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Aggression with Handling

As Canine Behavior Consultants, we work with a wide variety of behavior issues. One of the more challenging behaviors we work with is dogs that are aggressive when a human tries to touch, handle, or pet them. It is challenging, not because handling is so difficult to get, but because our desire to touch dogs is so strong that we humans may not see that our dogs are trying to tell us that they do not want to be touched. Many people see a dog, think “Oh she’s so cute,” and then want to immediately pet her without thinking about what the dog might want. Not all dogs like to be petted in all circumstances. Some dogs want attention and love from anyone that is willing, while others simply tolerate it, and some will let you know it is just not OK to touch me. Think about it. Do you like to be touched by a complete stranger? If I were to approach you and you did not know me and I gave you a hug, you would probably think it was inappropriate behavior on my part and, of course, you would be right. If we respect a dog’s personal space we can teach them to accept our handling when it is appropriate and necessary.

The cause of handling aggression can vary. Most often, it is fear of the ‘scary’ human. If the dog barks and lunges at the person, that person moves away, thus alleviating the fear, from the dog’s perspective. This fear could originate from the dog not having been exposed to enough humans in a positive way. There could be a genetic component to why a dog is fearful and aggressive. Or, perhaps, the dog had a negative experience with a stranger that came to the home, the dog has remembered that experience, and is fearful and aggressive as a result. Whatever the root cause, usually it is treatable with the right approach.

Another important reason to consider is that a dog may not want to be handled or touched because the dog is sick or in pain. Dogs have the ability to hide their discomfort well so it is important to rule out any medical issues that affect behavior. Over time, a dog can associate being touched with that discomfort. The persistence of this feeling can then cause there to be an anxiety component to even thinking there could be a touch from humans.

We may see a dog barking and lunging at the veterinarian’s office and not understand why the dog is behaving in this manner. Fear and anxiety are emotions. No animal wants to feel this way. Often, they can’t help it. For example, I have a fear of snakes. I know most snakes won’t hurt me but that does not stop my fear and anxiety. I get anxious knowing that there was a snake in a place I once saw one, often for days or even weeks after that snake is long gone. Contrary to some beliefs, intense exposure will not cure me of my fear. If you put me in a closet full of snakes this will not cure me of my fear. In fact, this may make me more afraid of snakes and now, possibly, closets, too, (that scene in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ nearly kills me every time!). When working with these dogs it is important to set up the environment in a way that is going to help the dog and not be detrimental. The assistance of an experienced canine behavior consultant is highly recommended.

Problems with handling can look very different with different canine companions. The aggression can be with family members within the household, with strangers who visit the home, or with pet professionals who just want to treat your dog in their specific area of expertise. Each of these has its own set of challenges.

If the aggression is toward one or several family members, this scenario can be so difficult as the human and dog can’t even be comfortable in their own home. This can create lots of issues including a rift in the human-animal bond or it can cause conflict among the family members as to how this should be handled. One or more family members may have a stronger bond with the dog and thus feel differently about the causes and solutions to the problem. We recommend that no one pet the dog unless the dog is comfortable with handling and the dog consents; meaning the dog asks to be pet or touched. Know that the dog may withdraw that consent at any time they deem they no longer want to be petted or touched. Failure to acknowledge this can lead to aggressive behaviors.

If the aggression is directed toward strangers, this could isolate the family from having guests in the home. There is likely fear that the dog could harm a guest. Pet parents may not have dinner guests or celebrate birthdays, or other occasions that are supposed to be fun and enjoyable. Pet parents may also put off or be reluctant to have workers come and repair items in the home. Often, we find that having strange humans in the home is stressful so we avoid those circumstances as much as possible.

If the issue is with a stranger coming the to home, your dog does not need to be out with the guest. You can opt to give your dog a frozen Kong or something similar in a kennel or a bedroom so your dog and the guest are both safe for any visits to your home. This is one way to manage the behavior as you work on it with a behavior consultant. “Do Not Pet” signs on a dog can also be an effective way to remind humans to keep their hands off a particular dog.

Many dogs are uncomfortable and aggressive being groomed, having their nails trimmed, or being examined by a veterinarian. When a dog is aggressive with this type of handling this can lead to a dog not getting sufficient care. The dog’s nails often get too long and walking on long nails can be very uncomfortable or even painful, which can increase their sensitivity around their feet or nails. This can make nail trims even more challenging! The pet parents may procrastinate going to the veterinarian because it is so stressful for them and their dog. Routine medical care and grooming may not happen as often or as timely as they should. For medical visits, it may be helpful to discuss the situation with your veterinarian so you can put together a plan prior to getting to the office. This will likely make your vet visits, or visits to any pet professional, go more smoothly and work towards the results you want. Our Happy Handling Program targets this specific and common concern.

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