How To Deal With A Dog’s Aggression Issues

Lamby's story has experts giving solid advice.

It’s not often that the topic of rehoming a dog with behavioral issues touches the celebrity sphere and becomes one of the most talked about stories of the week; then again, Lena Dunham’s dog Lamby has spent quite a bit of time in the spotlight since the Girls star rescued him from Brooklyn shelter BARC in 2013.

Like so many owners grappling with how to deal with a dog’s aggression issues, Dunham sought out professional help, sending Lamby to the Los Angeles boarding and training center The Zen Dog, where he was later adopted by an employee who could give him more skilled care. In an Instagram post published on June 21, Dunham stated that Lamby “suffered terrible abuse as a pup” which is why “after four years of challenging behavior and aggression” she had decided to give him up.

While the claims concerning Lamby’s history of abuse have since been refuted by a BARC spokesperson, there is no doubt that pet owners dealing with behavioral issues similar to those described by Dunham, such as biting, an unwillingness to be touched and destructiveness, find themselves in a tough spot. When bringing a dog home, here’s what new pet parents can do to set up their rescue dog for success early:

Be aware of the signs

Signs of aggression in a rescue animal can often be spotted before the dog’s behavior escalates to the point of biting and growling, notes Shelby Semel, trainer and founder of Shelby Semel Dog Training. “When you have a new rescue, especially when you don’t know their background, err on the side of caution always,” Semel tells The Dodo. “If every time your dog sees a child on the street they bark a couple of times, something is going on. They’re either really excited or having some sort of fear or nervous reaction, wanting the child to go away. So even if it’s not presenting itself as growling and biting, a dog just barking a few times and lunging forward is something to be aware of.”

Other cues that behavioral issues are on the horizon could be more subtle and are often harder to spot. “If every time a child comes over to your dog it gets very still, licks its lips, yawns or turns its head away — an avoidance cue — it doesn’t predict that there’s going to be aggression in a moment,” Semel says, “but there could be some sort of nervousness or lack of socialization towards children, which could then present itself down the line as aggression.”

Get to the root of the issue

It’s important that owners act quickly at the first sign of unusual behavior, stresses Liz Kover, a trainer and behaviorist at Miracle Mutts. “The very first thing I (and the majority of canine behavior professionals) would suggest is taking the dog to the vet,” Kover tells The Dodo. “This is to rule out any potential medical reason for aggressive behavior.”

Abrupt changes in a dog's behavior can sometimes be caused by pain or discomfort due to illness, injury or confusion from old age, Kover notes. “If the vet determines there is no medical reason for a change in behavior, a person should begin their search for a professional.”

Seek out a professional

Kover warns that dog owners should not try to diagnose their pup’s behavior themselves or put off meeting with a professional. “While most dogs will exhibit a lot of warning behaviors before they lash out aggressively, people often misread or ignore those signals,” Kover says. “By the time a dog exhibits obviously aggressive behavior, professional intervention should be a family's first priority.”

The first few months are critical when taking a rescue out of a shelter environment and introducing him to his forever home. Behavior can change as the pup gets more comfortable and confident in his new home. Working with the pup early to properly socialize and diagnose any issues can have a major impact on the dog’s future success as a loving family pet. “When you’re adopting a rescue, especially an older rescue, within the first couple weeks to a month, I would recommend seeing a trainer even if you don’t see a problem, because the chances are we could see something that you don’t,” Semel says.

Looking for a good trainer can seem daunting, so Kover suggests starting small. “Personal recommendations from friends or veterinarians, and/or trainers who rest well with your intuition, are a great place to start! But I would always ask for references, and be sure you know up front what kind of treatment the trainer is going to give your dog,” Kover says.

Positive reinforcement techniques, such as teaching with praise, toys, treats and plenty of patience helps shelter dogs not only enjoy the training, but also build a healthy, trusting relationship with their new owner, recommends Semel.

Lean on your friends for support

There is no doubt that dealing with these issues is difficult, so don’t think you have to go it alone. “I would suggest the person reach out to others who have experienced something like this,” Kover says. “Having a beloved pet show signs of aggression is painful, frustrating and scary. It helps to have a support system.”