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Canine to Human Aggression

Updated on February 27, 2009


Dogs behave aggressively towards humans in a variety of situations and for a number of different reasons.  The most important thing to keep in mind when considering attempting to correct inappropriate aggression towards people is that growling and snarling are often bites waiting to happen, and once a dog has bitten a person, the chances of recurrence are high.  Over the long term, aggressive disorders tend to be controlled, not cured.  In all situations where there is aggression towards humans, a board-certified animal behavior specialist should be consulted.  This is not the same as a dog trainer.  Contact your veterinarian for assistance in finding a behaviorist.

Attempting to correct an aggressive disorder requires diagnostic tests to rule out medical causes of aggression followed by behavior modification, which may or may not be coupled with medications.  Medications alone do not prevent or cure aggressive occurrences.  Goals of treatment are 1) prevent injury, 2) establish owner control in all situations, 3) counter condition/desensitize the dog to its “triggers”, 4) teach the dog new responses to the situations that trigger aggressive behavior.


Identifying triggers, targets, and underlying “motives” (dominance, fear, territoriality, etc) are all essential for formulating a behavior modification program.  For each incidence of aggression, include the following information:

  • Date, time, and place (if outside, in fenced yard, on lead, or off lead; at home, dog park, etc.  If inside, where specifically in the house/building, especially in relationship to dog’s food/water and preferred resting areas).
  • Animals and people present, with ages and genders as well as relationship to dog (family, strangers, etc).
  • Dog’s body language before, during, and after the episode (backing up, stationary, or moving; head, ear, and tail position; growling, snarling, barking, or quiet; showing teeth, snapping, or biting; hackles up or not; staring or avoiding eye contact).
  • What may have triggered the episode (noise, presence of food, protecting toys, etc).
  • Reaction of other animals/people to the dog.

A video diary, if possibly, is an extremely useful tool, as body language interpretation can be difficult for a veterinarian, trainer, or behaviorist who is not able to see the cues being given by the dog.


Initially avoid all of the triggers that the diary has helped you to identify.  If this means not letting the dog out into a fenced yard, not going for walks, or locking the dog in a separate area when guests arrive, so be it.  Next, train the dog to accept a head halter and, if necessary, a basket muzzle.  The dog will need to wear one of these two devices during each training session in order to insure the safety of the people involved.  A head halter goes behind the ears and around the face close to the muzzle, but does not prevent the dog from biting.  It does, however, allow excellent control of the head.  A basket muzzle allows the dog to pant and possibly eat and drink while being worn, but does not allow a bite unless someone sticks their fingers through the wire mesh.  Most dogs can be trained to accept either device by introducing it gradually.  First allow the dog to smell it, and hold it against the side of the face without actually putting it on.  Reward and praise the dog for accepting this.  Repeat multiple times the first session as long as the dog is accepting it.  Repeat as often as necessary until the dog does not resist having the device touch its face.  Next put the muzzle or halter on the dog, praise it, and remove it immediately, giving a reward at the same time.  Repeat as before.  Once the dog is accepting this calmly, you can gradually increase the amount of time that the device is left on, giving plenty of rewards and praise.  If you cannot get either device on your dog without risking injury to yourself, consult your veterinarian or behaviorist.


Most dogs that are aggressive towards people are experiencing fear, conflicting drives (i.e. fear and territoriality), or dominance issues.  When you make it clear to the dog that humans are “alpha” to it under all circumstances, a fearful or conflicted dog is made to feel secure and a dominant dog learns its place.  During this phase of the training, all of the triggers identified through the diary should be avoided.  

In order to establish control, the dog must first learn to sit and stay, in a relaxed manner, immediately upon command.  Once this has been accomplished, all interactions between people and the dog need to be on a command-response basis: you command the dog to sit-stay before feeding it, letting it outside, letting it back in, or giving it any attention whatsoever.  Everyone in the family needs to have this relationship with the dog, as should any visitors that the dog has not been aggressive towards in the past.  If the dog is aggressive towards visitors or strangers, these situations are to be strictly avoided during Step Three.  If the dog is food aggressive, the food should be put down with the dog out of the room; the dog is then brought into the room, halted in the doorway, and made to sit-stay.  After a few seconds the dog can be released from the stay and allowed to approach its food bowl.  

The dog should also not be allowed in areas that are considered “prime” from a dog’s point of view; that is the areas closest to their primary human.  From a dog's point of view, the closer someone is to the the "alpha", the more dominant they are.  For example, if the dog’s primary human is the father, all other family members should sit and sleep closer to the father than the dog does (mother and father on the couch, kids on the floor leaning against the couch, dog on the floor away from the couch; parents and kids in their bedrooms, dog in the living room, not in the hall outside the parents’ room).  This shows the dog, in a language it can understand, that the people are dominant to the dog.

Once this step has been instituted successfully for two weeks, you can move on to the next phase.


This is a difficult, time-consuming process, and is tailored to each individual based on the information gleaned from the diary.  In general, triggers are initially introduced at a level that does not cause an aggressive response.  The dog is put in a sit-stay, and rewarded for remaining calm and ignoring the trigger.  This is repeated until the dog consistently remains calm and ignores the trigger.  Then the trigger is moved closer, and the process repeated.  Each time the slightest aggressive cue is given (staring, looking nervous, breaking the sit-stay, etc), you drop back a step and start over.  Training must be frequent and consistent in order to be successful.  It can take up to six months to desensitize an aggressive dog to its triggers.  


When you teach a dog to remain calm in the face of a “trigger”, you are teaching it a new response to that trigger.  However, there are times were this may not be what you desire for the dog, or times when the dog is just too agitated for it to work.  For instance, if you want your dog to protect your property but not actually bite someone, you need to teach it to bark in response to its triggers, but not allow the behavior to escalate from there.  Or if your dog is extremely fearful in certain situations, and you cannot seem to teach it to remain calm, teach it to move to another location, like a dog kennel, where it feels safe.


I cannot stress enough the importance of keeping human safety in mind when dealing with a dog that has exhibited aggression towards people, especially a large dog.  They move so quickly and can inflict a horrific amount of damage with a single bite.  If you have a large dog that has already bitten a person and you cannot consult a behaviorist or follow through with their advice, than I advise you to seriously consider having the dog euthanized.  Imagine how you would feel if your dog killed someone, especially a child.  Especially YOUR child.

“While many dogs can be rehabilitated or significantly improved with their aggression problems, it takes a highly bonded / committed owner and a situation in which the owner can be insured to be safe…. If the owner is not committed to resolving the problem (regardless of the reason or no matter how justified), and if there is the risk for injury, then it is neither practical nor realistic to consider rehabilitating or re-homing some aggressive dogs. Euthanasia is therefore an unfortunate but necessary decision in these cases.”  Gary Landsberg BSc, DVM, DipACVB (Behavior)






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