What Causes Aggression in Adult Shih Tzu Dogs?


Key Takeaways:

  • Aggression in adult Shih Tzus can be caused by medical issues, lack of socialization, fear, resource guarding, or dominance struggles.
  • Consult a vet to rule out any medical causes of aggression like hypothyroidism or pain.
  • Use positive reinforcement training and counterconditioning to help socialize an aggressive Shih Tzu and teach it to associate strangers and other dogs with rewards.
  • Give an aggressive Shih Tzu plenty of exercise, mental stimulation, and attention to curb problem behaviors.
  • Avoid punishing aggressive behavior as this can make it worse – instead redirect the dog to an appropriate behavior.
  • In extreme cases, consult a professional behaviorist or trainer. Management and medication may be needed for some aggressive dogs.
Shih Tzu dogs are known for being affectionate and outgoing pets. However, some adult Shih Tzus can develop aggressive tendencies that are problematic and potentially dangerous. Understanding the various causes of aggression is the first step towards curbing aggressive behavior in this breed.

Medical Causes of Aggression

Medical issues are one of the most common causes of aggression in adult Shih Tzus. Therefore, it is important to schedule a veterinary exam first if your Shih Tzu suddenly becomes aggressive as an adult, in order to rule out any medical factors.
Some medical conditions that may cause or contribute to aggression include:
  • Hypothyroidism – Low thyroid hormone levels can cause increased aggression in dogs. This is one of the most common medical causes of aggression.
  • Pain – Dogs in pain may snap or bite when touched near the painful area or handled in a way that exacerbates their discomfort. Have the vet do a thorough physical exam to check for any pain triggers.
  • Brain tumors or other neurological issues – Brain tumors, dementia, and other neurological problems can cause confusion, irritability, and aggression in dogs.
  • Medication side effects – Aggression is a rare side effect of some medications like steroids. A medication adjustment may be needed.
  • Vision or hearing loss – Dogs with compromised senses may startle, feel threatened more easily, and lash out aggressively as a result.

Table: Medical Causes of Aggression in Dogs

Medical Issue Symptoms Hypothyroidism Lethargy, weight gain, hair loss, aggression Pain Aggression when touched in specific areas or handled, may indicate injury or degenerative joint disease Brain tumor Sudden aggression, changes in behavior, seizures, difficulty balancing Medication side effects Aggression as an uncommon side effect of some medications like steroids Vision or hearing loss Clumsiness, bumping into objects, startle responses, aggression especially to sounds or touch coming from affected side
If a medical issue is ruled out, then it’s time to consider behavioral causes of aggression.

Fear-Based Aggression

Fear is a very common cause of aggression in dogs. Shih Tzus that are undersocialized, abused, or otherwise traumatized may react to perceived threats with fearful or defensive aggression.
Some common fear triggers include:
  • Strangers approaching or reaching towards the dog
  • Unfamiliar dogs or animals
  • Loud noises like thunder, fireworks, or vacuums
  • Sudden movements near the dog
  • Being in an unfamiliar or stressful environment
Fear-based aggression often involves warning signs like barking, growling, tucked tail, and raised hackles. The dog may attempt to flee or avoid the perceived threat at first. If the threat persists, the fearful dog may feel it has no choice but to attack in self-defense.
Resource Guarding
Resource guarding is another prevalent cause of aggression in dogs. If your Shih Tzu displays aggressive behavior like growling, lunging, or snapping when you approach it when it has a food bowl, toy, or other resource, this is likely resource guarding. The dog is trying to claim and protect the item from being taken away.
Common items that trigger resource guarding include:
  • Food bowls, treats, and chews
  • Toys, beds, and other objects the dog prizes
  • Spaces like a crate, couch, or your lap
This type of aggression is driven by anxiety and insecurity. The dog fears losing his valued item or space and lashes out to try to keep it. Resource guarding often develops from insufficient socialization as a puppy.

Dominance Aggression

Dominance aggression occurs when a Shih Tzu challenges its owner’s leadership, typically by refusing to obey commands, jumping up, nipping, and other assertive behaviors. This is not very common in Shih Tzus compared to some other breeds, but can develop in some cases due to inadvertent reinforcement of pushy behavior.
Signs of dominance aggression include:
  • Resistance to obedience commands
  • Staring, growling, or snapping when reprimanded
  • Pushy behavior like jumping up, nipping, or pawing at you
  • Trying to climb higher than you on the couch or bed
  • Other attempts to control you or the environment
It’s important not to confuse confident, pushy behavior with true dominance aggression resulting from a lack of leadership. Even aggressive behavior is often motivated by fear or insecurity rather than a desire for control.
Impulse Control Deficits
Some dogs are more prone to impulsivity and have poor inhibitory control. They may react aggressively simply due to an inability to control their impulses. This occurs more often in dogs that lack training and outlet for their energy.
Signs include:
  • Lunging, snapping, or chasing when triggered by certain sights and sounds
  • Poor self-restraint around food, toys, or other dogs
  • Hyperactivity and destructive behavior
Impulse control deficits are another common problem among undersocialized, untrained adult dogs. But it can be improved greatly through training exercises that require focus and self-control from the dog.

Frustration Aggression

Frustration-related aggression happens when a dog is unable to achieve a desired goal due to some form of blocking or punishment. This could occur when the dog is prevented from going through a door, approaching a dog it wants to greet, or getting treats.
The blocking of the dog’s desires paired with an emotional response like yelling may cause the dog to react aggressively out of frustration. This type of aggression is less common in Shih Tzus than fear or resource guarding though.
How to Deal with Aggressive Behavior
If your adult Shih Tzu is displaying aggressive behavior, there are some dos and don’ts to keep in mind when trying to improve the problem:
  • Don’t punish or scold aggressive behavior – This can make the problem worse by causing more fear or anxiety.
  • Don’t use confrontational training methods like alpha rolls or dominance techniques, which are outdated and detrimental.
  • Don’t let children approach or pet an aggressive dog until behavior is improved, to prevent bites. Use great caution.
  • Don’t flood the dog by exposing it to triggers like strangers before it is ready. This can worsen fear and cause more aggressive reactions. Go slowly.
  • Do consult your veterinarian first to rule out potential medical causes of aggression.
  • Do use positive reinforcement and counterconditioning – Reward calm behavior around triggers like strangers to change negative associations.
  • Do provide sufficient exercise, stimulation, and attention daily to prevent and curb aggressive behavior problems.
  • Do use baby gates, leashes, and muzzles cautiously to manage more severe cases of aggression during retraining.
  • Do contact a professional trainer or behaviorist for help if aggressive behavior is severe and not improving with your efforts.
While aggression can be challenging to overcome in adult dogs, with time, consistency, positive training, and possible medication, it is possible for dogs to become less reactive and more tolerant. But professional help is often needed for more serious cases of aggression.

Creating a Safe Management Plan

While working to resolve aggression through training, it is important to manage the environment and the dog’s interactions to prevent opportunities for biting and reactive incidents. This keeps everyone safe while behavior is improved.
Some tips for safe management include:
  • Keeping the dog leashed, crated, or gated when strangers visit. Do not allow interactions that may trigger biting.
  • Using baby gates to keep the dog separated from visitors if needed. Restrict access to rooms as needed.
  • Having strangers toss treats to the dog from a distance but avoid approaching or petting directly.
  • Using a basket muzzle when walking a fear aggressive dog, so it cannot bite when triggered. Introduce it slowly with positive associations.
  • Removing items that trigger resource guarding completely, and feeding the dog in a separate room.
  • Supervising interactions with children very closely. Do not leave them unsupervised with an aggressive dog.
  • Posting warning signs on doors or gates that the dog is fearful and may bite.
The right management tools reduce risky situations while training continues. But never rely on management alone without addressing the underlying behavior issues.

Positive Reinforcement Training

Modern behavioral science shows that the most effective way to reduce aggression in dogs is through positive reinforcement training. This means rewarding desired behavior instead of punishing aggression.
Some positive training techniques to implement include:
  • Obedience training using reward-based methods improves impulse control in dogs. Work on cues like “leave it”, “drop it”, and “settle”.
  • Counterconditioning involves rewarding the dog for remaining calm in the presence of triggers like strangers. Use high value treats and lots of praise.
  • Desensitization is gradually exposing the dog to triggers like other dogs at a distance, very slowly getting closer as the dog stays relaxed. Go at the dog’s pace.
  • Confidence building through reward-based training, play, and bonding activities can reduce fear and insecurity that drives some aggressive behavior.
  • Providing plenty of exercise and enrichment gives an outlet for energy and reduces boredom that can lead to acting out.
Positive training takes patience, consistency and an understanding of dog behavior. But it can be highly successful at reducing aggression long-term by changing the dog’s emotional state.

Medication in Extreme Cases

For dogs with severe aggression or fear that does not respond sufficiently to training alone, medication may be needed to help take the edge off while behavior modification continues.
Some medications that can help in aggressive dogs under the guidance of veterinary behaviorist include:
  • Fluoxetine – This antidepressant can reduce fear and anxiety. It takes 4-6 weeks to start working.
  • Trazodone – This drug is calming and can help dogs tolerate triggers and training. Used short-term or as needed.
  • Gabapentin – An anticonvulsant that can decrease anxiety and disrupt aggressive patterns of the brain.
  • Clonidine – Helps relieve anxiety and curb impulsive aggression when used with behavior modification.
Medication is not a standalone fix for aggression, but can assist the training process in difficult cases. The medication should be tapered off once behavior has improved after a period of time.

Working with a Professional

For moderate to severe cases of aggression, working with a professional trainer or veterinary behaviorist is advised. They can help:
  • Correctly identify the cause and triggers for the aggressive behavior.
  • Design a customized behavior modification plan.
  • Introduce desensitization and counterconditioning techniques properly and safely.
  • Determine if anxiety medication may be appropriate.
  • Identify ways clients may be inadvertently reinforcing the aggression.
  • Provide guidance on how to read canine body language associated with aggression.
  • Teach owners how to handle the dog safely and avoid bites.
Look for professionals certified in animal behavior like a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) or veterinary behaviorist (DACVB). Be wary of trainers who rely on dominance theory or punishment.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is aggression common in Shih Tzus?

While Shih Tzus tend to have very friendly, outgoing personalities, any dog is capable of developing aggressive tendencies due to various factors. Proper socialization and training from puppyhood helps prevent issues.

At what age does aggression develop?

Aggression can begin anytime from 6 months to several years old. Some medical conditions associated with aggression like hypothyroidism often do not appear until later adulthood. Resource guarding also tends to arise after 1-2 years old.

How do I break up a dog fight?

Do not attempt to intervene directly with your body. Throw water, spray citronella, or make a loud noise instead. If you must pry jaws apart, use a leash, stick or other tool rather than fingers which can get bitten.

Can aggression issues be cured completely?

With early intervention using counterconditioning and positive training, mild cases of aggression often can be resolved fully. But more severe aggression linked to poor genes, lack of socialization, or trauma may not be fully curable, only manageable. Lifelong management may be required.

When should I seek veterinary help for aggression?

Schedule a veterinary behavior exam if aggression comes on suddenly in adulthood with no clear behavioral cause. Medical issues like thyroid problems, dementia, and pain need to be ruled out. Vets can refer you to a certified behaviorist if needed.
While curbing aggression can be challenging, through patience, persistence, and professional guidance, it is possible to manage aggression and reduce risky behavior in Shih Tzus. Consistency with training and structured management are key. Medication may also be helpful. There are many tools available, so do not give up on an aggressive dog too quickly.

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