How to respond if your dog displays signs of aggression

How to respond if your dog displays signs of aggression

Over the last few days I have received phone call from concerned owners whose dogs are displaying aggression. The common factor in all cases was the dog displayed aggression when the owner was trying to remove something from the dog. Dogs are very curious animals and love to explore novel items by holding them in their mouth and giving them a good examination of smell taste and texture.

When trying to train a dog or handle a behaviour problem it is essential to understand why the dog is behaving as they are. Dogs are dogs and will only behave in a way that is natural for their species, no matter how undesirable to us. Dogs must learn and live under two rules of social behaviour. Firstly, their own, and then ours. In every relationship there must be trust, good communication, compromise and play.

Dogs do not have hands, so they hold items in their mouth. Gun dog breeds such as Spaniels Labradors and Retrievers are more predisposed than other breeds for this behaviour as they have been selectively bred as working dogs to flush find and retrieve otherwise know as HPR dogs (hunt, point, and retrieve).

Even though pet dogs are no longer used for working purposes they still retain their strong instincts to collect and hold. In the home this might be tea-towels, socks underwear, hairbrushes and remote controls: almost any item that has a strong scent. The smellier it is the more attractive to the dog.

It is vitally important to know how to handle these situations in the right way in order to prevent possessiveness which can in extreme cases lead to aggression. This usually happens because every item the dog collects to explore which is rapidly taken off the dog by a disapproving owner.

It’s also important to remember that dogs cannot help their selectively bred instincts. They were bred by man exactly for this behaviour. As a behaviourist I understand this so I will always praise my dogs anytime they collect anything no matter what the item is and then I will swap the item for a tasty treat.

This is the approach I recommend to prevent undesirable behaviours of aggression and building a relationship based on trust and fair exchange. Fair exchange is not robbery. When you teach your dog to trust you enough to show you the item in the expectation of praise and a reward, both of your lives together will become easier.

It is also important to provide your dog with lots of interesting household items that he can safely explore like boxes, old bottles, empty food cartons, anything that is not so small that the dog might choke on it. There are also lots of interactive exploratory toys on the market which may help to keep your dog entertained. For example a Kong Toy stuffed with pate or cheese paste and food balls. Be mindful to feed your dog less if his toys contain food.

A growl is a warning to say back off. A growl must be heeded never confronted. Please do not compound the situation by confronting the dog with admonishment. This almost certainly leads to aggression.

I want my dogs to listen to me, so they have to feel safe and  trust me as their owner and guardian. I prefer to distract and diffuse.

Dogs have the mentality of a three-year-old child: if your response is not appropriate for a child, then it is not appropriate for a dog.

Samantha Rawson is the founder The Canine College, which is situated in Mullinahone near the Kilkenny-Tipperary border. For more information about Samanth’s approach and range of innovative courses, visit:

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