Aggression in Your Dog
Aggression is a complex and serious behavior problem in dogs. Not only is it the most common reason that owners seek professional help, it’s the reason that thousands of dogs are surrendered to animal shelters every year. Aggression is more than just biting or threatening to bite; it can also include destructive or territorial behavior. Territorial behavior can include “resource guarding” such as growling or snapping at anyone who gets near a toy, food bowl, or bedding. Fearful or timid dogs may also behave aggressively.
Dogs may develop aggressive behavior for a wide variety of reasons, and identifying the type of aggression your dog is displaying is a huge part of treatment. The average owner is not equipped or trained to deal with aggression in their dog, but most aggression can be identified and corrected by a professional trainer. Seeking professional help is a great way to keep you and your dog safe.
Causes of Dog Aggression
In many cases, dogs are aggressive because they weren’t properly socialized. Dogs that did not experience correct socialization as puppies need to learn how to act appropriately around unfamiliar people and situations, including other dogs. Although aggressive behavior can present at any age, sudden aggression may be due to an underlying medical condition. If a veterinarian determines the aggressiveness is not health related, the next step is to learn what triggers it.
Types of Dog Aggression and Warning Signs
Understanding the warning signs of a potential dog attack can help avoid injury to people and other animals. For example, before a dog bites, it might show stiffness in its body language, growling, lunging without making contact, showing its teeth, and snarling. However, dogs can also be unpredictable and may bite without warning. In addition, some particular triggers and situations can contribute to aggression, including predatory and territorial behavior.
Predatory aggression happens when a dog is overly excited or distracted and often involves chasing a cat or another dog. It can be dangerous as it can kill or injure its prey.
Territorial aggression is a defensive behavior that a dog displays to protect an area, person, or position it considers its own from people and other animals.
Leash aggression occurs when a dog that is otherwise unaggressive becomes aggressive when they are on leash. Leash aggression is often directed at other dogs, especially those that are not leashed. While your dog may not be able to hurt anyone because they are restrained, their straining, barking, and growling can be unnerving.
A dog that is chained or otherwise contained, particularly for long periods of time, may become aggressive. This may be because containment leaves them unable to avoid a particular perceived threat, or may result from increased anxiety associated with prolonged restraint.
Pain or Irritable Aggression
Some dogs can become aggressive if they are injured or in pain. If your dog shows signs of aggression, especially with little or no warning (impulsive aggression) in response to touch or movement, take them to your vet for a check-up to rule out pain.
Conflict aggression is complex and may occur between dogs or between dogs and humans. Very generally, these behaviors are a result of dogs learning that assertive behaviors (biting, barking, soliciting attention) get them what they want, and these behaviors escalating over time. This is more likely to occur when reinforcement is inconsistent, i.e. when people reward the dog for a specific behavior sometimes, but punish them for the same behavior other times. Dogs showing conflict aggression may hold prolonged eye contact, growl, or snarl, and may eventually escalate to lunging and biting. It’s important to remember that conflict aggression is a characteristic of the relationship between dogs/dog and human, and not a characteristic of an individual dog.
10 aggressive behaviors to watch for:
- They bark, strain, bite, nip, or lunge.
- They stand still and stiff with ears forward, mouth closed, tail high, hackles raised, and tail high.
- They growl or bare their teeth.
- They block people’s or other dog’s paths.
- They barge through doors or gates ahead of you.
- They demand attention.
- They resource guard.
- They mount people’s legs or other dogs.
- They approach another dog from the side and put their head on the other dogs back/shoulder.
- They insert themself between you and another person or dog.
Treatment for Dog Aggression
We recommend treating aggression with behavior modification and the assistance of a professional dog trainer. Behavior modification helps a dog understand how to respond to a stressful event, like excessively barking when it sees another dog. In this instance, the dog receives praise if it sits calmly until after the other dog is out of view. The result is that the dog learns to it politely versus being aggressive one whenever it sees another dog.
Although behavior modification successfully treats aggression in many cases, it can be difficult to eliminate it entirely. For example, a dog that shows aggression towards children is not likely to be trusted unsupervised, and the solution is to ensure that the dog does not come in contact with children without proper safety equipment in place.
Whatever type of aggression a dog displays, seeking help from a canine specialist sooner rather than later is a good idea. It’s better to address the problem as quickly as possible to prevent a person or another animal from getting hurt.
Tips to avoid aggression in your dog:
- Socialize your dog early. Dogs learn from other dogs how to behave in acceptable ways. Training your dog early and exposing them to other, well-trained dogs can make for a better companion.
- Love your dog with structure and discipline. Loving your dog doesn’t mean just giving them treats and scratches. It means training, providing guidance, and disciplining your dog. Consult a professional to learn how to train and discipline your dog in a way that leaves everyone happy, secure, and healthy.