Dogs are social animals. But that doesn’t mean that they all get along. Some dogs aren’t just socially awkward – they’re really aggressive to other dogs.
Today’s “Ask A Behavior Consultant” revolves around the case of a 14-month old Akita who is really aggressive to other dogs. Her owner wrote,
“My dog use to love playing with other dogs when she was a puppy, but now shes just over 1 year old and is aggressive towards familiar and unfamiliar dogs, she attacked a dog who ran up to us while we were on a walk. How do I fix this?”
– Sincerely, Aggressive Akita
If your dog is really aggressive to other dogs, check out these other resources from Journey Dog Training:
- How to Stop Dog Aggression (e-book)
- My Dog Doesn’t Play With Other Dogs. Is That OK?
- Why Does My Dog Bark and Lunge at Other Dogs?
- Is My Dog A Red Zone Dog? 28 Questions to Ask Yourself
- Basic Steps For Reactive Dog Training
“Aggressive Akita” is dealing with a very scary problem. The good news: they’re on the right track, according to their intake form: they’re avoiding other dogs, rewarding their dog for good behavior, and they’re getting help.
The bad news is that they’re living with a breed (Akita) that is known for aggressive behavior, particularly to other dogs. Their Akita, at 14 months, is probably still growing and filling out, and she’ll be a very large, powerful, dangerous dog.
An Akita can certainly do far more damage in far less time than even the world’s most aggressive Chihuahua – or even mid-sized Border Collie.
Dogs who are genetically predisposed towards aggression (like some Akitas) often start displaying concerning behavior around 1-2 years old. But don’t just blame this on genetics – there’s still plenty we can do to help your dog.
The three steps that the owners have taken are essentially the correct ones. Let’s look at them in more detail:
Keep Everyone Safe
Your first goal with a dog who is really aggressive to other dogs is always safety. That means that your aggressive dog needs to be muzzle trained and kept on a leash or behind a fence.
Muzzles, aside from being safety tools, are also useful signalers to other dog owners that your pup may need space.
Ideally, there should be two barriers of safety between your dog and her “target.” A muzzle/leash combination, fence/leash, muzzle/baby gate, or crate/baby gate can all work well. For larger, more “serious” dogs, you might even want three layers of protection. Ensure that your fences are secure and your leash is strong and well-handled – otherwise they don’t count!
Check out this video on defensive leash handling to learn more.
Resist the temptation to attempt to “socialize” your dog by muzzling her and just forcing her to be around other dogs until she appears “calm” (which is probably either exhaustion or learned helplessness).
It might seem counterproductive to avoid other dogs if you’re trying to fix your dog’s aggression, but you’ve got to. Every time your dog scares another dog away or gets the adrenaline rush of fighting with another dog, you run the risk of making the problem worse.
Essentially, your dog is likely to learn that being aggressive towards other dogs is “working.”
This is especially important with unknown dogs or off-leash dogs. That means that you need to alter your walking path to avoid high-traffic areas, especially during peak hours or where there may be many off-leash dogs. Carrying citronella spray can give you an extra level of safety.
Reward Your Dog for Good Behavior
The real “meat and potatoes” of good dog training is essentially rewarding your dog for behavior that you like and redirecting your dog when she’s behaving inappropriately.
Generally, the problem with helping dogs who are really aggressive to other dogs is that the other dogs are unpredictable or inappropriate, making things worse.
There’s also the problem of splitting. Basically, it’s really easy for you, the human, to make the problem too hard. Then your dog “fails” or won’t eat treats or won’t stop lunging, and you give up on the whole approach.
With most aggressive dogs, you need to start out dealing with the problem on a very small scale. Try jingling the tags of another dog’s collar, using a recording of dog barking (I use the Train Away App), or standing a football field away from a vet clinic.
Every time your dog notices the sign of another dog, give her a super-tasty treat (like boiled chicken). Then back up if you’re near a dog, take a break, and repeat. Keep the sessions short – I’m talking 1-2 minutes – before taking a break. Use a timer if you have a habit of getting carried away (I do)!
This phase is called counterconditioning and desensitization – you don’t need to know that unless you want to look it up and read more.
There are many exercises that you’ll find useful at this stage. Check out:
I like to not make the other dogs more intense to your dog (closer, louder, moving faster, more of them) until your dog is totally relaxed at the current stage.
That means that if your dog is still staring at the dog across the parking lot but isn’t barking or lunging anymore, you’re not ready to move closer.
I want to see your dog wagging her tail, offering tricks to get more food, or just ignoring the other dog with a relaxed mouth, ears, and tail. You can see an example of this in the video below.
My dog Barley has a habit of lunging toward the ocean, barking and way over-excited. You’ll see that he eventually starts offering tricks for me instead of fixating on the ocean. That’s what we want for your dog!
I sometimes carry two different levels of treat – boiled chicken versus Zuke’s training treats, for example. Looking at the aggressive dog gets a Zuke’s training treat. But ignoring the other dog and offering a trick gets chicken! This can really help move things along.
I also find that many dogs do better if they’re moving. Standing still and staring at other dogs is really challenging. Try circling in the parking lot as you work.
I really like practicing at the far end of parking lots of pet supply stores, dog parks, or vet clinics. Those dogs are usually on a mission with their owners and travel on a predictable path. That makes them far more ideal for training than park-going dogs.
This can take a very long time – and that’s why it’s nice to get help.
Get Help for Your Aggressive Dog
The tricky thing here is that helping aggressive dogs is not easy. Many professional trainers don’t work with aggression cases.
In the United States at least, there are also many inexperienced trainers – often but not always young, male, and former law enforcement or military – who take on aggression cases when they really shouldn’t.
These trainers often use their past experience in bitework and protection training, but that’s not the same thing as treating aggression to other dogs.
I point all of this out just to remind you that, as an owner, it’s very easy to get in over your head when training aggressive dogs. It’s far better to get help from a high-quality expert right away than it is to waste your time, energy, and money with other approaches.
I strongly recommend finding a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant. To earn this certification, the trainer must past rigorous exams that include lengthy case studies on past aggressive dogs that they’ve worked with. In other words, any CDBC is guaranteed to have experience with dog-aggressive dogs.
Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists and Veterinary Behaviorists are even more well-qualified – they must pass board certifications and labor through nearly a decade of education each.
Journey Dog Training (me) can help aggressive dogs remotely. However, it’s far more ideal to work with a skilled in-person behaviorist or behavior consultant. It might be more expensive and require a lot of driving, but you’ll get far more in-depth help from someone who’s there in person.
If you’ve got no qualified trainers near you, Journey Dog Training can help – ideally through a one-hour call. We’ll focus on management strategies and basic counter-conditioning.
Sometimes I can also find someone in my network who’s a good fit as an in-person trainer for you (I’m a graduate of many aggression classes and seminars, so I know a lot of people)!
Help Your Dog Be As Happy As Possible
Many dogs that are really aggressive to other dogs live pretty sheltered, stressful lives. Whenever they see another dog, they lose their minds. They go on fewer, shorter walks. They get fewer adventures.
This can lead to a vicious cycle of increasing stress for your dog, which leads to worsening behavior, which leads to further restrictions.
If you can, consider taking your dog out on muzzled, long-line walks in nature. When I fostered a German Shepherd that was really aggressive to other dogs, we would drive out to Colorado’s eastern plains and walk on deserted dirt roads.
There were no other dogs because it wasn’t a gorgeous hiking trail.
Naomi walked with a Baskerville muzzle, a back-clip harness, and a secure 30-foot long line. She could wander, sniff, and just relax away from other dogs. We did this as often as we could.
We also used the AllTrails App to find the lowest-rated hikes near Denver and went hiking when it was sad and rainy outside.
We never really ran into other dogs when we did that because they were all either hiking Colorado’s most gorgeous trails or skipping the rain!
Don’t underestimate the power of nature to help your dog relax.
Use a muzzle and long line to keep other dogs safe and try to stick to leash-only trails (but be prepared for the fact that many people ignore these laws). I carry a bottle of Spray Shield to keep other dogs away as needed.
If your dog is really aggressive to other dogs, you can also make her daily routine better by throwing out her food bowl.
Replace it with some food puzzles. A few of my favorites are highlighted below, but I’ve also got a whole article about how and why to use puzzle toys.
The more tricks your dog knows, the more options she’s got for behaviors to do other than barking or lunging at other dogs. Tricks are fun and keep your dog’s mind active. A fun trick can also help both you and your dog de-stress during aggression training.
Nosework is the sport of teaching your dog to find hidden treats or scents. Start easy using the information in this article.
Some people with aggressive dogs chose to simply manage the problem. They muzzle-train the dog and avoid other dogs.
As long as you’re being as safe as you can, there’s not necessarily anything wrong with this approach. But there’s always a risk that a leash could break, a muzzle could slip, or a door could be left open.
Living with an aggressive dog isn’t right for everyone. If you live with small kids who leave doors ajar, other dogs, or even in a crowded apartment building, this can be a very serious problem.
Please get the help that you need by reaching out to us or hiring a CDBC or Veterinary Behaviorist to help.
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, and as a private dog trainer. When not working on Journey Dog Training, Kayla works at Working Dogs for Conservation. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant. She shares her life with her dog Barley.