How To Tame Your Dog's Aggression
Most of us don't want to think of our dogs as being aggressive or dangerous - they're our furry family members, after all. But just because you love your dog doesn't mean that they can't be hostile towards other dogs and people. If you're struggling to manage an aggressive dog, we're going to cover everything you need to know to handle the situation.
Aggression In Dogs
Aggression in dogs is one of the most common issues that pet owners have trouble managing in their furry friends. While most of our experience with dogs is usually positive, you have to remember that at their core, dogs are predatory, territorial, and defensive animals that descended from wolves.
So even though your pooch loves to cuddle and do tricks for treats, they're also muscular, have a mouthful of sharp teeth, and can be intimidating when they want. And when they do decide that they're going to exhibit aggressive behaviors, it can be hard to know what to do as an owner.
While aggression in dogs will vary - both in severity and in the danger they pose - you should always take aggression very seriously, especially if you take your dog out in public. The last thing you want is for your dog to attack another person or dog while you helplessly watch.
Signs Of Aggression In Dogs
Most of us know how to spot when a dog is being aggressive. First, they'll bear their teeth, growl, and maybe start barking. The hair on their back might also stand up, and your dog might take a more defensive stance. Most of us know to look for these signs when trying to figure out if our dog is being playful or serious.
However, there are other, more subtle signs that your dog might be gearing up for an attack. You'll need to be aware of these signs as well if you have a particularly aggressive dog.
- Your dog becomes very still or rigid and doesn't respond to being pulled by their leash
- Your dog snaps at other dogs/people
- Your dog nips/bites another dog or person to try and threaten them
- Your dog rams their nose into another dog/person
- Your dog bites down on another dog and pins them, usually without hurting the other dog
- Your dog bites and shakes another dog/person
Why Do Dogs Get Aggressive?
While there are countless different kinds of aggression in dogs, the root cause of aggression in dogs isn't too hard to figure out most of the time. You can usually look to your dog's history to figure out what it is that has caused their aggression.
It's extremely important to be self-reflective when looking at your dog's past, because you may have unknowingly led to their aggressive behaviors. If your dog is a rescue, they likely had some kind of past experience(s) that is the source of their aggression.
However, if you're the sole owner of your pet and can't pinpoint any reason why your dog would be aggressive, it's possible that you are simply dealing with an aggressive dog or dog breed. For example, aggression in chihuahuas is extremely common and generally expected, so you're probably not at fault if you have an aggressive chihuahua.
Lack Of Socialization
A lack of socialization is one of the most common underlying factors for aggression in not only dogs but pets of all kinds. Pet owners - especially when they're new - tend to overlook this aspect of their dog's development, which can lead to aggression later on.
Socialization is when you introduce your dog to other animals and people while they're still a puppy, and on a regular basis over the course of their lives. This accustoms them to the fact that the world is full of all kinds of people and animals, and that the majority of them don't mean your dog any harm.
Without this kind of socialization, your dog may view all other animals and people as potential threats and won't have the social skills to navigate through the situation. This results in aggressive behavior rather than neutral or friendly interactions with other pets.
The second most common cause of aggression in dogs is traumatic experiences. This could mean a history of abuse, a negative interaction with another dog/person/animal, living as a stray dog in the past, or being involved in a traumatic accident/incident.
This issue occurs frequently in rescue dogs who are - by definition - being placed into a safe home from a not-so-safe home. Some of the dogs may have been abused by their owners, made to fight with other animals, and experienced harsher than normal living conditions.
The result is that these dogs can't distinguish between a threat and a non-threat. Someone trying to pet them might be viewed as an attack, or another dog trying to play with them might be seen as an attempt to fight.
History Of Neglect
And lastly, a history of neglect can lead to dogs being more aggressive as they age. Neglect refers to any combination of your dog's basic needs not being met on a regular basis. For example, your dog may have gone through times where food and water were scarce, where interaction with any other living beings was minimal, or when they didn't have access to shelter.
The result is that when your dog is in a safe situation where their needs are being met, they might have a constant fear that these resources could disappear at any time. This can make them aggressive when eating, for example, because they don't want anything to take their meal from them.
This kind of paranoia can make it difficult for your dog to trust anyone, including you as a pet owner, which can be disheartening. Over time, though, as they realize that their needs are always going to be met, this kind of aggressive behavior will likely lessen in severity.
The Different Types Of Aggression In Dogs
This is a pretty typical form of aggression, especially in dogs that rarely go outdoors. Remember that dogs are descendants of wolves, whose territory can be the difference between life or death.
In dogs, your house and yard is their territory. Anyone who they don't see as being a part of their "pack," (you and your family) will be seen as a threat to their territory. You will usually see territorial aggression when receiving deliveries, hence the age-old grudge that dogs harbor against mailmen.
This can become a more serious issue, however, when trying to bring a new pet or family member into the house. If you have a dog that struggles with territorial aggression, be sure to keep this in mind when inviting guests over, purchasing a new pet, or bringing a new person into their life.
Possessive aggression in dogs is similar to territorial aggression, except that possessive aggression refers to things rather than places. For example, your dog may be possessive of their toys, their bed, their food, and even their owners.
Possessive aggression is common in dogs with a history of neglect, as they may be fearful of losing their food, shelter, and belongings. Stray dogs are particularly prone to possessive aggression.
Alongside being aggressive when other animals or people get too close to your dog's things, your dog may even hide their toys and food throughout your home in an effort to keep them away from others.
Protective aggression is a combination of territorial and possessive aggression. Rather than guarding their things/pack out of fear of losing them, they see themselves as protecting them from a perceived threat.
Dogs usually show protective aggression towards one owner in particular, especially if that owner is seen as vulnerable by your dog. This could be a small child, an older individual, or someone who is handicapped.
While this may sound sweet - and it is coming from a good place in your dog's heart - it can make it difficult and even dangerous to bring others around your dog. If you've recently had a newborn baby, be aware that your dog might suddenly become more aggressive to guests and other animals in trying to protect your new baby.
Most of us have heard of the expression, "a cornered animal," which refers to the fact that animals backed into a corner with no way out will quickly become aggressive. This reaction is based on your dog's fight or flight instincts, and it can be the cause of fear-based aggression.
One of the most common examples of fear aggression can be observed when a small dog meets a big dog for the first time. Even though the big dog likely has no intentions of hurting your pet, your dog - feeling vulnerable - will enter into a state of aggression in order to protect themselves.
Fearful aggression tends to start off much differently than other forms of aggression. Your dog will likely seem uneasy or timid around the potential threat, even shy. Then, when the perceived threat moves suddenly or gets too close to your pet, your dog will suddenly start lashing out in a panicked state. The best way to deal with this type of aggression is to separate your dog from whatever it is that they're afraid of as quickly and calmly as possible.
Social aggression is another type of aggression that is primarily based on natural instincts. As mentioned, dogs are pack animals, and pack animals tend to live in a hierarchy. This hierarchy is established through dogs exerting their power over each other, until they determine which dog is the most dominant and the least dominant, with the rest being ranked in between them.
The problem with this behavior is that, while it may be helpful for dogs in the wild, it's not such a great instinct to have when you just want to give your dog belly rubs and treats.
Social aggression is most common in male dogs, as pack hierarchy is mainly determined by the males in a pack. Social aggression at home is usually instigated by a dog that sees themselves as being higher in the hierarchy than your other pets, and maybe even members of your family. As a result, they may act aggressively towards others in an attempt to prove their superiority or when they feel they are being treated as a lower member of the pack.
Aggression from frustration in dogs is something most of us can probably relate to. If there's something that your dog wants or wants to do, not being given the opportunity to have/do that thing can lead to them becoming frustrated and acting out.
The problem with frustrated aggression is that it can be as unpredictable as it is predictable. For example, you may realize that every time you try to put your dog in a kennel they start to become aggressive. But you may not expect them to act similarly when you put them in the back of your vehicle.
As a result, your dog may seem like a perfectly happy pooch 99% of the time, and then seemingly out of nowhere, they will turn into an aggressive grump. When it comes to this kind of aggression, it's important to learn your dog's triggers, think about what might be causing them (in the example of a kennel, restricted movement is likely the cause, hence why they also dislike the car), and prepare for those triggers accordingly.
Redirected aggression is when your dog's anger is targeted at something else, and you or someone else gets in the way of that anger. A simple example of this is when two dogs are fighting. Even though your dog may not be mad at you - just the dog that it is fighting - they will turn that aggression on you if you try to get in their way.
Redirected aggression is one of the more dangerous kinds of aggression, as you will likely be facing substantially more intense aggression from your dog than you ever would otherwise. Redirected aggression can also happen between two dogs.
For example, when two dogs are barking at something outside, they may suddenly turn on each other and start fighting - not because they are actually mad at each other, but because they aren't able to take their aggression out on the thing that they are actually frustrated with.
Predatory aggression is a primal form of aggression that will generally be displayed more subtly than other types. This is when your dog's predatory instincts kick in and they feel the urge to chase something down - and possibly even attack it.
Dogs are hunters by nature, and the primary way that they hunt is through chase. This is why dogs are likely to chase dogs, people on bicycles, and other running animals. They also like to target smaller animals and pets, hence the neverending battle between dogs and cats.
Predatory aggression can be hard to see coming since dogs won't display obvious signs of aggression that could alert their "prey". This is why it's always a good idea to keep your dog on a leash during walks and to always keep a firm hold on that leash.
Mating aggression usually isn't an issue in dogs that have been neutered or spayed, since their mating instincts will no longer kick in. For dogs that are still intact, though, they might get aggressive towards dogs of the same sex when a dog of the opposite sex is nearby.
Mating aggression is typically between two male dogs vying for a females attention, especially if that female is in heat. That said, both female and male dogs can engage in mating aggression.
Fortunately, since most dogs these days are neutered or spayed, the chances of mating aggression occurring are pretty slim. If you are having a hard time reigning in your dog's mating aggression, the surest solution to the problem is simply to have them fixed.
How Dangerous Is Your Aggressive Dog?
Once you've identified that your dog is having issues with aggression and you have a better idea of why they're being aggressive, the next step to take is to figure out how dangerous your aggressive dog is. As mentioned earlier, one of the most aggressive dog breeds is the chihuahua; however, due to their small stature, they're not really a risk to anyone.
However, if you have an aggressive German Shepherd or pit bull, then you probably shouldn't take them around other people or animals until you find a way to resolve the issue. Otherwise, you risk putting others at risk.
Here are some of the factors to keep in mind when trying to determine how dangerous your dog really is.
The biggest factor that's going to determine how dangerous your aggressive dog is is their size. It's a pretty simple rule: the smaller your dog is, the less dangerous they will generally be. This rule isn't fixed in stone, though, as some dog breeds - like Boston Terriers - can do a lot of damage to another animal or person in spite of their size.
And also keep in mind that just because your dog is small and seemingly harmless - like a chihuahua - that doesn't mean that they can't still hurt someone, especially children. All that being said, if you're dealing with a small and aggressive dog, your biggest concerns will probably be how much noise they're making and how badly they're aggravating bigger dogs.
Next up is your dog's age. The old saying rings true in most cases of aggression - it's tough to teach an old dog new tricks. If you have an older dog that shows signs of aggression, trying to have them unlearn those behaviors is going to be tough.
On the opposite side of things, younger dogs are much more trainable. So if you have a puppy that's still in their first two to three years of life, getting professional training help and socializing them regularly can help treat their aggression before it becomes a permanent problem.
You'll also need to keep your dog's history in mind, not just their history with aggression, but any history that may be causing their aggression as well. For example, if your dog has a violent past, aggression might just be something they struggle with for the rest of their life.
If your dog has ever attacked another dog or a person, has ever bitten or snapped at you, or is easily triggered into an aggressive state, then you will need to always keep your guard up and stay in control of your dog at all times. On the other hand, if your dog is only just starting to become aggressive and doesn't have a traumatic past, the aggression is likely temporary and treatable.
Severity of aggression
Not every dog's aggression will match in severity. Having an unfriendly dog that barks and growls is not the same as dealing with a dog that is prone to attacking other animals. If your dog is simply frustrated or generally grumpy, then taking them in public and making efforts to treat their aggression is typically safe.
On the other hand, if your dog is violently aggressive on a regular basis, take precautions to ensure that you, your dog, and other animals/people remain safe.
Some dogs' aggression will be easier to predict than others. For example, if your dog becomes aggressive every time they are around other dogs - but are fine at all other times - then the solution is to just keep them away from other dogs. This means you can still take your dog for walks and likely live with their aggressive behavior, so long as you plan and prepare for it.
When your dog becomes aggressive at seemingly random events and targets, then taking a more conservative approach is best.
And lastly, we have trainability. If you're dealing with dog aggression in an intelligent, obedient, and trainable dog, then you should be able to get the situation under control. You may need to seek outside help to do so - like a professional dog trainer - but the future for your aggressive dog is hopeful.
If you're dealing with a less trainable breed, however, possibly even a mutt, or if your dog is older, then training them to be less aggressive might not be the most effective solution.
Managing An Aggressive Dog
Seek Professional Help
First and foremost, seek professional help. An aggressive dog is a serious situation and one that you are likely not equipped to manage on your own. Trying to deal with an aggressive dog on your own can lead to you or someone else being injured in the process.
There are two main kinds of dog professionals that you will benefit from visiting: behaviorists and trainers. Behaviorists are experts who specialize in understanding and modifying canine behavior. These professionals can help identify the cause of your dog's aggression and offer up the best solution for your dog's unique needs. They're also a good source to keep in touch with to see how your dog is progressing through their aggression treatment.
You're probably familiar with what trainers do - they train dogs. Trainers are helpful for any dog owner that's never trained a dog before but can be a necessity in cases of aggressive dogs. These professionals will have the resources and experience to safely manage and reduce aggressive behaviors, as well as give you the tools to do so yourself. They can also advise you on whether or not keeping your dog is the best idea for you, or if the dog should be left with a more experienced owner.
Speak With Your Veterinarian
Along with a behaviorist and a trainer, you should be in regular communication with your dog's veterinarian. In fact, you may even want to consider taking your dog in and seeing if your vet thinks a medical issue might be the cause of your dog's aggression.
Some health problems can create neurological issues in your dog, which can lead to sporadic and random aggressive behavior. Your dog might also be acting aggressively if they are in pain as a means of protecting themselves.
But even if there isn't anything medically wrong with your dog, your vet is a good person to have monitoring your dog's health - both physical and mental.
Taking Your Dog In Public
When it comes to taking an aggressive dog into a public setting, you can never be too careful.
First off, if your dog isn't undergoing any sort of treatment or training for their aggression and you would consider them to be very aggressive, you really shouldn't be taking them outside except in a controlled, isolated environment - like a backyard.
If you are making strides to work through your dog's aggression, though, the best advice is to start gradually. Start out with a strong leash and a firm grip, go for short trips in low traffic areas, and don't let other people or animals get too close to your dog.
As your dog becomes more laidback and comfortable in public settings, you can start taking them into busier locations and allow them greater flexibility. If your dog has any history of attacking other animals or has ever indicated that they might attack another animal, don't let them off of their leash until you've consulted with a behaviorist, vet, or dog trainer first.
Train Your Dog
Training an aggressive dog should almost always be done by a professional. That said, if you've successfully trained your dog in the past and their aggression isn't too severe, you might have luck doing it on your own.
The first step in training an aggressive dog is identifying the source of the issue. Once you know what the source of the issue is, your goal will be to change the way your dog responds/feels about this particular trigger. You can do this by teaching them simple commands like sit, lay down, and relax, and then ordering these commands while slowly introducing their trigger.
Once you are able to control your dog's behavior in the face of their trigger, you have substantially reduced the risk of them being aggressive in public. It's not foolproof, but it's pretty good. That said, always be prepared for the possibility that there may come a situation where your dog does not heed your command.
Never Ignore Your Dog's Aggression
This is the most important section of this article. Never ignore, underestimate, or brush off your dog's aggressive behavior. This is how dogs end up hurting one another, other small animals, and possibly even people. And the sad reality is that even if your dog survives one of these situations, they could be ordered to be euthanized to prevent any further attacks.
If you have an aggressive dog, please take steps to begin resolving the issue, speak to professionals, keep your attention on your dog when in public, don't let them off of their leash, and make sure that other people and animals are aware that your dog has issues with aggression before allowing them to approach your dog.
Dr. Ivana Vukasinovic
Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, University of Belgrade
Ivana Vukasinovic grew up in Serbia and attended the University of Belgrade where she received a degree in Veterinary medicine in 2012 and later completed surgical residency working mostly with livestock. Her first year of practice was split between busy small animal practice and emergency clinic, and after two more years of treating many different species of animals, she opened her own veterinary pharmacy where an interest in canine and feline nutrition emerged with an accent on fighting animal obesity. In her free time, she acts as a foster parent for stray animals before their adoption, likes to read SF books and making salted caramel cookies.
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