Should you punish an aggressive dog?

Your dog growls at your son when he walks by his food bowl and then snaps at him. He barely misses sinking his teeth into his 6-year-old leg. 

Should you yell at your dog? Put him in another room? Something more physical such as use a choke chain or shock collar to "show him who is boss" and put him in his place? 

What should you do?

The important thing to keep in mind is that unless an animal is hunting, aggression is fear-based. If you punish a dog for acting out of fear, you can train him to reduce or stop any signals of aggression for fear of punishment. You can then end up with a dog that is afraid, but afraid to show it. Your dog can then attack without warning. 

If you use desensitization, my recommended treatment strategy, you will observe subtle anxiety signals before they turn into aggression and slowly get your dog accustomed to the triggers that caused the anxiety. Over time, your dog can be calm because he truly does not feel like reacting to the events before him.

Choke chain and shock collar trainers often talk about dominance, hierarchy, putting a dog in his place, being the boss, and other buzz words that all represent a lack of understanding of fear-based responses. Your dog is not trying to take over the household and start paying the mortgage. Your dog is afraid. 

Once you identify a situation that causes your dog to be afraid, you should do one of two things:

  • Identify the triggers that cause the aggression and desensitize your dog to them
  • Manage him so he is not a danger to anyone and his anxiety is not allowed to continue

Back to the initial question in the scenario above. What should you do if your dog is aggressive? The answer is to do the most humane option at that moment to keep everyone safe and to stop the aggression. Options include, slowly walking away, clapping, saying, "Hey!", throwing a blanket over your dog, moving your son out of the way, etc. Of course if the aggression is more pronounced, you will have to take more definitive action. The key is to do the minimum and most humane option necessary to stop the aggression. 

But, the key is to make sure you do not make that mistake again and allow your dog to be close to anyone that he might bite unless you are sure that he can handle the interaction and not get anxious. 

If your dog is aggressive towards guests, do not allow him access to your guests and tell your guests to "ignore him". Instead, keep him on leash, or better yet, put him in another room when guests arrive. If your dog guards bones, put him in another room when he is chewing a bone, or remove bones entirely. To get the bone away from him, toss a high-value treat far from him so he eats it and you can safely pick up the bone. 

Safety is the priority. If you do not know if your dog can safely interact with someone, assume he cannot. 

If you live near Cary, North Carolina and need help with your aggressive dog, I can help. Fill out my dog training information form for my in-home private dog training services.