This is a large topic to touch on because dog aggression is different in a number of behaviors, breeds, and situations. You may have dogs aggessive towards other people or other dogs- maybe sometimes its only on the leash. Regardless, knowing what type of aggression you are working with will help you know how to handle it.
First of all, every person’s reaction to a dog being aggressive, or two dogs that have gotten into a fight, is to grab the collar. This is essentially asking to be bitten (if you grab the collar or stick your hands between two dogs, don’t throw a fit to the other owner when one of the dogs happens to bite you.) Whether your dog purposely means to bite you or not isn’t really relevant. When they are in an aggressive state, offensive or defensive, everything is on high alert. When a hand suddenly comes over the top of them to restrict them, it’s going to be instinct to lash out (as if another dog were sneak attacking from behind.) So be extremely careful. The goal is to be aware of your dog’s behavior and needs so that it never progresses to this state.
Counter conditioning is the key here! Utilize this before something happens because when your dog begins to react it is difficult to get their attention back. If your dog starts falling over the threshold of getting himself worked up and you absolutely can’t get his attention back, it is time to just leave the surroundings (cross the street, go into a different room, turn onto a side street, etc.) This will help bring the excited stimuli down and help you regain your dog’s focus.
Practicing cues such as “leave it” or “watch me” will also help. Using the idea of treat value could come in handy here as well (this is the concept that some treats are simply better tasting than others, and dogs will work harder for the better ones. Would you rather sit still for 30 min if you got a piece of molten chocolate cake? Or a shortbread cookie?) You also want to remain as calm as you can. The more worked up you get the worse the dogs will get- they need a calm and assertive energy to redirect their attention.
Now then, we have two different types of dog aggression.
Defensive: head is low, ears are back, tail is tucked, showing teeth.
There are variations of this body language due to how defensive they are. This dog is feeling threatened- he is uncomfortable, protecting something, or simply just trying to protect himself. They usually have a build up to this phase as they get more and more uncomfortable until they start lashing out.
This dog will need a lot of counter conditioning leading up to the stimulus. For example, if you have a defensively aggressive dog towards other dogs, and you are walking and see that someone is walking their dog up the street, the first thing you do is calmly begin to redirect their attention. Drop a few treats on the ground, and then in a happy voice have them step aside and sit so they are facing you. Keep feeding treats (at this point the dog is close and they are probably stressing) also you can use your clicker every few seconds as they continue to watch you and not look at the other dog. When the other dog has passed, praise them, and continue like nothing happened. If your dog starts reacting despite your efforts, move further away (if you are able) and really try to get their attention with that treat. Put it in front of their nose and try to redirect your gaze. The more you scold or jerk the leash, the more they think there is something to be afraid of.
Offensive: head and ears up, hackles up, tail is bristled with a stiff wag, stiff legs and standing forward on toes, eyes are large and staring.
The problem with the offensive dog is that they can be triggered by a number of things, and it is up to the owner to determine where others are going to be safe. If the dog has a high prey drive and acts aggressively towards small dogs, it is not a good idea to let them off leash with other small dogs. This can also be behavior exhibited by an alpha dog- two dogs meet and one is very stiff, the other one submits, and then there are no issues. The problem lies with two alpha dogs that don’t want to submit to the other, and then a squabble usually occurs. The interaction is very tense, which would be the time for both owners to start redirecting their dogs attention.
Counter conditioning is going to happen in a very similar way, though the offensive aggressive dog can be quite strong so you need to be prepared. This dog is hunting- he has fixed his eyes on something to attack and it can be very difficult to regain their attention. The same counter conditioning applies and using the cues “leave it” or “watch me”. Using treats to break the gaze and redirect the attention is important. Moving away from the stimuli and trying to keep the dog on a loose leash, with their focus on you, is the goal. If you tighten up on the leash in order to restrain them the dog will only become more aggressive.
Each type of aggression is rooted in a different way but should be handled similarly. Both types of dogs may be able to socialize at a later point in training, but it is important to recognize the behavior of the dog and to prevent it. The most important things to remember:
1. do not get anxious or yell at your dog.
2. Break the stare and redirect their attention (and reward them when they do! Click and treat for looking away from the other dog)
3. Move away from the stimuli if needed.
4. Be safe and aware of your dog’s behavior and surroundings.