How to address aggression without punishment

Updated: Mar 10

People often use fancy labels to describe aggressive behaviors (reactive, dominant, etc.). Aggression is a collection of behaviors that includes barking, lunging, biting and fighting. It's a public safety issue; a common cause for euthanasia, relinquishment or re-homing; and a significant cause of stress for dog owners.


How punishment can make aggression worse


Dogs often resort to aggressive behavior to protect themselves from threats. Have you ever heard the 'term aggression begets aggression'? It means that aggressive behavior causes aggression in others. This is very true for dogs. Multiple peer reviewed studies are showing that punishment training techniques tend to increase aggression in dogs.

The School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania reported that using punishing techniques when training dogs tends to increase aggression, in much the same way that spanking increases aggressive responses in human children.

So, why do people (and even some dog trainers) use punishment to address aggressive behavior? Because it stops the behavior quickly. Unfortunately, it has serious flaws including:


  • Punishment usually requires an escalation of pain or intimidation to continue to work.

  • Punishment causes fear, anxiety and aggression because the dog feels more threatened.

  • Punishment suppresses warning signs such as growling, and can result a dog who quietly and suddenly bites.



How can positive training can reduce aggression


So, how do positive trainers work with aggression cases? Here are our main strategies:


  • Identify the dog's unique triggers by determining when and where the aggressive response occurs.

  • Set up management strategies to keep everyone safe and prevent the dog from 'practicing' aggressive behavior.

  • Expose the dog to their trigger in a way that is non-threatening while adding treats, toys or play create a positive association with the trigger. Essentially rewiring emotional responses.

  • Teach the dog coping behaviors when triggers are present, such as turning away, sniffing, or looking at their owner.

Positive reinforcement training strategies aren't an quick fixes. They require effort, planning, and lifestyle changes. However, positive techniques will not put your dog at risk for developing more significant fear, anxiety, or aggression issues. The goal is to help your dog feel better, so he doesn't need to use aggressive behavior to communicate and control his environment.

As a positive reinforcement trainer, my education and training methods are based on the science of animal learning and scientific studies. I base my techniques on facts, safety, and best practices.


If you're struggling with aggressive or reactive behavior, check out my Fearful, Feisty Fido Semi-Private Class.

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Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner