Unless you're some kind of sick dude/dudette, there's nothing quite as bad as seeing YOUR dog get aggressive with another dog/person/creature. Hopefully the worst you have to endure is a dirty look, but there can certainly be serious consequences, medical bills, lawsuits - nevermind your own bewilderment about how such a sweet doggy such as yours could be capable of such maniacal ferocity. Once the flurry of emotion settles down, you're left with a simple question: What do I do with my aggressive dog? Given the number of e-mails that I receive about this one topic (there are MANY), I thought that I'd write the definitive answer here. Important to note: you choose to follow this advice at your own risk, and if you're confused about ANYTHING I encourage you to seek the advice of a local dog trainer whom you trust.
What to do when your dog is aggressive: Step One = RELAX
I know that it feels like a crisis. Your dog just flipped out, and you probably have a real sense of urgency that this is a problem you have to fix NOW. I'm going to assume that you're not reading this article on your iPhone as your dog is attacking something (if so - stop it! right now!) - and that you've already dealt with the immediate aftermath of the situation. You're here because you want to know what to do next. First things first - take a breath. And again. Slow and deep. Relax.
Getting all wound up is NOT going to help the situation at all. In fact, the more hyped up you are, the more likely your dog is going to echo that emotional state and be even MORE likely to be aggressive again. So CHILL OUT! I'm serious. When your breathing and your heart rate has returned to normal, when your thoughts are unclouded by severe anger or grief, then you're ready for step #2. But not until then. So...bookmark this page, and go take a long walk by yourself, or have a cup of tea, or do whatever it is you have to do to calm down. There, that's better.
What to do when your dog is aggressive: Step Two = ASSESS
OK, now that you're relaxed, it's time to assess what actually happened, and take responsibility for your part in it. If there are medical/veterinary bills to pay, you might want to offer to pay them. If you're really worried about the consequences, you can call a lawyer to find out your rights. These are all just steps that you should take. Take one right step, then take the next right step. That's all you can do.
Hold on - take a break. Revisit Step One and relax again.
Next thing you need to assess is what actually happened. Now most of you are going to assess your dog's aggressive behavior based on what you THINK you know about "why dogs are aggressive". Your conclusions will be things like "my dog was trying to protect me" or "that little poodle got too close" or "my dog was afraid that Jimmy was going to eat his kibble" - whatever. It's time to throw all those thoughts aside. I want you to take a moment and read my article about what dog aggression REALLY is - if you haven't read it yet. Here's a quick summary (but don't let this be a subsitute for reading the article):
Dog aggression is a symptom of your dog experiencing TOO MUCH ENERGY in any given situation. That's it. The solution to doggy aggression is "simple" - if you want your dog to not be aggressive in that kind of situation, then you need to teach your dog HOW TO RELAX at higher and higher levels of energy, and get rid of the stored stress within them that's contributing to their tension. You also need to give your dog a positive outlet for what to do with their energy when they're feeling it start to rev up. And finally, you need to be vigilant, practicing with your dog at gradually higher and higher levels of energy, in situations more and more similar to their "trigger" situation, until your dog is relaxed and no longer triggered in that situation. The entire time you need to stay non-judgmental, relaxed, and willing to sign up for the long haul of truly fixing the problem.
So with that knowledge, revisit the situation that triggered your dog's aggression. What was adding energy to that situation (e.g. a stranger's approach, a game of fetch that was getting too intense, the presence of food, your own voice)? What were the signs that your dog was getting tense (you'll generally see signs of physical tension)? These are the things you want to know, because you need to learn how to recognize when these PRECURSORS to aggression are happening, so you can deal with them in the moment, before they escalate to aggressive behavior.
What to do when your dog is aggressive - Step Three = ACCEPTANCE
OK, now you're relaxed. You have assessed the true causes of your dog's aggression. You're prepared to do something about it. It's time to take a moment and decide whether or not you can accept this situation, and are willing to put in the time necessary to fix the problem. While aggression is, in most cases, solvable, it is often a long road, with all of the expected twists and turns. It's going to take time and understanding to make it to the other side, and you have to decide that you're up to the challenge.
If you're NOT up to it - that's OK. It's best to be honest with yourself about it, especially because you might be able to find a good home for your dog with a person who IS able to put the time in. I ask owners to reflect upon their commitment especially in cases of dog aggression against people (particularly against children) because the responsible thing in these situations might be to re-home your dog rather than, say, putting your kids at risk.
The final thing that you need to accept is the possibility that your dog's aggression could be a reflection of a state of tension or anger within you. Frequently, as part of the journey towards solving your dog's aggression, you'll have to face your own inner demons, unvoiced, intense emotion that you carry around, and which your dog might be echoing into the world. Just add "finally dealing with this stuff" to your list of ways to address the problem.
So you've accepted the situation without judgement, have decided that you're willing to do something about it, and are able to look within yourself for possible contributing factors. Perfect, now you're ready for
What to do when your dog is aggressive - Step Four = TRAINING
Now you're ready for a systematic approach to working with your dog. First thing you need is a gateway for accessing your dog as their emotional state gets more and more energized.
The technique that you will use is pushing (or you can use tug-of-war, but pushing is more effective). Through using these techniques, you'll not only have a reliable way to interact with your dog at higher energy states BEFORE they overload, but you will also be helping them release any stress stored within them. To that end, make sure that your dog has plenty of focused playtime (especially playing tug-of-war as outlined in the link above, or fetchtug) and, if possible, take nice long walks in a natural environment - a field, the woods - any place that allows your dog to decompress from the stress of daily living in a human world, and preferably where you can be undisturbed by other dogs and people.
Once your dog can push reliably, especially as situations get more intense, you're ready for the practical application of pushing - redirection. When you're in real-world situations and notice that your dog is starting to get energized and tense, redirection allows you to quickly focus your dog's attention on you AND give them something positive to do with their energy. And your dog will get more relaxed. This step is crucial when you're trying to change your dog's pattern of behavior in triggering situations.
Here's another artcle that I wrote on redirection - this time focusing on how to deal with a dog who's aggressive towards people. It offers you even more thoughts on how to apply your techniques in real-world situations.
This series of pictures shows you what this kind of work might look like in action.
Your dog learns OVER TIME a completely new way of responding to the energy of their trigger situations - and that's because YOU are constantly aware of your dog's experience and taking preemptive action to consistently give them positive outcomes.
Finally, here is an advanced exercise for dealing with dogs who are aggressive towards other dogs. You should only attempt it after you have mastered the techniques I mentioned above.
What to do when your dog is aggressive - CONCLUSION
Whenever you're dealing with an aggressive dog, you have to be willing to step back from the situation, relax, and address the real problems at hand. It's not your dog's "fear" or "protectiveness" that's the problem, it's simply that your dog is experiencing more energy than they can handle in a triggering situation. As you learn how to connect with your dog at higher and higher levels of energy, you will also be teaching your dog a way of handling the energy of their environment, a way that allows them to have consistently positive experience no matter how supercharged the world around them is.
As you progress, your dog's threshold will get higher and higher as well. You might always (yes, always) have to be aware of what's happening with your dog in any given situation, but you will at least have the peace of mind of knowing that your dog is much, MUCH less likely to be aggressive. Furthermore, your connection with your dog will enable you to not only see the warning signs, but to act quickly to prevent any new acts of aggression.
As a side note, my new Natural Dog Training videos (due to be released in Spring of 2009) will not only teach you, in detail, how to push, play tug/fetchtug, and redirect your dog, but they will also lead you to a solid "down at a distance" (in the Obedience video) - which can also offer you a "backup plan" to interrupt your dog if things get out of hand before your training has progressed far enough. I mention these videos simply in case you need some video to flesh out the detailed written instruction here on my site.
Folks, there is light at the end of the tunnel. After all, it was my own dog's aggression that led me to Natural Dog Training in the first place, and it was our mutual success that inspired my apprenticeship with Kevin Behan (and, ultimately, this blog). Keep the faith, stay relaxed, make the decisions that are right for YOU, and be patient. The tunnel might be long - but what in life is easy, anyway? Be careful. And, stay relaxed. Did I mention that you should stay relaxed? After all, now you know exactly what to do when your dog is aggressive.