Aggression is motivated by fear or challenge. It can occur as it relates to humans or other dogs. Working with both types of aggressive dogs and their owners, having two of my own and seeing transformations on a daily basis, a prognosis of rehabilitation should certainly be considered. It is important to look at the age of the dog, the severity of the problem and any history obtainable.
Rehabilitation is a step-by-step process and often time consuming, meaning a real commitment to the dog or by the owner. It can be costly and at the same time the rewards are immeasurable and emotional.
A Shih Tzu leaps up and bites a visitor in the face. The visitor was at the dog's level, face close and doing what they thought was friendly petting. Can the Shih Tzu be rehabilitated? Is he aggressive?
A German Shepherd leaps up from sleeping under a desk at a place of business, runs out the door and snarling, barking corners a fellow co-worker against a wall and bites them. Can the German Shepherd be rehabilitated? Is she aggressive?
A Standard Poodle attacks an innocent dog at a park, looms over them teeth bared and growling. The other dog rolls on its back, belly up and very still. The poodle has to be pulled off. Can the Standard Poodle be rehabilitated? Is he aggressive?
The HOW is in the WHY and the rehabilitation should be customized, as there is no one size fits all when it comes to aggression. Aggression is caused by fear, which can turn into anger quickly depending on the circumstance. It is also caused by the drama of challenge, hormones raging, protection of territory or person and resource guarding to name a few. So whether the objective is to escape or obtain access to, the behavior modification can occur if there is a commitment to the process.
The HOW would be described as desensitizing an aggressive dog to its triggers. What stimuli causes the dog to aggress? If you can help the dog understand through rewarding of good behavior, rewarding what you WANT and showing the dog its triggers are not scary and and they won't create drama, then you can rehabilitate the dog. You can pair something good with the stimuli so the dog has an emotional change to the stimuli. You develop a positive emotional response, rather than a negative aggressive response.
In the above examples, the Shih Tzu came from a puppy mill and bending over and two outstretched hands were not seen as a pleasant occurrence. There were social deficits. So to keep the scary thing away, the Shih Tzu did the only thing that worked, bit. If it worked, it would be repeated. A step-by-step process was put into place to get positive conditioned emotional responses from the dog whenever someone would lean, or reach. This dog is now more confident and is on the fast track to learning to be left with a caretaker in the home. Did it happen quickly? No. Can this dog be rehabilitated? Yes. Is he aggressive? Yes, because he has a bite history and bit with few warning signals.
The German Shepherd's sensitivities were mostly genetic, but coupled with a lack of some socialization skills. The key was to teach this dog how to respond to people, dogs and a host of objects like bicycles, skateboards etc. Where before this girl was not able to meet people in the home or greet people on the street, she is well on her way to reliable behavior.
The Standard Poodle is actually a dog you would not equate with questionable behaviors and is an example of how all dogs can be aggressive given the right conditions. An otherwise quiet, well-mannered dog might aggress on another dog because of a number of reasons from personality conflicts, to getting satisfaction from predatory instincts or a dislike for puppies, or pug-faced dogs. Finding the WHY equals HOW this dog would be trained.
All of the dogs above were trained with positive reward-based methods, especially a tool called a clicker. The clicker marks the behavior you WANT and rewards the position you WANT. In the case of an aggressive dog, you might WANT the dog to turn its head to you whenever it sees its trigger. You click for calm behavior and reward for the position of the head turned toward you. Soon this becomes a habit and the dog learns he can get through and cope.
Rehabilitation is a step-by-step process, time consuming and a commitment to the process is required. Changes occur subtlety and over time, but soon people are commenting on whether this is the same dog or not. How long it takes depends on a lot of factors to include how ingrained the behavior has become and the age of the dog. It could take several weeks, months or years. The HOW is in the answer to the WHY.