If your dog jumps up to greet people he may knock them over, but that doesn’t count as aggression. Even growling or barking can indicate wariness or excitement, but not necessarily aggression.
To judge aggression, you need to do some careful observations of your dog. There are three key indicators: posture, hackles, and muzzle. An aggressive dog’s posture typically includes leaning or lunging forward, possibly bending the legs to put the belly close to the ground, and the tail level with the body, held still. This stance prepares the dog to spring forward if there is a need to take the offensive.
The hackles, or the fur along the top of the neck, typically stands up when a dog feels threatened. The purpose of the raised hackles is to make the dog appear larger and, by extension, scarier to whomever is approaching.
Aggression is also indicated by bared teeth with a crinkled muzzle. Some dog show their teeth when they’re happy, but there is no associated wrinkling of the muzzle. The muzzle is a much better indicator of aggression than simply the showing of teeth.
Passive dogs, by contrast, will often show a posture of leaning back, preparing the dog for retreat. The tail is often held low or even curled under, and the hackles and muzzle are not raised.
One word of caution: fear is a common trigger for aggression, and a fearful dog may appear passive. This is where you must know your dog, or at least learn his “tells” quickly. If your dog goes from a fearful, passive stance directly to aggression (biting or attacking) even one time, you should consider your dog as potentially aggressive.
It’s true, many dogs become aggressive only after being provoked. However, because you may or may not know everything that will provoke your dog, you’ll need to work on anti-aggression measures to mitigate what the law will consider a known risk. If you are sued following a dog bite, and your dog has bitten even one person or animal in the past, any court in the country will likely say that you “knew or should have known” that the dog could be vicious and should have taken proper precautions.
Whether that means that the dog only goes outside when you are also out there to prevent the neighbor kids from throwing rocks, or if you don’t take your dog off of your property without a muzzle, you must do something to show that you are attempting to mitigate the risk of attack.
The very best way to prevent aggression is to socialize your dog at a very young age. Socialization includes exposing your dog to a wide variety of stimuli and coaching him to give only appropriate responses.
For example, start by simply taking your puppy for a walk around the neighborhood and noticing what he reacts to, both good and bad. When he reacts well, such as by looking to you for guidance or by ignoring things that are inappropriate, reward him with attention and praise. When he over-reacts to something by barking or lunging, give a short tug on the leash and a sharp “no!”
Next, purposely expose your dog to the things that get him overly-excited, and reward small steps toward ignoring them. If on first exposure, he drags you after a squirrel for 30 yards, and on the 2nd try he only chases until he reaches the end of his leash, praise him for stopping, even if he continues to bark or raise his hackles. Keep exposing him to squirrels and rewarding each small step toward an acceptable response until he is capable of either ignoring or giving a minimal reaction to squirrels.
Be patient and make sure you have realistic expectations. A Beagle who has been bred for generations to track bunnies may or may not ever accomplish being able to totally ignore them. But you may be able to take that same Beagle and teach him to ignore the ducks at your local park.
Although it’s a popular expression, it is totally untrue that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” It’s never too late for your dog to learn to deal with his fears and other triggers for aggressive reactions. Use positive training methods such as what we outlined above, and you will eventually get there.
If your dog is aggressive to the point where he is injuring people or other animals, you will need to make a decision as to whether or not you can afford the additional liability. You may want to add a dog rider to your homeowner’s policy or take out umbrella coverage. If you cannot afford the additional coverage, you may want to consider giving up the dog. You may choose to voluntarily surrender the animal to a shelter or rescue, in which case you MUST advise them that the dog has had previous aggression issues. Don’t risk having the dog re-homed with a child who could be seriously injured or even killed.
If you decide to keep your dog, there are steps you can take to lessen the risk of injury while you are working on socialization. Consider some of the following:
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