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

Most Recommended
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.
Recommend training method?

The Desensitizing Method

Effective
0 Votes
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

Effective
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
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
38 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

Add a comment to Rafiki's experience

Was this experience helpful?

Book me a walkiee?
Pweeeze!
Sketch of smiling australian shepherd