Too Mean To Keep?

A reader struggles with a dog who has become increasingly aggressive to other dogs, passers-by, and even family members.


I have a serious problem with my six-year-old neutered male Vizsla. He was a high strung, but good tempered dog for the first three years of his life. Something seemed to snap after that. He is loving and affectionate most of the time, but he gets aggressive when family members leave the kitchen (he and our other dog are limited to the kitchen and family room). He barks, snaps at them, and snags clothes with his teeth. He has never chomped down and bitten anyone, but he has scratched people with a tooth.

The worst part is that it has become unsafe to walk him. If we pass people, he exhibits the same behavior, barking and lunging at them. If someone talks to me, he barks even more and appears to be quite vicious. He has snagged the clothing of two joggers with his teeth, so I have decided not to walk him any more. We do have a large yard for him to run in. I am thinking of putting him down.

We have been to three sets of obedience classes (when he was between six months and one year) and he went to a trainer who worked with him with an electric collar. The electric collar works for controlling his behavior around dinner time but it does not seem to work to stem his aggression. It seems to provoke him even more. Is there anything we can do or have we reached the point where we have a dog we can’t control and we must put him down for the safety of others?

-Name withheld by request

We gave these questions to Pat Miller, WDJ’s regular gentle training expert. Miller, a member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, offers private and group dog training classes. For contact information, click here.

Aggression is always something to be taken seriously. Since you are considering euthanasia you obviously recognize this. Many owners of dogs with aggression problems are in denial until a tragedy occurs and someone – all too often a child or senior citizen – gets mauled. When you intervene pre-tragedy there is almost always something that can be done. Good for you for recognizing the problem before someone has been seriously harmed. The question is whether you have the time, ability, resources and commitment to do something about it.

When I work with a client whose dog has an aggression problem, the first thing I require is a complete veterinary workup to make sure there are no physical problems causing or contributing to the behavior. This is especially indicated when there has been a noticeable behavior change in an adult dog, such as you describe.

Pain can make us cranky, and it can do the same to our dogs. Blood panels and chiropractic exams are certainly in order here, hopefully by a veterinarian who has had some training or at least interest in dog behavior (many don’t) and who is familiar with – better yet, a practitioner of – complementary veterinary medical practices.

I also sit down and take a complete behavior history to determine if there have been any changes in the dog’s environment that could contribute to the problem. In your case, I can’t do that, but I am concerned about some of the information you did provide, particularly the use of an electric shock collar by one of your trainers.

Violence begets violence
I do not use electric shock collars, nor do I ever advocate their use. Although some trainers claim that they can be an effective training tool, the potential for negative side effects and damage to the relationship between dog and owner is far too great. In your case it sounds like it has actually exacerbated the aggressive behavior – a not uncommon side effect of the shock collar. You must stop using it immediately.

Punishment-based training techniques such as jerks on a collar, hitting, loud verbal reprimands, scruff shakes and alpha rolls can also contribute to an increase in aggression. If you are doing any of these I would also suggest stopping them immediately.

Aggression is caused by stress. One or more things in your dog’s environment have stressed him to the point of serious aggression, even against family members. The longer a behavior has been going on, and the more intense and successful the behavior, the more difficult it is to resolve. Your dog has been demonstrating aggressive behavior for three years, which makes the prognosis less bright than if he just started last week – but not hopeless.

Can aggression by modified?
There are two divergent schools of thought about modifying aggression. The punishment school, to which I do not subscribe, will tell you to punish him (jerk on a choke chain) when he shows aggression. The problem with this approach is twofold.

The first problem is that many dogs will fight back when you punish. This means that you must punish harder, until he gives in. If he doesn’t, according to punishment trainers, you might end up having to hang him until he loses consciousness. This is abusive, inhumane, and absolutely unacceptable, even if owners are willing to subject their dogs to such torture. Fortunately, most aren’t.

The second problem is that punishment doesn’t really change the way he thinks about whatever is stressing him. If anything, it makes the experience more stressful. It can sometimes succeed in suppressing the behavior, but the stress is still there, and the aggression may resurface under the right (wrong) set of circumstances.

The positive approach to resolving aggression focuses on changing the way the dog thinks about stressful stimuli through the use of counterconditioning and desensitization. Once he no longer thinks of it as stressful, he will not feel compelled to bite.

We do this by getting the dog to associate the presence of the stressors with something positive (such as really yummy food treats) to replace the negative association he now has. It is a long, slow process, and generally requires the assistance of a professional behaviorist. If you are serious about wanting to change your dog’s behavior, I would recommend that you find a positive trainer in your area who is committed to training without the use of punishment or aversives.

Options for action
There is no simple, quick solution to your dog’s problem. You and your family will need to honestly evaluate your resources and environment, and make a difficult choice from one of the following four options:

1. Keep the dog and manage his environment and behavior so he never has the opportunity to bite anyone. This means evaluating every situation that he might encounter that could trigger aggression, and figuring out a way to protect him from being placed in those situations. If that means being relegated to solitary confinement to the back yard, I would question the quality of life he would have. This is not likely to be an acceptable solution.

2. Find the dog a new home with owners who are aware of his problem and can be responsible about ensuring that he doesn’t bite anyone. Again, this is not a very likely scenario. The loving “home in the country” that accepts all of our unwanted animals simply doesn’t exist. There are millions of unwanted dogs in this country who do not have aggression problems and cannot find homes.

You have had your dog for six years, you love him, and you are seriously thinking of giving him up. Why would someone who has no emotional connection to him want to take on your large, aggressive dog? In the unlikely event that they did, you would need to be sure they were fully aware of the risks and liabilities, and their heavy responsibilities as the owner of a dangerous dog. You would also need to be sure they weren’t planning to use him for some nefarious purpose, such as junk yard guard dog or bait for fighting dogs.

3. Work with a positive trainer to modify his behavior. This is your dog’s best hope. While you may never have a dog that is totally trustworthy in all circumstances, it is quite possible that, with help, you can modify his behavior to the point that you and the rest of the family are safe and comfortable with him.

If you are considering euthanasia, it might at least be worthwhile to have a positive trainer in your area evaluate him in person and give you a prognosis. Then, if the prognosis is poor or the cost and risks too high, you will at least know you have made every reasonable effort.

4. Euthanasia. In my opinion, this is not an unreasonable choice. As much as we love our dogs, it is not OK to put our family at risk (especially if we have children) or threaten the safety of the community.

A dog who is constantly stressed to the point that he tries to bite is usually not a happy or healthy dog. If you are unable take the steps necessary to make him happy and keep the humans around him safe, then, in my opinion, a gentle death is preferable to a life of stress and isolation.