Agressive Behaviors in Dogs

By: Nicole Ondrey
Co Author: Mark Siebel

One of the most common concerns of new dog owners is their fear of raising an aggressive dog. Our dogs are members of our families and we want to ensure that all members of the family coexist in a peaceful and loving environment. Nobody wants to live in fear that their dog may hurt them, the members of their family, or others.

Many believe that certain breeds of dogs are more aggressive than other breeds. It is true that the amount of time and effort it takes to train your dog may depend on the breed and disposition of the dog. However, it is important to remember that aggression can exist in any breed of dog. Even the most well-trained dog can act aggressively if put in an unfamiliar or threatening environment. Remember…there is always a reason for a dog’s aggressive behavior. The hard part for us as owners can be identifying the source of the aggression and making sure the behavior doesn’t happen again.

Identification and Acknowledgement of Aggression

Ultimately, we are responsible for our dog’s behaviors. The first step in preventing future aggression is for owners to acknowledge the aggressive behaviors, or the potential for them, in their dogs. It never helps to ignore aggressive behaviors or to believe that the dog will simply “outgrow” them. One of the most frequent sources of unprovoked aggression in dogs is a lack of socialization. The key to raising a loving and well-rounded dog is to teach your dog how to relate to others and their environment. Your dog learns about appropriate behaviors from the most important person in their life…YOU!

Dogs enjoy training and consistency within their daily routine. Imagine the chaos and confusion that would ensue if everyone in your household were unclear about their roles. Nobody would know who would be cooking dinner, who would be paying the bills, or to whom they could go with a problem. Because your dog is also a member of your family, they need to know when they will be fed, when they will get a walk, and most importantly, who is in charge. If the rules and roles within the household remain consistent, everyone will remain happy.

It is important to understand why dogs become aggressive. Aggressive behavior is not inherently bad. We rely on our dogs to warn us by barking if someone is trying to break into our home or protecting us if we are in danger. An aggressive dog is reacting to a perceived danger in their environment. It is likely that the source of this danger is something unfamiliar to the dog and, therefore, becomes very threatening. Just like humans have a “fight or flight” response, dogs have the option to run away or to fight. Some of the ways a dog might “fight” and exhibit aggressive behavior are:

  • Growling
  • Showing their teeth
  • Snapping
  • Biting
  • Barking
  • Jumping
  • Mounting
  • Chasing

Types of Aggression

These behaviors are easy to identify and create an instant warning that your dog feels threatened by something in its environment. The more difficult task comes in determining the source of the aggressive behavior. There are several explanations as to why your dog is reacting to its environment in this way.

  • Territory Dispute: Dogs are territorial animals, a trait which was inherited by their less domesticated ancestors who needed to protect their safety and food from predators in the wild. Dogs have claimed particular spaces as their own and will protect these spaces if they become compromised. This aggression can occur when someone knocks at the door, rings the doorbell, or walks in front of your home. It can also occur when a person or animal tries to occupy the dog’s favorite spot on the couch or bed.
  • Dominance: Dogs are pack animals and are instinctively used to a particular hierarchy within their packs. Just as a family maintains roles, packs also hold certain roles. Some dogs may attempt to prove themselves as the “alpha” dogs within their families. This type of aggression can occur when the dog is disturbed while it is sleeping, asked to give up a favorite spot, or have a favorite toy taken away.
  • Fear: Fear is a basic instinct that all animals and humans possess in order to keep us safe from danger. Some dogs develop a lack of security and have a difficult time adapting to new situations or people. These dogs often have high levels of anxiety in new environments. If a dog feels as if his safety is threatened, it may react aggressively against the people or animals in that environment.
  • Predatory Behavior: Some dogs have strong instincts to hunt or chase game, a trait which helped ensure their survival. These dogs may stalk, chase, and kill small animals within their territory. These instincts may be heightened when these dogs are running or playing with other dogs that have the same predatory instincts.

A certain amount of aggressive behavior during play time can be healthy, such as when your dog gets excited and barks when playing with a ball or toy. However, it is important that you can identify the source of the behavior and the type of aggression that the dog is displaying in order to know if it may get out of control. For example, if the dog In addition, it is crucial that the owner of the dog have control over the display of aggression and is able to end it if it gets out of control.

We must remember that dogs often act on instinct. If they are put in a new environment or situation in which they feel uncomfortable, they may instinctively react with aggression. For example, if your friend comes to your house with their new puppy and your dog has never been around other dogs, your dog may show territorial aggression by growling at the puppy. Or, if a family member sneaks up on the dog while they are eating, the dog may snap at the individual. You must remember to treat your dog with the same respect as all other family members and not put them into a situation in which they feel threatened or uncomfortable.

Steps for Reducing Aggression

The good news is that aggression in dogs can be prevented and/or remedied once the behaviors are recognized. The most effective way to prevent future aggressive behaviors is with proper training of your dog. As is expected, it is always easier to train puppies as opposed to older dogs, so start early! It is crucial for you to allow proper socialization of your dog by allowing them to become comfortable around others, including children and other dogs, as well as various environments, such as your neighborhood, parks, and cars.

Consistency is crucial when training your dog. Dogs enjoy having a daily routine and benefit from knowing when they will be fed, walked, and when it is time to play. If they are left guessing when their next meal will be, they will be put into a situation in which they are uncomfortable. In addition, regular exercise will keep your dog’s anxiety levels low and will release pent up energy that may turn into aggression.

Make sure your dog is used to the idea that other people and dogs will be around. When your dog is new to your home, ask friends to come over to meet the new member of your family. If it is possible, ask your friends to bring their non-aggressive dogs for a play date with your dog. Be sure these are supervised visits and pay attention to how your dog relates to other dogs. If a dangerous situation arises between your dog and another dog, remove your dog from the situation and allow him the time and space to calm down.

There are many safety and liability issues when your dog will be surrounded by children. If there will be children around your dog often, it is important to educate the children about appropriate and inappropriate behaviors around dogs. By teaching them what they can do (i.e., pet the dog’s head, chest or belly, play fetch, wait for the dog to come to them, walking on a leash), as well as what they should not do (i.e., pull the dog’s hair, put their faces in the dog’s face, try to take food or treats away), you will ensure peaceful relationships between your dog and children. In addition, make sure children are always supervised when playing with your dog.

Get your dog used to the idea that people may be around them when they are eating. It is easier and safer to use this technique when your dog is still a puppy. Sit next to the dog while they are eating and touch their food throughout the meal. Take the food away for a short amount of time, and when you give it back, reward the dog with praise for their patience. Try this technique when your dog is enjoying a treat or a favorite bone or toy. By getting your dog used to having others around their food, you can avoid dangerous situations in which your dog may become possessive of his food and display aggressive behaviors.

Always reward your dog’s good behavior. They need to know when they are acting appropriately and doing things correctly! Punishment does not help when attempting to eliminate aggression, and can sometimes make the problem worse. If your dog’s aggression is the result of fear, punishment will make them more fearful of the situation and may increase the aggressive behaviors.

If your dog is suddenly displaying aggressive behaviors that cannot be explained or reduced, be sure to rule out medical explanations of the aggression. Dogs that are in pain or are overly tired may react aggressively simply because they do not feel good. In addition, pregnant or nursing dogs may act aggressively if they feel as if their babies are being put in danger.

The most important thing to remember when training your dog and attempting to prevent or reduce aggressive behaviors is to BE PATIENT! It takes time for dogs to learn how to behave appropriately and there will probably be setbacks. However, the more time and effort you dedicate to your dog’s development, the faster they will grow into the dog you always dreamed of! And remember, a qualified expert is only a phone call away! DOGGIE STEPS can help!!