Protective Aggression In Dogs

Recently, I was asked about a dog who started nipping at people who enter its home.  With a new baby in the house, the owners assumed the little watch dog is ‘protecting’ the new member of the family.  I’m afraid this is not the case.  Protective aggression is a a manifestation of fear-based aggression.  In the above scenario, the addition of a human infant has brought many, many changes to the dog’s life.  First, the normal routine of sleeping all night, eating and walking at regular times is gone.  The normally quiet household is filled with baby cries that upset the dog.  Importantly, the baby is now the center of attention instead of the dog.  Visitors whom the dog may or may not know are coming in large numbers to see the baby.  Together, these factors make the dog anxious and fearful culminating in aggression.

Successful treatment of dogs with fear-based aggression requires a carefully crafted treatment plan tailored to the individual dog.  Here are my general recommendations:

1)  Make sure the guests are safe by blocking the dog’s access to them.  Keep the dog in a separate room or crate until a treatment plant can be implemented.
2)  Identify anything that triggers anxiety in your dog.  Does the dog try to bite all visitors or is it worse with certain individuals (men vs. women, tall vs. short, uniform or suit vs. street clothes, people with pets vs. those without, etc.)?  Is it worse when they ring the doorbell or knock vs. enter with you?  Try to remember the prior situations and deconstruct them for clues.
3)  Establish a consistent routine.  I know this is tough with a baby in the house, but try to keep the dog’s routine as consistent as possible.  Establish a time each day for at least two hours when the dog is left alone in its ‘safe’ area for rest.  Also establish a play time when the dog gets attention from its people without the baby around.  Dogs are much like children, they like a consistent routine.
4)  Work on the dog’s basic obedience skills, especially sit, stay and settle.  The dog must understand and respond well to these commands before moving on to the next step.  I talked before about adopting a ‘nothing in life is free’ approach to dogs with behavior problems.  Make them work for what they want.
5)  If you and the dog have fulfilled all of the above steps, it is time to try reintroducing visitors.  Make sure you are in complete control of the dog before trying this.  I recommend putting the dog on a leash with a basket muzzle to make sure they cannot bite anyone.  Begin the reintroduction by having people enter the room with the dog on a leash outside or in another room.  Have them sit down to decrease their height and make them less threatening.  Once they are seated, bring the dog into the room and let it observe them from a distance.  Tell the dog to settle and reward it for good behavior.  When the dog is relaxed, you may move a little closer.  During the reintroduction, the people should ignore the dog and avoid eye contact.  When the dog is comfortable with that (usually this step takes a couple visits) start having the visitors toss toys or treats to the dog so the dog associates guests with good things.  When the dog is comforable with this, try it with the guests standing.  And when the pet is comfortable with that, and only then, have the people enter with treats for the dog. 
I know this sounds like a long, drawn out process but it takes a long time to change behavior whether its in a dog or a human.  With patience, expert help and perserverance, you can help your dog overcome its fears.       

Published by kristennelsondvm

Dr. Kristen Nelson grew up on a farm in Watertown, Minn., where she developed a deep love for animals of all kinds. She received a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the University of Minnesota, College of Veterinary Medicine. Kris then completed a small-animal internship at the prestigious Animal Medical Center in New York City. In addition to writing and speaking, she cares for small and exotic animals in Scottsdale, Az. Dr. Nelson is widely quoted in the media. Her credits include Ladies’ Home Journal, USA TODAY, the Los Angeles Times and numerous radio and television interviews. Dr. Nelson has written two books, Coated With Fur: A Vet’s Life and Coated With Fur: A Blind Cat’s Love. Kris and her husband Steve share their home with rescued cats, birds and a dog.