How to Train Aggressive Dogs

Anger management classes for dogs have yet to be invented, but effective techniques are at your disposal to teach an aggressive dog alternatives to threatening displays. Through the correct implementation of desensitization, along with classical and operant counterconditioning, you'll help your dog develop better coping skills and learn acceptable behaviors.

Front view of angry Chihuahua growling, standing.
Aggressive displays are often a way to ask for space.
credit: Eric Isselée/iStock/Getty Images

Understand Dog Aggression

A dog's aggressive display may appear intimidating, but it has a function. Aggression is normal, instinctual behavior linked to survival and meant to keep a dog safe. In many cases, aggression is a dog's way to ask for distance from a trigger or situation perceived as threatening. Lack of early socialization, traumatic experiences, genetic predisposition and certain medical conditions are some of the many causes of aggression in dogs.

Employ Gentle Techniques

Among the many causes of aggression, fear is recognized as the most likely cause of canine aggression. Employing harsh training methods based on intimidation and punishment-based tools such as shock collars, choke chains or prong collars, evokes fear and anxiety, which risks exacerbating the aggression. Gentle training and behavior modification techniques based on desensitization and classical and operant counterconditioning are very effective, and they generally don't result in adverse effects. Because behavior modification comes with risks and its correct implementation is critical, it's a good idea to hire a professional to help you fine-tune your training -- particularly with dogs whose aggression makes you uncomfortable or fearful.

Work Under Threshold

Whether your dog is reactive toward other dogs, toward people wearing hats or toward kids on roller blades, you won't be able to train him until you lower his aggression threshold. This entails finding the distance at which your dog acknowledges a trigger without the trigger evoking an aggressive reaction -- his body language will show that he's tense, but he's not reacting otherwise. At that distance, your dog should be able to cognitively function. This is the point at which you can begin training.

Aim to Desensitize

Once your dog is well under threshold and capable of seeing a trigger without breaking down, you can begin the process of desensitization by making him gradually less sensitive to the trigger. Day after day, he should be able to get closer and closer to the trigger without getting upset. To be effective, desensitization training must be slow and systematic. Go too fast in the process, or fail to properly manage your dog's environment, and you'll risk a setback that may takes you back to square one.

Add Classical Counterconditioning

Classical counterconditioning serves in conjunction with desensitization. In this method, something good is paired with the trigger. For example, if on walks your dog is reactive towards kids playing in the playground, you would feed high-value treats every time you pass by so your dog associates the kids playing with good happenings. After some time, your should notice a positive emotional response at the sight of the previously disliked trigger.

Add Operant Counterconditioning

Dr. Sophia Yin, the late author, veterinarian and animal behaviorist who lived and worked in Davis, California, suggested that you can implement differential reinforcement of alternative behavior, also known as operant counterconditioning, once your dog's behavior toward triggers changes. In operant counterconditioning, you prompt the dog to engage in an alternate, desirable behavior instead of suppressing aggressive behavior through punishment. For example, if your dog reacts aggressively when he sees a child on a bike, you would prompt him to sit the moment he notices the bike, then heavily reward him for sitting.