Let’s talk about aggression.

I was recently asked to comment on a rather prominent case of a dog biting people. I was lucky enough that a couple of my statements made it into the story. But of course, my brief comments barely scratch the surface of what is, most likely, a very complicated situation. All instances of aggression are complicated.

To begin with, we recognize that the dog itself is not aggressive. Rather, in certain situations the dog behaves in an aggressive manner. “Aggressive” is not who the dog IS, but is an external manifestation of their internal emotional state. It’s a representation of how they are feeling. And if a dog is behaving aggressively, you can be fairly certain that they are struggling. Most aggressive behavior stems from over arousal, anxiety or fear.

By addressing the root cause of the emotional response, we can start to identify the circumstances that result in the dog behaving aggressively. We can then either change the environment, change the way dog experiences the environment, or both. If we can help the dog feel more secure, give them tools to deal with their BIG feelings, we can often expect their behavior to reflect their calmer internal state.

This does not mean it is easy. Helping a dog who is behaving aggressively often means making big changes to your daily routine. It means compromise, expense, extra work, and sometimes, the letting go of what you thought life with that dog would look like. And, if too many compromises are required, it can be heartbreaking. Any situation that involves a dog behaving aggressively needs to be approached with compassion for everyone. The owners of the dog, the people who are being aggressed at, and the dog themselves. All three groups need help.

If you have a dog that is reactive on leash, or fights with other dogs, or has threatened or bitten people in your world, take heart. The solutions may not be exactly what you are hoping for (“just make it stop!”), but there are solutions. Find a compassionate positive reinforcement trainer who can give you a plan. It won’t be easy, but there will be progress.

If  you are in the Arlington, Virginia / Washington, D.C. capital region, WOOFS! has trainers who can help. We have gone through extensive behavioral education and we are all familiar with the scientific understanding of what causes a dog to act aggressively. We can help with a solution that supports both you and your dog.