By Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA

Our culture is over-sensitized to dog bites and canine aggression, and we need a new paradigm surrounding it. We need to understand that most of the social signals associated with aggression are normal and appropriate, not pathological. Just because your dog growls at you when you approach while he’s chewing a bone doesn’t mean you’re going to be the next mauling victim.

In fact, most of the social signals associated with aggression are a dog’s desperate attempt to avoid having to bite someone. When someone misreads the signals and responds inappropriately, the dog is compelled to bite.

Behavior Change-Up

While working with aggression cases over the past 20 years, I’ve come to the realization that often it’s a far better tactic to change the human’s behavior than the dog’s. If we can just give the owner a different perspective and help her to stop overreacting to her dog’s behavior, we can be successful in ending the aggression, even if we never change the dog’s behavior at all.

A growl, a snarl, a snap – these are all cries for help from a dog. If instead of taking umbrage and aggressing back, we can empathize with the dog and try to understand what has made him so uncomfortable that he felt the need to communicate in this manner, then we have taken a giant step toward modifying the behavior.

My clients always appear a bit stunned at first when I tell them their dog’s growl is a good thing. In fact, a growl is something to be greatly treasured. These are my aggression consult clients, who are in my office in desperation, often as a last resort, hoping to find some magic pill that will turn their biting dog into a safe companion. They are dismayed and alarmed to discover that the paradigm many of us grew up with – punish your dog harshly at the first sign of aggression, has only contributed to and exacerbated the serious and dangerous behavior problem.

Aggression and Stress

Aggression is caused by stress. The stressor may be related to pain, fear, intrusion, threats to resources, and past association or anticipation of any of these things.

  • An assertive, aggressive dog attacks because he’s stressed by the intrusion of another dog or human into his territory
  • A fearful dog bites because he’s stressed by the approach of a scary human.
  • An injured dog lacerates his rescuer’s hand because he’s stressed by pain.
  • A mother dog bites because she’s stressed by the perceived threat to her puppies.

The number of times a person has been bitten indicates the capacity to read, understand and properly respond to canine communications. No one wants to be bitten by a dog. If someone has been on the receiving end of canine teeth numerous times, either they aren’t paying attention to what the dogs are saying, or they aren’t responding appropriately. If a canine professional brags about how many times he’s been bitten, run away fast – he clearly doesn’t speak dog.

Piotr Wawrzyniuk/Shutterstock

Piotr Wawrzyniuk/Shutterstock

Warning Signs

Dogs almost always give clear – albeit sometimes subtle – signals, before they bite. The mythical “bite without warning” is truly a rare occurrence. Most of the time the human just wasn’t paying attention. When you punish a growl or other early warning signs, you may succeed in suppressing the growl, snarl, snap or other warning behavior – but you don’t take away the stress that caused the growl in the first place.

You increase the stress, because now you, the dog’s owner, have become unpredictable and violent as well. And if you succeed in suppressing the obvious warning signs, you end up with a dog who bites “without warning”. He learns that it’s not safe to warn by growling or snapping – but close observation will reveal subtle signs.

What should you do if you hear your dog growl?

  • Calmly move him away from the situation (or move yourself away from him), while you make a mental note of what you think may have triggered the growl.
  • Make a graceful exit. If you act stressed you’ll only add to his stress and make a bite more, not less, likely.
  • Don’t worry that removing him rewards his growl – your first responsibility is to keep yourself and others safe and prevent your dog from biting.
  • If the growl was triggered by something you were doing, stop doing it. Yes, your dog learned one tiny lesson about how to make you stop doing something he doesn’t like, but you’ll override that when you do lots of lessons about how things that make him uncomfortable make really, really good stuff happen.

Establishing a Positive Association

This is where counter conditioning and desensitization (giving your dog a new association – usually giving him a positive association with something he dislikes or is afraid of, starting with a low intensity of stimulus and gradually working up to the full intensity of stimulus) comes in.

Your dog growls because he has a negative association with something, such as growling when you touch his paw. For some reason, he’s convinced that having his paw touched is a bad thing.

Body Touching 101

To give your dog a positive association when you handle parts of his body, try this routine:

  • Touch his knee or even farther up at his shoulder, then feed him a smidgeon of chicken.
  • Repeat and he’ll come to think that you touching his knee makes chicken happen. He’ll want you to touch his leg so he gets a bit of chicken.
  • When you see him eagerly search for chicken when you touch his knee, you can move your hand slightly lower and touch there, until you get the same “Where’s my chicken?” response at the new spot.
  • Gradually move closer and closer to his paw, until he’s delighted to have you touch his foot because it makes chicken happen!
  • Practice with each foot, until he’s uniformly delighted to have you touch all of his feet.
  • Remember that the touch comes first with each repetition, so it consistently predicts the imminent arrival of chicken.

Sadly, the alpha-myth is everywhere, and owners are routinely exhorted by TV personalities and misguided trainers to dominate their dogs into submission at the first sign of resistance or aggression. This flawed approach, as much as it makes for dramatic television episodes, often exacerbates aggression rather than resolving it. Current studies confirm that positive reinforcement-based training methods are more effective and far less likely to elicit aggression than are old-fashioned force-based methods.

Successful social groups are built on a foundation of deference rather than dominance. Relationships based on mutual trust and respect, whether canine or human, are far more enduring than those based on fear and intimidation. Just think for a moment… would you rather that your dog does what you ask of him because he trusts, respects and loves you, or because he fears you? I suspect I know the answer.

Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA

Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA

Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, is the Director of Peaceable Paws Trainer Academies in Fairplay, Md. Her latest book is on Aggression (Dogwise Publishing).

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