Aggression Cannot Be Trained Away

Courtesy of Fanna Easter, CPDT-KA, KPA CTP
www.dogtrainingnation.com - dog training tips, facts. and videos
May 26, 2016


Within the dog world, dog aggression is an extremely controversial topic. Not only is this topic hotly debated among dog trainers, but it’s also an explosive topic within the dog rescue world too. Many experts have strong lines drawn in the sand on both sides, so it’s become extremely difficult for pet owners of aggressive dogs to seek concrete answers. I’ll give my honest opinion as a professional dog trainer who has intimately worked with dog aggression cases for more than 20 years.

Aggression in Dogs Never Really Goes Away

It’s true, you can’t stop dog aggression completely. While this seems like grim news, it’s important for pet owners to understand that dog aggression never goes away. Once pet owners are empowered with this knowledge, they can positively change the majority of their dog’s aggressive behavior. However, they must know that aggression will always linger. With that said, pet owners shouldn’t become discouraged. They can certainly teach their dog to react differently in certain situations, but they must have realistic expectations.

Living in a reactive world is a tough path to follow, and I don’t believe dogs enjoy living in a constant state of anxiety, panic and fear. Anxious dogs learn that aggression works to stop a scary behavior from happening. Or they become so anxious, they just freak out and panic. Do know, aggression in dogs is genetic too. If a puppy’s parents and grandparents were fearful or reactive, there’s a high chance the puppy will be predisposed to reactivity.

Can We Rescue All Aggressive Dogs?

I don’t believe you can. Some dogs just can’t fight their anxiety demons and become a danger to society. It’s a horrible decision to make, but sometimes releasing these precious souls from their ever-haunting demons is the best thing we can do.

Have Realistic Expectations

Pet owners of aggressive dogs are probably wondering what exactly to expect from their aggressive dog during and after behavior protocols. Honestly, that’s a fair question.

Before I get into specifics, do know I’m speaking about realistic expectations for the majority of dogs. A small percent of dogs will blossom into friendly extroverts, but that’s a rarity. For the most part, the majority of aggressive dogs can successfully learn to offer a different behavior when they’re face-to-face with a trigger (i.e. thing that causes a dog to react). However, it takes time for an experienced dog trainer to coach an aggressive dog and lots of practice in a multitude of situations while keeping a safe distance away.

How to Deal With Dog Aggression
Dog Aggressive Toward Other Dogs
  • If a dog has been aggressive to other dogs, don’t expect him to enjoy playing with other dogs. The dog has been pretty clear in letting you know he doesn’t like other dogs, so listen to him.
  • Never allow a dog that has been aggressive to other dogs off leash to greet another dog. If this happens, you’re playing Russian roulette with the other dog’s life, which is cruel and punishable by law.
  • Expect your dog to politely ignore another dog from a safe distance, and your dog to determine that distance. Honestly, that’s a huge win in my book, especially if a dog constantly barks and lunges every time he sees a dog anywhere.
Dog Aggressive Toward Humans
  • It’s important to understand that a dog aggressive toward humans will never become a gregarious greeter.
  • If your dog has been aggressive to men, women or children, don’t expect him to enjoy interactions with people. You may need to crate your dog in another room, away from guests, which is what your dog wants. It’s not worth unraveling all your hard work due to a scary encounter with a person, which will likely end up with a dog bite.
  • Never force a human aggressive dog to meet people; you will only make it worse. Most fearful dogs will run away, which is a good thing! When a scared dog is unable to get away from a scary situation, he will likely bite, which can permanently damage a person and is punishable by law.
  • Do expect your dog to politely ignore a person from a safe distance, and understand your dog determines that distance with lots of practice.

Pet owners should stay away from false promises and unrealistic expectations from using specific aggressive dog training methods. There are no guarantees in dog training just like there are no guarantees in permanently changing human behavior. Some people will always be afraid of spiders, snakes, heights or dark rooms, but they learn to cope around those triggers.

Don’t Be Fooled by Shut Down Dogs

Just turn on your cable TV and watch a famous dog trainer punish a dog until the dog shuts down. While it looks like the dog is learning to tolerate humans or other dogs, he’s actually learning to shut down around these triggers. You may think “shutting down” is good right? The dog stops doing the behavior, so he must be fixed right? You’re wrong.

Shutting down is a false sense of hope that never lasts, and it’s cruel to dogs. If I punished a person so harshly that he rolled up into the fetal position while spiders crawled over his body, he’s not learning to not be afraid of spiders. Instead, he’s shutting down. He’s learning that spiders are truly horrible creatures, and his fear will become worse. If you’re afraid of strangers, can you imagine being punished harshly and frequently until you allow a stranger to touch you? That’s how a shut down dog feels, and that’s an awful way to live.

When Aggression Does Rear Its Ugly Head

Dogs (and people) can learn to tolerate and react differently (instead of freaking out) around their triggers, but if a scary thing sneaks up on them, they will usually revert back to old behavior. If a dog or person suddenly rounds the corner or pops up in your dog’s face, your dog will likely react. If you allow a dog aggressive dog to meet another dog, your dog will react. If you insist someone greets your human aggressive dog, he will react. Distance is your friend here, so use it often to prevent aggression from rearing its ugly head.

Most aggressive dogs can learn to react differently—they’re actually relieved to have options when it comes to dealing with their triggers. Just never push your dog into a situation he’s unable to handle.

*Fanna Easter has moved her training and behavior blogs to Animal Behavior College, where you can also find blogs on grooming and health. You can now read Fanna's blogs at www.animalbehaviorcollege.com/blog. Also check Animal Behavior College for certification programs for trainers, groomers, and veterinary assistants