Signs of Dog Aggression
Do you know what really cause dog aggression?
Aggression in dogs takes many forms and is caused by varying factors. All wild animals and most domestic ones will become aggressive if they perceive a threat to their territories, their offspring, or their themselves. Yet dogs always give warning, however brief, before they attack.
The trick is to recognize the warning in time to avoid the danger posed by aggression.
Some of the warning signs include the following:
● Assuming a very still, very rigid stance
● Barking in a guttural, warning voice
● Charging toward the person without making contact
● Mouthing the person’s body as if trying to control, even without much pressure
● Punching the person with the dog’s nose
● Baring teeth
● Nipping without breaking the skin
● Biting that tears the skin
● Puncturing the skin with a bite
● Bruising bite
● Quick, consecutive biting
● Biting and shaking
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Not all dogs will exhibit every sign, and the timing of the warning could be extremely short. It is, however, rare that a dog will attack for no reason.
If you can understand what motivates the aggression, you may then be able to alleviate the problem.
10 Different Types of Aggression
In the wild, dogs live in packs. They are protective of the members of their pack and will become aggressive if they perceive a threat.
In domestic dogs, their pack may consist of their human families as well as any other pets. When a dog whelps a litter of puppies, although she may never have shown malice before, she may suddenly become aggressively protective.
The same thing may happen when a new (human) baby is brought into the family. It might seem cute at first, but the dog may refuse to let guests or even friends near the baby on the pain of biting. Both male and female dogs can exhibit this kind of behavior.
The ancestors of our pet dogs were very territorial. Wolves and coyotes defend the area they inhabit from encroachment by others.
Our dogs can behave this way, too, driving off those they see as intruders. They may defend their homes and yards, or the house alone.
Both males and females may show territorial aggression, but it is not an aspect of puppyhood, normally surfacing in adolescence or adulthood.
While all animals possess the fight or flight instinct, a fearful dog may become hostile toward a sensed threat if he feels like he has no choice.
Fear-induced behavior may not include the warning signals listed above; instead, the dog may simply act afraid. WebMD has an insightful article on canine body language that can help you recognize fearful behavior in your dog.
It is important to note that it is not a good idea to turn your back on a frightened animal as they sometimes will attack and nip when you retreat.
When dogs live wild, they guard their resources out of necessity. Their survival depends on possessing food and water.
Although our dogs don’t have the same dire need to possess, many still regard their food bowls, their beds, and their toys as things that must be protected. Puppies and adults, males and females alike can show this tendency.
When a dog hides his toys and chew sticks around the house, he may be aggressive towards other dogs or people who inadvertently go near the hiding place.
In the social structure of the canine family, there is a hierarchical system that specifies which members of their pack get to eat first, get the best resting places, and have the privilege of mating.
In our complex lives, this simplification of society with our dogs still applies. If a dog considers himself high up on the totem pole, he may act aggressively toward other members of his perceived pack.
Interestingly, dominance aggression is more pronounced in purebred dogs, in males rather than females, and in adults rather than puppies. A dominant dog may attempt to stand or lie on top of other members of his family, including humans.
An excited dog who is on a leash may experience frustration when he cannot approach the thing exciting him. His dissatisfaction may become aggression, biting the leash holding him or the person holding the leash.
Eventually, he may associate confinement with frustration and become aggressive when confined on a leash, behind a gate, or in a crate, even if he is not excited. (Additionally, even if not frustrated, a dog may misdirect his aggression, biting a person who has not caused the situation.)
Not exclusively male- or female-related, frustration aggression can be seen in adult dogs as well as puppies.
Dogs will often exhibit aggression when they are in pain, which is why it is crucial to be careful when handling an injured animal.
An otherwise gentle dog may suddenly bite with little warning if in pain, even if he is your own dog, and even if you are trying to help. Take suitable precautions before approaching a hurting dog.
Some breeds are bred to herd other animals, such as the Border Collie, the Welsh Corgi, and the Old English Sheepdog.
Their natural tendency is to “round up” the animals in their care. If there are no such animals, they will sometimes herd their human family, especially small children. Herding breeds nip when they herd, and small children often are afraid. Their screaming exacerbates the situation.
Other dog breeds, such as sighthounds (greyhounds, Russian wolfhounds, for example) and terriers, are bred to hunt, chase, and kill small animals.
This can transfer into aggression against other pets such as cats and smaller dogs. Obviously, keeping such a dog and another pet, like a cat, can be a problem.
“Bully breeds,” such as pit bulls, American Staffordshire terriers, boxers, and bulldogs, are often mistakenly labeled aggressive based on their breed alone.
The difference between an aggressive Chihuahua and an aggressive Pit Bull is that the bigger breeds can cause proportionately bigger damage.
I deal with a lot of red zone cases, and I often hear people incorrectly blaming the breed. Any breed can cause trouble.”
The Dog Whisperer
He advocates lots of exercise for all dogs, but especially for those who are aggressive. Unfortunately, people often get a dog without thinking of the work involved in raising and training a particular breed, and when things don’t work out, the unfortunate dog ends up in a shelter.
An extensive study was undertaken by the American Veterinary Task Force on Canine Aggression and Humane-Canine Interactions, published in June 2001.
The finding indicated that the popularity of the breed was the most important factor in the number of dog attacks.In other words, the more popular a dog breed was, the more often the breed bit people. In the 1970s, Doberman Pinschers were popular.
More people owned them and there was a commensurately larger number of bites by that breed. In the 1980s, the breed was the Pit Bull, and the Rottweiler was popular in the 1990s.
Veterinarians have long believed that socialization, training, and exercise have a much more profound effect on aggression than the specific breed.
Owners who are anxious or aggressive themselves can, indeed, affect their dog’s behavior. Because our dogs are experts at “reading” us, they pick up on fear and anxiety quite readily and react to it themselves.
A study in the Czech Republic followed 2,000 dogs and their owners as they went on walks together. The study found, among other results, that aggression was two times as likely when a dog was on a leash as it was off leash.
Dogs were more aggressive to the same gender dogs than to the opposite sex. And when they were walked by men, they were four times more aggressive than when they were walked by women.
According to Inga Fricke of the Humane Society of the U.S., it is possible that men acted more defensive or assertive upon meeting other people and dogs than women did, and the dogs likely sensed and reflected that. Dr. Stefanie Schwartz, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, theorized that men rely more on strength in controlling their dogs, where women have to anticipate what a dog or other dog owner is going to do.
So to summarize this finding from the study, if you’re a male, you should be aware of your tendencies and avoid the behavior you don’t want to see in your dog.
17 Actionable Dog Aggression Methods
Dr. Ian Dunbar, founder of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT), says that dog on dog aggression comes from lack of socialization as a puppy.
Dogs need interaction with other good-natured dogs to learn the subtle skills of communication that enable them to “read” other dogs’ body language.
The popularity of puppy classes, largely due to the influence of Dr. Dunbar, helps alleviate the social isolation that could otherwise handicap puppies as they grow.
- Dog parks are also a good way to socialize young dogs, especially as the dogs are in a common area that is not the territory of any one dog.
- Socializing an adult dog is quite different than doing the same with a puppy. Puppies, especially between 3 and 20 weeks of age, are said to be in their “sensitive period.”
- Therefore, teaching them to feel comfortable in these situations is not difficult. With adult dogs, the goal should be to teach them to walk well on lead and to behave well in public.
During that time, they are generally welcoming to new people, places, and other dogs.
Having fun at the dog park should not be the objective.
Although your dog may be the exception, socially mature dogs generally do not enjoy playing with large groups of other dogs, unless they have been acclimated to it as puppies.
In this method of aggression retraining, your dog must offer a response to an obedience command to earn rights, freedoms, and privileges, including food, treats, play, toys, games, walks, and attention.
The dog must recognize you, his owner, as the provider of all good things.
First, the dog is rewarded for any behavior that is non-aggressive. Then the behavior is enforced through a planned program of:
● Shaping (strengthening little behaviors that move the dog toward the goal);
● Desensitizing (bringing other dogs close but at a great enough distance that the aggressive behavior is not elicited, and then gradually lessening the distance);
● Counterconditioning (associating other dogs’ presence with enjoyable things);
● Training (teaching the dog to offer actions on demand that are inconsistent with aggression).
William Campbell, a well-known dog behaviorist, introduced this technique as part of his leadership training method.
Since many dogs exhibit fear aggression, he thought that the “jolly routine” could change the dog’s perception of the situation, thereby lessening or eliminating the aggressive response.
- When your dog is afraid, you probably want to pet him and let him know that everything is alright and that you won’t let any harm come to him.Unfortunately, that presupposes the dog thinks like a human being. He doesn’t.
- Instead, Campbell advocated laughing at the thing that was frightening the dog and making it a pleasant thing through the use of your own mood.
- Keeping your own mood light and fun can often convince your dog that there is nothing to be afraid of. Thus, the aggression is short-circuited.
All dogs should undergo at least the basic training of obedience, especially the recall and the down command.
Learning to sit on command, to stay, to lie down, to walk nicely on a leash, and to come when called not only mediates aggression, it may well save your dog’s life. And until these basic commands are mastered, your dog should never be off-leash outside.
A dog who gets excited by another animal may run into the street and be hit by a car, or may jump on a child and injure her, or may get into a fight with another dog.
Formal obedience training can begin as young as twelve weeks of age, but you can start teaching sit and come when they are much younger.
The American Kennel Club offers programs in obedience training.
Their three programs are called Canine Good Citizen®, AKC S.T.A.R. Puppy®, and AKC Community Canine. Your dog does not have to be registered with AKC or even be a purebred to participate.
They emphasize the relationship between dog and owner, and encourage you to train your own dog. However, if you think you need a professional trainer to teach your dog, here’s an article on how to choose a trainer, from Cesar’s Way.
You need to be the pack leader, and you are, whether you know it or not. Dogs are extremely sensitive to our moods and our emotions, and they pick up on fear quickly. If you show signs of stress when meeting other dogs, for instance, your dog will know it.
Fearful feelings may transmit to your dog and actually cause an aggressive incident. Putting unrelenting tension on the leash or pulling your dog straight back lets your dog know you are afraid, so relax.
Additionally, putting pressure on the dog’s neck by keeping the leash tight can make your dog feel like he’s suffocating, which only exacerbates the problem.If you need to pass another dog, pull your dog to the side and walk around the other dog.
When approaching another dog, do not look at it, or at your own dog. Look toward your goal or ahead where you are walking.
- Keep your body between your dog and the strange dog, or put a barrier between them (such as a fence or a car). Cross the street or detour into a driveway until the other dog has passed.
- It is best not to turn around and walk away, because then the other dog is walking behind you, and your dog will probably keep turning around to make sure it is not threatening you or him.
Nancy Williams, a creative behaviorist in Maryland, advocates using a “blocking board” to help aggressive dogs during interactions with other dogs or even people to whom they act belligerently.
A blocking board is an opaque, lightweight board or other material that is placed between a dog and the source of his aggression.
Sometimes dogs can only handle being face to face with a trigger (such as another dog) for a short period of time. Blocking boards, placed between the aggressive dog and the trigger, cuts off visual contact. They are useful for systematically desensitizing a dog to a trigger.
Perhaps your dog came from a kennel or shelter where he had to compete for food. This is sure to develop resource guarding in nearly any dog.
But there’s an easy way to approach this problem that will make your dog happy to see you reach for his food bowl.
- Start by throwing bits of especially yummy food, like cheese or bits of bacon, into his bowl when he’s eating. Don’t attempt to place the food in his bowl, just toss it in.
- Don’t pet him when he’s eating, either. After he begins looking forward to your visits to his meal time, reach down and remove the bowl. Make sure he sees that you are putting treats in his bowl, and then quickly return it to him.
You can do this with other favorites, too, like toys that you can enhance by adding food or treats. Eventually, he will become so accustomed to his enhanced toys that he will gladly surrender them to you.
Trade his treasured toy for a treat. Start with a toy that isn’t his favorite, one not as highly valued as the treat you are offering.
If he knows the cue “give,” then give the cue and reward him with a tasty treat. As soon as he’s through chewing, return his toy to him. At last he will understand that giving away his toy is a good thing, and one that reaps him rewards.
The stimuli, or triggers, that cause aggression in your dog can be managed and avoided to reduce the negative behavior. If you know that bicycles cause your dog to want to attack, then avoid the areas where people frequently ride.
- Gates in your home can prevent dog-dog aggression or aggression toward guests.
- Keeping dogs away from their triggers is very important, because the more often your dog is exposed to them, the more deeply entrenched the behavior becomes.
Remember that aggression is not acceptable, even when you think the situation warrants it. Desensitizing your dog to his triggers takes time and should be done in baby steps, until he builds up a tolerance to the stimulus.
Counterconditioning involves getting the dog to offer another behavior, rather than the unacceptable one. For instance, he cannot simultaneously bite the mailman and also be offering a happy greeting.
Both desensitization and counterconditioning must be implemented in very small, systematic steps. If the incremental increases happen too quickly or too close together, they may not be effective or may actually make the behavior worse.
Although some dogs initially paw at their heads when a halter is used, studies have shown that their cortisol levels (released when the dog is under stress) do not actually rise.
Getting used to a head halter may be an important step in managing your dog’s aggressive tendencies. Note that a halter is not a muzzle. While a muzzle can stop your dog from biting, a halter does not fill that function. (Even with a muzzle on where the dog cannot bite, he can still do damage.)
The head halter can keep your dog from lunging, which the muzzle cannot do. It is a valuable tool and one worth desensitizing your dog to.
Don’t use prong collars, choke collars, or shock collars. They only make the aggression worse and can cause injury to your dog’s neck.
Neurotransmitters and hormones regulate behavior in dogs. They have what are known as precursors—chemical compounds that go ahead of them in metabolic pathways. Regulating those precursors may influence your dog’s behavior.
Two precursors that affect aggression and stress repercussions in dogs are tryptophan (precursor of serotonin) and tyrosine (precursor of catecholamines).
Finding a diet that balances good nutrition with limiting or increasing these precursors may help stop or lessen aggressions in your dog.
As your dog’s leader, it is your responsibility to make sure that he knows when it is and is not appropriate to guard specific places in your home.
- Do not allow him to lunge at windows, for example, when he sees another dog or a person outside.
- Standing between him and the window, as soon as your dog recognizes the trigger but before he has time to react, offer him a treat.
His attention will shift from the trigger to you, and he will have a good experience instead of an aggressive one. With enough time, he will come to see the previous trigger as a happy event.
Do you mindlessly feed your dog treats?
Stop. Your attention is a valuable commodity, and one your dog will work for if you work at it.
Food rewards are very profitable and can help you teach your dog to be less aggressive.
- Start by teaching your dog a few easy commands, like “down” or “sit.”
- Reward him with treats when he is successful. Using food rewards is a positive method of training that you can use to overcome aggressive tendencies in your dog.
- Teaching “come” and “drop” are two invaluable commands that can save lives, and dogs learn these commands easily when rewarded with treats.
Dealing With Anxiety
An anxious dog is more likely to become an aggressive dog, so reducing anxiety is very important. There are numerous ways to deal with your dog’s angst, among them anti-anxiety gear. The ThunderShirt applies gentle, constant pressure which calms dogs.
This is a method that closely relates to the reason that babies like to be swaddled and children with sensory difficulties like weighted blankets. The Sentry Calming Collar reduces stress by releasing pheromones.
In a study from 2005, puppies in a training class were given pheromone collars. In a follow up, these puppies proved to have fewer behavioral problems and socialized better than puppies that were not fitted with the collar.
Puzzle Toys occupy dogs’ minds while they work at releasing treats. All you do is fill them up, and the dog has mental and emotional stimulation without stress.
Once a dog has reached sexual maturity and become aggressive, neutering is unlikely to solve the problem. However, neutering before aggression begins is helpful. In the UK, dogs are normally neutered at six months.
In the US, many vets will neuter at half that age. Your vet is the best resource for deciding when it is most beneficial.
Note that not all dogs become aggressive when left entire (not neutered), but aggression caused by hormones can be alleviated by neutering if the behavior has not become ingrained. If you are not a breeder, then by all means, neuter your pet.
When your normally quiet dog becomes aggressive, consider taking him to the veterinarian. Pain that the dog cannot express may be causing his behavior. Another common cause of mood changes in formerly calm, happy dogs is thyroid problems.
Any difference in your dog’s usual composure may signal a medical issue, so when you can’t otherwise account for his behavior, take him to his doctor.
Tension patterns in your dog’s body can cause many behavioral problems, including aggression. Rather than “bandaiding” the problem, TTouch addresses the underlying cause of the reactivity. The movement exercises involved have been shown to increase self-control and focus in dogs, and frequently result in permanent changes in behavior.
TTouch methods look like massage, but its effect is quite different. Light movements that activate the function of the cells work with the nervous system, creating “cellular intelligence” and achieving overall balance in the animal.
To learn more about this method and to find classes near you, see The Integrated Animal.
Although medications are often prescribed for aggressive dogs, there are widely diversified opinions on the usefulness of drugs. While they may help the dog overcome fear, anxiety or aggression in the short term, it is not a long term strategy that works without negative side effects.
If a dog is aggressive due to previous human interaction, for instance, drugging him will not solve the problem. A brain imbalance can be addressed with drugs, but sometimes natural supplements will work just as well.
Only consider medication if other methods are not producing the desired results. For some dogs, behavior training is the answer. For others—those with brain imbalances—neurotransmitter testing and medication may be the solution. Consult your veterinarian.
The Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC) is an association of animal behaviorists who demonstrate the skills and knowledge to deal with behavior problems in pets. They also possess a college degree and several years’ experience.
The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASAB) accredits Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourists (CCAB).
The good news is that usually, dog aggression can be remediated. Clinics that deal with behavior issues such as University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine have shown that people who are committed to treating the aggressive dog have a high success rate; as much as 90% of aggressive dogs improve to the point where the owner decides to keep the dog. Your dog can be among them.