Socializing a puppy is one of the best ways to create a happy, well-rounded, and sociable dog. But sometimes, for whatever reason, you miss out on that critical socialization period and your dog ends up with frustrating behavior issues or even becomes aggressive.
While it’s far easier to socialize a young puppy than an adult dog, don’t worry, there’s still hope! Not all is not lost with an aggressive adult dog.
Let’s explore how to socialize an aggressive dog and why socialization is important (for puppies and adults alike).
Aggression, Socialization, and Other Big Words
Before diving deep into the topic of socializing an aggressive dog, let’s get our terms straight.
Term 1: Aggressive and Aggression
Let’s think of aggression as a behavior in a certain context, rather than a character trait.
When I’m talking about a specific dog, I almost never say “aggressive.” Instead, I say, “Fluffy growls at children when they try to pet her.” Being specific about our definitions helps us remain clear about what we’re discussing.
It’s important to remember that labeling your dog as aggressive doesn’t do anything to help the problem. Labeling your dog by calling her aggressive only helps the humans feel like there’s a name to it.
The “aggressive” label may have a place when trying to explain quickly to someone a behavioral problem with your dog, but when working with a trainer and really digging into your dog’s issues, it’s better to be as specific as possible.
We’ll use the words aggression and aggressive here as blanket terms that cover behaviors like barking, growling, lunging, snapping, or biting. Increasingly, you’ll also hear people use the term “reactive” in conjunction with these types of behavior, referring to dogs who react in an unusual or extreme manner to various stimuli or startling situations.
We’ll focus mainly on fear-based aggression here, since that’s the most common type of dog aggression caused by under socialization.
Term 2: Fearful and Anxious
Dogs that are fearful may be scared of a single object (like men in hats), or many things (seemingly everything).
Dogs that are scared of a wide variety of things, from blowing wind to shiny wrappers, are more aptly categorized as “anxious.”
Dogs can also be anxious without being outright fearful. Just as in humans, anxiety can manifest differently in different dogs. They may also appear to be frantic to say hi, or generally just “on edge.”
Term 3: Critical Socialization Period
Puppies are primed for learning about the world when they’re about 3 weeks to 3 months old. Around this age, puppies are little sponges, quickly learning that things are scary or not scary.
Properly socializing puppies at this age is crucial to avoid fear, aggression, and anxiety relating to sights, sounds, social situations, and much more.
This period in the wild is traditionally about the age where puppies should be with mom, learning what’s safe and good in the world. On a neurochemical level, hormones that produce fear responses are suppressed at this age.
This means that puppies are much more likely to bravely explore new things, while they become skeptical of novelty as adults. This makes sense, because Mom should be keeping them safe as they acquire the tools they need to survive as adults.
This is why it’s so much harder to socialize an adult dog – their brains aren’t literally hardwired for it the way puppy brains are!
Term 4: Socialization
We’ll define socialization here as the exposure of puppies or adult dogs to novel situations to help them feel safe and comfortable with different sights, sounds, situations, people, dogs, and much more.
For normal young puppies, this can generally be done via gentle exposure. You should remove the puppy if he’s ever scared, but general socialization for young puppies doesn’t require treats. Just take your pup out and about and let them experience the world!
Fearful puppies might need a bit more coaxing, comforting, and treat-giving to make socialization go smoothly.
For adult dogs, you’ll generally need to do more of a desensitization and counterconditioning protocol. Don’t worry about those big words, we’ll get there!
Term 5: Triggers
Triggers are objects, people, or situations that “set a dog off.” Think of it as the tripwire that makes your dog behave aggressively or fearfully.
Common examples include men in hats, thunderstorms, or other dogs.
Trigger stacking is the phenomenon where your dog sees other dogs being walked by a man in a hat during a thunderstorm, and absolutely goes bonkers. It’s just too much!
Generally, trigger stacking is when your dog has simply “had it up to here” with a bunch of different scary or stressful experiences.
Term 6: Threshold
This is the distance or intensity where your dog tips over into being “not ok.” This is generally expressed as a distance (for example, 10 yards from another dog is fine, but at 4 yards your dog loses it), but it can also be volume for a sound.
This can be strongly affected by trigger stacking, which often will make a threshold more sensitive.
Term 7: Desensitization and Counterconditioning
These two training protocols come together. Desensitization is the systematic exposure of a dog (or person) to something that used to scare them, but no longer does through the process of desensitization.
Counterconditioning pairs that trigger with something awesome (like a tasty treat).
We’ll give you much more detail on this below, since this is the core of socializing an aggressive dog!
Wow, that was a lot of jargon! Now that we’ve got our little dictionary laid out, it’s time to start figuring out how to help your aggressive dog.
Why Is My Dog Aggressive?
Living with an aggressive dog isn’t easy. You might feel stressed, scared, or embarrassed by your dog’s behavior. You are not alone in wanting to understand why your dog is acting aggressively.
Aggression doesn’t always come from a lack of socialization, but undersocialized dogs are at increased risk of aggression.
Other factors that may contribute to making a dog aggressive include:
- Breed: Not all breeds are created equal. Breeds that were originally created and curated for protectiveness, suspicion of strangers, or aggression towards other dogs are more likely to become aggressive later in life. On the flip side, breeds that are coveted for their easy-going demeanor are more likely to be friendly.
- Genetics: Dogs with aggressive or fearful parents, regardless of breed, are more likely to be aggressive. Extreme stress on a dog’s mother can also trigger epigenetic and hormonal changes that affect the offspring for life.
- Adverse Life Experiences: Bad experiences, even if they seem relatively minor, can really affect a dog’s lifetime personality and temperament. Dogs go through what are known as “fear periods” and “sensitive periods” as they mature. A single scary experience at the wrong time in your dog’s brain development can have a majorly outsized effect on your pup.
Adverse life experiences may include being abused, but keep in mind that most shelter dogs are undersocialized, not abused.
Dogs that were abused are often super appeasing, trying constantly to make their owners happy. They grovel, flip on their backs, and try to lick. This is quite different from a dog that cowers, hides, or growls.
Any combination of these three factors, plus poor socialization, can create an aggressive dog. A dog with a genetic predisposition towards aggression, fear, or anxiety (whether that’s thanks to breed or parents) that lacks socialization and then gets a singular bad experience can result in a perfect storm of problems.
Common reasons for under-socialization include:
Dogs that were sick as puppies. Dogs that are sick as puppies (such as parvo pups) often are highly isolated, which is a good thing for the safety of the other pups – but it can have lasting consequences.
Coming from a shelter. Likewise, puppies or adult dogs from shelters rarely get the full suite of socialization experiences that we like to see in well-adjusted dogs. This could be because of negligence from the first owner, or because the pup was raised in a shelter or rescue without the resources to devote to socialization.
Coming from a pet store. Dogs that come from pet stores often have it even worse than those raised in shelters. Puppies that are purchased from pet stores such as Petland come from recognized puppy mills. These puppies are raised in abysmal conditions and tend to be very, very under socialized.
Owners who don’t know better. Finally, some dogs grow up undersocialized thanks to bad advice. Some vets still recommend keeping young puppies totally isolated until their vaccines are done. This outdated advice means some well-meaning owners drastically under socialize their pups. There are many ways to safely socialize your puppy before she’s done with her puppy shots!
The bottom line is that your dog’s aggression might not be your fault – but how do you fix it?
The Best Piece of Dog Advice I’ve Ever Heard
One of my all-time favorite dog podcasts, Drinking from the Toilet, recently aired an episode called “Puppy Thoughts.” As someone who’s always thinking about my next puppy, I loved Hannah’s approach to the subject. This piece of advice made my jaw drop:
When you’re looking for a breeder, line, or litter of puppies, assume that genetics are everything. Assume that the dog’s parent’s behaviors are exactly what the puppy will do.
Once the puppy is in your home, assume training and socialization are everything. Assume you can change everything about the dog and work to make that happen.
This advice is perfect even if you’re looking at shelter dogs or a dog that’s always in your home. Blaming your dog’s behavior on breed, lack of socialization, or bad genetics doesn’t help you moving forward.
Instead, focus on what you can do to help socialize your aggressive dog.
Simply labeling your dog as “aggressive” might make you less likely to work on the problem. The same goes for calling your dog “dominant” – that gives you an out, because it’s just how your dog is. In reality, you should focus on the behavior as something you can change – because you can!
Now that we know it’s time to focus on training the dog in front of us rather than the dream dog in your head (another of my favorite dog training suggestions), let’s get to work.
Is It Too Late to Socialize My Adult Dog?
It’s never too late to start socializing a dog – better late than never as they say. However, it’s definitely more challenging to socialize an adult canine.
As we said above in our mini-dictionary of terms, dogs go through a critical socialization period. I won’t get into the neurobiology of that here, even though it’s fascinating.
Just know that it’s much harder to change your dog’s opinion about something when she’s an adult.
Socializing Aggressive Dogs: Tricky, But Not Impossible
Rather than simply exposing your aggressive dog to the world and letting her explore it (like how you’d socialize a pup), we’ll need to go through some systematic desensitization and counterconditioning. Those big words should sound familiar!
As always, let’s start by saying that working with your dog’s aggressive behaviors under the guidance of a professional trainer is the way to go.
A professional trainer or animal behavior consultant can help you ensure that you’re managing your dog safely and meeting all of her basic needs during the reactive dog training process.
Keep in mind that punishing an aggressive dog is a very, very bad idea. Most aggression comes from fear, and making your dog afraid of you is likely to make the aggression worse! Let’s focus on positive socialization (our recommended method of dog training) instead.
The steps to successfully socializing an aggressive dog may sound daunting, but just follow the steps and don’t be afraid to hire a trainer or comment below for more help!
Step One: List Out Your Dog’s Triggers
It’s important to have a solid understanding of what “sets your dog off.” Sit down and think off all of the situations that make your dog behave aggressively. This might be types of people, dogs, or situations that really upset your dog.
For example, Barley’s original list of triggers was:
- People with beards
- People with backpacks or trekking poles
- People on crutches or wheelchairs
- People with hats
- People with sunglasses
This list will help you keep track of your training so you can systematically teach your dog that things are alright!
Step Two: Estimate Your Dog’s Thresholds
Please don’t just run outside and start exposing your dog to everything she’s aggressive towards so that you can figure out what her threshold is! Instead, try to think of the last time your dog reacted aggressively towards each of her triggers.
For Barley, his threshold was generally about the distance across a normal suburban street, or ⅓ of a block.
Step Three: Get Safety Measures in Place
Before getting started with any actual socialization work for your aggressive dog, it’s absolutely imperative to get safety precautions in place. These are all temporary measures that help keep everyone safe during the training process.
Depending on the severity of your dog’s aggression concerns, you might need to:
Get baby gates or a way to separate your dog from the house. If your dog is aggressive towards guests, aggressive towards other dogs in the home, or aggressive with specific family members, you must figure out a way to keep her separate from those individuals who set her off. Baby gates or indoor dog gates can also help you keep your dog from harming your family, other dogs, or cat.
Get blinds to cover your windows. Many dogs become aggressive towards things outside, so you’ll probably need to cover the windows to help them decompress. This helps keep your dog from psyching herself up or practicing aggressive behaviors when you’re not around. We’ve got some specific recommendations for window blinds that can stand withstand a dog’s nosing and pawing.
Bring Spray Shield on walks. Spray Shield, also known as citronella spray, is a highly effective dog deterrent spray for keeping dogs away from you on walks. It’s gentler than pepper spray, but will help you keep off-leash dogs at bay. Simply clip the Spray Shield to your belt and spray it towards dogs to keep them away. It tastes and smells terrible, but is harmless.
This is a must-have if your dog is afraid of or aggressive towards other dogs. I’ve used it multiple times to protect my clients’ dogs from oncoming dogs. It works much better than yelling at an owner to leash their dog when the dog is already a block ahead of them!
Muzzle train your dog. Muzzle training is an absolute must for dogs that have snapped or bitten someone, and a great idea if you think your dog ever might hurt someone. A well-fit basket muzzle (Barley uses the Baskerville Ultra Muzzle) allows your dog to eat, drink, and pant comfortable. Be sure to avoid any tight-fitting “groomer’s muzzles” that don’t allow your dog to eat, drink, or pant (see our top picks for the best dog muzzles here)!
Be sure you follow a good training plan to ensure your dog loves wearing her muzzle. Barley and I spent a while teaching him to wear a muzzle, and now he gets excited to wear his. I’ve never had to use it, but I know that if he ever is in extreme pain or in a situation where he legally must be muzzled (like some Canicross races), I can safely muzzle him and he’ll be comfortable in it.
Crate train your dog. If you haven’t already, spend time getting your dog very comfortable in the crate through proper crate training. This will help you safely put your pup away if you ever need to keep everyone safe.
Get a harness for your dog. Many dogs are most aggressive out on walks. Outdoor walks can be very anxiety-provoking for dogs who are under-socialized or fearful, so go slow, work on desensitization, and consider getting an escape-proof harness to give you an extra level of safety on walks.
If your dog is large and you struggle to control her, a head halter might be a better option. When trained correctly, a head halter will help you control a large dog more easily.
Don’t skip the safety precautions! When I work with leash reactive dogs, I almost always use an escape-proof harness at minimum. If a dog has a bite history, we always use muzzle training, crate training, and baby gates to proceed. I don’t want anyone getting bitten on my watch!
Step Four: Protect Your Dog by Changing Your Behavior
These are just the physical safety precautions. If you haven’t already, it’s important to change your own behavior in regards to your aggressive dog.
There are many things you can do and lifestyle changes you can make to help your dog succeed.
The main goal of this step is to totally and completely avoid problem situations. This is important because each time your dog reacts aggressively towards something, the brain pathways for that behavior get a bit stronger.
That makes changing your pup’s behavior a bit harder each time.
Some common examples of human behavior changes include:
- Walk your dog during “slow” times of the day, rather than when everyone else is out and about.
- Keep your dog close to you when passing others, turning corners, and going through doors.
- Leave your dog alone while she’s eating if she’s aggressive around her food.
- Avoid petting your dog in situations that are triggering to her.
- Ask people not to approach and request that they control their dogs.
- Cross the street or move behind physical obstacles to avoid triggers.
There are thousands of ways to change your behavior to help your dog. Each situation is different, since each dog’s triggers and thresholds are different.
With my dog Barley, I used to cross the street to avoid his triggers. Now, I simply ask strangers not to put their face in his face, and that’s all that he needs!
The point is, we want to be able to control when your dog sees his trigger, so we can produce a good training situation.
Unplanned and out-of-control encounters with scary things (like men in hats) are bad for socializing aggressive dogs. Controlled and measured interactions (like what we describe in Step Seven) are the cure.
Step Five: Take Care of Your Dog’s Basic Needs
Now that you can safely interact with your dog again, let’s focus on what Sarah Stremming calls “The Four Steps to Behavioral Wellness.”
What she (and many other professional trainers) find is that taking care of your pup’s basic needs often helps other behavior concerns go away. While more exercise won’t always just “fix” your dog, it’s often impossible to get rid of aggressive behavior without taking care of your dog’s basic needs.
These four steps are:
Many modern dogs – especially those that behave aggressively – simply don’t get enough exercise.
While some lazy dogs are a-ok with short on-leash walks, most dogs need far more than that!
Focus on getting your dog out for a run, hike, or dog sport at least a few times a week. Sarah Stremming very strongly advocates for off-leash hikes or long-line walks to help your dog really decompress (although this may not always be an option for aggressive dogs depending on your dog’s triggers).
Not sure where to start? Why not try one of these 22 games to play with your dog?
Nosework is one of my absolute favorite for aggressive dogs, since you can really exercise your dog without leaving the house. In extreme cases, you might want to invest in a dog treadmill or other way to exercise your dog from home.
Most American dogs spend a lot of their day at home alone. Investing in puzzle toys is a great way to enrich your dog’s life to keep her brain occupied and engaged. Keeping your dog from getting bored will help relax her and tire her out a bit.
There’s growing evidence that your dog’s gut health has a huge impact on her mental health and behavior – here’s just one study from 2016.
Speak to a veterinary behaviorist or canine nutritionist to see if they see any red flags in your dog’s diet or microbiome that could be related to your pup’s aggressive behavior.
Consistent, fair communication with your dog – generally via training – is important for helping your dog relax and rely on you.
When everyone in your household uses different cues for sit or you change the expectations of your dog from moment-to-moment, this can be frustrating for your dog. Focus on making your expectations, cues, and rewards very consistent for your dog.
While it might seem like a lot to focus on all of this safety and basic care before socializing your aggressive dog, getting this baseline care is absolutely key to success.
Otherwise, it’s a bit like putting new tires on a car that hasn’t had an oil change or engine service since 1998 and has a blown timing belt, and assuming that will make it run again.
Step Six: Get Your Basic Obedience Ready
Alright, it’s time for some training! Much of your dog’s aggressive behavior can be helped by building up basic obedience cues.
Start out practicing your dog’s basic skills in super-easy situations, such as your living room, before building up to increasingly distracting situations.
Helpful cues for your dog to know include:
- Sit or down can help you position your dog in relation to her trigger.
- Touch is a cue that tells your dog to touch her nose to your hand. This can help your dog redirect her focus and gaze away from her trigger.
- Watch me is another way to get your dog to stop focusing on her trigger. You can use the cue “watch me,” or simply say your dog’s name. I generally use a dog’s name, since I find this is easier to remember if you’re panicking a bit!
- Leave it helps immensely for dogs that become aggressive around food or toys, but is generally less useful for dogs that are aggressive in other situations.
Having these basics in line will make other dog aggression training techniques much easier, since they often rely on basic obedience as a foundation.
Step Seven: Let Cookies Rain from the Sky!
It’s finally time to start socializing your aggressive dog. Unless you’re working with a trainer, I highly recommend sticking to training your dog to calmly pass by triggers.
If your dog is aggressive towards children, for example, don’t try to teach her to let children pet her without the careful guidance of a behavior consultant. Just focus on getting your training to a place where you can safely pass children on the street!
As I discussed in our mini-dictionary of training terms, you’ll largely focus on counterconditioning and desensitization. This is the core of aggressive dog socialization.
To remind you, counterconditioning and desensitization are two different training techniques that we often use together.
The goal is to gradually expose your dog to something upsetting while pairing that upsetting thing with awesome treats. The amazing part is, this changes your dog’s underlying emotional reaction to something upsetting.
Let’s use an example to illustrate this.
My dog Barley used to bark and growl at people in hats, people on bikes, people with backpacks, people in wheelchairs, and a whole lot of other things. Those were his triggers.
To help him get over this fear, I had friends put on the offending articles of clothing and simply stand on the opposite side of the street.
If Barley calmly looked at the scary person, he got a treat.
It’s super important to give your dog treats after she sees the scary thing. Otherwise, you can accidentally teach your dog to be scared of chicken because chicken makes scary dogs appear!
We gradually moved him closer to the triggers, still giving treats. I started asking him to touch my hand when he saw his triggers. This gave him a “job” and really helped move our training along.
We eventually built up to (desensitization) him taking treats from (counterconditioning) the “scary people” (triggers).
This game is commonly known as the “Look at That!” game in dog training. You can use the same procedure with any sort of aggression dog. In general terms, your steps are:
1. Set up a controlled situation to expose your dog to her triggers outside of her threshold. If your dog is barking, growling, or not eating treats, you are too close.
2. Wait for your dog to calmly notice the trigger. If she reacts negatively, take a break, then reset further from the trigger.
3. Reward your dog for noticing the trigger but not going crazy – or at least reacting in a less negative way than usual. For dogs wearing muzzles, squeeze cheese is a great reward that fits through muzzle bars easily!
4. Repeat, gradually reducing the distance between your dog and the trigger.
5. Start to ask your dog for easy basic obedience cues in presence of the trigger. I generally teach dogs that when they notice their trigger, their job is to touch my hand as fast as they can! Giving your dog something to do instead of reacting aggressively is your ultimate goal.
Keep training sessions extremely short – five minutes or less, in general. Don’t forget that if your dog ever stops eating treats, you’re probably pushing her too hard and she needs a break!
Socializing an aggressive dog is no small task. But if you focus on really excelling at each step in this guide, you’ll be able to make a significant difference in your dog’s unwanted behavior. If you ever get stuck or feel that you’re in over your head, contact a professional behavior consultant.
Comment below about your success stories, we’re always excited to hear your take!