Why Your Dog's Aggression Isn't Improving


If you're dealing with a dog aggression issue, you might feel like you've tried everything.

Why doesn't your dog listen to you when he's barking, lunging, or in the middle of some sort of aggressive response?

Let's troubleshoot some of the common mistakes that well-meaning owners (and even trainers) make when trying to resolve aggression in dogs.

Trying to punish away the behavior.

Dog aggression is not a punishable offense. Aggression can be frightening, frustrating, and in some cases, downright dangerous, so why isn't it something we should correct using punishment?

It boils down to a simple truth of changing behavior in any species: you cannot punish or reinforce an emotional response.

Obedience and aggression are unrelated; even the most perfectly "trained" dog can still be aggressive, and teaching a dog an excellent "sit" and "stay" will not resolve aggression.

It's the reason why you could be yelling at your dog to "sit" when he's barking at a person, and he ignores you.

It's the reason why you could wave a hot steak in your dog's face when he's lunging at another dog on leash, and he would ignore it.

Your dog isn't listening to you because for your dog, safety and survival trumps everything.

Working Under Threshold

So let's talk about the concept of safety and survival and how it applies to dog aggression.

A confident dog generally does not feel any need to resort to an aggressive response. Contrary to traditional belief, aggression is not related to rank, dominance, or trying to be some sort of pack leader. More on that here.

Dogs that bark, lunge, nip, bite, etc. are generally uncomfortable with the thing that they are in conflict with, and the aggressive responses are an effort to keep themselves safe.

Punishment can only serve to temporarily suppress the symptoms that come from an aggressive dog. Those symptoms may include barking, growling, lunging, and the like.

With a strong enough punisher (shock, spray, leash correction), you can effectively eliminate those symptoms quickly.

But by punishing the symptoms, we have done nothing to eliminate the underlying emotional issue causing the symptoms. We've put a bandaid on the real problem, and bandaids always fall off eventually.

And beyond that, we've created an even more unpleasant association for the animal. In the presence of the very thing they are already uncomfortable around, they receive an unpleasant correction.

So the real danger is in what happens next time, especially if the punisher isn't present as a threat.

You might find that your dog doesn't bark, lunge, or growl at the threat (we've punished away those options); instead, he skips the "symptoms" that have been punished and bites.

Check out the Ladder of Dog Aggression to see the order in which aggressive responses progress over time.

So How Do We Fix Dog Aggression?

Aggression is an incredibly complex topic, and every single case is different. Some aggression cases are entirely fixable, while others will always require a level of management.

Anyone who blindly tells you they can completely and permanently resolve any aggression case, guaranteed, is either lying or incredibly ignorant about dog behavior.

Truly modifying aggressive behavior is best done with a behaviorist or dog behavior expert who truly understands animal behavior. (Do your research with folks who call themselves "behaviorists" – it is an often misappropriated term, and is designated for a person who has an advanced degree in applied animal behavior.)

So, to resolve aggression, we have to:

1) Use desensitization and counterconditioning to help your dog feel better in the presence of the things that scare him, and…

2) Teach him more appropriate coping mechanisms.

Find good articles explaining these concepts in depth here and here.

Working Under Threshold

When utilizing the above techniques, it's critical that you are working "under threshold," meaning your dog is not barking, lunging, or overly fixated on the threat.

Many well-meaning pet owners try accurate techniques, but try to move too quickly or work too close to the trigger your dog is bothered by.

You must find a distance and intensity level that your dog can handle today, and then move closer as he gets comfortable over time.

If there were a threatening person in a room with you, and a friend asked you to recite the alphabet, offering you a million dollars to do so, you would likely ignore them and continue to watch the potential threat.

Once the scary person moved far enough away that you felt safe, you'd likely turn back to them, ready to recite the alphabet, and ask "how about that million dollars?" But you had to address the immediate threat first.

It's why your dog ignores you when he's in the middle of an aggressive response.

Prognosis Indicators for Aggressive Dogs

If you're wondering if your dog aggression problem is fixable, here are a few indicators of the likelihood of success:

  • How long has the dog been performing the aggressive behavior? The longer the issue has been going on, the more difficult long-term success can be to attain.
  • How many triggers does the dog have? Predictable, specific aggressive responses are easier to fix than general, unpredictable ones. For example, if your dog only aggresses towards males when they approach on leash, that's an easier fix than a dog who aggresses towards all people regardless of gender, location, etc.
  • Has the dog bitten before? It's difficult to go back down the ladder of aggression once a dog has already resorted to biting.
  • How severe are the bites? Use this scale for referenceThe lower on the bite scale your dog's bites are, the better the prognosis.
  • How committed are you to your dog's long-term success? If you've got one foot out the door, success will be unattainable. Fixing dog aggression is not quick or easy in most cases, but with the right dog training expert, it can be done.

For help with your dog training or dog behavior issue in the North Atlanta, GA area, including Milton, Roswell, Alpharetta, Cumming, Johns Creek, Dunwoody, Sandy Springs, Peachtree Corners, Chamblee, Brookhaven, and surrounding areas, contact us here

2 thoughts on “Why Your Dog's Aggression Isn't Improving

  1. My dog agressive standard poodle is four . WE have had five excellent trainers done one on one as well as true obediedance training using choke than ecollars which made the Ashma worse.As I have a female dog which he also protects this makes matters harder to control . He has once bitten a child and a dog on a quiet neighborhood walk , I have to keeep him at a half block distance and turn around to avoid the trigger. a treat is not enough once he goes off.Any ideas I love this dog and hate to walk him .Thank you

    1. I would suggest enlisting the help of a professional, as it's difficult to give sound behavior advice online without more significant history-taking. Happy to provide a referral in your area!

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