How To Manage Aggressive Behavior

If you live with a dog that displays aggressive behavior (lunging, growling, or even biting), using management to keep everyone safe is the first priority, along with a good behavior modification plan.

What Is Management?

One of my favorite descriptions of management is from the book “Behavior Adjustment Training 2.0: New Practical Techniques for Fear, Frustration, and Aggression in Dogs”, by Grisha Stewart, MA. In it, Grisha describes management as “Changing your dog’s environment to make it impossible or unlikely that he’ll do the unwanted behavior(s) you do not want him to do.”

Management includes:

  • Setting up the environment so the dog cannot practice the unwanted behavior. For example, if your dog looks out the window and barks all day long, try blocking access to the window.  
  • Giving your dog the opportunity to be successful by determining what triggers the behavior and by creating distance from those triggers.
  • Avoiding placing your dog in situations that cause an aggressive response, reactivity, fear, anxiety, or stress. Using specific equipment and safety measures such as leashes, baby gates and physical fences.

Management Tips:

Note that these tips do not replace a strategic behavior modification plan. Contact a professional positive reinforcement-based behavior consultant or trainer for help.

Identify triggers

Do identify the triggers that cause your dog to react. This can be the sight of a person or dog, a visitor entering the home, someone reaching towards the dog’s food bowl while eating, etc. It may be helpful to keep a diary of incidents. Be as specific as you can. How did the incident begin, what occurred and how did it end?

Set time to work with and train your dog.

Make sure to set time to practice and work on behavior modification exercises with your dog. These practice sessions should be a positive learning experience for your dog. Your goal should be to keep your dog below threshold during these exercises. Practice sessions give your dog the opportunity to learn and process. Practice sessions need not be long. They can be a few quick minutes.

Don’t expose your dog to situations in which he is likely to display aggressive or reactive behavior.

Exposing your dog to uncontrolled situations can make behavior issues worse. Instead, come up with a list of new things to do with your dog in those situations. This could mean placing him in a secure area of the house when visitors are over, or placing your dog on a leash.

Punishing your dog can worsen behaviors such as fear, anxiety, stress, reactivity and aggression.

Punishment includes: yelling or scolding, physical punishment, intimidation and fear tactics, leash corrections, or the use of harsh tools like chokers, prong collars and shock collars. This can cause behaviors, even unrelated behaviors, to get worse. Instead, start teaching your dog what to do. Reward behaviors you like!

Do not use unsafe training equipment.

Using equipment like retractable leashes, chokers, prong collars and shock collars can cause your dog and others to get hurt. Keep everyone safe by using equipment such as a 6ft or 8ft leash. Harnesses can be helpful. Other safety equipment that can be considered is a martingale collar, a head halter, or a muzzle. Your behavior consultant can help make specific recommendations to you.

Do not go to the dog park or allow your dog off leash if your dog is aggressive, reactive, or fearful.

Instead, play with your dog in a securely fenced area such as a fenced backyard, a sports court at a park that has a lock, or any other secure, private area.

Pay attention to the environment and your dog.

Do not talk on the phone, listen to music or stop and chat with others. Instead pay attention to the environment and your dog. Observe your dog’s body language and communication signs. Is he becoming aroused, hypervigilant, stressed, or anxious?

Do not let people greet or touch your dog if your dog does not enjoy being touched by strangers.

Avoid places and situations that have proven troublesome in the past, until the dog is ready. This may include family gatherings or public events.

Two layers of safety are always better than one.

Two layers of safety simply means using two layers of protection to keep your dog and others safe. If one layer fails, there is another layer in place. Examples may include: Baby gates, closed off rooms, crates, a muzzle and leash etc.

Additional Tips:

  • Home entrances. If your dog displays aggressive behavior when people enter the home, make sure to keep your doors locked so that friends, family and other visitors cannot walk in unannounced.
  • Give visitors specific instructions. Have a sign posted on your front door with instructions to call or text you when they arrive so that you can have your dog safely managed. Give expected visitors specific instructions in advance.
  • Schedule fun time with your dog. Do not solely focus on your behavior modification program – be sure to also include enjoyable activities with your dog! Create a list of things your dog enjoys. This can include cuddle time, physical exercise and training time.

How should you choose a qualified professional? Dog training is largely unregulated in the United States and most countries. This can make it difficult to find help from qualified professionals. There are, however, credible sources and organizations spreading the word about where to find a qualified behavior consultant.

Here are three to choose from:

Victoria Stilwell Licensed Trainers

American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior

International Association of Behavior Consultants



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Positively Expert: Anthony De Marinis

Anthony De Marinis is a graduate of Victoria Stilwell Academy for Dog Training & Behavior. He is also a Fear Free Certified Animal Trainer. Anthony runs his dog training business, De Marinis Dog Training & Behavior based in Long Island, NY.

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