Dog Behavior Problems: Aggression - Family Members - Treatment

What is the first step to take if my dog behaves aggressively toward family members?

If your dog is exhibiting aggression, the first step is to consult your veterinarian. Underlying medical conditions can cause or exacerbate aggressive behavior and must be identified and treated.  Next, have your dog assessed by a qualified behavior professional, ideally a veterinary behaviorist or applied animal behaviorist, who can diagnose, offer you a prognosis, and design an effective behavioral treatment plan.

What causes aggressive behavior towards people living in a dog’s household?

Aggression toward household people can have one or more causes. Common diagnoses include conflict-induced, fear-based, frustration-related, possessive or resource-related, food-related, and redirected aggression. Aggression may also be pain-induced or triggered by a medication or an underlying medical condition. Sometimes, aggressive behavior stems from inappropriate play. Less common diagnoses are maternal aggression and dominance-related aggression. Your dog may be diagnosed with more than one type of aggression. See the handouts “Dog Behavior Problems – Aggression – Diagnosis and Overview” for more information.

What is conflict-induced aggression?

One of the most common types of aggression toward household people is conflict-induced aggression, sometimes known as social conflict-related aggression. Conflict-related aggression is when dogs experience emotional conflict, typically during social interaction. Emotional conflict can arise from frustration and/or anxiety related to the interaction. Conflict within a relationship can occur when partners do not behave as expected or when communication is unclear.

How might conflict-induced aggression begin?

In most cases, conflict arises when interactions are inconsistent and therefore perceived to be unpredictable. This can occur if your dog is sometimes rewarded, meaning he sometimes gains access to something he wants due to doing a particular behavior, yet at other times is punished for the same behavior. Over time, your dog will become confused and frustrated. For example, when a puppy jumps onto a person when the person is in the mood to play, the puppy is rewarded with pets and play. But on another day, the person might be tired or wearing clean clothing, and instead of responding to the jump with a kind pet, the person might scold or push the puppy off. In other words, the person’s response is inconsistent and unpredictable. The puppy was still very motivated to earn the reward (being petted or having a chance to play) and would be frustrated that his behavior (jumping up) did not work as expected. The next time someone reaches to push him away, he could growl or snarl.

Several factors determine whether an individual dog can calmly accept inconsistent responses or whether he easily becomes frustrated and then begins to behave aggressively. Behavioral responses are always based on a combination of prior experiences and genetics. Some dogs are predisposed to having a low tolerance for frustration, and you cannot control that. You also cannot undo your dog’s experiences before he came into your home. However, you can ensure that your interactions with your dog are consistent and predictable in the future.

How can I determine if conflict-related aggression is developing?

Dog communication can be subtle and early signs of conflict-related aggression can be easily overlooked. You may barely notice your dog staring intently or stiffening as you approach. He is signaling for you to stop, but if you are not aware of the signal and continue to approach, he may use a stronger signal, such as a snarl or growl. Dogs exhibiting conflict-related aggression are often triggered by approaches when they are resting or when they are near something valuable, such as a toy, food, or a stolen object. There are other possible triggers as well. The key is to watch your dog closely and recognize subtle communications so that you can respond appropriately and consistently. The sooner you address the behavior, the better, as aggression can escalate in intensity over time. See the handout “Canine Communication – Interpreting Dog Language” for more information.

"You may barely notice your dog staring intently or stiffening as you approach."

Why does aggression increase over time?

How your dog behaved during the initial aggressive episodes can help clarify the original cause for the behavior as dogs adjust their behavior with each aggressive event. Over time, postures often become more assertive, masking underlying fear and anxiety. See the handout “Dog Behavior problems – Aggression – Diagnosis and Overview” for more information.

It can be frightening at the other end of a growl. When you first recognize a threatening signal, you might be startled and freeze in place, or you might quickly walk away. If your dog quiets quickly, you might grow more comfortable and continue approaching your dog despite the growl. If your behavior varies with each encounter, your dog will not be able to predict the outcome of the interaction. This unpredictability causes frustration, which can motivate him to react more quickly and with a higher-level signal during subsequent encounters.

Another cause for aggressive behavior can relate to certain training techniques, specifically punishment-based or confrontational methods. When dogs are punished for communicating, whether the punishment is physical or verbal, they typically experience fear and then anxiety as they anticipate an uncomfortable encounter. Fear and anxiety, like frustration, lead to an increase in aggressive behavior.

What should I do if I notice my dog posturing aggressively?

Dogs have powerful jaws and can cause serious injury when they bite. In certain circumstances, such as when dogs have no escape route or are confronted and frightened, they can quickly escalate from a hard stare to a bite. If you notice any aggressive signal as you approach or interact with your dog, the best thing to do is quietly disengage. That can mean averting your gaze and then simply saying, “good dog, all done,” and walking away. Do not continue the approach, and do not scold or threaten your dog. It can sometimes be helpful to cheerfully say “good dog” and invite your dog to get a toy or go for a walk.

Never scold your dog when you notice a signal, such as a growl. Those signals represent safe communications. Should you punish your dog, not only could he escalate in the moment, but in future events, if he has learned he will be punished for growling, he may be afraid to growl and will instead bite. See the handout “Why Punishment Should be Avoided” for more information.

How do I treat my dog’s aggressive behavior toward my family and me?

The first step in treatment will be to identify all situations in which you have noticed your dog posturing aggressively. Be sure to consider the times that you turned away or ended an interaction because you were concerned that your dog might respond aggressively. Each of these contexts will be addressed.

Now that you have a list of potential and actual triggers, you have some decisions to make. For each trigger situation, decide whether you would like to immediately and actively begin treating, postpone treating for now, or permanently avoid the situation. You may, for instance, immediately work on helping your dog become comfortable sharing the couch with you while postponing the treatment for petting your dog while he is resting. You may decide to permanently refrain from trying to hug your dog.

The next step is to assure safety by arranging to avoid exposure to all triggers until treatment is complete. This is important so that you are not injured, and your dog is not accidentally reinforced for aggression. An example of avoidance would be sitting on a different couch rather than trying to sit beside your dog. You can also use a gate or a confinement room to keep your dog from getting onto the couch when you are ready to relax.

Another example is if your dog behaves aggressively when you approach while he has valuable toys, then these toys can be temporarily put aside and only given to your dog when he is safely behind a barrier. See the handout “Dog Behavior Problems – Aggression – Getting Started – Safety and Management” for more information.

The final treatment step is to use behavior modification to change your dog’s emotional response to the triggers for aggression. To begin, your behaviorist will introduce you to reward-based training methods that can teach your dog skills relevant to the specific trigger situations. Reward-based training always improves communication—your dog can understand exactly what behavior you are requesting so that there is no confusion. In anticipation of a positive outcome (praise, treats), your dog will begin to follow your verbal cues eagerly and consistently—your dog’s behavior will be predictable for you.

Here’s an example of how training can work: your dog growled at you in the past when you approached him while he was resting on the couch; with positive reinforcement, you can teach your dog to ‘move away to place’ on cue. Once he understands the cue, and once he understands that he will receive a reward for doing the behavior correctly, then he will eagerly leave the couch when asked. You now have a valuable tool to avoid conflict: if you see your dog on the couch, you may ask him to ‘move away to place’, reward him, take a seat, and call him back to join you.

You may also train your dog to ‘stay and relax’ on cue, practicing when he is already calm rather than in a conflicted situation. First, you would ask your dog to ‘stay and relax’, then take a small step away and return with a treat. Your dog will learn that whenever you ask him to ‘stay and relax’ before you approach him or reach for him, he can expect a positive outcome (a treat). He can learn to welcome your approach rather than signaling you to stop.

Relaxation cues are commonly used in desensitization and counterconditioning protocols. You may, for example, use desensitization and counterconditioning to help your dog relax when you approach to join him on the couch, as well as when you approach him when he has something valuable. See the handout “Introduction to Desensitization and Counterconditioning” for more information.

"Use cues consistently and proactively before you notice any sign of aggression."

Clear communication is critical regardless of the specific triggers on your treatment list. Use cues consistently and proactively before you notice any sign of aggression. Be sure your dog fully understands the cues; the criteria for earning treats should be clear, and your dog should respond consistently before you use the cues in trigger situations.  

If your dog routinely responds to a cue and does not do the expected behavior, this may be a sign that something is wrong. He may not feel well or may be distressed for another reason, but in any case, he has communicated quietly, with no aggression. Now that you are aware of his ‘usual’ behavior and recognize the subtle nature of his body language, even if you do not know the reason why he was not able to respond to your cue, you can safely disengage (say ‘good boy all done’ and walk away) to avoid any further escalation. By the way, unless there have been some changes in the environment that can help explain the change in your dog’s behavior, this might be a time to have him checked by your veterinarian.

Are there any other helpful training exercises?  

It can be helpful to teach your dog a simple behavior that he can easily offer when he wants something. The behavior would be his way of saying ‘please, may I’. A common example would be a simple ‘sit’. You may ask your dog to ‘sit’ quietly for permission to go onto the couch or to receive a bone or toy. And in turn, he would have a way to indicate his interest by offering a ‘sit’ on his own. This training has the advantage of teaching dogs to wait patiently and quietly rather than becoming frustrated and demanding—your dog will know that eventually, if he sits patiently, he will receive his reward.

Tip: Though it is important to use high-value treats for the behavior modification exercises that are done in trigger situations, for most of the basic training, you can use lower-value treats or even pieces of dry dog food. If your dog tends to gain weight easily, you can feed him part of his meal during training instead of simply putting it into his dish.

Is medication ever helpful for treating aggression toward family members?

If your dog has been diagnosed with fear, anxiety, frustration, and/or impulsivity, your veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist may recommend using medication to improve your dog’s ability to learn. Medication is never used alone—there is always a need for a strong safety program, management, and behavior modification. Sometimes, unwanted side effects can occur, including an increase in anxiety or aggression. Therefore, if your dog is taking behavioral medications, it is essential that you follow your veterinarian’s instructions regarding progress appointments. (See the handout “Behavior Counseling – Medication” for more information.)

What is the prognosis for dogs that show aggression toward their family?

Aggression is rarely fully eliminated from a dog’s repertoire. The goal is to use behavior modification and management to assure safety and predictability. In many cases, the prognosis is very good. If you can predict triggers, and if your dog usually uses aggressive displays that are subtle rather than hard bites, then the outcome may be very good.

Some factors could contribute to a less favorable outcome. For example, if your dog has been diagnosed with high anxiety, frustration, or impulsivity, the prognosis may be less favorable. Also, if your dog is very large or does not inhibit his aggression and has inflicted serious bites, it may be challenging to ensure safety for you and your family. Finally, suppose there are household members who cannot understand and follow the safety and management guidelines. In that case, they are at risk of being injured, and it will also be more difficult for you to create the necessary predictable social interactions that your dog needs to improve.  A veterinary behaviorist will help you assess the prognosis of your situation.