How to Help an Aggressive or Reactive Dog


Do you think your dog might be reactive, or even aggressive? Some reactivity is normal and necessary for survival, but when is it time to get help? Maybe you’re frustrated or embarrassed by your dog’s meltdowns when deliveries come, or sad or even scared by your dog’s barking and lunging at neighborhood dogs. It doesn’t mean you have a bad dog, or that you’re a bad dog guardian. But it does mean your dog needs help handling her feelings about certain parts of her life.

Emotions drive behavior. So, if your dog doesn’t have the necessary skills to cope with what scares her, her response is likely to be flight, freeze, or fight. Michael Shikashio, a certified behavior consultant who specializes in aggressive dogs,  says, “I don’t differentiate between reactivity and aggression; they’re one and the same. We look at the actual behavior.” Usually, aggressive behavior is rooted in fear and “meant to threaten distance from a provocative stimulus,” Michael says.

Causes of fear-based aggression vary but could be related to:

  • improper socialization
    during early development
  • learning history
  • environment
  • trauma
  • genetics

Dog aggressive or reactive triggers

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Say your dog’s stimulus, or trigger, is strangers. When she sees them she tries to create distance and hides (flight). But maybe a well-meaning stranger gets closer, so she freezes. Then the person reaches out to pet her, and she snaps or bites (fight).

Or suppose the trigger is other dogs and she barks and lunges, trying to make the scary things go away. If the dogs do go away (or even just keep walking in the direction they were headed anyway) she feels her behavior “worked” and will likely display these behaviors again. Unless she gets help.

Here are some typical triggers that cause aggression in dogs:

  • Strangers
  • Other dogs
  • Cats; squirrels, chipmunks or other critters
  • Visitors to the home or delivery people
  • Grooming procedures (especially nail trimming) or other handling
  • Being bothered while resting or sleeping
  • Resource guarding (protecting food, chews, toys, sleeping areas, etc.) — is a normal behavior that can escalate if not addressed early on

Aggressive behavior signs

So, what does aggressive behavior look like? A wagging tail isn’t always a sign of friendliness or happiness!

A dog’s body language must be evaluated as a whole, but look for:

  • Hard stare or “whale eye”
  • Body pitched forward
  • Tight mouth or corners of the
    mouth in a “C” or “V”
  • Ears pricked forward
  • Upright tail, could be wagging/
  • Tense body

More obvious signs of aggression would include:

  • barking
  • lunging
  • snarling
  • snapping
  • biting

“Nips” are bites! And if your dog growls, don’t punish him, even verbally. A growl is a warning — punishing her means your dog may not give that gift next time.

Body language signs of fear

Because fear is the most common cause of aggression, recognizing when your dog is afraid and supporting her is key.

Look for:

  • Tucked tail
  • Cowering
  • Ears pulled back
  • Head turned to the side
    and/or eyes averted
  • Lip licking, tongue flicking
  • Yawning
  • Panting or closed mouth
  • Hypervigilance
  • Pacing
  • Moving away

How to stop dog aggressive behavior

If you observe aggressive body language or behavior, here is what you should do:

  1. Manage the behavior by removing your dog from the situation before things escalate.
  2. Any dog exhibiting aggressive behavior should have a thorough exam to rule out medical causes, especially if the behavior has a sudden onset. Michael emphasizes, “In many aggression cases there’s an underlying medical issue or a need for behavior meds or other support, starting with the veterinarian.”
  3. After ruling out medical concerns, the focus is on emotions. Certified behavior consultant Pat Miller says, “Fear-related aggression is by far the most common presentation of aggression I see in my behavior practice.” If you believe your dog might be aggressive, it’s critical to seek professional help as soon as possible. The professional trainer will create a behavior treatment plan tailored specifically for your dog after an assessment.
  4. In the meantime, prioritize safety. Manage your dog’s environment to protect people, especially children and other animals. Limit, or even eliminate, when possible, her exposure to triggers as much as possible until you can implement a training plan. This might include using exercise pens, baby gates or even putting your dog in another room to prevent exposure to visitors or delivery people. Feeling the need to react, even aggressively, is no fun for your dog, so give her a safe place to go. Add a food puzzle toy, to make it a good thing. If your dog is triggered by strangers, other dogs or outside critters, walk your dog in less busy areas at less busy times, and when critters are less active. Anticipate triggers when possible and set up your dog for success. Also consider properly training your dog to a well-fitted muzzle. Don’t just put the muzzle on her! Seek professional help, so your dog enjoys the muzzle for the long haul.
  5. Prevent your dog from being exposed to what frightens her until you’ve got help and a plan on board. Pat says, “We don’t want to give our dog opportunities to practice the aggressive behavior … the more opportunities the dog has to practice the behavior, the more challenging it becomes to modify that behavior, so the longer the human waits, the greater the challenge.” Pat says to reduce stress and minimize as many stressors as possible, not just the immediate trigger. Make a list of things that stress out your dog and try to eliminate them where possible and minimize the others. Being less stressed means your dog feels better and is more receptive to learning.

Treatment for aggressive or reactive dogs

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Because we look at behavior in the context in which it occurs, there’s no one-size-fits-all method of treatment.

Modern approaches to treating aggression are based on:

  • discovering the underlying causes of aggressive behavior
  • addressing the underlying causes so dogs can learn healthy ways to cope with fear, stress and anxiety.

Today’s treatment plans vary but often include counterconditioning and desensitization, which work to change how dogs feel about triggers going from “Yikes, that’s scary!” to “Yeah! that’s cool!” Operant conditioning, such as the Look-at-That protocol, helps dogs learn to both engage and disengage from triggers voluntarily and calmly.

Many treatment plans also involve medications prescribed by a veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist.

Newer approaches to treatment may also incorporate one or more of:

  • enrichment frameworks (ensure dogs’ needs are met)
  • relaxation exercises (teach calm behavior)
  • empowerment (encourage choice and control)
  • ethology (understand relationships between genetics and behavior)
  • errorless learning (prevent
    undesirable responses)
  • canine cognition (incorporate problem-solving and
  • microbiomes (test and study the gut/brain connection)

Research on aggressive or reactive dog behavior

We’re also keeping our eye on research and studies like those of Darwin’s Ark, a scientific collaborative pairing professionals and pet parents. Part of that team, Dr. Jessica Hekman hopes to use canine genetic research to better understand the genes that affect aggression.

Dr. Hekman says, “We don’t currently have any genetic markers that are predictive of dog aggression. We don’t think we’ll ever be able to run a genetic test on a shelter dog to predict if he will be a safe pet, but we might someday be able to help breeders make better guesses about which dogs they should breed to produce safer pets.”

Remember: Your dog isn’t giving you a hard time; she’s having a hard time. Be your dog’s advocate and assemble a team of pros to help. And have compassion for your dog and yourself — treating aggression is tough stuff.

Teach this game

Look at That! is a counterconditioning protocol also referred to as the engage/disengage game. To keep your dog from getting too aroused in the presence of a trigger (like another dog), she learns to calmly look at (engage) and look away from (disengage) the trigger instead of reacting.

Here’s how to get started:

  1. Use a marker — a word like “yes” or a clicker. Pair the marker with a million-dollar treat a dozen times so your dog knows the word/click predicts something awesome.
  2. With your dog on a leash, stand a safe distance away from the trigger, so she’s aware but not reacting.
  3. When your dog looks at the trigger, use your marker and, as soon as she looks at you, give her the treat. Repeat at least a dozen times.
  4. Gradually decrease the distance between your dog and the trigger, and mark and treat if she doesn’t react. Repeat several times before decreasing the distance again.

Patience is key. You want your dog to be able to consistently look at the trigger without reacting at increasingly less distance. Here are a few tips:

If your dog doesn’t look at you and stays focused on the trigger or reacts, either go back to Step 1 and/or increase the distance between your dog and the trigger and start again.

Start with a low-level trigger in a low-stress, familiar environment.

Don’t get too close too fast — let your dog dictate the pace of progress.

When faced with an unexpected trigger, immediately head in a different direction to increase distance.

Consider training your dog with a Look cue or Emergency U-turn/Walk Away cue ahead of time for these types of situations.

If your dog is struggling and reacts from any distance, ask a trainer for help.

Get more information on this technique from our sister publication Whole Dog Journal at entitled How to Teach Your Dog To Just Walk Away.

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