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 or a choke chain may also be used. 

Also, when working to teach a dog not to attack strangers, you may want to use a basket muzzle, which will prevent the dog from biting anyone during the training period. A basket muzzle may not work if you are desensitizing a frightened dog and using treats as positive reinforcement. The tools you use will depend on the training method and the risk of harm to handlers in the situation in which training is being conducted. 

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.

The Establish Leadership Method

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1 Vote
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 such as a choke chain. 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 muzzle and head 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 or choke chain, this redirects your dog. Tap your dog on the side with your leg or a training device that is an extension of your arm such as a stick. 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.
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The Desensitizing Method

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Step
1
Ue 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

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0 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.
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 and muzzle while outside to protect your assistant, maintain control of your dog, and prevent any incidents if an unplanned stranger approaches.
Recommend training method?

Success Stories and Training Questions

Training Questions and Answers

Question
Lucy
Labrador Retriever mix
8 Years
0 found helpful
Question
0 found helpful
Lucy
Labrador Retriever mix
8 Years

My dog has many instances of fear-based aggression toward people, but has usually shown signs that she's prepping to lunge. She growls, her hackles go up, her tail is down, and she's either fixated on the person or turns away. I trusted that she'd warn me if anything (or anyone in this case) made her uncomfortable. But yesterday, we were on our usual evening walk when she went from sniffing the ground to lunging and trying to bite a little girl. The girl was walking relatively close to Lucy, my dog, with her father when it happened. Luckily, the girl's father pulled his daughter away in time to avoid a bite. It was the first time that Lucy attempted to bite someone, without a warning. And it is scary. I'm hoping to get tips to address this, in all honesty I feel quite overwhelmed and afraid that my dog will attack someone soon.

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainier
64 Dog owners recommended

Hello Michelyne, Lucy needs to see a professional dog trainer who can assess her in person ideally. This is not something I would recommend doing by yourself. Look for someone in your area who uses fair corrections and positive reinforcement and has a good reputation for managing and improving aggression. Check out Jeff Gellman on YouTube to learn more about managing aggression. For now, get Lucy used to wearing a soft silicone basket muzzle. She will need to wear this during training and it can be used while out in public with her until then also. To get her used to wearing a muzzle show her the muzle and give her a treat. Repeat until she is comfortable looking at it. Next, touch it to her and give her a treat each time you touch her. Repeat until she is relaxed and happy. Next, hold the muzzle against her face and give her a treat each time you do so. Next, hold the muzzle against her face for longer and give her treats through the muzzle's holes while you do so. Repeat this until you can hold it against her for a couple of minutes while feeding her. Finally, put the muzzle on her and feed her treats through it's holes while you do so. Gradually increase how long she wears it for, starting with just a couple of minutes and working your way up to an hour. Also, gradually space your treats further and further apart as she improves. Jeff Gellman SolidK9Training YouTube channel training,https://m.youtube.com/user/SolidK9Training Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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Question
Koa
Border Collie
10 Months
0 found helpful
Question
0 found helpful
Koa
Border Collie
10 Months

Koa is very sweet and very energetic. He knows most commands and is getting better. I have trained 2 previous border collies that were not as aggressive/ territorial as him. He is ok in public/ at coffee shop etc... and loves people. My concern is when a stranger comes to house or near RV. He’ll take off or squirm past me and run aggressively toward person barking and growling. He hasn’t bitten anyone but it is embarrassing for me and frightening for them. He does come back when called but obviously not soon enough. I don’t have a lot of people coming to door but he does not do this with roommates or girlfriend. I like that he alerts me to people coming I just want to stop the territorial behavior/ aggressiveness unless it is a danger/ prowler. Worried for girlfriend cause we have had a few weird people casing houses in neighborhood.

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainier
64 Dog owners recommended

Hello Brian, I would recommend hiring a training group with multiple dog trainers who can rotate who does the training with him. The goal should be to get him used to wearing a soft silicone basket muzzle and have various trainers come to your home and work on desensitizing him to the presence of strangers by not backing down when he barks, being calm, and rewarding him as soon as he gives correct responses, like becoming quiet or stopping his forward movement for a couple seconds. Practice with one trainer until he gets comfortable with that person, then transition onto a different trainer in that group to practice the same thing. You want him to begin to believe that the people who come to his home are generally pleasant and bring good things. This will not decrease his protective abilities against intruders. A well socialized dog can actually better tell when a person is acting unusual because they will have learned what normal human smells, body language, and behavior is, to know when something is different. True protection dogs are very well socialized as puppies. Because you will need a lot of different people who are calm around dogs and willing to be near a barking dog, even with him muzzled, it will be hard to find enough friends who are willing to help you. If you can find such people and can get him used to wearing a basket muzzle, then you may be able to do it yourself. Be extremely careful though and do not skip the muzzle even though he has not bitten yet. It only takes one time and every dog is capable of biting under stress. To get him used to wearing a muzzle show him the muzzle and give him a treat. Repeat that until he enjoys the appearance of it. Next, touch it to his face briefly and give him a treat for every touch. Practice that until he tolerates the touches happily. Next, Hold it on his face briefly and give him a treat through the muzzle's holes while you do so. Repeat this until he is comfortable with that. Next, hold the muzzle on his face for longer and feed him a few treats through the muzzle's holes while it is there. Repeat this until he will put his face in the muzzle or at least hold still for you to put it on him and feed him the treats through it. Finally, attach the muzzle to him for a few minutes and periodically give him a treat through the muzzle's holes. As he gets more and more comfortable wearing the muzzle, gradually increase the amount of time that you have him wear it for and space your treat rewards further and further apart until he does not need the treats to feel safe with it on. Make sure you choose a soft silicone basket muzzle because that type will be more comfortable and will still let him open his mouth to bark and eat treats that you pass him through the holes. While he is wearing the muzzle, when he behaves correctly around the stranger, either pass him treats through the holes, give the "stranger" a long thin stick or straw type object with peanut butter on the end and let the stranger gently poke the straw through the muzzle and let Koa lick the peanut butter off. Keep a small amount of peanut butter nearby to dip the straw in again. If anyone is allergic to peanut butter, then you can use liver paste or squeeze cheese. With the help of a trainer I would highly recommend electric collar training for better off leash control. Either that or do not have him off leash. E-collar training and working on Koa's respect for you and general intermediate and off-leash obedience should help with him bolting away from you in disobedience too. Look for a trainer who uses high quality e-collars like E-collar Technologies, Garmin, SportDog, or Dogtra. Someone who also utilizes a lot of Positive Reinforcement in his training techniques, has a lot of experience using e-collars in training successfully, and knows how to find a dog's working level, which is the lowest level that that particular dog will effectively respond to. James Penrith from TaketheLeadDogTraining on Youtube and Jeff Gelhman from SolidK9Training, also on Youtube and online are both good resources for the type of training you want to look for with e-collars. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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Question
Rafiki
sharpull
1 Year
1 found helpful
Question
1 found helpful
Rafiki
sharpull
1 Year

Rafiki is a sweetheart, but there are times where he has snapped and bitten people. He's bitten people on four different occasions. The first time was when my neighbor's daughter was chasing my little brother. The second was at an event where a guy was instigating a fight. The third was when he bit my sister for apparently no reason at all and the fourth when my sister tried to pet him. I can see how the first and second times might have been in a protective manner, but what about the third and fourth. Please help

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainier
64 Dog owners recommended

Hello Swannette, From what you have told me it sounds like the first two incidences may have been protection related. They also could have stemmed from him trying to control his environment, which could be the reason for him biting your sister also. How serious were the bites? Did he break the skin and draw blood? Was it one quick bite each incidence or did he bite several times in a row? The severity of the bites will effect how you treat the aggression. If he did not puncture the skin any of the times then, although the behavior needs to be dealt with, the risk to your safety is not as high. If he broke the skin and drew blood several times, and especially if the bites were multiple, blood drawing bites, one after the other, then proceed with extreme caution. If multiple bites with blood drawn were the case, then I would recommend immediately hiring a professional dog trainer in your area to work with you in person, rather than deal with the aggression yourself. For the bite incidences involving your sister, Rafiki may have bitten because he wanted to control the situation, and because he lacks respect for her. If she was petting him and he did not want to be petted, he likely bite her to communicate that he did not want her to pet him. For the time where the reason was unknown, what triggered the bite could be as simple as her being in his space when he did not want her to be there, or her looking at him a certain way, or her doing moving in a way that made him think that she was going to pet him or take something away from him. Whatever the reason, it is certainly not something you want to be happening. You will need to work on getting him use to being touched. To do this safely you will need to get him used to wearing a basket muzzle, which you can introduce with lots of treats and praise, so that he does not dislike wearing it. With him wearing the basket muzzle, practice gently touching different areas of his body while praising him and offering him a small treat through the muzzle. You can also let him lick some peanut butter off of the end of something long and thin that you poke through his muzzle. Something like a long straw may work. The idea is to teach him to love being touched everywhere and to learn that biting is not an acceptable way to handle being touched. It should go something like this: touch his ear, give him a treat. Touch his paw, give him a treat. Touch his tail, give him a treat. He also needs to learn to respect your family members, especially your sister. With him wearing the muzzle, practice lots of obedience training with him, and have your sister practice lots of obedience training with him. Have him practice walking attentively in the heel position and doing down stays. This will be especially beneficial. Make him work for the things he wants. For example, tell him to sit before he is fed dinner. Have him do a down before anyone pets him. Have him pay attention before you toss him a ball. Giving him structure should help to build respect. If you are able to, it is always a good idea when dealing with aggression issues to hire a local, Professional Dog Trainer to help you in person. Someone in person can see for herself what your dog is doing, and can show you how to work with your dog, and can decrease the likelihood of you being bitten while training. Best of luck with training, Caitlin Crittenden

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