Tips for Dealing with an Aggressive Pet
By Emily Hoppmann, DVM
A pet may become aggressive for a variety of reasons. Determining the reason for aggression is the key to modifying this behavior long term. Above all, the main point in handling aggressive animals is to ensure no one is injured and to not cause your pet any additional anxiety or stress. Punishment, negative stimulus, or any other “scare tactics” make the aggressive pet even more anxious and defensive and are totally counterproductive. Your approach should be a calm, soothing one that first and foremost does not put any additional stress on your relationship with your pet and does not anyone or any other animals at risk for serious injury.
Common reasons pets may become aggressive are territory protection (from either another animal or person), defense (of themselves, of their owners, or of their property), and/or pain. Pets, especially cats, also may become aggressive due to petting intolerance or as an attention seeking behavior. Symptoms of petting intolerance or not wanting to be touched in certain areas include: biting, scratching, or growling at the time of petting or when petting ceases. If you are dealing with petting intolerance with a cat the most important change to make when interacting with your cat is to only pet/scratch the head. Do not do full body pets, rub her belly, etc. even if this is something that has never directly resulted in biting. You only want to pet the head because that is how cats interact naturally, so touching in any other areas is not a normal way for an owner to show affection for their cat. Continuing to pet in other areas can lead to re-enforcing an already abnormal relationship than cats are used to having in their natural environment (cat colonies). If you are dealing with petting intolerance or not wanting to be touched in certain areas with a dog, it is important to pay attention to where the animal is sensitive and seek medical attention to ensure that it is not due to underlying pain. Even if underlying pain was the reason your dog first did not want to be touched in certain areas, it can become a learned behavior even if the pain is controlled. Therefore, even after you have addressed underlying medical conditions it is best to avoid the areas that used to elicit aggression when touched.
Recognizing that a pet is aggressive due to territory or defense aggression can be difficult because often owners do not understand what the pet feels is his territory or what he feels he should be protecting. At times it is very straight forward – a pet has laid claim to your home or property and will act aggressive to a stranger (human or animal) that comes onto the area. However, some pets will feel protective over a certain object, place in the home, food, or another person or pet in the household. Identifying where your pet displays aggression can help more accurately determine what he has mistakenly decided is his and needs to be protected aggressively. A big part in correcting this behavior is making sure that your pet knows that you, their owner, is in charge and in control and that nothing in life is guaranteed or free.
Pets are a lot like young children and will try to push the boundaries to see what they can get away with and so you need to be sure to stand your ground so your pets understand the two-legged members of the family outrank the four-legged members. Just like with kids, unless your pet knows that you are the boss, it is hard to expect your pet to listen to your cues or follow your commands. I have found that one of the easiest ways to accomplished this is by reinforcing the social structure using a “nothing-in-life-is-free” program. To accomplish this when working with an aggressive dog, simply give your dog a command to sit before getting anything he wants or needs (such as before meals, before going outside to play or use the bathroom, and before going for walks/rides, etc.). If at any point, he starts to become aggressive during an activity (such as eating or playing) repeat the command to sit and stop the activity. With food, this means taking up the food and making your dog wait until the next set meal time to be able to eat again. You should always be able to pick up your dog’s food without getting an aggressive response. If you are not able to, then you want to feed smaller amounts and make your dog sit before you place the bowl down, sit mid-meal so you can pick the bowl, and have him remain seated until you give the command that it is okay to begin eating again (such as saying “okay” whenever a pet is allowed to release from the sit command). By using a smaller amount of food initially, you ensure you can continue this activity for several rounds and not over feed your pet. Animals with food aggression should be separated from all other animals and distractions while undergoing training. This means that there is an isolated spot where they are fed and are not able to have any type of contact, even visual, with any other pets or people. It also means that the food aggressive pet needs to be separated when other animals in the house are fed and this is most easily done by feeding meals to all of your animals and having the food aggressor be outside while everyone else is eating.
Another training tool is the use of time-out because to pets any attention from you is attention (even if you are fussing at them for doing something wrong), and most pets (especially dogs) main goal in life is to gain your attention. By simply ignoring your pet when it demands attention or acts inappropriately, he will learn that the behavior he is doing results in his best friend walking away or turning around. For example, if your dog constantly jumps up on you and you have been yelling “down” but the behavior continues, try to turn around and walk away before your dog has a chance to jump up on you. If you have a cat that has play aggression and tends to jump out and attach people’s feet/legs as they walk by, you need a set place (a bathroom or laundry room) where you can immediately place the cat and so they learn that is not acceptable. However, often the underlying cause of this play aggression in cats is that they are not receiving enough dedicated play time and so setting aside 20 minutes twice a day to have them chase a laser-pointer or play with a feather on a string (or any type of toy that engages them) can really help decrease this behavior.
Cats may become aggressive while playing with people or toys at any time. The pet may stalk, jump on people or pets, or stare at the target while the tail twitches. This form of aggression must be discouraged and interrupted, which is best done by not engaging (that is, by ignoring it). When the same situation arises but the pet is not aggressive, be sure to offer lavish praise and a treat every time. This way, over time, the pet can come to the conclusion that it is advantageous to avoid the aggression. Providing large areas for exercise, toys for distraction, and consistent, positive reinforcement when the acceptable actions are occurring is strongly encouraged.
Another good training tool is to have a set place (such as a certain rug) in your house that you teach your dog to sit and stay until given a command that releases them from that position (such as “okay”) while you go about your normal activities within the home. This is also a helpful command to work on if you have dogs that tend to display aggressive behavior if a stranger comes to the house or onto the property. It keeps your dog from rushing towards the door if they notice a stranger on the property (or the doorbell rings or company comes over) so that you can train your dog to sit and stay while people enter the home and not have to worry about your pet acting aggressively towards guests or darting out of the door towards a person or animal. During all training, commands should be given in an upbeat and relaxed tone of voice. Dogs are very smart and will pick up on any tension, worry, or doubt in your voice and be less likely to take you seriously as the “pack leader”.
I do not believe in punishment at all because not only is it potentially harmful to your pet, but an animal does not understand the connection between the unwanted behavior and the punishment. It also often results in more aggressive pets, which can result in serious injury to yourself or other people or pets. I recommend only using positive reinforcement to train for a good attitude (lots of praise when a pet is doing what he should) and using time-out if a pet is showing unwanted behavior by removing yourself, a toy, the position on the couch – anything that the pet views as positive – and placing the pet in an isolated area in the house. Do not use a pet’s crate as the spot for time-out because the crate should always be a safe place for the pet, so it is best to have an area such as a bathroom or laundry room where the pet does not have contact with anyone or any other pets and has nothing to entertain himself with (no toys, etc.). It is essential to send a clear message every time and to stay consistent and quick to react any time aggressive behavior occurs. With aggressive cats this is even more important because it is much harder to teach a cat commands, so being sure they are able to learn appropriate versus not appropriate behavior by ensuring this consistency and immediate reaction time is essential. For example, unless a cat’s aggressive behavior results in a loss of something that the cat desires within the first 20 seconds every time he will not learn what is and is not acceptable. Keep in mind that, just like with dogs, what your cat wants more than anything is you and your attention. You also have to remember that any interaction at all (through body, voice, etc.) is viewed as attention by your pet.
With cats, training that biting or other aggressive behaviors (such as growling) will not be tolerated by using time-out may mean having to pick up your cat and move him to another area that is less desirable while he is still in attack mode. The safest way to do this is using a large blanket/towel to wrap around your cat, creating a burrito-like wrap by rolling the towel snugly around the cat. If your cat starts to struggle or become more aggressive or stressed due to this, discontinue right away. The goal is more to create a safe zone, where you are safe and your cat feels secure. (The burrito technique can also be used with small dogs.)
In all these situations, it is essential to move calmly and deliberately. As frustrated as you may be, it is important to try to be as soothing and reassuring as possible. Many animals sense tension and respond to it with further aggression, so this feedback cycle should be avoided as much as possible. Again, punishment does not work with any form of aggression; however, positive reinforcement of appropriate behavior does. When an animal is compliant where previously it was aggressive under the same circumstances or with the same triggering events, you should offer a treat and praise.
Identifying, handling, and treating aggression can be a very time-consuming and emotionally intense task. Aggression is usually a learned behavior that can be corrected, or at least a behavior that is strengthened or triggered by elements around the animal that can be reduced or controlled to avoid triggering aggression. Identifying the source of aggression should be a prime goal, and understanding the source can be complex.
Unfortunately, an animal that is aggressive can always be aggressive again if the same triggers occur and you need to consider the potential consequences of your pet’s aggression. You should never feel afraid of your pet or have to worry about the safety of other people or animals in the house. You should always consult a trainer if you feel there is any chance that you may become injured during the training process and if your pet continues to display aggression towards other pets or people and is a danger, the last resort may be euthanasia. However, understand that with time aggression evolves, as does an animal’s environment and this can be for the better or the worse. This may mean that owners are able to better understand what a pet’s triggers are and how to avoid them or it may mean that a child is brought into the house and is too young to understand that his actions may be triggers for aggression from the family pet so there is no way for you to be able to continue working with your pet without endangering your child’s life. Also, as pets mature and are trained they may stop reacting aggressively. However, a pet can become more aggressive with age depending on if there are underlying medical issues (including changes in the brain called cognitive dysfunction which is like dementia in people or painful changes in the body), if the aggressive behavior becomes a learned behavior that the pet considers acceptable, and if the people in the environment are not able to offer consistency at controlling triggering factors and stopping unwanted behavior immediately.