How to Train Your Dog to Not Attack Strangers

Hard
2-3 Months
Behavior

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.

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.

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.

The Establish Leadership Method

ribbon-method-1
Most Recommended
16 Votes
Step
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.
Step
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.
Step
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”.
Step
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.
Step
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.
Recommend training method?

The Desensitizing Method

ribbon-method-3
Effective
6 Votes
Step
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.
Step
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.
Step
3
Approach
Slowly, have your stranger approach your dog. When the dog shows signs of fear or aggression, have your assistant stop and wait.
Step
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.
Step
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.
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.
Recommend training method?

The Alternate Behavior Method

ribbon-method-2
Least Recommended
4 Votes
Step
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.
Step
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.
Step
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.
Step
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.
Step
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.
Step
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.
Recommend training method?
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Written by Laurie Haggart

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

Success Stories and Training Questions

Training Questions and Answers

Question
Nova
Cockerpoo
1 Year
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Question
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Nova
Cockerpoo
1 Year

Nova gets nervous when seeing a stranger. Will bark then lunge then run away.

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
1106 Dog owners recommended

Hello, Check out this video. If pup may bite, then keep enough distance to prevent pup from biting someone, and if you practice any up close training once pup is ready, desensitize pup to wearing a basket muzzle ahead of time, so you can use that tool for everyone's safety until pup improves. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LXCELHDT2fs https://www.petful.com/behaviors/how-to-socialize-a-shy-dog/ Muzzle desensitizing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJTucFnmAbw Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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Question
Ruger
Great Dane / Saint Bernard
1 Year
0 found helpful
Question
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Ruger
Great Dane / Saint Bernard
1 Year

My dog went after someone walking by our house today (live in town) he was growling, barking, and would not listen to his name. He attempted to bite twice. Luckily the man walking was calm cool collected, but Ruger has barked at people walking but never went after them. What can I do to help him not be so protective and aggressive? He is around other people. I personally think he went after the man walking because our other dogs were barking and he felt threatened. I don’t feel comfortable letting him out off leash anymore unless he has a muzzle on.

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
1106 Dog owners recommended

Hello Rebecca, I definitely wouldn't let him out off leash again right now, since the likeliness of it happening again is high at this point. I would look for a professional training group with multiple trainers on staff, who specializes in behavior issues like aggression, come well recommended by their previous clients for work with aggression and territorial behavior, who will come to your home to do at least half of the training there. The goal being setting up training scenarios where pup is outside with safety measures, like a strong back tie leash and multiple attachment points so pup can't slip or break a harness or collar, and using counter condition, obedience commands pup has been taught beforehand, such as Leave It, and potentially some remote collar training if needed to interrupt fixation from a distance, pup can be gradually desensitized to people walking past near the property. Interruptions and direction may be needed at first, but the end goal is for pup to be making good enough choices when someone passes that you can reward, and they begin to associate the person passing with a reward from you, so switch their focus to you when they see someone, and feel happy about the person passing, instead of defensive. The training will also probably need to involve desensitizing and teaching Quiet to the other dogs too, so they don't increase arousal for Ruger too. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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Question
Connie
Portuguese Water Dog
17 Months
0 found helpful
Question
0 found helpful
Connie
Portuguese Water Dog
17 Months

Attacking stranger off lead on beach walk.
Attacked when first approached. Circled around him and tried to attack from behind. Managed to call her off and continued walk. Some minutes later when 600m away from man she was in water when suddenly ran back to man , recalled her, she looked and carried on. Went around a headland and started to attack the man again. He defended himself and the dog eventually returned to me.

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
1106 Dog owners recommended

Hello Graham, First, of all pup CANNOT be off leash right now. Second, does pup have a history of aggression around people or men specifically, or was this very out of character for pup? I would find a training group that has multiple trainers on staff, especially multiple men, who will practice training at the facility with pup, but also in situations where the aggression seems most present, like on the beach. Pup would be on a long training leash and potentially a remote training collar introduced and trained with ahead of time. Pup would be rewarded when the person was near and they stay calm, corrected for any chase attempts or fixating on the person, and the training practiced with lots of different men, one at a time, as pup improves with each individual, to help pup generalize the training to multiple people. I would take leashing pup very seriously right now, even though I know it's very disappointing. Not only does it pup other people in danger, but you can also be sued for a lot of money for not leashing an aggressive dog, and pup could be taken and euthanized. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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Pedro
Pit bull mix
14 Months
0 found helpful
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Pedro
Pit bull mix
14 Months

It is a rescue dog we have had i for 4 weeks and it’s been fine then my son came to live at our house and Pedro has become hyper alert when he met my son it was entry to the house he barked and showed aggression he then calmed and went to my son licked him but if my son moves suddenly he becomes aggressive again
He will go into his room no problem but if the dog is chilling out on his bed and my son comes into the living area he will bark and become aggressive
He is god out of the house with people it’s now just become an issue in the house
How do you stop this aggressive behaviour please

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
1106 Dog owners recommended

Helen, First, I would take precautions like desensitizing pup to a basket muzzle or using a back tie leash when your son is around. With pup on a back tie leash I would have him toss pup a treat whenever he enters the room or changes position and pup stays calm (don't reward the aggressive response though). Give enough distance between them at first that pup will stay calmer, allowing your son to toss the treat. Meanwhile, also work on obedience and respect and trust building exercise with pup yourself, to help increase listening to you, and decrease potential resource guarding and possessiveness over you that pup might be displaying. I would work on commands that help you enforce boundaries too. Respect building: https://wagwalking.com/training/train-a-doberman-to-listen-to-you Out - which means leave the area: https://www.petful.com/behaviors/how-to-teach-a-dog-the-out-command/ Leave It method: https://wagwalking.com/training/train-a-shih-tzu-puppy-to-not-bite Quiet method: https://wagwalking.com/training/train-a-shih-tzu-puppy-to-not-bark Place command: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O75dyWITP1s Down-Stay: https://www.thelabradorsite.com/train-your-labrador-to-lie-down-and-stay/ Heel- Turns method: https://wagwalking.com/training/train-a-poodle-to-heel Off- section on The Off command: https://www.petful.com/behaviors/how-train-dog-stay-off-couch/ Drop It – Exchange method: https://wagwalking.com/training/drop-it I also highly recommend hiring a professional trainer who specializes in behavior issues like aggression, to come to your home and observe pup's response in person. Someone experienced with aggression can better tell whether this is related to fearfulness, resource guarding, or something else, to best train. As well as help with the important safety measures, and eventually help your son build a relationship with pup themselves too. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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Percy
French Bulldog
4 Years
0 found helpful
Question
0 found helpful
Percy
French Bulldog
4 Years

Aggressive to people & other dogs but is fine with dog walker & other dogs in group. Also scared of walking on different surfaces, slopes etc.loveable to me & my family. Quite possessive over toys & dominant with my passive boxer.

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
1106 Dog owners recommended

Hello Marcia, With these training needs I do recommend hiring a professional trainer to work with you in person; someone who works with a team of trainers and has access to other well mannered dogs to practice training around strangers and other dogs. For the surfaces, I would lay down small patches of surfaces pup is comfortable on (like carpet squares if pup is afraid of the tile), then put a line of treats across the floor going from one square to the next, so pup has to go across the "tile" to get to the next square in order to get treats. I would replace these treats daily until pup is walking across with ease. Once pup is okay at the current distance, then I would begin moving the "safe square" further apart by just a couple of inches a day at a time, gradually removing extra squares as they get further apart. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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Success
Milo
Shih Tzu
3 Years

So my dog milo was bit by a yorkie when he was younger. After that he was fine, he doesn’t like other dogs sometimes when they lunge at him. But now when we take him for walks sometimes he’ll be fine with strangers walking by him but other times he’ll lunge at them and bark. Or like today where he nipped a strangers pants and started barking at him. I don’t know what I should do. Help!

3 years, 2 months ago
Book me a walkiee?
Pweeeze!
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