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
Queenie
American bully
9 Months
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Queenie
American bully
9 Months

She is brilliant indoors but as soon as we are outside she lunges aggressively mainly at men. She’s not bothered by other dogs or children and women. It’s getting to the point we don’t want to walk her when there are people around .

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Velvet
Boerboel
6 Weeks
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Velvet
Boerboel
6 Weeks

Aw to train it

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
1115 Dog owners recommended

Hello Oshikoya, Work on commands that build impulse control and respect for you starting once pup is 8-12 weeks old - that will lay a great foundation for more formal protection training later. Continue to pursue socialization with pup even though that can seem counter-intuitive, because a good protection and guard dog needs to know what's normal in the world, especially around people, so that they can tell when something is wrong correctly and not just react to everything and be unreliable. Good socialization also boosts confidence. Getting pup around a lot of people and places is great, but also work on pup's manners and obedience in those settings so pup is learning to focus on you around those exposures - like practicing heeling past people at a park, a Down-Stay at an outdoor shopping area, sitting for being petted, ect... To help pup learn better self-control and focus, practice the following commands over the next few months. Work up to pup gradually being able to do these things around distractions and for longer periods of time. For example, work up to an hour long Place command, heeling past people at the park, holding a Down-Stay while you walk away at the park while pup is on a long training leash and harness. Those types of commands can also help with respect and trust for you - which is important for guarding work later. Thresholds: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-w28C2g68M Out - which means leave the area: https://www.petful.com/behaviors/how-to-teach-a-dog-the-out-command/ Leave It method - good for the mouthing too: https://wagwalking.com/training/train-a-shih-tzu-puppy-to-not-bite 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/ Come - Reel in method: https://wagwalking.com/training/train-a-whippet-to-recall Check out the article linked below for good respect building tips: https://wagwalking.com/training/train-a-doberman-to-listen-to-you Many dogs will naturally guard if it's in their genetics and you have laid a good foundation of respect and obedience, once they mature mentally between 1-2 years of age. If pup doesn't, you can also teach pup to bark automatically when someone enters the property and be more watchful in general using reward based training. For the alerting, first teach pup to bark by teaching the Speak command. https://wagwalking.com/training/train-a-german-shepherd-to-speak Once pup knows the speak command, recruit friends pup doesn't know to step onto the property or come to the door while pup watches from a window or inside somewhere. Command speak and reward with a treat when they do. Practice with telling pup to speak each time the person is there, until pup barks on their own when the person tries to enter without saying speak. At that point, have the person come onto the property, wait seven seconds to see if pup will bark on their own, reward if they do, and command speak if they don't - then reward but give a smaller reward when you tell pup opposed to when pup does it on their own. Practice until pup will bark each time someone enters the property. Practice with different people you can recruit, that pup doesn't know so that pup will learn to do this with anyone who enters the property and not just that one person. Draw pup's attention to people outside or people on your property, and reward pup when you see them watching someone in general - so that pup will begin watching people and staying more alert as a habit. Pup doesn't have to bark to reward this one - just reward when pup is watching someone and you notice that. I also recommend teaching the Quiet command, so that you can tell pup when to stop barking after they alert. Quiet method: https://wagwalking.com/training/train-a-shih-tzu-puppy-to-not-bark For anything that would involve bite work after the alert training, you would need to pursue training with a professional protection trainer who knows how to utilize pup's defense drive, build confidence, utilize rewards like a bite bag and tug, and have the right staff and equipment to practice things like arms holds with body suits and padding on - this training should only be done with a professionals help and should not encourage fear or true aggression when done correctly - it's more like teaching pup a task, teaching alertness, obedience, building confidence, and encouraging a natural defense drive - opposed to poorly done training that encourages suspicion and fear to get a bite from the dog. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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Nova
Cockerpoo
1 Year
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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
1115 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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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
1115 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
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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
1115 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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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, 3 months ago
Book me a walkiee?
Pweeeze!
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