What I Consider When Doing an Aggression Assessment

This is a quick overview of what I take into consideration when meeting with a client who’s dog is struggling with aggression or reactivity.

Living Situation

An apartment is inherently riskier than a house with a securely fenced yard. In an apartment owners have to consider blind corners, elevators, narrow hallways and the need to walk your dog where there are variables outside your control. A home with a yard makes it so you have much more control over when your dog comes in contact with it’s triggers.

None of this is to say that living in an apartment with a reactive or aggressive dog is hopeless but it’s an added risk that the owner should take into consideration.

Children in the Home

This is particularly concerning if the dog resource guards or has shown aggression towards people he lives with. Management is made much more complicated if there are children in the equation. Even if the dog hasn’t shown aggression towards members of it’s family a child could still leave a door open or allow someone in before the dog is safely secured.

Number & Reliability of Triggers

If a dog has a few very specific triggers that are highly predictable management will be much more feasible. If a dog has lots of triggers that seem to change often or are inconsistent this raises the risk level because it makes management much more complicated.

Bite History

Discussing bite history is very important when I consider the risk a dog presents. The situation in which the bite occurred, the number of times a bite has occurred and the level of severity are all things to carefully consider.

When talking with a family about a bite history I reference Dr. Sophia Yin’s “Canine Bite Levels” infographic to determine how severe the bite was. I also make sure to ask if the dog has been deemed dangerous by a court.

Muzzle Training

One of the first things I discuss with clients is if their reactive or aggressive dog has been muzzle trained. I believe all dogs should be muzzle trained, even the dogs who’ve never had any problem with reactivity or aggression. Using a muzzle is often seen as a last resort, the problem with that is then the muzzle is typically first used in a stressful situation like an emergency trip to the vet. The last thing you want to do is increase your dogs level of anxiety by putting a muzzle on him without any prior conditioning.

Muzzle training allows owners to have another management tool in their toolbox which makes it safer to live with the dog.

Crate Training

Much like muzzle training crate training can be an important part of creating a management protocol. If a dog can be safely and calmly crated it makes it so you can secure the dog if you know people are going to be coming over. It can also be a helpful part of managing a multi-dog home where not all dogs get along or where some dogs resource guard.

If a dog isn’t crate trained and is stressed by the crate another option is using a room to secure them away from people or dogs. This can be an especially good option for potty trained adult dogs.

If the dog isn’t comfortable with either a room or crate that is a much harder situation to manage and it’s likely there may be some form of separation anxiety also going on.

Size of Dog and Strength of Owner

If I am working with a large powerful dog and an older frail owner it’s much higher risk than a small dog with an athletic and strong owner. These are sometimes the most difficult cases because if safety protocols fail the back up of physically stoping the dog is often not possible.

Other Considerations

Along with assessing the risk of aggression it’s important to look for causes and take a wholistic approach when working with a dog who has challenging behaviors.

One of the first things I do is I make sure that owners have ruled out medical issues. In particular I ask about things that can cause pain like arthritis, chronic ear infections or UTI’s. I also get a full list of any medications the dog is on to make sure none of them have behavioral side affects. During this time I’ll also ask if the dog has ever been on anti-anxiety medication or if that’s something they’ve ever discussed with their vet. Anxiety medication isn’t appropriate for all cases but it is something clients should consider discussing with their vet if the dogs overall anxiety is a concern.

We also talk about if the dogs mental and physical needs are being met. Frustrated dogs who don’t have an outlet are often more reactive than dogs who are getting the appropriate amount of exercise and mental stimulation. Providing a dog with enrichment won’t magically fix reactivity but it can help training be more successful and it can assist in lowering the dogs overall stress level.

Aggression Assessment Score Card

The document below is what I take with me to initial consults. Anytime a dog has a bite history I require a consult with no dog present. During that session we go over the questions on this assessment. This helps me create a safety plan with the owners so that we can insure the dog is set up for success and we minimize the risk of a bite occurring.

Featured image by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

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