Out of 46 dogs that have come to live at The Cecchine Hotel for Dogs thus far, we have had 4 with aggression issues and 2 that came and left within 24 hours because of aggression towards other dogs here. It happens. Sometimes a fostered or adopted rescue dog is overly aggressive towards other dogs in the home, or just towards unfamiliar dogs in public. I am by no means an expert in dog aggression, but I am determined to learn as much as I can so that I can help these dogs and keep them from hurting other dogs so that they do not end up being put down. Part of fostering dogs is rehabilitating them and training them so that they are ready for their forever homes, and I am learning more with each dog that we welcome into our home.
Every dog is different, and it isn’t only foster dogs that have issues. My first dog, Pen, a nearly 3-year-old Labrador Retriever, is a wonderful pack leader at home, but she becomes insecure and very protective of me around unknown dogs outside of our home. Two attempted fosters that were unfixed males came and left quickly because they picked a fight within my pack when I was a much less experienced foster. Four of our fosters have had fights while here and had to be separated from our other dogs until we could find a better placement for them. The human adults in the home have had minor scratches occur while breaking up fights, but we have never had a dog simply bite one of us. Incidentally, though dogs labeled pit bulls have a bed reputation for being aggressive, we have seen the aggression in a Chihuahua and a Beagle mix, a Labrador Retriever, a Catahoula, a Border Collie, and an Australian Shepherd. It’s not the breed or the size that matters. Most dogs are nice, and ANY dog can bite. Every year about 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs in America. We humans bear some of the responsibility for not knowing how to approach or interact with a dog in a safe and appropriate manner. By learning to read a dog’s body language, educating ourselves, and especially our children, and understanding how to respect a dog’s space, we can prevent most bite incidences.
There are many reasons why a dog may act aggressively: fear, stress, feeling that its space has been violated, protection of a person or other dog(s), or simple over-excitement. There could be a fight over resources (food, treats, toys) or for your attention. It could be a hierarchical dispute where one of your dogs wants to reinforce or challenge for their position in the pack.
The most common dog-to-dog aggressive behaviors are: Growling Snarling/lifting the upper lip Snapping Aggressive barking Lunging towards another dog Biting These types of aggression occur more frequently in non-neutered male dogs once they reach sexual maturity, at 6 to 9 months, or social maturity, at 18 to 36 months. Inter-dog aggression also tends to be more of a problem between dogs of the same gender. Note that a female dog in heat or a nursing mother can become very defensive and aggressive around her pups.
Aggression between dogs or towards humans may be a learned behavior. A dog may become aggressive after experiencing abuse or neglect, a traumatic encounter with another dog, or simply because it was not properly socialized with other dogs as a puppy. Other reasons for aggression include fear, a stressful environment, or a painful underlying medical condition. You should always pay a visit to your veterinarian to rule out any underlying diseases or medical conditions that could be a contributing factor. If nothing is found to explain the behavior, you should consider turning to a trusted local animal behaviorist/trainer.
The dogs that I have seen aggression in have largely unknown pasts, but 2 of them had just been spayed after coming out of the shelter, so stress, hormonal changes, and medications may have played a role.
So, what can we do to prevent and or deal with aggressive dog behaviors?
Take responsibility for your dog or dogs
That means training and socializing them so that they get along with other dogs and other people. A dog that is at home and never exposed to strangers or other dogs cannot learn how to behave properly around strangers and other dogs. Organize supervised play dates for your dogs and teach them how to behave correctly.
Have your dogs spayed or neutered
This will keep male dogs from becoming aggressive in general, and trying to escape/ roaming around getting into trouble. It will prevent your female dog from becoming a defensive/aggressive nursing mother.
Be the pack leader
Dogs in the same pack fight when they do not have a strong pack leader, so it is very important that YOU establish rules, boundaries, and limitations for the entire pack. Your dogs should see any human, not just you, as having a higher position in the pack. A well-trained, well-socialized dog is trained to be submissive so that a human is able to take food or toys away from them without issue. This is easiest to do with puppies, but can also be done with adult dogs with proper training.
Train your dog to come when called
You can remove your dog from tense situations before they escalate too far. Start training your dog to come and to stay, and then practice often, especially around other dogs. Reward them with treats and or praise for coming to you.
Always leash your dog when you’re outside of your home and fenced yard
Even trained dogs sometimes can’t resist temptation.
Educate your children
Most children love dogs, and most dogs love children. Please teach your children how to stay safe and remain calm around dogs. High-energy children who are yelling and running around can make dogs anxious and over-excited. Teach children how to interact calmly and safely with dogs, both known and unknown. Children and inexperienced adults alike should never approach a strange dog. If a dog is alone, stay away from it. If the dog is accompanied, teach children to ask permission (from a distance) to pet a dog, and then wait for the dog to come to them. If the dog sniffs them and stays, then they can pet it on front of the chest (not on the back or head). Teach children that dogs do not like having their ears or tails pulled, they do not like to be grabbed or picked up. Let your children know that if the dog walks away, it’s just not interested in interacting. Let it go. Redirect your child. Respect the dog’s wishes.
Always supervise small children with dogs
You should NEVER leave small children and dogs together unsupervised. Children should be told not to touch dogs while they are eating, not to mess with their food, and not to grab their toys unless the dog is fully trained and an adult is supervising at all times. Teach your dog and your children which toys are dog toys. Teach your children that if they lay on the floor with the family dog, they will be treated like puppies, and that might mean getting nipped. Children should stay up above the dog, and be in charge. They should not be in dog beds, on dogs, or inside of dog crates. That is the dog’s space, and they should respect that. Avoid playing aggressive games with your dogs, like tug-of-war, which isn’t good for their teeth anyway. Play fetch instead, rewarding your dog for dropping the toy in front of you. Teach your children to be in charge in a calm and self-assured manner.
Teach your children and your dogs good manners and don’t encourage resource competition
Just as we teach our children to share and play nice, we have to teach our dogs to share and play nice. Dogs should be trained to sit and relax on verbal cues, with small food treats and praise as reward. We have to condition our dogs not to fear other dogs, by gradually exposing them to other dogs in public. Use positive reinforcement to reward good behavior. When your dog exhibits aggressive behavior, separate them from the other dog(s) and take a time out until calm is restored. You can carefully allow them to make up after a fight or near fight, but observe and supervise. Young dogs are like toddlers that can bite. Supervise.
Some dogs are dangerous to other dogs or humans while they are eating or because they are guarding certain possessions (such as food, treats, bowls, random found objects, toys, a dog bed or crate they are in…) Remove the possessions that are causing a problem when dogs are socializing together. Feed multiple dogs in separate crates or in separate rooms to avoid food aggression.
Observe your dog(s) and prevent aggression
Observe how your dog normally interacts with other dogs. When dogs play, it often looks and sounds like they’re fighting. They will growl, snap their jaws, and bite one another roughly on the ears, and neck, on collars and on legs all while play fighting and having a great time. Carefully watch their bodies. If the body looks relaxed and they are wagging their tails, they’re generally just playing. If the bodies appear rigid and their tails are down, they may be getting ready to fight. If there is a high-pitched squeal, they may be playing so rough that they are accidentally hurting one another. Sometimes rough play becomes a fight, and the dogs need to be separated until they calm down a bit.
Dogs communicate to one another through their body language. You can spot aggression and stop a fight before it starts by observing body language and intervening at the instant that you see it about to escalate. Some dogs normally play rough with one another, others do not. Know your dog’s normal behaviors and then you can see out of the ordinary behaviors and warning signs. Know what to look for. A dog may come charging towards you, and if its body is relaxed, its tail is level and wagging, and there’s no tension in the body, relax, it is showing excitement, not aggression. It’s your job to learn the difference.
You can see the signs that aggressive behavior may be imminent by reading a dog’s body language. Aggression: Ears pinned back Fur along their back may stand up Yawning - in this case, they are not tired - the dog is showing off its teeth as a warning. (On the other hand, a sneeze during playtime can be a sign that everything is cool.) Intense and direct eye contact is a clear sign to back off immediately. Watch the head, ears, tail, and back. The higher these are, the more dominant a dog is feeling, and the lower they are,the more submissive or uncertain. Look for tension in the dog's back and legs; the more tense a dog is, the higher its energy level. Watch out for staring and or blocking another dog’s entrance into a room. Fearful or submissive body postures: Crouching Tucking the tail under Licking the lips Backing away Teeth together, with the ears pulled back along the head, eyes squinting Body lowered and leaning away
Introduce new dogs to each other slowly
One big mistake people make when introducing new dogs is just tossing them all together and hoping for the best. All of the dogs should meet in neutral territory and, if possible, take a long walk together before coming into the yard and home. I have too many dogs to do this, so we meet in the yard. A new foster dog meets my dogs one by one, starting with the calmer and smaller dogs, and I observe each of them carefully. As soon as a dog starts to get stressed, I step in and interrupt before the situation escalates. My lab has to be last, and has to be harnessed and leashed, because I know that she gets overexcited, and I need to be able to control her to feel confident with a new dog (or person) in the yard. After everyone meets and plays outside, my husband and I enter the house, call in the dogs that live there, and then call in the new dog. We are allowing the dogs to first bond and play outside, then allowing our dogs and existing fosters to bring the new dog in and sort of show them around.
So, we do all of that, and at some point, one of the dogs becomes stressed and aggressive. What do we do?
Try to understand the underlying cause of aggression
A specific condition sometimes triggers aggression, even when the dogs involved normally get along well. If you can figure it out, you can possibly avoid situations that may trigger aggressive behavior. My lab sometimes feels threatened by other dogs who are her size or larger than her and of a similar age. She is fine with older dogs, smaller dogs, and puppies. My beagle Henry is partially deaf and will howl if he gets startled. Two fosters, who had incidents of aggression, acted up only with certain dogs and not others. One became aggressive if growled at. We had one small unfixed male foster who came into the house and tried to pick a fight with a 90 lbs. Labrador we were fostering. Observe to try to understand triggers. We have learned that some fosters are afraid of men, some don’t trust children, some get overexcited by large vehicles. Each dog is different, but each is trying to tell us what they don’t like.
Dogs are very sensitive to what their human is feeling and will react to our emotions with dog intensity. They know when you are nervous or stressed, and will react in turn. If we tense up, and get fearful of what our dog may do, that itself may trigger an aggressive, protective reaction. Be calm and do not pull back on the leash. If you pull straight back, it may cause a lunge forward in response. Just hold on to the leash with a firm grip, and calmly, quickly walk past or away from the other dog; just ignore it and move along. And always, always walk your dog on a harness, not on a collar, which can increase their stress and is often easy to escape from.
Learn how to break up fights quickly and safely if they occur
Sometimes, roughhousing gets out of control or a dog gets triggered and starts a fight. If it is too late to redirect the dog’s attention, it’s important to step in before one of the dogs gets seriously hurt.
Do not get between fighting dogs, you will get bitten. If the dogs involved are very small, then you may be able to safely put yourself between them to block their view from each other and end the fight. If you’re wearing pants and adequate shoes, you may be able to push some dogs apart with your legs and feet. Place your foot on the ribcage and push away, without kicking. Use your judgement, small dogs bite hard too. If the dogs are already biting, don’t try this.
If a dog is holding a bite on another dog, do not just try to pull them apart. You will cause an even greater injury to the dog by tearing his flesh. Act on the aggressor dog to get it to release its bite.
A dog fight is best broken up by two people using a method called the wheelbarrow, where each person approaches a dog from behind, grabs the dog’s rear feet and lifts them off the ground into a wheelbarrow position. Given a moment, the dogs should disengage and each person must pull their dog by his rear legs away from the other. Begin walking backwards. Keep your hands and arms away from their mouths. They may redirect their aggression at you. Do not release the dogs or the dog fight will begin again. Both people need to start turning in a circle, while they back away from the other dog. By circling the dog has to sidestep with its front feet or it will fall on its face. As long as you slowly continue to back away and circle, the dog cannot hurt you. One of the dogs must be dragged into an enclosure before the other dog is released.
It is not necessary to kick or hit the dogs; the goal is to separate them, not to hurt them.
Only one person? Call for help. Observe which of the dogs is at a higher level of intensity. If only one dog is the aggressor, do not act on the dog being attacked. Grab a leash. (Allow the fight to continue while doing this. Safety is more important than being 1st on the scene). No leash? You can use a belt or a tie as a leash stand in. ) Slide one end of the leash into the looped end and slip it under the aggressive dog’s belly, loop it around the rear legs and pull the dog out of the flight. Like the wheelbarrow, lift the dog and give a moment to allow the dogs to disengage – then quickly and calmly, move that dog away to safety. Tie one dog to an immovable object and remove the other dog to another location. The victim dog may take advantage of the fact that the aggressor is immobilized and try to bite again. The dog being restrained should be released so that it can protect itself. Step around to the rear of the attacking dog and use the wheelbarrow method to steer that dog in the opposite direction.
If your dog is on leash and he gets into a fight with a dog who isn’t leashed, drop the leash before you or the dog become tangled. If both dogs get into a fight on leash, both leashes should be dropped and use the wheelbarrow method rather than injuring the dogs by yanking them dogs apart by the leash, particularly if they are attached to the collar around the neck rather than a harness.
If one or more of the dogs becomes aggressive towards you, don’t turn and run, face the dog, stand still, and avoid eye contact. Remain calm. The dogs feed off of your energy. It is difficult, but panicking does not help. Stay calm.
Once separated, keep the dogs out of one another’s sight until everyone is calm and check them for injuries. See a vet. Some injuries may be internal.
You have learned something about your dogs after a fight, and it is your responsibility to prevent another fight. Seek help, separate the dogs as necessary, and be willing to work with a trainer. An aggressive dog taken to an animal shelter has a death sentence, and aggressive behaviors may be completely avoidable.