Dear Alecia, I have a dog who is selectively aggressive. When inside the home and he knows the person, well, he is friendly (but jumps). Outside the house, everyone is typically an enemy; all dogs except our other dog, are a target. Constant barking, biting, and growling. Any advice? (Putting him down is not an option.) He seems to get worse when left alone or in a closed in environment. – Chris
Thank you for sharing about this topic as it tends to affect a large number of dogs. In my experience, selective aggression is not so much about the aggression as it is about a deeper root cause of breakdown in the training foundation. Most often I find that what appears to be aggression is actually fear.
When dog’s selectively growl, bark, or bite it is a sign to me that either:
a. they are in pain and it has not been recognized so they are protecting themselves
b. the dog is insecure so they are projecting a larger image hoping to keep another dog away
c. the dog is not certain about the humans leadership role and therefore takes charge even if they exhibit less than desirable leadership traits
The way I would work with behavior is:
- Make sure your dog is not in pain. While a veterinarian is the first person your dog should see for obvious signs of pain, they often are not trained to evaluate your dog’s spine for misalignments or subluxations which are much more common than most of us realize. I would suggest contacting a dog chiropractor or a body worker to evaluate if there is any pain or discomfort in your dog’s spine which could be causing some of the selectively defensive behaviors. If there is they will be able to adjust your dog’s back and you will see a dramatic difference in your dog’s defensive behavior. I had a very large German Shepherd client who became very aggressive when out on walks with his humans with certain dogs and was given up as a result. One chiropractic visit resulted in a 93% change in the dog’s behavior and he became calm and was able to handle being around other dogs with just a few retraining visits.
- I am curious about your dog’s training foundation. Did you rescue him? Did you have him since puppyhood? What was your training with him? For cases of selective aggression of any type I return to the basics of training: Sit, Stay, Down, Come, Loose Leash Walking. I make sure that my commands are simple and I work with exactness in my dog’s response. If I ask for a sit, I only ask once and my dog has 3-5 seconds to respond if they respond I praise by a pat on their side, if not, I offer a gentle correction of my hand on their back end to remind them that sit means sit. When teaching come, my dog needs to come directly to me, if not we redo the command until my dog comes directly to me and I praise with a pat on the side.
Training is invaluable in assisting a dog to have healthy confidence, trust their human over their own instincts and distresses the dog enormously. Many “aggressive” dogs are labeled “Alpha” by their humans. Generally the exact opposite is happening, the dog is most often fearful and the aggression is a coverup for the fear. But as humans we often misinterpret this response and label it aggressive. So working with your dog on the basic commands and having your dog be accurate and responsive to your leadership is vital in transforming this type of behavior.
Working with aggressive behaviors can be tricky for most people so I recommend working with a trainer that offers positive reinforcement training as it could be invaluable here. So check out your local pet store and see who they recommend.
Give me an update and let me know how you are doing.
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The former host of the award-winning GrassRoots Aspen TV Series, The Whole Animal-An Alternative Approach to Animal Care, Alecia takes a natural approach to dog training and health care. Her work has been featured on Fox and Friends, The Sandra Glosser Show, NY 1, and in Aspen Magazine, DogTipper.com, The New York Daily News and Woof Report.