How to Socialize an Aggressive Dog? (Towards Other Dogs and Humans)

How to Socialize an Aggressive Dog? Photo of an aggressive dog.

Aggression in dogs is challenging at the best of times. When you want to know what to do, socialization is going to be a crucial detail. Here’s what you’ll want to know on how to socialize an aggressive dog!

Socializing an aggressive dog means starting from the root of the behavior, understanding it and why it happens, and then working with your dog to relearn the behavior. While many people would punish an aggressive dog, this is seen as outdated now. It is about addressing the root of the problem and working from there with the support of a professional, socialization situations, and lots of patience and love.

Can an aggressive dog be cured?

Aggression in dogs is a changeable behavior, but it will take work and effort to do it effectively. It is a process that involves reteaching a dog’s response and giving your dog lots of love and kindness in the meantime as this behavior is retaught. 

Aggressive dogs are often handed over to shelters because owners don’t feel they can do anything. Aggressive behavior can always be retaught and relearned. The important thing is that you understand it for what it is and work to deal with it as a team (that is, a team with your dog).

What is aggressive behavior in a dog?

Aggression is seen as a territorial behavior in dogs. Which it is, technically. There are a few kinds of aggressive behaviors (more on that in a bit) that all stem from the same central focus: fear. Dogs will act out in aggression if they are fearful of something or someone and are aiming to protect themselves. 

Aggression is learned in dogs. While they are inherently pack animals, most will not act aggressively without learning to do so. The reasons for their aggression vary depending on the type of aggression that they show.

Types of aggression in dogs

There are three main types of aggression in dogs. The root of all of these are anxiety and/or fear, but the aggression can present in three main ways:

  1. Territorial aggression
  2. Defensive aggression
  3. Social aggression

Territorial aggression

You might be able to guess this, but territorial aggression is when a dog is protecting himself, his property, and his humans. He’ll keep an eye on things or people that get onto his property and will warn them away when they get too close. He feels that he must protect his owner and his home from those that he’s unfamiliar with.

That territory could be his home or lot, but it also could be other spots that he feels belong to him (a part of the dog park or a walking trail, for instance).

Defensive aggression

In this case, a dog is acting out when they are scared and are unable to flee. They will either freeze or fight. Most do a blend of both, and it means that they’ll run around frantically, snapping and growling. They are warning people away because they are absolutely terrified and want to be left alone. But since their space is being infringed upon, they react out of that terror.

Social aggression

In this case, a dog is aggressive with new people or new animals. This kind of aggression is common when a dog is working to assert himself as alpha in the pack. This pack could be of humans, or it could be of other animals. It could be with strangers or known people or pets. This kind of aggression is natural and based on the common need for a dog to be alpha.

What do I do if my dog is aggressive?

If you feel as though these examples are descriptive of your dog, you’ll want to take a moment and see it for what it is. All kinds of dog aggression are serious and can escalate quickly to injury. If your dog is aggressive, you will need to take “charge” of this by learning how to handle and retrain an aggressive dog.

How to handle an aggressive dog

First and foremost, you’ll need to learn about the best ways to actually handle an aggressive dog both in the moment and in general. Aggression is never the dog’s fault. He is acting on a primal instinct and doesn’t understand that what he’s doing is wrong. This is the fault of humans, not dogs. 

If he has a moment where he is showing aggression, keep yourself very calm. You can use kindness and gentle voices to assure him that he’s okay and that everything is okay. Remember that aggression is a direct response to fear and anxiety of a perceived threat. Using warm voices and humor, if you wish, will help him to understand that aggression isn’t required.

Raising your voice and yelling will never get you anywhere with aggression in the moment. If you try to keep him physically under your control, you can use firm movements, but pair them with a calm and kind voice. You know that expression: “You’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar”? It works perfectly here. 

Can I retrain aggression on my own?

While this is possible if you’ve had proper training, aggression will often require a professional’s input. You’ll need to understand what the different signs are and the best behaviors to handle them. Retraining aggression is a process, but it is absolutely doable if you have the correct support to guide you.

Is it ever too late to socialize a dog?

You probably think that it’s too late to socialize and retrain aggression in adult or senior dogs, but this is not the case. You can socialize a dog at any age, but the older they are, the harder it will be. They will need to relearn firmly understood behaviors, which will take time, patience, and practice. There is also the concept of desensitization.

Photo of a dog on a leash showing an aggressive behavior.

What is desensitization?

This is when you show a dog how to act appropriately to a stimulus (aka a thing) that scares them and makes them act out. As you can imagine, this needs to be done carefully. The general goal is to show the dog that there is nothing to be fearful of. This is done with the owner/trainer and dog working together at reintroducing the dog to the things that scare him—but doing so gradually. This brings down the response, and eventually, the dog will understand that he doesn’t need to be fearful or aggressive anymore.

How to fix social aggression in dogs

When it comes to social aggression itself, you’ll need to take on as much of a preventative approach as possible. As far as social aggression, most of this is due to what’s called a socialization window. During the first 3-16 weeks of life, you should introduce your dog to as many experiences, people, and situations as possible. This is when they are at their bravest. 

They will learn about these things without as much fear, which means that new situations in the future will not be nearly as fear-inducing! If they are outside of this socialization window, you can still help with social aggression. Some tips include:

  • Introduce your dogs to other dogs
  • Never scold or be harsh
  • Change your behavior and attitude towards aggression
  • Be consistent in your desensitization

Introduce your dogs to other dogs

The first instinct is not to let your dog ever meet new people or new dogs. While it’s okay to be concerned about it and learn how to do it properly, you must continue introducing your dog to new people, dogs, and experiences. The goal is to do in a controlled setting and environment. We’ll get into that more later.

Never scold or be harsh

It’s normal to scold our dogs for “misbehaving,” but this only reaffirms that there is something to be afraid of. The best thing to do is to stay calm, give the commands you’ve taught your dog, and always keep your body language and general tone of voice kind and loving. This will calm him much faster than trying to interfere with a harsh tone. It may even cause your dog to turn on you if they get so frustrated to distressed that they panic. 

Change your own behavior and attitude towards aggression

Dogs read our energy and body language. You’ll want to make sure that you do what you can to change your behavior and attitude toward aggression. Instead of seeing it as something wrong or scary yourself, see it as a display of fear and work actively to help calm that fear. Your dog will pick up on the reassuring energy, and it will help the entire process go much faster.

This also helps you understand your dog’s perspective on things too, which goes a long way to understanding why their triggers are so hard for them.

Be consistent in your desensitization

When you pick a desensitization technique, make sure that you are consistent with it. Whatever our approach is, use it with new situations. For example, most techniques will use a specific place, an amount of time, and certain actions or commands. Every time you are in a situation where your dog is triggered, use that same combination of things. It will help your dog understand that the same response is needed (i.e., he doesn’t need to panic).

Routines and schedules are very calming to dogs and can often be the first step to calming their anxiety. This will help them come down from anxiety and fear faster and easier in situations of aggression.

How do you introduce an unsocialized dog?

If you are looking at helping your dog be on its “best behavior,” you’ll want to focus on how to introduce an unsocialized dog to both humans and pets to keep everyone’s safety front of mind.

Introducing an unsocialized dog to a human

In a situation where you are looking at introducing an unsocialized dog to a human, you’ll want to take on the following steps for success:

  1. Using a positive tone with your dog
  2. Move at your dog’s pace
  3. Allow your dog to approach the person at a measured speed
  4. Stay in control

You’ll want to ensure that the person that your dog is meeting knows that they are unsocialized and are prone to aggression. This will help the human understand just how much these steps are essential. The dog should guide the meet rather than the human they are meeting. This will help them feel calm and trusting rather than fearful.

Introducing an unsocialized dog to another pet

If you are in a situation where you are introducing your dog to another pet, you’ll want to follow much the same steps as above.

For the best approach, make sure that the pet they are meeting is calm, easy-going, and under their owner’s control. This will help it go as well as possible. 

In both situations, you’ll want to also make sure that the socialization meets are frequent. The more controlled ones that you do, the better. If it becomes a habit, the aggressive behavior will go away much faster.

A final note on aggression

There’s a lot of fear around aggressive dogs, but there doesn’t have to be when you understand what’s happening. Aggression reflects more on the owner’s lack of training (whether current or previous owner) rather than a so-called “bad” dog. Many will act out in anger or frustration and punish their dog. As mentioned, this is a primal behavior that has not been trained or conditioned out of them. Surrendering your dog to a shelter or, worse, yelling and scaring your dog further will not help the problem.

Aggression must be trained/conditioned with kindness, love, and comfort. Your dog is not misbehaving or being rude. But instead, he is scared, feels like he is under threat, and desperate to keep themselves safe.

TLDR

If you have an aggressive dog, you must help them learn new behaviors by understanding the root of the aggression, what they are telling you, and how to help them learn safer, better reactions to those things that scare them.

While delicate and challenging, this process is vital for everyone’s health and safety.

Socializing an aggressive dog is about having compassion and the right approach to help them relearn behaviors and reactions to the things that scare them.

If you know someone that is struggling with this, please share this with them!

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Hi, I'm Andre and I'm the owner of Sula the Border Collie. I love writing about this amazing dog breed here. I joined the Council to be able to reach and educate more people on the joy of having a pet dog.