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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Aggressive Dog Problem

Reader Rockjdog asked this question...

Question for you. One of my dogs is very aggressive. When I first got her from a rescue a little dog (off leash) got in her face and she bit the dog. The dog died on the way to the hospital. (Severed artery).  So I have discovered she is very aggressive to all animals. She goes bonkers when she sees another dog. Last week she caught a full grown ground hog. She carried it and shook it for a good 20 minutes. No matter what I did she would not let go.

She is 125 lbs and my other dog Rock is 175 lbs so it is very hard to walk them together. Rock is fine but Molly can get very excited.  I have been to two trainers and have done the work they suggested but she still remains very hyper when it comes to other dogs.

She has had blood work done and she is fine.  Do you think it might be helpful for her if I approach my vet about trying some SSRI's for her? Do you think they work on dogs? I have not heard too much about them with animals but it seems to be an over-looked drug fro behaviour or fear issues.

This is a pretty serious problem, and one I would really look into.  You could be at risk for a lawsuit, as you are legally responsible for any harm your dog does.  Be very careful with Molly because of this.

Animal behavior is a very strong interest of mine, and I consider myself good at it.  Even so, I will often refer cases of aggressive pets to specialists because of the liability and potential danger involved.  I would highly recommend that you seek out a veterinary behaviorist and not just a trainer.  Follow this link to the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists where you can find a diplomate near you (sorry, I don't have references outside of the US).  As big as your dog is, a veterinary behavioral specialist is going to be your best resource.  A trainer is the equivalent of a therapist, or perhaps even a psycologist.  A board-certified behaviorist is the equivalent of a psychiatrist, as they are doctors and can prescribe medications.

Any therapy for behavioral problems always requires behavioral modification therapy.  Such treatment is the cornerstone of changing a pet's behavior.  Medications can be added to the regimen to help alter the behavior but should never be used alone.  Veterinarians who aren't well trained in behavior will sometimes prescribe medications and not talk about modifying the behaviors or other training methods.  If you talk to a vet and they only discuss medical therapy, I will be blunt in saying that I would not fully trust their judgment on this topic.  Every specialist I have ever heard speak, as well as every article that I have ever read, have always emphasized drugs as an aide to therapy but not the sole part of therapy.

There are two broad categories of behavioral medications:  selective seratonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs).  A few medications may fall outside of these classifications, but most can be broken up into one of these two fields.  Researchers are still trying to understand all of the ways that these medicines work, so there are still some aspects that are not understood about their mechanisms of action.  Simply put, these drugs generally help reduce anxiety and increase the feeling of "well-being" in the patient.  They don't necessarily reduce aggressive tendencies, but instead can work to lower the anxiety, stress, or fear that leads to aggression.  If a drug out of one category doesn't seem to work, a choice from the other category may be more effective.  It's also important to remember that these medications can take anywhere from 2-4 weeks to show effectiveness, so a few doses won't make a dramatic difference.

Take care of this as soon as possible.  I hope these suggestions help!


  1. Thank you Dr Bern. Yes this helps very much and the way you describe the difference between a trainer and veterinary behaviorist makes alot of sense.

    I am very careful with Molly now but it affects her life as well as mine because I don't take her out as much as I would like on walks. We have fenced yard but it would be nice to take her out without fear.

    There is one veterinary behaviorist near me in NJ. I will contact her and see what we can do.

    My wife is getting on me a bit. I have spent about a 1000 on trainers and my wife keeps telling me I have very little results for that money and we could use it for other things.

    I do understand that the mind ( even a dogs mind) can take a long time to change and direct.

    But what the hell, Ill take the lumps cause I know how hard it must be for Molly and she may not be able to change without medical help.

    Thanks again for keeping it real.

  2. Glad to help! Good luck with Molly.


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