Aggressive dog can be treated

Dear Dr. Spiegel,

I read your column in the News Journal each week. So I decided to ask for your help with some behavior problems.

I own a two-year-old male chocolate lab. He has been neutered. In the house and with family members he is calm and gentle.

My problem is he is nervous and aggressive with people other than family. If not watched very closely he would bite.

He belonged to my son and was raised from a puppy in the house in his kennel while they were at work during the day. I have never raised dogs in a kennel and feel this problem could in some way be due to the fact that he was not around other people to know that they are o.k.

Could you suggest some steps I could follow to make him more at ease with other people?


J.R., Elkton, MD

Dear J.R.,

Aggression in dogs is one of the most common problems I treat. Needless to say, there are a lot of biting dogs out there. Over 1/2 million people are seen in emergency rooms each year for treatment of dog bite wounds. And that figure only scratches the surface of the problem. It is safe to estimate that millions more are bitten each year who simply do not report the bite or seek treatment.

Aggressive behavior is not limited to dogs. Throughout the animal kingdom, displays of aggression provide a means of driving away perceived threats, asserting and enforcing one’s dominance, and protecting one’s self, family members, and territory. We humans are no exception. In fact, we are probably the most aggressive of all species. So why is it that when a dog bites, there are many who immediately react, “He must be put down.” Do we think that we can eradicate the problem through extermination? Such extreme measures are usually not necessary.

The truth in the matter is that there are very few “vicious” dogs. Most dogs that have bitten are wonderful animals 98% of the time. That other 2% of the time when they are not so wonderful is what needs to be addressed with these animals.

As you have described, J.R., this particular lab may not have had the most ideal early experiences. Good early socialization is critical for dogs and most other species in enabling them to adapt and behave appropriately in a wide variety of situations. While kenneling, or the use of a crate, in general is not a bad thing, inappropriate usage can impact on future problems. If, for instance, the dog was crated whenever new people came to the house to prevent it from jumping on them or urinating, (which young dogs will often do when they get excited), then this dog probably never had enough time to learn how to relax around other people.

Your statement that he is nervous and aggressive is an astute observation. In dogs that are poorly socialized, it is that uncertainty or nervousness which makes them more reactive. These dogs often learn that by getting aggressive they can distance the perceived threat, or source of discomfort, from themselves. And in so doing their aggressive behavior is self-reinforcing. It drives the person away which is what they wanted in the first place, and so the behavior serves its desired function. Through all this the dog learns that by getting aggressive, it can remove the source of its nervousness.

You struck upon another important point in your statement that, “If not watched very closely he would bite.” By watching these dogs and seeing how they react in different situations (i.e., behavioral analysis), you can dramatically increase your sense of the predictability of the problem. And when problems become more predictable, they also become more controllable and treatable. Through observation or detailed descriptions of incidents, behaviorists can determine what the “triggers” are and then understand where behavior modification procedures need to be applied. For example, attempts to pet the dog or sudden movements are common eliciting stimuli to which some dogs will respond aggressively. By knowing this, owners can be shown how to teach their dogs to relax in the presence of these triggers.

Unfortunately there is no standard advice that can be safely applied to any given aggressive situation. Aggressive dogs can be successfully treated, but it requires a thorough understanding of the particular animal involved to determine the best course of treatment.

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