Making a call about what to do with an aggressive dog is not easy. I created a checklist for aggressive dogs that you can use to try to sort out your thoughts – but as I say in that article, the calculus is always different for different people.
For example, I’m a professional trainer with no kids (but lots of visitors). A dog who’s aggressive towards only children wouldn’t necessarily be a huge problem for me. But a dog who’s aggressive to adult strangers would be a big problem.
Your skill level and living situation are just as important to this decision-making process as the severity and frequency of the dog’s aggressive behavior.
I can’t really tell you what to do with your aggressive dog, even if we’ve been working together for months or years. I can give you my professional opinion, but I won’t order you around. That’s a personal decision.
It’s even harder when I get emails like the Ask a Behavior Consultant question below, which asks about what to do with a dog who displays crate aggression.
I’ll walk you through my decision-making process, but please remember that my opinion and assessment here are based on precious little information.
Your best course of action is to seek the professional opinion of a veterinary behaviorist, Ph.D. in animal behavior/ethology, or Certified Dog Behavior Consultant. They’ll help you make a decision that’s best for you, your family, and your dog.
Don’t hire a former police dog trainer or military trainer unless they’ve got specific credentials (not experience, they’re not the same thing) working with aggression cases.
Earlier this month, I got the following question:
“Medium sized dog has history of aggression and biting only when cornered or in his crate. Should I rehome, euthanize, or keep trying with him?”
– Sincerely, Crate Aggression in Georgia
If you’re dealing with an aggressive dog, be sure to check out the following resources from Journey Dog Training:
- Teach a dog to share
- Scoresheet for aggressive dogs
- Muzzles for aggressive dogs
- Our email and text support subscription packages.
- Our 15-minute and one-hour phone consultations or video training sessions.
I also have a bit more information from the rest of Crate Aggression’s intake form: the dog is a five year old terrier mix who’s been aggressive around his crate and when cornered for five years. The dog is mostly aggressive towards the husband and visiting nieces, not the wife of the family. There are no children in the home.
Crate Aggression didn’t specify how bad the bites were or how many times this dog had bitten. She also didn’t respond when I asked if the dog gave warning signs before biting. All of that is important information, but I didn’t get answers to those follow-up questions.
Should I Euthanize, Rehome, or Train My Crate Aggressive Dog?
I’ll tell you this: given what I know, I don’t think this dog needs to be euthanized right now.
I’d train this dog. If things aren’t getting better after a few months of honest work at the problem, we might re-assess.
- Size of the dog. I’m assuming that this dog is small-ish. Most terrier mixes are. I could be wrong (Russian Black Terriers and Staffordshire Terriers are also technically terriers), but I’m assuming this dog is under 30 pounds. This logically means the risk of injury from this dog is far lower than if the dog was 100 pounds.
- Predictability of the aggression. The aggression is limited to specific, identifiable situations. That makes things much safer! It’s far more dangerous to be around a dog who could snap (literally or figuratively) at any moment.
- Lack of training so far. The only training attempted so far is management. The owners have tried to limit contact between the dog and people he’s aggressive towards. That’s great! An excellent start. But it’s barely the tip of the iceberg as far as options for this dog.
- Risk to the family. There are only two adults in the home. There are no small children at risk, and there aren’t myriad roommates that would make training and management difficult.
- Risk to the public. The dog’s aggression isn’t an immediate threat to “the general public.” He’s not trying to break out of the house to chase down strangers or lunging at people on walks. It’s pretty much just inside the home.
- Dog’s stability in the home. The dog is already (mostly) succeeding in this home. It sounds like his five years of life have been pretty good so far. Based on what I know, we technically could keep up the status quo without a huge risk to this pup’s owners or this pup’s mental welfare.
- Changes in the aggression. The owners reported that this dog’s behavior has been the same for five years. That’s actually good – it means we’re not getting worse over time.
If Crate Aggression’s dog were larger, less predictable, or around lots of people (especially kids), I might have a different assessment. I also might change my assessment if this dog is biting his owners frequently (more than a few times per year), the bites were seriously breaking skin, or if the dog wasn’t letting go when biting.
Fixing this problem will take time: the dog has been “practicing” his aggressive behavior for five years (his entire life).
On Rehoming Aggressive Dogs
I am generally reluctant to rehome aggressive dogs because I don’t like the idea of “passing the buck” to someone else. Of course, that doesn’t mean that rehoming an aggressive dog is always irresponsible.
If the reason the dog is “failing” is largely due to his environment and we can reasonably find him a new home where he’s likely to be safe, then we should try that! But if the list of what the dog needs to succeed is improbably long and complicated, that’s not a good sign.
For example, we sometimes had this sad, wry conversation at the shelter I used to work for: “If only Fido could go home with a female professional trainer who lives on a farm with no other dogs, no kids, and no visitors. Then maybe he’d be OK.”
The reality is, there aren’t many hermit-like female dog trainers-turned-farmer who are looking to take home the world’s aggressive dogs.
But if your dog just needs a home without kids, or a home without other dogs, or a home with more exercise opportunities, then rehoming might be a great option.
On Euthanizing Aggressive Dogs
I’ve helped make the decision to euthanize a lot of dogs when I worked at Denver Dumb Friends League. It was the hardest part of that job.
It’s different to make that decision with a shelter dog, because so much of the equation is unknown: how dedicated is his family? He doesn’t have one. How much space does he have? No one can say, he doesn’t have a home. Does the family live near a playground? Not sure. And on and on.
With shelter dogs who don’t have families, we’re much more cautious than with dogs who already have a dedicated family.
I am yet to have a client’s dog euthanized for aggression. That’s not because I’m “that good.” It’s mostly luck, and the fact that I’ve only been working with aggression cases for a few years.
Based off of what I know about this particular dog, I think it’s too early in this dog’s training to euthanize him. If my assumptions are wrong or things change, that assessment might change.
Treating a Dog Who’s Crate Aggressive
If this dog were mine, or my client’s, here’s what I’d do:
- Continue managing this dog’s crate aggression. Leave him alone when he’s in the crate and avoid cornering him.
- Teach this dog a hand target. You can use this hand target to ask him to come to you, so you don’t have to corner him.
- Consider muzzle training the dog so we can train him safely. Check out my favorite muzzles here, and a muzzle training demo video here.
- Practice some treat-and-retreat with this dog. Put him in his crate, and toss a treat into the crate. Then back up. When he eats the treat and looks back up at you, pause. Then take a step forward, toss a treat, and retreat again. Repeat. This will help teach the dog that people approaching him in his crate is actually great!
- Practice Pat-Pet-Pause consent tests with the dog. This will help him feel more comfortable with people, especially people he’s currently unsure about. At first, do this in large open spaces where conflict is extremely unlikely.
- Cease any punishment, smacking, scaring, scolding, or “dominating” of the dog, if you’re doing any of that. This dog is aggressive when he’s cornered because he feels threatened. He feels like aggression is the only way to get the space he wants. If you scold, punish, or alpha roll him, he’s likely to get worse.
Of course, this is just an overview. I have an entire e-book about treating aggression in dogs. I also work with two other fabulous trainers to take aggression cases remotely through video chat, phone consultation, and/or email and text support for clients around the world.
If you can’t find a Vet Behaviorist, Certified Dog Behavior Consultant, or other aggression-credentialed professional near you, we’re here for you.
Kayla is from Ashland, Wisconsin but lives in Missoula Montana. She holds a degree in biology from Colorado College and has spent years working in zoos, animal shelters, as a private dog trainer, and with working detection K9s. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant. She shares her life with her border collie Barley.