Q: Sometimes, for no apparent reason, my dog snaps at children. It’s usually when a child comes up to pet her while someone else is petting her. Is this a territorial issue? How can I break her of this aggressive habit?

A: Obviously a professional trainer is needed in this situation before someone is seriously injured. He or she will set up a behavior modification program to help resolve this problem. A dog behavior expert will visit the home to assess and evaluate aggression, taking a detailed history including the dog’s health, training history, daily lifestyle, relationships with family members, the age and sex of the dog, and many other factors. Often it is a combination of factors that influence aggressive behavior.

The key is asking what you want your dog TO DO rather than punishing your dog in an attempt to stop a behavior. If you don’t know what you want your dog to do in any given situation, your dog can’t possibly know either.

Three things are needed:

Set up the environment for safety and success. This might include the use of baby gates, supervised tethering, exercise pens, etc. There is no substitute for good common sense. Families must do whatever they have to do, using positive methods, to make sure everyone is safe and aggressive behavior is not triggered.

Counter Conditioning. Change the way the dog feels about the situation. If a dog acts aggressive when a child approaches, change the association. For example, after setting up the environment for safety, one exercise would be to give the dog delicious treats as the child approaches, If this is safely done enough times with the proper skills including distance and timing, eventually the dog will associate the child with the food instead of looking at the child as a threat.

Operant Conditioning or Establishing Leadership and Reliable Behavior through Positive Training. The dog must learn that all humans, including the child, are dominant. Dominance does not mean using physical punishment to “make” a dog do something. Dominance means controlling what the dog wants and then teaching him that he must do something in order to get it. For example:

  • Want to go outside? The dog has to sit first.
  • Want to chase the ball? The dog has to lie down first.
  • Want to be fed? The dog must run to his bed and stay until released.
  • Want to continue being petted? The dog must lie down and relax whenever the child approaches.

This training must be done in a step-by-step manner, rewarding the dog for baby steps along the way.

Aggression is influenced by three things: the genetic component (what the parents passed on), socialization (the first 14 weeks of the dog’s life) and how the dog is raised with all life’s subsequent learning experiences. Whatever factors are contributing to aggression, it is up to us humans to identify the problem and patiently work with the cause as we teach the dog what we want them TO DO rather than punishing them for behaviors we don’t want.

Recommended Resource:

The Dog Whisperer DVD, Vol. 2 for Puppies and Dogs focuses on solving many problem dog behaviors.