Aggression by a Disabled Dog

A dog who used to be in pain started behaving aggressively toward other dogs. Now she feels better, but she’s still aggressive. How can she learn to have dog friends again?

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
6-minute read
Episode #173

Aggression by a Disabled Dog

A listener writes:

“I have a 1-year-old Pit Bull, Jessie, whom I adopted at about 5 months. She was found abandoned, starved, and with deformed limbs due to trauma. I started socializing her immediately with people, dogs, and different situations and she adjusted very quickly. Then at about 8 – 9 months, she needed bilateral wrist and elbow surgery and 2 months of physical therapy. During the recovery period, Jessie could not play with other dogs; now she growls and snaps, even goes ballistic toward dogs who approach her when she’s on leash. I assume she’s afraid. I can’t bring her to the off-leash dog beach anymore with my other Pittie, who loves all dogs, and I can’t trust her with most other dogs. Do you have any advice for us?”

Of course I do!

Pain and Aggression

You’re probably right that Jessie’s new aggression toward other dogs is related to the pain she experienced before and after her surgery. Pain contributes to aggressive behavior in two ways: It makes animals more irritable. And there’s a natural tendency to “defend” painful body parts. If we can judge by our own experience, the irritability generally diminishes when the pain does. But defensive responses often stick around. That’s because once we’ve learned to anticipate pain under certain circumstances, it takes a while to learn we don’t need to defend ourselves anymore.

Why Defensive Responses to Pain Hang on After the Pain Goes Away

Here’s why the defensive response is so persistent. Say you’re Jessie and you’ve been in pain. A dog runs up to you – uh-oh! You ward him off by snarling, so he turns away and you avoid the risk that he may slam into you and make you hurt more than you already do. Over time, you heal and the pain goes away. Out of habit, you go on warding dogs off by snarling at them, and what do you know? The dogs go away and you don’t feel pain. Because you’ve warded the dogs off, you don’t have a chance to learn that you wouldn’t have felt pain anyway; as far as you’re concerned, warding dogs off just goes on preventing pain the way it always did.

The Fight, Flight, or Freeze Response

Other factors can be at work, too. The leash is one. Many dogs who aren’t in pain and are friendly toward other dogs off leash appear tense and even behave aggressively when another dog approaches while they’re on leash. We speculate that this is because the on-leash dog feels threatened and the leash makes it impossible to exit the situation. You may have heard of the “F” responses to stress, fight, flight, or freeze; with flight cut off, the on-leash dog has freezing and fighting available.  And indeed, you’ll see many dogs hold themselves super still while another dog investigates them.

Is Breed a Factor?

What about breed tendencies? As Pit Bulls mature socially, many become “dog selective” – friendly to some dogs, not to all, and possibly with a quick fuse. (Pits aren’t the only breed with this tendency, and a given dog of any breed may, of course, be intolerant of other dogs. Somewhere out there is a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who attacks puppies on sight.) Jessie’s heritage may make her more likely to respond sharply to a perceived threat from another dog.

Socialization, or the Lack of It

Finally, we have Jessie’s “prehistory”: what happened to her before my listener adopted her. The prehistory of most found dogs is unknowable, but in Jessie’s case we have the broad outlines of abuse and neglect. I doubt that whoever starved and hurt her was also providing her with appropriate socialization. Although my listener did a good job once she adopted Jessie, by then the developmental phase during which puppies most easily learn social skills was long gone. Puppies without solid dog-dog social skills often grow into awkward, touchy adults.

So is poor Jessie doomed never to make a new dog friend? Probably not, but she needs special help.

No Dog Parks, Please!

Jessie shouldn’t visit the off-leash dog beach or go to dog parks. In general, uncontrolled meetings with random unfamiliar dogs are not a good bet for her. For starters, let’s assume that her behavior did arise partly because she was defending against pain. She does not need even one encounter with a friendly but socially insensitive, bowl-you-over-when-I-say-hi dog! An episode like that would further entrench her defensiveness and probably make her quicker on the trigger. It could end in a genuine, physically damaging fight.

Introduce Friendly Dogs One at a Time

The way to go for Jessie, and for other dogs who are socially awkward and defensive, is slow, carefully managed one-on-one introductions. The new dog should not only be friendly but also have low-key, even deferential body language. By “deferential,” I don’t mean “timid” – they’re not at all the same thing. You’re looking for confident dogs who stay relaxed when other dogs approach them, who exchange greetings without tensing up. You won’t see these dogs standing high and stiff – they’re all about the low, soft wags, the squinty eyes, and the ears angled backward.

Start by walking Jessie and Zippy together on leash and on neutral territory. Keep the human handlers between them: dog, person, person, dog. Look for Jessie’s body language to relax. If she starts to show friendly interest in Zippy, great. This takes as long as it takes, whether that’s 5 minutes on a single walk or a total of 2 hours spread over several days.

How to Let the Dogs Meet

Use your judgment about the next step. You might shift a human over so there’s just one person between the dogs as you walk. You might have Jessie and Zippy walk next to each other but without stopping for them to interact. Or you might pause in the walk to let them meet and greet.

Jessie’s history can help you decide. Has she made any new dog friends since her surgery? If so, how quickly did she warm up to them? If she’s all noise and flash, but has never hurt another dog, your risk of running into trouble here is probably fairly low. Also, consider how much warning she gives before she lunges, snarls, and snaps. If you can see a blow-up coming several seconds in advance, you have an opportunity to bail her out of any interaction before it goes way south.

Consider a Muzzle

If Jessie has injured other dogs, social intros should probably get a prequel: muzzle training. Oh, the stigma. Ouch. Muzzles signal that a dog is “aggressive” and therefore “bad.” But it’s unhelpful to apply human morals to dog behavior. You can, however, apply human morals to human behavior, so don’t subject your social helper dog to the risk of injury. A muzzle can prevent that grief. The trainer Chirag Patel has a wonderful video showing how to teach a dog to enjoy wearing one.

Friendship Achieved!

Whether or not a muzzle is appropriate, it’s usually smart to keep the dogs’ first interaction brief. Gently turn them away from each other if tension grows, and take some more time having them walk together without directly engaging. When you can see that both dogs have reached a steady, comfortable state, you can drop the leashes. (You’re in a safe, fenced area, right?) Walk around a bit, with the dogs dragging their leashes. If all goes well, unclip the leashes and congratulate yourself on helping your dog make a new friend.

Jessie will probably never be a canine social butterfly, and that’s okay. Many dogs enjoy just a few dog friends. Some do best not interacting with other dogs at all. They’re perfectly happy as long as their humans supply affection, physical exercise and play, and reward-based training to engage their minds.  

To learn much more about teaching and living with your dog, check out my book, The Dog Trainer’s Complete Guide to a Happy, Well-Behaved Pet.You can follow me on Twitter, where I’m Dogalini. I’m The Dog Trainer on Facebook, and you can also write to me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. I welcome your comments and suggestions, and though I can’t reply individually, I may use them as the basis for future articles. Thanks for reading!

American Pitbull, Leash and Muzzle images from Shutterstock

About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).