Aggressive Dog: Resources for Getting Help

It can be extremely distressing to share your home with an aggressive dog whose actions are unpredictable or even dangerous. In fact, we have many dogs with such issues here at the Sanctuary.

Since there are 1,600 animals living at the Sanctuary on any given day, our admission of new animals is very limited. We can only accommodate a small fraction of the thousands of requests for admission that we get every year. Many of the animals at the Sanctuary have special needs, requiring a lot of space, trainer time and caregiver resources. Although we have admitted dogs with behavioral issues, we can't take in any more such dogs until we fulfill our commitment to those already here.

We do have information and resources to share with humane groups and individuals who are helping animals in distress and creating their own no-kill communities.

If you have a dog in your home who shows aggression toward people or other dogs, please take time to read through this resource and use the information that applies in your situation.

Most dogs communicate using behaviors that people may consider aggressive, and problems can occur when these behaviors escalate beyond an acceptable level. These behaviors may include mouthing, growling, showing of teeth, snapping, or even biting. Behaviors such as these may be brought on by an undiagnosed medical condition, a lack of proper socialization, fear, confusion, or territorial protection. Sometimes dogs in a shelter environment are extremely fearful or anxious, and these emotions will escalate into "aggressive" behavior. Fortunately, once a behavior source is identified and understood, it often can be overcome with time, training, and confidence-building activities.

Safety first

Because it's so important to prevent injury to everyone while working with a dog who exhibits these behaviors, please help the dog become comfortable with wearing a basket muzzle. This type of muzzle allows a dog to pant, drink water and receive treats; at the same time, it prevents biting. Best Friends' animal training consultant, Sherry Woodard, talks about which muzzles are best for training, and how to get your dog used to wearing one, in Muzzles: A Tool to Keep Everyone Safe.

A few changes in routine can ensure the safety of all the animals (and people) in your household. Use child safety gates or screen doors to keep a dog separated from other members of the household. Consider separating the yard with fencing options or dog runs. Make sure all dogs get plenty of exercise to discharge excess energy that might otherwise manifest as frustration and aggression. We do not recommend tying or chaining dogs up to keep them separated, as this can increase the level of aggression.

Do a health check

If your dog isn't neutered, we strongly recommend that you have it done immediately. Dogs who aren't neutered are more likely to engage in aggressive behaviors. If you have questions about spaying or neutering a dog, read Spay or Neuter Your Dog.

You can check SPAY USA's website at SpayUSA.org to see if there's a clinic or veterinarian in your area that offers low-cost spay/neuter services.

Any dog who has shown aggression should be examined by a vet to rule out any medical problems. Pain, thyroid problems, illnesses and hormonal imbalances can cause an otherwise friendly dog to be cranky or aggressive. Dogs who suffer from hearing or vision loss can also exhibit extreme changes in behavior. If a medical issue is discovered, the aggression may subside on its own once the medical condition is treated.

Teach your dog (and yourself) some basics

A dog who will respond to basic cues, such as "sit," "stay" and "come," will be much easier to manage or rehome (if that is your intention). You can help your dog master these simple cues with just a fundamental understanding of dog behavior and a little work. The following articles and books are a good place to start:

The Whole Dog Journal, a guide to natural dog care and training, is another great resource that can help you learn more about dog aggression, as well as other dog behavior issues. You can find it at The Whole Dog Journal.

Best Friends' staff trainers have written a manual called "Dog Tips from DogTown" containing even more information about relationship-based training to help dogs overcome undesirable behaviors. For more on the training methods used so successfully here at Best Friends, check out our Dog Resources.

Consult a professional

It is highly advisable to have a professional trainer and/or behaviorist work with the dog, whether you intend to keep the animal or not. Professional trainers can provide valuable insight into dog behavior, and they can often pick up on very subtle clues and triggers that most of us are unable to discern. Even if you decide not to keep this dog, a proper evaluation from a professional trainer will help determine what type of environment the dog needs to be successful. As you probably know, shelters are full of hundreds of thousands of dogs simply deemed "aggressive." Any additional information can help set a dog apart and increase chances of placement.

The following resources can assist you in looking for someone in your area:

You may want to have a behaviorist assess the dog's history, temperament and environment to help everyone involved understand what it will take to manage or correct the unwanted behavior. A behaviorist can also advise you about medications that may be helpful. To learn more about finding a certified behaviorist, talk to your vet or go to Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists.

The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB) lists their members here. Veterinarians who are board-certified in behavior have undergone extensive training and education in animal behavior.

You can also find a consultant through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC).

If you're not able to find a behaviorist in your area, some of the behaviorists listed with the ACVB and IAABC will do remote consultations with the pet caregiver and veterinarian. Don't be afraid to ask for options.

Be patient if you have to find a new home for a dog

If you decide that a new home is the only option for a dog, check out Best Friends' online guide, How to Find Homes for Homeless Pets. It covers the basics of using ads and flyers, photos, networking and online adoption sites, and much more. Once you've read through the guide, you may want to access the following articles from our resource library for more in-depth information on select topics:

A great adoption ad can be a real attention grabber. Best Friends staff writer Elizabeth Doyle offers some clever advice about writing effective adoption ads: How to Write Pet Profiles to Find Good Homes for Your Adoptables.

Distributing flyers with a dog's photo and adoption profile is an excellent way of getting the word out about the need for a new home. A free, easy-to-use flyer maker program is available online. It allows you to create quick and easy flyers (no special skill required) that can be both printed out and saved as digital files for emailing and posting on social network sites.

Individuals can also post pets for adoption on Petbond.com.

Many people seeking to re-home a pet turn to shelters or rescue groups first, but they are often already stretched to their limits. If they can't take your animal, ask them for a courtesy posting on their website or a chance to bring your pet to one of their adoption events.

To find animal welfare groups in your community, search Petfinder.com. Additional listings for animal organizations can be found at WorldAnimal.net.

If you are trying to place a specific breed of dog, you can find local listings of breed rescue groups by searching online at Google or Yahoo. Here's a sample search combination: cocker spaniel + breed rescue + Montana.

Some people are hesitant to publicize information about their pets because they fear that people who would treat the pet unkindly will respond. Remember, you are in control of your pet and where he or she is placed. Don't be afraid to ask for references and follow up on them. For more information about screening potential adopters, and more ideas to help you re-home your pet, read the Best Friends guide How to Find Homes for Homeless Pets.