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Dealing with Dog Aggression

By Rebecca Turner - download her Sheltie Anthology today

Even sweet Shelties can have aggression issues if they've never been taught the rules. Here's some advice from the experts on dealing with dog aggression, with tips on dominance, resource guarding, socialization, grooming and handling.

All dogs are instinctively aggressive creatures. In the wild, aggression came in very handy: dogs needed aggression to hunt, to defend themselves from other creatures, and to defend resources such as food, shelter, and a mate.

Dealing with Dog Aggression

Selective breeding over the centuries has minimized this trait significantly - especially in Shetland Sheepdogs which are generally submissive dogs. But ultimately there is no getting around the fact that dogs are capable of inflicting serious harm because that's how they've survived and evolved.

But that doesn't mean that we're helpless when it comes to handling our dogs. There's a lot that we can do to prevent aggression from rearing its ugly head in the first place - and if it does occur, we can recognize and deal with it efficiently.

Types of Dog Aggression

The two most common types of dog aggression are:

  • Aggression towards strangers
  • Aggression towards family members

Aggression Towards Strangers

It's easy to tell when a dog is nervy around strangers. He's jumpy and on alert: either he can't sit still and is constantly fidgeting, leaping at the smallest sound, and pacing around barking and whining. Or he's very still indeed, sitting rock-steady in one place, staring hard at the object of his suspicions (a visitor, the mailman, someone approaching him on the street while he's tied up outside a store.)

Why does it happen?

There's one major reason why a dog doesn't like strange people: he's never had the chance to get used to them. Remember, your dog relies 100% on you to broaden his horizons for him. He needs to be taken on lots of outings to see the world to realize for himself, through consistent and positive experiences, that the unknown doesn't necessarily equal bad news for him. Otherwise, how can he be expected to relax in an unfamiliar situation?

What can I do about it?

The process of accustoming your dog to the world and all the strange people (and animals) that it contains is called socialization. This is an incredibly important aspect of your dog's upbringing. Socializing your dog means exposing him from a young age (as soon as he's had his vaccinations) to a wide variety of new experiences, new people and new animals.

How does socialization help?

When you socialize your dog, you're getting him to learn through experience that new sights and sounds are fun, not scary. It's not enough to expose an adult dog to a crowd of unfamiliar people and tell him to "Settle down, Roxy, it's OK" - he has to learn that it's OK for himself. And he needs to do it from puppyhood for the lesson to sink in. The more types of people and animals he meets (babies, toddlers, teenagers, old people, men, women, people wearing uniforms, people wearing motorcycle helmets, people carrying umbrellas, people riding on bikes, etc) in a fun and relaxed context, the safer her will feel around strangers.

How can I socialize my dog?

Socializing your dog is pretty easy to do - it's more of a general effort than a specific training regimen. First of all, you should take him to puppy preschool. This is a generic term for a series of easy group training classes for puppies (often performed at the vet clinic, which has the additional benefit of teaching your dog positive associations with the vet). In a puppy preschool class, about ten or so puppy owners get together with a qualified trainer and start teaching their puppies the basic obedience commands: sit, stay, and so on.

While the obedience work is a great way to start your puppy on the road to being a trustworthy adult dog, the best part of puppy preschool is the play sessions. Several times throughout the class, the puppies are encouraged to run around off-leash and play amongst themselves. This is an ideal environment for them to learn good social skills: there's a whole bunch of unfamiliar dogs and people present.

Socialization doesn't just stop with puppy preschool. It's an ongoing effort throughout the life of your puppy and dog: he needs to be taken to a whole bunch of new places and environments. Remember not to overwhelm him: start off slow, and build up his tolerance gradually.

Aggression Towards Family Members

There are two common reasons why a dog is aggressive towards members of his own human family:

  • He's trying to defend something that belongs to him. This is known as resource guarding, and though it may sound innocuous, there's actually a lot more going on here than your dog simply trying to keep his kibble to himself.
  • He's not comfortable with the treatment/handling he's getting from you or other members of the family.

What is resource guarding?

Resource guarding is pretty common among dogs. The term refers to overly-possessive behavior like snarling at you if you approach him when he's eating, or giving you "the eye" (a flinty-eyed, direct stare) if you reach your hand out to take a toy away from him. All dogs can be possessive from time to time - it's in their natures. Sometimes they're possessive over things with no conceivable value: inedible trash, or balled up pieces of paper. More frequently, however, resource guarding becomes an issue over food and toys.

Why does it happen?

It all boils down to the issue of dominance. Dogs are pack animals. This means they're used to a very structured environment: in a dog-pack, each individual animal is ranked in a hierarchy of position and power in relation to every other animal. Each animal is aware of the rank of every other animal, which means he knows specifically how to act in any given situation (whether to back down, or whether to push the issue).

To your dog, the family environment is no different to the dog pack. Your dog has ranked each member of the family, and has his own perception of where he ranks in that environment as well. This is where it gets interesting: if your dog perceives himself as higher up on the social ladder than other family members, he's going to get cheeky. If he's really got an over inflated sense of his own importance, he'll start to act aggressively - because dominance and aggression are the exclusive rights of a superior-ranked animal. No underdog would ever show aggression or act dominantly to a higher-ranked animal (the consequences would be dire, and he knows it).

Resource guarding is a classic example of dominant behavior: only a higher ranked dog (a dominant dog) would act aggressively in defense of resources. To put it plainly: if it was clear to your dog that he is not, in fact, the leader of the family, he'd never even dream of trying to prevent you from taking his food or toys.

What can I do about it?

The best treatment for dominant and aggressive behavior is more obedience work, which will underline your authority over your dog. Just two 15-minute sessions a day will make it perfectly clear to your dog that you're the boss, and that it pays to do what you say. You can make this fact clear to him by rewarding him (with treats and lavish praise) for obeying a command, and isolating him (putting him in time out) for misbehavior.

Dog Handling Issues

All dogs have different handling thresholds. Some dogs like lots of cuddles, and are perfectly content to be hugged, kissed, and have arms slung over their shoulders (this is the ultimate "I'm the boss" gesture to a dog, which is why a lot of them won't tolerate it.) Others - usually the ones not accustomed to a great deal of physical contact from a very young age - aren't comfortable with too much full-body contact and will get nervy and agitated if someone persists in trying to hug them.

Another common cause of handling-induced aggression is a bad grooming experience: nail-clipping and bathing are the two common culprits. When you clip a dog's nails, it's very easy to "quick" him - that is, cut the blood vessel that runs inside the nail. This is extremely painful to a dog, and is a sure-fire way to cause a long-lasting aversion to those clippers.

A lot of dogs also have difficulty with being washed. A lot of owners, when confronted with a wild-eyed, half-washed, upset dog, feel that in order to complete the wash they have to forcibly restrain him. This only adds to the dog's sense of panic, and reinforces his impression of a wash as something to be avoided at all costs - if necessary, to defend himself from it with a display of teeth and hackles.

Can I retrain my dog to enjoy being handled?

Yes. It's a lot easier if you start from a young age - handle your puppy a lot, get him used to being touched and rubbed all over. Young dogs generally enjoy being handled - it's only older ones who haven't had a lot of physical contact throughout their lives that sometimes find physical affection difficult to accept. Practice picking up his paws and touching them with the clipper; practice taking him into the bath (or outside, under the faucet - whatever works for you, but warm water is much more pleasant for a dog than a freezing spray of ice-water), and augment the process throughout with lots of praise and the occasional treat.

For an older dog that may already have had several unpleasant handling or grooming experiences, things are a little more difficult. You need to undo the damage already caused by those bad experiences, which you can do by taking things very slowly, with an emphasis on keeping your dog calm. The instant he starts to show signs of stress, stop immediately and let him relax. Try to make the whole thing into a game: give him lots of praise, pats, and treats. Take things slowly. Don't push it too far: if you get nervous, stop. Dogs show aggression for a reason: they're warning you to back off, or else!

If your dog just can't seem to accept being groomed, no matter how much practice you put in, it's best to hand the job over to the professionals. Your vet will clip his nails for you - just make sure you tell the vet first so he can take precautions.

As far as washing and brushing goes, the dog grooming business is a flourishing industry. For a small fee, you can get your dog washed, clipped, brushed, and whatever else you require by experienced professionals. Again though, make sure you tell them about your dog's reaction to the experience first...

This article is based on research from Secrets to Dog Training by Daniel Stevens. To learn more essential dog training strategies, click here.

Author Bio

Rebecca Turner is a writer studying for a BSc in Zoology at Massey University. She's taken care of Shelties for 10 years and written 100+ articles about the breed. Rebecca has a passion for animal biology and evolution which she writes about on her websites Sheltie Planet and Science Me. Visit Rebecca on LinkedIn or download her complete guide to Shetland Sheepdogs: The Sheltie Anthology.