was going on during that time?
- Where did your dog begin acting out?
- What was about to happen to your dog?
- What stopped your dog from continuing its aggressive behavior?
Though aggressive behavior is never acceptable, there are situations and instances when dogs are more prone to acting out. You may have to train your dog to handle these specific scenarios appropriately. The following are some common types of aggression that even the friendliest dogs may exhibit.
Even if it's a friend or family member, some dogs can get extremely protective of your home and your family. They will picture anyone approaching their territory as a dangerous intruder.
Since they are pack animals, dogs may also become aggressive outside of their territory if they believe you or another loved one is in danger. While having a guard dog is a comforting prospect, sometimes dogs can get out of hand if they get too tense in social situations.
Dogs might extend their aggression past territory and people. Some dogs will guard their possessions, including toys and food. They might become aggressive when someone approaches this item, even if the person is unaware they are near the toy or food bowl to begin with.
If a dog feels trapped or cornered, they might lash out. A usual response from animals (including dogs) is to flee when they feel threatened. So if they feel they are not able to escape, a dog might become very defensive. They might nip or bite, hoping to scare you away.
Some dogs act aggressively to assert their dominance. Dogs are pack animals, meaning they will often try to understand the hierarchy of their family early on. A dog that feels they are the boss might be aggressive towards family members and other dogs to prove their top spot in the pack.
You'll often hear of people getting bitten when they try to break up a dog fight. When a dog is acting aggressively towards a specific target and someone else intervenes, the dog might lash out automatically.
If your dog is experiencing discomfort, they might be overwhelmed and frustrated. This can lead to aggressive behavior like snapping at you if you touch certain spots or growling at people who walk by them as they lay down. If you suspect that your dog is in pain, contact a veterinarian immediately.
It's very important to always spay or neuter your dog. Like many animals, intact male dogs will strive to get the attention of females in heat, often leading to them attacking other male dogs. Female dogs are also prone to attack other female dogs for a similar reason.
Many dogs have a strong prey drive due to genetics and breeding. Some dogs like to chase or herd smaller animals and smaller people. This can sometimes lead to them nipping their target or becoming aggressive as if they are actual prey. A fast-moving animal (like a cat or small dog) might trigger this behavior in some dogs, causing them to bite.
When is Dog Aggression Abnormal? (or Excessive?)
As outlined above, there are many reasons that dogs might behave aggressively. But that doesn't mean all aggressive behavior is warranted. In fact, dogs can become excessively aggressive if not trained or socialized properly.
Your dog is abnormally aggressive if their behavior starts to scare — or hurt — people or other dogs. For example, a warning bark as a mail carrier approaches the door is normal. Your dog growling and baring its teeth when the mail carrier approaches can be concerning. A dog chasing the mail carrier, nipping at them, or biting them is abnormal — and dangerous.
Are Some Dog Breeds Prone to Aggression?
In 2016, there were an estimated 78 million pet dogs in the United States. This resulted in 4.5 million reported dog bites. Luckily, 81% of those bites didn't cause any injuries.
Studies of dog bites in the US concluded that Pitbulls were responsible for the highest percentage of reported bites at 22.5%. This was followed by mixed breeds, and then German Shepherds.
Another study done in 2013 concluded shorter and smaller dogs seemed to have higher levels of "owner-directed aggression." While bites from smaller dogs like a Chihuahua may not be alarming, the frequency in which smaller dogs act aggressively is still concerning. The study concluded that it may be because of how smaller dogs are handled and treated by their owners.
Does a dog's genetic makeup really identify if the dog will be aggressive? Dog breeds are characterized by physical and behavioral traits, which were picked out and purposefully continued over hundreds of generations to ensure the dogs were able to fulfill their specific duties (herding, lap warming). This means that certain dog breeds are predisposed to behave in a certain way, including aggressively.
While some breeds have genetic links to aggressive behavior, it's important to remember that the environment plays a huge role in how dogs behave. This includes how their family treats them and how they are trained as they grow up.
Early positive experiences — the most important being socialization — are key in preventing aggression in dogs (no matter the breed). It's important to show dogs how to interact, play, and communicate with other dogs and people at a young age. This will make aggressive behavior less likely as they mature.
How NOT to Socialize an Aggressive Dog
You might have heard some various how-to guides tell you how to control an aggressive dog. Most of these have been proven to be counterproductive by modern-day dog behaviorists. Here are some things owners often do that can actually make a dog more aggressive.
- Pull on their leash. This can make dogs act even more aggressively. They will start associating their proximity to other dogs with being punished. This will make them dislike other dogs even more and they will begin to bark and snap more often.
- Scare away the other dog. When you shout at the approaching dog or attempt to assert your dominance over it, this can reinforce your own dog to act aggressively to approaching dogs as well. Dogs will often mimic your emotions and actions.
- Shout at your own dog. When you shout at your dog they will become stressed. This will most likely make them even more prone to bark at you and other people and dogs. Your dog might begin to suppress their emotions to avoid punishment, leading to a sudden lash-out at other dogs and people without warning.
How to Socialize an Aggressive Dog with Other Dogs
If you want your pup to play nice with others, you must be persistent and patient. Here are some tried-and-true methods that can improve your dog's social behavior.
One of the most important things to do for an aggressive dog is to sign them up for obedience courses. This will not only give them consistent training from an expert but provide you with the tools on how to properly interact with your dog at home. Obedience courses will also expose your dog to other dogs.
Socialize Them Daily
Of course, there are also some things you can do on your own to reinforce their expert training. It's important to remember consistency when it comes to dog training. If you train your dog and practice with them daily, they will become more confident around other dogs.
Use Food as a Motivation
Most dogs are food motivated, so begin by showing your dog that they have to earn treats. How do they earn them? Good behavior! For a month, reiterate to your dog that they only get treats when they do something you like. This can be giving you their paw when asked or sitting in their crate while your family eats dinner at the table.
Train with Other Dogs You Trust
The next step in socializing an aggressive dog is getting them used to other canines. Often, their aggression towards other dogs is territorial, protective, or fearful. If they weren't socialized properly at a younger age, dogs might become overwhelmed and fearful in social interactions, especially outside of the home.
Start at a good distance from the other dog, making sure your dog is secured on a leash. Reward your dog for every few feet they go without acting aggressive. This may take months so you have to be consistent and patient with your dog. But you'll notice you can get closer and closer to the other dog with time.
Be Consistent During Walks
Once you can walk very close to another dog, it's time to take them for an actual walk. You'll need the assistance of a dog and owner you know. Every day, have the other pair head in your direction during a walk. Start off at a distance but let them approach closer each time. When your dog acts calm upon their approach, give your dog a treat.
Once your dog begins to understand that other dogs pose no threat, try incorporating other commands. When you notice a dog approaching during a walk, command your dog to "sit" or "lie down." The goal is for them to remain sitting and calm when another dog passes by.
If you notice during any of these stages that your dog won't listen and continues to pull on the leash, growl, or lunge at other dogs, there are ways in which you can "punish" them without force or fear. When your dog starts to pull you simply stop walking.
Your dog will notice that you're no longer letting them drag you around. You can even turn your back or start walking in the opposite direction. Over time, your dog will realize that acting aggressively means that the walk is interrupted and they lose your attention.
How to Socialize an Aggressive Dog with Humans
Socializing an aggressive dog with people is not difficult if you know what you're doing. Here's what you can do to help your dog's friendly nature come out around others.
For many dogs, certain qualities in an approaching person set them off. Sometimes it won't make any sense to you. But always be on the lookout for similarities in the people that cause your dog to growl or nip. Some common triggers include:
- Certain genders (men or women etc.)
- Certain clothing items (sunglasses, hats, backpacks)
- Particular physical attributes (height, facial hair)
- Specific items they are carrying or using (skateboards and bikes, trekking poles, wheelchairs, canes, etc.)
- Certain behaviors (loud, laughter, acting nervous)
Estimate Your Dog's Threshold
It's important to never overstimulate your dog. They may become overwhelmed and lash out. This can be dangerous. Make sure you figure out what makes them more comfortable, like walking in certain areas or how close they can be to people.
Have Safety Measures in Place
When socializing with an aggressive dog, you don't want to just invite people to your house and hope for the best. Aggressive dogs can bite, causing serious harm. Make sure your home is a safe place for the people and your dog before attempting to socialize them.
Safety measures include buying baby gates to help separate the two parties, getting blinds to cover your windows so your dog can't see people approaching, and training your dog to use a crate properly. When your dog is comfortable in its crate it will be much easier to keep them safely away from people if needed.
You should also make sure you have basic obedience down. Your dog should know how to "sit" and "come" before you invite someone over. Teach them "watch me" and "leave it" to enforce good behavior.
Use Plenty of Treats
Treats are essential for reinforcing good behavior. They also help your dog establish a positive association with things they previously found frightening or threatening.
For example, if your dog is aggressive towards men with beards, invite a friend over that matches this description. Start easy and have your friend stand on the other side of the street. If your dog doesn't start barking from your yard, give them a treat.
Gradually move your dog closer to the friend. This may take days — even months. If you notice your dog growling or showing aggressive behavior, take them away from the situation. This will reset the training. Start a bit further from the trigger once your dog returns.
Once your dog can approach the person without acting aggressively, have that person give your dog treats. Remember to keep these sessions very short to avoid overwhelming or overstimulating your dog. Think five to ten minutes per day.
Pro Tip: Try Using CBD
It doesn't hurt to have some backup during these training sessions! CBD is a non-psychoactive found in hemp — meaning it won't get your dog high. That's because there's no THC. It's not only safe for your dog, but it can help stabilize their mood.
CBD can keep them calm and provide some soothing benefits while you attempt to socialize a dog that usually acts aggressively. It does this by interacting with the receptors in your dog's endocannabinoid system (ECS). This is what helps keep them well-balanced and healthy, including stabilizing their mood.
Final Thoughts - How to Socialize an Aggressive Dog
It's hard to socialize an aggressive dog — but it can be done. You just need patience, understanding, and plenty of treats.
The first step is to figure out what is causing your dog to behave aggressively. There are many reasons dogs may start growling, nipping, snarling, and biting. Once you figure out the cause, it's easier to provide training that helps your dog become more confident in these particular situations.
The most important thing to remember is it's not too late. An aggressive dog can be trained and socialized. Just remember to be careful, have safety measures in place, and even reach out to behavioral experts and obedience schools. Some CBD dog treats never hurt either! Keep learning about dog care with these resources.