Living with an Aggressive Dog

Aggressive dog trying to get away

What do you do with a dog who is mommy's little snookums 90% of the time, but a vicious monster the other 10%? You can't bear the thought of putting the dog down, but you can't take the risk of someone getting seriously injured. So, how do you balance the risk against your desire to keep your baby in the family?

Choosing a Dog

Any dog can and will bite, given enough provocation. However, there are certain breeds that have been selectively bred to take advantage of their aggressive tendencies. People who breed guard dogs such as the German Shepherd, Pit Bull, and Rottweiler often specifically select breeding stock by evaluating each dog's tendency toward aggression. The animals who are the most likely to exhibit hostility are those who are most valued and produce the most valuable pups.

In choosing your dog if you are buying from a breeder, make sure to ask to see the parents and judge for yourself if the dog's behaviors match what you would expect from a family pet. Ask the breeder why he selected the parents he used for breeding. Was he or she looking for show dogs? Guard dogs? Assistance animals? Knowing what he or she was looking for when the match was made will tell you which traits were judged as important.

Discuss with the breeder the purpose for which you are buying the dog. If you are looking for a companion for your three-year old, ask which of the dogs in the litter is likely to be the best match for that job. The breeder should have spent enough time with the puppies before they are weaned to have some idea of the personality of each one. A good breeder will tell you if none of the pups from the current litter would be suitable, and allow you to transfer your deposit to a future litter.

If you are getting an older dog, there are many ways to assess aggression before you take the dog home. One of the best is the Canine Overt Aggression Score, developed by vets and discussed in detail on This assessment scores the dog's response to a number of different actions such as touching the dog's food, grabbing the dog's collar, or staring at the dog.

Many shelters will evaluate dogs routinely before making them available for adoption. Ask your shelter if any aggression testing has been done, and how your potential new family member scored. If you are performing the assessment yourself, take extreme care when assessing any dog you don't know well. If you try to assess a very aggressive dog, you are very likely to get bitten by performing the maneuvers described on the assessment.


In an ideal world, you will get your dog as a puppy and socialize him or her well so that the dog doesn't have aggression issues. Exposing the dog to new situations, people, and other animals while he or she is young and impressionable will help the dog learn to deal with the fear and uncertainty of the unknown.

In the real world however, you may be bringing home a dog from a shelter or rescue organization, and the dog will be carrying the baggage of previous relationships. A dog who was mistreated in his or her previous home will suspect the same treatment in your home, and may take pre-emptive strikes rather than wait to see what you will do. It may take a long time for the dog to realize that you are trustworthy and can be relied upon to be nice.

Socializing an older dog is difficult, but not impossible. The key is to introduce strange situations to the dog while making sure the dog feels safe and comfortable. For example, if a dog has shown fear toward loud noises, you might record some loud noises on your laptop, then place the laptop in another room. While you are sitting quietly with the dog, have a friend play the loud noises from the other room. If your dog doesn't react, praise the animal and give treats. The next day, move the laptop to the doorway of the room where you are sitting with the dog. Repeat the exercise. The next day move the noise source closer, and so on, until the dog is able to remain calm while the noises are playing.

In addition to easing your dog's fears, you must also establish yourself as the leader of the pack in your home. Don't let your dog get away with bad behavior. You must follow up consistently and reprimand the dog when he or she gets out of line. Take basic obedience classes until you are sure the dog will obey each and every one of your commands. Feed the dog after the family eats, because alpha dogs always eat first. Establish places in your home where the dog is simply not allowed to go, even if you really don't care. The dog needs to know that the alpha dog decides where the boundaries are, and certain areas are off-limits to the subordinate dog.

Mitigating the Risk

As you live with an aggressive dog, you will begin to learn what it is that sets the dog off. For many dogs, fear is a big driver of aggression. If you can identify the dog's fears, you can keep from exposing the dog to the things he or she is afraid of, making it less likely that anyone will get bitten.

Case Study: Kayla is a German Shepherd / Rottweiler mix who bites when new people come into her home. To mitigate this risk, Kayla's family mounted a baby gate across the door from the kitchen to the dining room. Before anyone was admitted through the kitchen door, the dog had to be put behind the baby gate. Once the stranger was in the home and the homeowners were talking to the person, the dog would calm down and accept the person as a friend.

Other dogs bite because they think it's their job to protect and defend. If you are lucky, any former guard dog you adopt will have been properly trained to react instantly to commands. Even though you are not the person who originally trained the dog, you should be able to control the dog because the original trainer won't be there to countermand your orders.

If your dog will not follow your commands, you need to continue training until he or she does. An aggressive dog has to know that you are the master, or you will never feel safe letting the dog near anyone. If you can't train and control the dog, you probably shouldn't have him in your home. If you don't have time to properly train a dog, spend the time when you choose your dog to make sure you get an animal that is not overly aggressive.

Extra Insurance

Know the laws in your state. Each state has a different definition of "vicious" and different rules regarding containment, insurance, and licensing for those dogs who are classified as vicious.

If your dog fits your state's definition of vicious, or even if you think your dog is particularly aggressive, you may choose to take out a dog liability insurance policy. These policies are typically very expensive, and you must be sure to read the fine print to find out what is included. For example, a typical policy might state that if the dog is off of your property, there is no coverage. If your dog only bites people he meets when he escapes your yard, the money you spent on the policy may just as well have been thrown down the drain.

The small print on the policy may also specify signage on your doors stating "beware of dog" or it may tell you how tall your fence has to be. Many insurance companies will require you to send in pictures showing that you have met the requirements of the policy before coverage will be bound.

Muzzled German Shepherd Dog
Quality of life for the aggressive dog needs to be considered.

Making a Decision to Euthanize

Sometimes the most humane thing to do with an aggressive dog is to put the dog down. If you get to the point where your dog must be confined 24 hours a day or where the dog must wear a muzzle all the time, you need to think about the dog's quality of life. Dogs are pack animals and like to be around their families. If your dog is incapable of being with your family, is it fair to the dog to keep him around, but separated from you?

As an alternative to euthanasia, you may be able to find a rescue group who will take your dog. Please be honest with them about your dog's aggressive tendencies. They may be able to place the dog in a situation where the risks will be effectively mitigated. For example, if your dog is aggressive toward children, the rescue group may be able to place the dog in an adults-only home.

Putting a dog down can be a heart-breaking decision, particularly if the dog is nice most of the time. However, if you have tried socializing the dog and have mitigated the risks in every way possible, but people are still getting hurt, it may be time to consider euthanasia.


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