How to Train Your Dog to Not Attack Strangers

How to Train Your Dog to Not Attack Strangers
Hard difficulty iconHard
Time icon2-3 Months
Behavior training category iconBehavior

Introduction

We have often heard it said that dog is “man’s best friend”,  but in the case of an aggressive dog, not so much! Most dogs will bark to warn you when a stranger approaches, this is a natural part of their role as a member of your “pack”, and most pet owners appreciate that it is part of their job as your pet and companion. However, some dogs take this protective, warning behavior too far, showing aggressive behavior towards, and even attacking strangers. 

Unless you live in an extremely remote location or are a hermit, your dog is going to come into contact with strangers on a regular basis, on walks, in public, and having people such as servicemen and delivery people approach your home. If your dog attacks strangers, this is going to be a serious problem! Not only is it dangerous for the innocent stranger that you come into contact with, but most municipalities have laws against having aggressive dogs, and a dog that attacks strangers can be apprehended and euthanized if it becomes a problem. Getting control of a dog’s aggressive behavior towards strangers is a critical safety issue for others and for your dog.

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Defining Tasks

Why do dogs get aggressive towards strangers? Sometimes it is due to territorial or protective tendencies--the dog is attempting to protect his territory, which could include your premises, your home and yard, and you. This can cause them to react aggressively to strangers approaching you while on walks, at home or away from the home. Other dogs are aggressive towards strangers because they are anxious and fearful. These dogs perceive the stranger as a danger to themselves, or you, and are attempting to defend themselves by lashing out and attacking the source of their fear, a stranger. 

You can often determine which type of aggression your dog is manifesting by observing their body language. A fearful dog will adopt a submissive stance, may often tuck their tail, crouch or otherwise try to avoid contact with the stranger,  then suddenly lash out quickly, at an ankle or from behind. A dominant,  territorial dog will adopt a dominant stance, lunging towards visitors, barking, making eye contact. Before corrective training for aggressive dogs begins, owners should rule out medical conditions that may be contributing towards aggression such as endocrine conditions or medical conditions causing pain, which may be contributing to aggressive behavior.

The best way of treating aggression towards strangers is to prevent it by socializing your dog when they are young, exposing your dog to lots of different situations and people in a safe, controlled environment, and teaching your dog that strangers are not a threat to you or him. If an older dog exhibits aggression towards strangers or has attacked someone, immediate training and work to prevent someone being hurt is required. 

You may need to engage a professional trainer if you have limited experience in training dogs, as this behavior is critical to stop for everyone’s safety.  Training to curb aggression involves desensitizing your dog to the presence of strangers and establishing control and leadership of your dog so that you can direct your dog to respond in a  calm accepting manner when a stranger is present.

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Getting Started

Many trainers working with aggressive dogs use a head halter, which allows the handler to control the direction of the dog’s attention and direction and exert authority and leadership over the dog without causing pain to or injuring the dog. If using a head halter, you will need a short lead, as a dog using a head halter with a long lead can get a neck injury if they run and are suddenly stopped on a long lead. A well-fitting collar that will not slip over the dog’s head may also be used. 

This type of training should take place in a controlled setting; having an unplanned stranger approach during a training session can sidetrack your training. You will need to establish firm control, so ensure you have a plan before starting a training session to keep yourself, your dog, and everyone else safe. If at any time you feel overwhelmed, call upon a professional who can help you train your pooch and guide you in the right direction for practice sessions at home.

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The Establish Leadership Method

Most Recommended

16 Votes

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Most Recommended

16 Votes

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1

Take authority

Conduct training exercises with your dog that establish your leadership over your dog, so that they do not view themselves as the dominant pack leader. This will establish that in a perceived threatening situation, your dog is not the ultimate authority. Teach your dog to heel and follow you reliably on a leash, with either a head halter or another appropriate collar. Do not use a flexi leash, which is not useful for exerting control.

2

Have assistant approach

Once you have established a leader relationship, arrange to have a strange assistant approach you, while walking your dog. Stay calm and exert positive energy. Use a head halter and collar if deemed necessary.

3

Exert control

When your dog reacts aggressively to the presence of the stranger, jerk quickly to the side on the leash or in an upward motion. If your dog is wearing a head collar, this redirects your dog. Tap your dog on the side with your leg. Do not hit your dog, you are redirecting him and reminding him who is making the decisions for “the pack”.

4

Proceed

Have the stranger proceed on by, at a safe distance, while you remind your dog you are the leader and continue on your way without reacting. Have your dog follow your leadership.

5

Practice

Repeat, having the stranger repeatedly walk by at a safe distance while you signal your dog to follow you without reacting. This procedure will need to be repeated many times with different assistants over a period of days and weeks. Do not become agitated or aggressive with your dog. Firmly distract him by redirecting him and commanding him to follow you when approached by a stranger. Eventually, your dog will take his cues from your leadership, calmly walking past strangers and not reacting.

The Desensitizing Method

Effective

6 Votes

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Effective

6 Votes

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1

Use an assistant

In a controlled environment, such as your home, where the dog is less anxious, engage an assistant to help desensitize your dog to the presence of strangers.

2

Prepare dog

Put your dog on a leash, with a head halter or well-fitting collar to help control his movements and prevent the dog from attacking your assistant.

3

Approach

Slowly, have your stranger approach your dog. When the dog shows signs of fear or aggression, have your assistant stop and wait.

4

Reward calm

Wait until the dog relaxes. Do not pet him or reward him for his frightened state, but talk calmly and firmly to him until he relaxes. When he is relaxed, then reward him with affection or treats.

5

Approach closer

Have your assistant approach closer. The assistant should approach from the side and with their body not directly facing the dog, which a dog finds threatening. When the dog again shows signs of aggression or fear, stop and repeat previous step.

6

Repeat and vary

Repeat until the dog tolerates the presence of the stranger without aggression or fear. You will need to conduct this with different assistants, daily or a few times a week, for several weeks. Eventually your dog will learn to tolerate strangers and be calm.

The Alternate Behavior Method

Least Recommended

4 Votes

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Least Recommended

4 Votes

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1

Teach 'down-stay'

Teach your dog to respond to a 'down-stay' command in your home, without strangers present. Give your dog the 'down-stay' command repeatedly. Your dog should lie down and stay for several seconds, then be provided with a treat. Gradually increase the length of time and alter how often a treat is provided versus praise and affection as a reward.

2

Practice

Start giving the 'down-stay' command to interrupt unwanted behavior. Gradually increase the length of time your dog is able to hold this behavior. Work from 30 seconds up to four or five minutes.

3

Practice outside

Teach your dog to obey the command when distractions are present. Start moving the exercise outside, while on a leash. Provide the 'down-stay' command and provide treats while outdoors in response to distractions such as squirrels or other dogs. Reward your dog for adopting the 'down-stay' position in response to your command.

4

Have assistant approach

Engage an assistant to approach you and your dog, while outside. When your dog orients to the stranger, provide the 'down-stay' command, have your assistant wait until the dog adopts the 'down-stay' position and relaxes. Reward your dog.

5

Come closer

Have the assistant approach closer, if your dog breaks position, repeat the command, have assistant wait, wait until the dog obeys and relaxes, and repeat until the dog tolerates the presence of the stranger.

6

Repeat

This exercise will need to be repeated several times weekly and for several weeks with different assistants to establish behavior. You may use a head halter while outside to protect your assistant, maintain control of your dog, and prevent any incidents if an unplanned stranger approaches.

By Laurie Haggart

Published: 11/06/2017, edited: 01/08/2021

Training Questions

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Training Questions and Answers

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Gom

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Mixed breed

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Three Years

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Question

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Hi, we have a problem with our dog being fearful and aggressive towards strangers. This problem appeared about a year and a half ago, but before that he was equally sweet and friendly with everyone. It started with him avoiding and sometimes barking at strangers (people trying to pet him outside or guests entering our home) but now it's up to a point where he lashes out to everyone that comes near him or enters our home, even people that he has seen before or has acted normally around them before. I can see that he is not trying to be dominant but is very scared when these situations happen.

March 23, 2023

Gom's Owner

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Caitlin Crittenden - Dog Trainer

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1133 Dog owners recommended

I highly recommend working with a trainer who specializes in behavior issues like aggression in person for this issue. Look for a trainer who works with a team of trainers, so that there are multiple people to practice the training around who are "strangers" to pup and know how to interact safely with aggressive dogs. This process typically involves things like gently building pup's overall respect, trust, and listening with you to that pup doesn't think they own you and so that their behavior is easier to manage and so that they feel more secure and can defer to your leadership when in situations that make them uncomfortable. It also tends to involve gradually desensitizing pup to people, one at a time, with safety measures like a back tie leash or basket muzzle in place (introduced gradually ahead of time using treats so it's not just associated with the training and stressful), starting with people being further away at first, and working on pup's obedience with you around the people in the background to help pup remain calm and not get overly aroused and fixated on the other person. This can sometimes also involve interrupting pup's aroused state, but that should only be done under the guidance of the trainer and with proper safety measures in place, because with any aggression there is always the risk of the dog redirecting their aggression to whoever is closest when stressed. Spend time learning about counter conditioning as well. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

March 28, 2023

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Mabel

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Cocker Spaniel

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Two Years

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Runs after random people barking and sometimes nips legs

March 7, 2023

Mabel's Owner

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Caitlin Crittenden - Dog Trainer

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1133 Dog owners recommended

Hello, First, any dog showing aggression needs secure confinement with a physical fence (not electric fence alone), or a leash. The more the dog practices the aggressive behavior, the worse the behavior will generally get, not to mention the danger to the people, the risk of being sued, and the risk of the person injuring your dog or your dog being taken away and euthanized for aggression by animal control. With that said and with pup on leash at least initially, I would start by teaching a solid Come and Heel command. These can be practiced with 20 foot and 6 foot leashes. Reel In method for come: https://wagwalking.com/training/train-a-whippet-to-recall Premack Principle for come: https://www.petful.com/behaviors/train-dog-to-come-when-called/ Heel - Turns method: https://wagwalking.com/training/train-a-poodle-to-heel For the aggression itself, I would work on counter conditioning Mabel to strangers to help her feel less suspicious of them. This involves rewarding her for calm behavior around people, with the safety of a leash. You may also need to interrupt any fixation or aggression - without waiting until its full blown barking and lunging, but as soon as pup stiffens, growls, barks, or is staring someone down. Some dogs will also redirect aggression toward whoever is closest while aroused even if they are normally fine with that person or animal. Because of this, you need to be careful, and if needed desensitize pup to wearing a basket muzzle using treats ahead of time, to allow you to use that so you can train safely. In addition to counter conditioning, a high level of obedience is needed, so that you could essentially call pup back from anything if they got off leash and pup would still respond, even if beginning to chase after someone. For this level of obedience, methods like the premack principle are sometimes sufficient, but some dogs will need additional "working level" remote collar training, in combination with lots and lots of practice with rewards also. For this type of training, I recommend hiring a professional to help you, or at least spending a LOT of time learning how to properly and safely train with that tool. Remote training collars can be very helpful for distance reliability but its easy to use them wrong and make things worse if you don't really know what you are doing training and usage wise. Consult a trainer in your area would be my recommendation. You may find that counter conditioning and the Reel In method and Premack Principle are sufficient though, especially if the behavior is fear based. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

March 14, 2023


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