Speaking of Dogs: Aggressive Behavior

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My 3-year-old fox terrier (whom we have had since a puppy) bit my 9 year old daughter. My daughter simply walked near our dog as she was by the garbage. Normally you can approach or even take food from the dog without incident; so what happened this time? Andrea H.

What you’ve described sounds like “possession aggression” or “resource guarding,” a complex behavior problem that demands immediate attention before anyone else gets hurt.

Often, aggression that appears “suddenly” has actually been brewing for some time, unbeknown to the humans. Please don’t assume this was a unique or one-time incident. Without proper intervention, aggressive incidents usually increase in frequency and intensity.

Possession aggression can be particularly dangerous because you never know what the dog will decide to guard. Children are at greater risk of being bitten by a resource guarder because most dogs view children as subordinates.

Warning! Punishing the dog for resource guarding is not a solution, and in fact can escalate the aggression.

Some mild forms of possession aggression can be remedied by taking steps to increase your leadership and gaining the dog’s respect. In these cases, the dog who has been allowed more privileges than she can handle is placed on a “nothing for free” program. The dog is asked to perform simple obedience tasks for all the good things in life: food, belly rubs, attention, toys, and access to favorite places. The “nothing for free” program reduces the dog’s status in the family pack, making her less apt to try to exert authority.

We urge you to seek professional help immediately to evaluate your dog and outline a training/management program for your family to implement. We recommend you consult one of us or another Certified Pet Dog Trainer through the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. Go to www.apdt.com to find a trainer in your area.
Other Resources include:

· The Animal Behavior Department at UC Davis for an in-depth behavior analysis.
· Suggested reading: “MINE! A Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs” by Jean Donaldson. Available through Dogwise.com.

Editor’s note: This is from anewscafe.com’s best-of archives. It was first published in January, 2008.

Carla Jackson
Carla Jackson is a professional pet dog trainer and owner of Jackson Ranch for Dogs, a kennel-free boarding and training facility. She specializes in private training, behavior consultations, puppy socialization and day training. You can find Jackson Ranch on Facebook, visit the Jackson Ranch website, or call (530)365-3800.
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9 Responses

  1. Randall R. Smith Randall R. Smith says:

    Really appreciate this “who’s in charge?” view.  Too often today many of us are victims of pets without real owners.  From incessant barking, to threatening beasts at the end of a leash; local wolves of all shapes and sizes have forgotten they are supposed to be domesticated and true friends.  Then there is the cat mess.  Thank you for this reprise.

  2. Avatar name says:

    Those small/tiny dogs are responsible for the majority of dog bites nationwide.  It is in their nature, they are just not good dogs to have around kids or guests.

    The best dog to own if you have small children is a Newfoundland.  They are very docile and loving, and will let kids climb all over them without biting or snarling.  They also have a great protector instinct, and will watch over family and kids, especially around water.

  3. Avatar Debra Atlas says:

    I would add that another very useful resource for certified dog trainers is the IACP (see http://canineprofessionalsconference.com/). I’ve personally used two trainers who are IACP certified and have had remarkably great results.

    It isn’t so much lessening the dog’s status in the pack as it is giving the dog real structure as in rules, boundaries and limitations. Also it’s critical that the dog knows what is allowed and what isn’t and that it’s consistently “drilled” into them by regular and on-going training. By the way, training is something that should always be happening, no mater how old or well behaved a dog is. Consistent and regular reinforcement is the key to a well-behaved pet!

    • Avatar EasternCounty says:

      Ah, rules, boundaries, and limitations.  You’ve watched and/or read Cesar Millan, too.  Then there’s exercise, discipline, and affection.  One of my Certified Pet Trainer friends is not a fan of Cesar Millan’s methods, but for those of us who just want guidelines — and are far, far away from any training schools — he fits the bill.

  4. Avatar Barbara N. says:

    If you want your dog to be your best friend you also have to become his best friend. Yes, master, top in the pack, but also his best friend. I see so many people walk their dogs, often in packs, chatting away amongst each other, no regard to their little buddy. Dogs are often more aggressive on leash. Bring them up like you would your babies, lots of love and direction. Definitely keep in mind that not all breeds are the same, so before you decide who your next best friend is going to be, make sure they will be a good match for your lifestyle. They say that there is no bad dog, just bad owners, and that might be true, but I think a lot of it is also picking a type of breed that is suitable for you. Just think before you commit, and be ready, willing and able to give that dog everything it deserves…they will be your best friend!

  5. Avatar pmarshall says:

    We have a couple of pit bulls in our neighborhood, both of which are “biters”. Are the dogs
    untrainable”? My husband was bitten as were two other neighbors. It is disgusting to try to walk in this neighborhood for health’s sake, only to be aware that these dogs are sometimes on the loose and nothing can be done — except to make enemies of the people who own them. We have to carry a “weapon” of sorts jut to be safe. It really is disgusting.

    • pmarshall, what you describe is not a training issue. It’s a case of irresponsible pet ownership and violation of the leash law. There definitely IS something that can be done about these dogs running loose and terrorizing your neighborhood, mainly because it is against the law.

      If you have any rapport with the owners, I suggest approaching them with your concerns. Sometimes people are unaware that their pets are causing problems and are grateful to be given the opportunity to resolve the issue harmoniously.  

      If that doesn’t work then call Animal Control and file a report. Ask others who have been victimized to do the same. Then call again and again and again until the owners are forced to control their dogs.

      By law, every dog bite to a human that breaks the skin must be reported. A dog with a history of unprovoked bites or of inflicting serious injury can and will be declared “dangerous.” Once that happens, the court will decide if the dog can be managed safely on the owner’s property, re-homed, or euthanized. 

      This is a serious issue, especially if the dogs have come to view the neighborhood as their territory. There are many cases of people being attacked on their own property in similar situations. I can practically guarantee the aggressive behavior will get worse if left unchecked.

      Good luck.



      • Avatar Ginny says:

        When we moved back into our old neighborhood after being gone in another state, there were dogs all over the roads.

        My husband and I carried dog bones.  When one would come near, we would throw out a dog bone near the animal.

        Within a month or so, the dogs were our friends.  They loved dog bones!

  6. Avatar cheyenne says:

    Here in Cheyenne a woman was walking her dog on one of the rural streets.  Two pit bulls, (do they always run in pairs?) attacked her dog.  Being a Wyoming lady she was packing and pulled out her gun and shot at the two pit bulls, wounding one and the pits took off.  She called the sheriff and took her dog to the vet for treatment and met the sheriff there.  While she and the sheriff were discussing what happened another lady, Karma does happen,  walked into the vet with her pit bull that had been shot.  The pit bull owner had to pay the vet bill for the other lady’s injured dog who was only minorly hurt.  No word on what, if anything, happened to the pit bulls.