I have clients all the time who ask me if their dog is being aggressive; assume some dominate behavior is “cute”; or think their dog is being aggressive when playing with other dogs when he is not being aggressive and is just playing. Any dog has the potential to be aggressive. Genetics, personality, socialization, home environment, obedience training, and the current situation all attribute or dissuade from aggressive behaviors. Please note it is very important not to subscribe to breed stereotypes (see Pit Bull article) as “aggressive” breeds can be (and usually are) very sweet and “sweet” breeds can be aggressive.
It can be very difficult and complicated to diagnose aggression! This article is just meant as a basic introduction. I strongly encourage anyone that has a dog that shows signs of aggression – or if you just don’t know – to contact a professional. There are many nuances that just cannot be adequately discussed in any single article.
Part of the complexity lies in the fact there are several different types of dog aggression (territorial, fear, food, dominate, predatory, sexual, etc) and some normal socialization can look aggressive (some growling, biting, jumping, barking, etc). Frequent socialization and training can attribute greatly to limiting or eliminating aggression. However, noticing the signs of aggression is very important. Dominance, assertiveness and fear (defense) can all lead to aggression and are the most obvious and potentially dangerous types of aggression.
Note: Other aggressive dog behaviors, including territorial aggression, predatory aggression and sexual aggression should not be ignored and also need to be addressed. Additionally food/toy aggression can be very dangerous especially for children and must be attended to.
Some Signs of Dominant Aggression
First of all, if you think your dog might be aggressive, do not “test” your dog at a dog park where you don’t know the other dogs and the other dogs and owners don’t know your dog. If he is aggressive, not only do you risk hurting your dog, yourself, someone else, or another dog, you also risk a lawsuit. Call a professional and work with them to test, and if necessary, address any aggressive behaviors.
Signs of dominant behavior include blocking people’s/dog’s path; barging through doors; demanding attention; protecting of sleep area; stopping eating when approached; mounting legs or other dogs; approaching another dog from the side and putting his head on the other dogs back/shoulder; inserting himself between you and another person or dog (e.g. when you and your significant other hug); and lunging at people. Any one item may not turn into a big deal, but should be monitored. If you are comfortable, you should discourage dominant behavior with training and diversions so your dog will look to you for direction.
Furthermore, intact males are most likely to be dominant aggressive. If you are not going to breed your dog, get him or her fixed! Not only to help reduce the likelihood of dominant behaviors, but to also keep the unwanted pet population down.
Recognize when dominant behavior crosses the line to aggression as dominant-aggressive dogs are dangerous. The signs of a dominant and aggressive dog include staring; excessive low-range barking; snarling; growling and snapping; standing tall; holding ears erect; and/or carrying tail high and moving it stiffly from side to side. However, beware, often a dominant aggressive dog will give no sign before biting. Remember that a dominant-aggressive dog is likely to attack; retreat without running.
Some Signs of Fear Aggression
Familiarize yourself with the characteristics of a defensive-aggressive dog, which are more ambivalent and difficult to predict. A defensive dog will display submissive body language. Look for ears held back; avoidance of eye contact; lowered head and body; tail tucked between legs; and submissive urination. Be aware that defensive-aggressive dogs dislike being touched and will bite out of fear.
Only train with an aggressive dog under the guidance of a professional trainer and remember that staring down an aggressive dog, punishing, attempting to remove food or a toy, and touching or grabbing the dog or its collar can result in a dog attack.
Dog to Dog Aggression
There is people aggression (dog aggression towards people) and dog to dog agression. I want to talk a little about dog to dog aggression. Some signs of dog to dog aggression include:
- Direct eye contact
- Raised hackles
- Pricked ears
- Teeth exposed toward the other dog
Play bow, growling and barking is fine if the dogs body language is still relaxed, however, humping is a sign of dominance. It can be okay as dogs occasionally need to workout their own social ladder (at home), but it does need to be monitored and should not become excessive. With two dogs displaying dominance, you need to closely monitor them and they should work it out.
Dog Park Etiquette
There is no place for aggressive behavior at a dog park. Dogs DO NOT need to “work out their social ladder” at a dog park. I hear people say all the time – they will work it out. Why do they need to? Why risk it? You should take a dog to a dog park to play, and playing does not require a social ladder. If your dog shows aggressive behavior, remove your dog. If another dog is being aggressive towards your dog, remove your dog. You might just be able to go to another part of the park with different dogs, but if the behavior continues, leave and come back another day.
Additionally, one dog being chased by many dogs is not okay at a dog park. The dogs can get into a pack mentality and bite the dog being chased. If your dog is the one being chased, remove your dog from the situation. If your dog is one of the dogs doing the chasing, call your dog and have him play with some other dogs. One dog being chased by one other dog is fine – if neither looks aggressive or scared. This is especially true if they change roles on occasion.
Speaking of role reversal, when dogs are at play role reversal is a very good sign. For example, when one dog is being chased and then he becomes the chaser. Another sign of good play is if a bigger, or stronger, or more agile dog “handicaps” himself to pay with a smaller, weaker or less agile dog. This is a very good socialization behavior. An example is when a large dog lays down and plays with a puppy.
Also a good sign at play is when dogs will self monitor themselves. This is where two dogs will play and then both stop at the same time and sniff around or get a drink. Dogs do this when they are playing well and things are getting rough or they want a break. If both dogs stop – good. If one dog trys to stop and the other dog keeps going – bad.
Obsessive behavior is also bad. We have all seen at a dog park where for some reason one dog is just obsessed with another dog. He will not play with any other dogs, and will not leave the dog he/she is obsessing over alone. If you experience this, remove your dog (if he is the one being obsessive or if he is the one being obsessed over), the situation is likely to escalate if you do not.
I write a lot about about two dogs playing with each other. Really, in almost all situations, that is all that should play with each other at a time. If there are lots of dogs, they can change partners, but usually three or more dogs do not play well together. Usually one dog ends up being picked on.
How to Prevent the Problem
Even if a dog is genetically inclined to be aggressive (rare), a good training program and socialization can almost always mange or resolve the behavior. There’s no surefire way to prevent aggression, but there are basic steps you can take to greatly decrease the chances your dog will develop a problem:
- Socialize your puppy. Arrange supervised play dates with other pups and encourage interaction with well-mannered adult dogs who can teach your puppy how to behave.
- Neuter or spay your dog as early as possible. This will greatly reduce hormone-driven aggression.
- Always treat your dog with kindness and respect, using positive reinforcement to train. Physical correction, intimidation, and isolation only encourage aggression by adding to a dog’s anxiety.
Bottom line: Dog-dog aggression is treatable but nearly always requires the help of a trained professional (and lifelong vigilance). Doing everything you can to prevent it in the first place is a much better option.
Lack of training and socialization is almost always the cause for either people or dog aggression. It is so important the dog understands you are the leader. As I said in other articles, I do not subscribe to the need to “dominate” most dogs. Most dogs will understand you are the leader if you just lead. The problem is, many people don’t know how to lead their dog or what their dog needs. Instead they attribute human emotion to the dog – and dog’s are not human and do not process the world the same way that humans do. If you think your dog might be showing any signs of aggressive or dominant behaviors, please contact a dog trainer. A good dog trainer will teach you how to work with your dog and through simple exercises and obedience training show your dog you are the leader and that he or she can trust you!