How to Tell if a Dog is Being Aggressive

Picture of Agressive Dog

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 AggressionAggressive Dog

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.

Dogs at play

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:

  • Lunging
  • Posturing
  • 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.

Dogs at a dog park

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 otheDog in a play bowr 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!

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42 Responses to How to Tell if a Dog is Being Aggressive

  1. Amber August 1, 2016 at 6:33 pm #

    I have a question. I’m a new pet owner to a very hyper Red fox hound/blue tick hound. I’ve noticed lately that she is growling and nipping at my four year old when she’s even close to food. She was under our desk where her food is kept. And my four year old went to pull her out from behind and growled and bite him. I don’t know what to do. This behavior is out of no where. 🙁 I’ve never owned a dog before and I just don’t know what else to do.

  2. Kendra January 9, 2015 at 2:18 am #

    Hi I acquired a Tosa ( Japanese Mastiff ) about 7 months ago. He is such a sweet boy. So loving and good with my kids but in the past few months he has been barking n growling n lunging at strangers when I walk him but only when it is dark out.I want to be able to take him to the beach and fishing . But there will be other strangers present. My first question is should I be worried about his behavior at night? or is it just him being protective? My next question is there any exercises I can do with him to help prevent or curb his night time aggression. I would greatly appreciate any advice. I feel that I am holding him back from having fun.

    • Troy Pfeifer January 9, 2015 at 11:05 am #

      I am glad you asked. This is a very common question and you absolutely should be worried about it. It should not be your dogs decision on when to be protective, especially if you are not threatened. It is not safe! He needs to learn that you are there to protect him and the family. That way, he will hopefully only be “protective” if you actually are threatened. Usually this behavior happens because a dog does not feel like he has a job or does not feel like you are the “pack” leader. A good obedience program can go a very long way in helping with if not stopping that behavior. I would strongly recommend that you contact a trainer in your area and get a free evaluation. Make sure they have experience dealing with the types of behaviors you are discussing. Remember, if it is not getting better it is very likely going to get worse.

  3. Andrea G January 6, 2015 at 9:55 pm #

    Hi I am looking for some input,
    We recently adopted a 1.5yr old pug mix, we were told by the previous owner that the dog was “trained” to us a rug for its “natural needs” but that is all we were told.
    I have been doing some crate training with him and he is doing amazing with the house training my question is behavioral; when we have guests he hides behind my legs and may bark or growl. He doesn’t bite or become more aggressive even if the guest approaches and pets him. But he takes a while to not react to the person and will sometimes jump up next to my children and “protect” them while the guest is in our home. Just vocally though.
    Would you say this is aggression? If so would you have a recomendation to help curb this behavior?
    Thank you for all your information

    • Krystal Morris January 8, 2015 at 11:15 am #

      Thanks for contacting us for help! I would call what you are describing, not pure aggression, but reactivity to his situation. It sounds like he is clearly nervous with new people coming in and feel he must ‘protect’ his people till he determines the ‘threat’ is no longer there. That’s not a healthy habit since his reactions can get worse over time if not addressed and potentially escalate to nipping or biting.
      To help this behavior, try to give him simple commands and direction into a behavior that is acceptable. Take the time to have a leash on him when guests come, lead him to a dog bed or kennel while tellig him to Come. Have him sit in the bed or kennel and with the door open have him stay there. Take some time to walk into him if he tries to come after you and keep him in that area. Give him a job to do instead of this behavior. When he is redirected and starts to relax with the people, he can then come say hi as a reward for being good.
      Giving him a job to do will show him what his role to play is when people come over. He won’t have to assume he needs to protect or alert you but you have shown leadership and he can feel free to be a dog and relax.

      If it continues on or worsens, please contact us for a free consult if you are in our area. Obedience training will go along way in helping your dog understand his duties with the family and help you and him have a healthy relationship.

  4. April Ranney December 30, 2014 at 7:18 pm #

    I have a 3 yr old neutered Beagle mix. When I take him to a dog park another dog will obsess over him or he will get chased by many dogs (normally much bigger than him). It feels to me like he is prey being hunted by a pack. Obviously, I immediately remove my dog from the park, but this happens almost every time. I have stopped taking him to dog parks and I worry about his lack of socialization. Is there anything I can do?

    • Troy Pfeifer December 31, 2014 at 3:38 pm #

      Hi April,
      Most trainers I know (including myself) are not big fans of dog parks. For exercises I mostly spend time with my dogs doing training, playing fetch, going for a run or walk, etc. If I want my dogs to play with other dogs (and they want to play with other dogs), then we play with dogs we know. I do know that some smaller dog parks have a core group that meets at certain times and days. I think that can be good too. The point is, my job is to protect my dogs and I cannot do that well in a dog park full of dogs I don’t know. So I think you are doing the right thing by avoiding that dog park. I would suggest you visit (or find) friends with dogs and let them play so you can monitor the play and decide if it is safe and productive – assuming of course your dog seems to want to play with other dogs.

  5. Jean December 26, 2014 at 6:27 pm #

    We just adopted a dog from a rescue. She is a 1 yr old mix, possibly part Schnauzer. Sweet girl, first night here let me remove ticks from her and cut her hair. When we saw our vet she quietly growled at him a few times; he felt troubled by this because not something a dog should normally growl at (he has been our vet for over 15 yrs and I hardly ever question him, this was just odd to me). He recommended a dog behaviorist in our area. I was surprised because she is so sweet. She does bark intensly at visitors, her reflection and some noises. Once she smells the visitor she is fine. I have an 8 yr old who she plays with and has been here with her friends running. She joins in, sometimes barking and growling but again doesn’t appear aggressive, more confused on how to react and to what is happening. She does get in the mix when my daughter wrestles around with us, appearing to defend, but again not overly aggressive but enough we stop as she is still new to is. She seems scared of a lot of things too, wherever she was before she may not have been exposed to much. We recently lost our 20 yr old and 17 yr old dog and having had a senior household for so long with dogs who lived with us forever I want to make sure we are as successful with our new addition. Am I missing something? Does she need a specialist to come in to evaluate her?

    • Troy Pfeifer December 27, 2014 at 9:27 am #

      Hi Jean,
      It is never a bad idea to have a specialist help if you have questions. There is definitely something going on. While it may not be aggression, it certainly could be fear or confusion which could eventually manifest as “aggression”. From what you describe to me, it sounds like a dog that needs some clear structure and a job (e.g. training). It is not very uncommon for a dog to maybe growl a little bit at the vet. However, if that reaction is not managed correctly it can easily escalate over time. Same with her trying to interrupt your play with your daughter and barking at people in the house. She needs to understand her job is not to guard you but to deffer to you. If you are in our area, we would love to meet with you and her (at no cost) to learn more about what is going on. In any case, I would suggest you meet with someone who has experience with such things and can get you on a road to a more confident and less reactive dog. A good structured training program and consistent boundaries can likely make a huge improvement.

  6. Lissa December 25, 2014 at 2:10 pm #

    We have an 8 yr old Plotting Hound/Pit mix male, Dexter. He has always had a very sweet and friendly personality. We also have a 7 yr old cocker spaniel. We brought home Lily, at 7 weeks old. She is now nearly 9 months and for most of this time, Dexter had growled at Lily. Lately though, he has begun snapping at her. It is almost as though she is annoying him but we are worried because the behavior is escalating.

    • Troy Pfeifer December 26, 2014 at 12:01 pm #

      Hi Lissa. This is a good question and a great use of training. It could be that Dexter is annoyed if Lily has too much energy and is not taking the right play and correction signals from Dexter. It also could be some dominance issues or age related (sore). In any case, it is your job to be the leader and make sure that if Lily isn’t listening to Dexter’s body language you help by showing Lily what to do and how to direct her energy somewhere else. It is also your job to make sure that if it is dominance Dexter learns you are the leader and not him. This can be a bit confusing and we recommend you work with a trainer. Until then, both should be closely monitored when together and they should not be left alone together. We offer free consultations and would love to meet you, Dexter and Lily so we can learn more about what is going on and make a recommendation.

  7. Lydia November 3, 2014 at 1:16 pm #

    i have an older dog lab/golden retriever mixed, she is protective of food, she is 11 yrs old but just growls at dogs not humans. Then we have a Boston terror, never agressive around food but loves to steal food, (lol). We have a 3 yr old Great Pyr raised her since 4 weeks old. She always plays with the BT but the Boston is rough. And gets mad and snaps after she is tired. Recently we got another pyr. At first the older stayed away from her, took about a month and half to warm up to her. Now she lays down and the 3 mth old can walk on her anything and they play some. My problem we came home from church last night and the 3 yr old pyr (about 115 lbs) broke thru a small window at the top of the door about 8×10 window 3 ft off the ground and came thru. Cut a small cut in her leg but was limping some. Everything was fine I was petting her the Boston came up like normal, may have snipped at her lip not sure but the agressive growling and slobbering on her neck as usual sounds like she is tearing her up. We broke it up. The Boston went out when she came back in the pyr went back at her, my son grabbed her but she had dug her teeth in her neck, just skin mainly and she had her in her mouth. I grabbed the Boston she let go. ThIs morning we let the Boston out she was fine the pyr smelling her then when she got near where they sleep and the food she went after her again this time no bite marks. I don’t know if the older one is in hear causing all this or because she got hurt coming thru the window and that’s where the Boston was so she is taking it out on her?
    Ant advice?

    • Danielle Kilgore November 4, 2014 at 9:03 am #

      It sounds like the dogs are very confused about who is actually in charge in your household and are resorting to attempting to figure it out amongst themselves. Adding in some rules and boundaries can go a long way, especially with the stubborn Terrier and the independent Pyr. These can be things like maintaining a feeding schedule, if you do not already, as well as making the dogs “work” by doing tricks or obedience commands for their food. In addition, you need to make sure all of the dogs are getting adequate exercise and mental stimulation.

      At this point, and based on the little bit of information you have provided, I can’t recommend allowing the Boston and the Pyr to be together, until you are able to have a professional meet your dogs to assess the situation. We can offer a free consultation to evaluate your dogs and recommend some additional tips. A little bit of consistency and obedience would help you out tremendously, but until we can meet your dogs, I cannot give any specific advice.

  8. Heidi March 18, 2014 at 3:54 am #

    Hi, I have a 2 year old maltese x silky female. She’s not desexed as I have a breeder with a male interested in breeding her. (this breeder is also a friend). However, I have noticed that since the addition of two larger puppies (which are now 10 months old and 8 months old – one female maremma and one male labrador) she has become increasingly aggressive toward those two dogs. She frequently interrupts their playing by biting the maremma until she lies down and then my dog stands over her growling. My dog also tends to have no tolerance toward the labrador and snaps and growls at him 90% of the time, however she defers to the eldest dog which is maremma. She doesn’t get a lot of socialising as I live on acerage. But she frequently visits family with me and goes to a local groomer where she socialises with other small dogs. (the groomer has informed me that once I leave she is fine, almost instantaneously she stops being anxious and starts playing). I’m worried I am the problem with my dog. I have taken her to puppy school and was told I have trained her to be an aggressive and anxious dog. But my vet severely disagreed and told me the trainer (which was another vet) has not known my dog long enough to make those comments. I would love to breed her but I am afraid she will be far too aggressive with the other dog and could cause problems. I also want to know if I am the problem, what can I do to fix this? Also I should note that when i got her at 10 weeks of age she slept with me in my bed up until one year old, then she was placed in an outside kennel which was built for her. This was done because the trainer told me that allowing her to sleep with me was a bad thing to do.

    My dog doesn’t have any issues with eye contact and has been trained to look at me on command, come when called, to sit on command and to jump on/off my lap on command. She returns to her kennel when told and I always use positive reinforcement – food treats, positive and encouraging talk as well. I never smack her or yell at her nor do I allow anyone else to display violent behaviour toward her. I am worried I have caused her to be anxious and unhappy.

    I am wondering if you have any advice for me?

    • Troy Pfeifer March 18, 2014 at 8:41 pm #

      Hi Heidi,
      I really appreciate your message. I honestly would suggest meeting with a trainer who has experience working with aggression. A trainer should do what we do and offer a free consultation so we can meet your dog and work with her (and so you can meet the trainer and see how they work and meet their dog(s)). Also, I would ask if she is as obedient as you describe when she is distracted (e.g. when the doorbell rings, and dog walks by, etc). I find that most people I meet can have their dogs do what you describe but only around very limited distractions and often only when there is a treat involved. There is usually some need for obedience, structure, boundaries in aggression cases.

      I don’t know if you have “trained” her to be aggressive (even if you accidentally have, we should work on re-training you and her), but we would discuss what you have and have not done (actual “things” and not assumptions) at the free consultation. I agree a dog with the behaviors you describe should NOT sleep with you, but I would have just had you teach her to sleep on the floor in your room (I think it is important she still be an inside dog and part of your life). I would encourage you to have her spade though. Having two females intact in the same house can cause (or add to the risk of) issues. I have lived with intact dogs and it always requires more diligence and monitoring on my part then if they are spayed or neutered. Personally I think having a litter is WAY too much work and should only be done by people not trying to make a profit; who do it for the love of the breed; and who have the time and experience to manage the litter correctly.

      Sorry I don’t have a short easy answer except to work with a professional. If we are in your area, I hope you will call us for that free consultation!

  9. Jenny November 6, 2013 at 10:17 am #

    I have a 3 year old neutered male boxer/lab mix. He has always shown signs of wanting to be to dominant dog. He listens more inside the house, than outside. He usually is ok with the kids. There have been a couple times now that when I call him and he wont come, he will try to bite. If my son reaches for him and he doesn’t want to be touched, the dog will show teeth, growl, and snap. He is good around other dogs, in the home and outside the home. My husband (who babies the dog like a human being) never has issues. I think because the dog doesn’t have to fight for dominance with my husband. He already has it. With me, we seem to bump heads from time to time. Most of the time he is energetic and playful and full of love. I’m not sure why he acted out those few times. Last night I caught him eating food off the table and sternly told him NO! I pointed from across the room. Maybe I was 5 feet from him? He automatically showed teeth and charged for his crate. He was crate trained. When he hides in the crate, or under a table, I can not touch him. I try and he will bite for me. I have an 8 year old and a 1 year old. My husband doesn’t want to get rid of the dog. He says I’m too tough on him and I am probably the cause. I may be, who knows? Maybe I sound too tough? Maybe he is scared of how I sound? This is my first dog. Please help! What I usually do to correct bad behavior is show the dog what they did wrong, tell him no sternly, and tell him to go to the crate for a bit. Am I being too mean by doing that?

    • Troy Pfeifer November 6, 2013 at 10:33 am #

      Hi Jenny,
      I am going to ask the office to call you so we can have a consultation and see better what is going on. It is a free consultation. That is a good first step! One thing is it doesn’t do any good to “show him what he did wrong”. If you are going to correct, it MUST be while the undesired behavior is occurring. And then it must be appropriate to the offense and the dog’s personality. A better approach is to make sure he has consistent (sometimes constant) direction and structure from you. This is not being mean to him or correcting him but just providing him structure so he respects and responds to you out of that respect not out of fear. We can help teach you how to do that!

  10. Julie October 26, 2013 at 5:09 pm #

    Hi Troy, would love your advice. We rescued a boxer/basset hound mix 3 months ago. He’s always been very excitable, and we didn’t really train him the first 1.5 months. We never showed any aggression towards people or dogs. He’s a little over a year old.

    In the past month, he has started to show aggression with other dogs at the dog park (this rarely happens one-on-one). He runs as fast as he can, trying to get dogs to chase him, and when they chase and nip at him, he will attack them. Even if he’s playing with one other dog at the park, he seems to start playing very rough very quickly, and things can escalate. He’s also attacked dogs who bark/growl at him (in other words, he won’t back down if another dog shows dominant behavior). We’ve stopped taking him to the dog park, obviously.

    When we go on walks, he fixates on dogs, people, and birds/squirrels (although he’s gotten much better at sitting/staying when we ask him to, he continues to stare at them with his ears up). It’s very difficult to distract him. He doesn’t attack them, just wants to greet them. He’s a “rude” greeter, and he humps and jumps on dogs to play immediately before they have chance to sniff/greet him. He also pulls on the leash a lot. We’ve been using a prong collar, but I don’t want to do anything that adds to his excitability, so I’m thinking of switching to a front-clip harness.

    He’s never shown any aggression towards humans, but I worry that he will based on his sudden change with other dogs. I sometimes take him for runs because he has so much energy, and the last time I did it, he started jumping up at me, barking, and biting at my arms. He was just playing (over excited from the running?), but it still scared me. I’m starting to worry that he’s going to get worse or be aggressive towards people.

    Does it seem like he’s aggressive, or just a dominant puppy who gets overexcited? Or both? Do we need professional help? We’ve been reading a lot about positive training methods and are trying to implement a lot of it ourselves (and give him structure, lots of training, etc.)

    • Troy Pfeifer October 27, 2013 at 11:41 am #

      Hi Julie,
      It is always difficult to say from just an email, however, it sounds like he is a puppy that needs more consistent structure, has “too much” energy and you need to teach him how to control his energy (redirect his energy) and how to greet appropriately. He may be stressed at the dog park and it would be important to learn to understand his body language. If he actually enjoys playing with other dogs, and you can master excellent recall, then you could call him back to you to redirect him before play starts to escalate too far (break the play into smaller segments). We teach many clients and their dogs this. When he calms down for just a few moments he can go play again. We deal with VERY high energy dogs and I like to teach clients how to teach their dog to have an on and off switch. This is the ability to quickly and very reliably get the dogs attention back on you and then redirect their focus and energy to a different task. The problem is, most people and many trainers cannot reliable get their dog’s attention.

      If he is having what he perceives as multiple bad experiences and you are not “protecting” him (this is of course in his eyes / perception and may not be your reality), then he may be losing trust in you and deciding to take matters back into his own hands. We would teach you to rebuild that trust and structure so at the very least you can manage his behavior / aggression and potentially resolve it.

      I would suggest you at least meet a reputable trainer in your area who does FREE consultations and demonstrations with your and their dog(s).They should evaluate your dog and your situation for you by asking lots of questions and working with your dog around his triggers to get a better idea of what is going on. They should be able to not just talk but to demonstrate how their approach will work for you, your dog and your lifestyle. If you decide to get professional help, be sure and go with a trainer you have met and that can show you actual results. There are lots of trainers that can train a calm undistracted dog, but many fewer that can handle a distracted dog. If you are in our area, we would love to meet you and him!

  11. Chelsey October 4, 2013 at 9:45 pm #

    My husband and I bought a female Great Pyrenees about 11 months ago. We got her as soon as she was able to come home with us so her first birthday is coming up soon. She is around 60 lbs and as far as in our home and toward people that come in our home she is as sweet as can be. However, when we take her on walks and/or when she’s outside in the front yard she barks at everyone and especially other dogs. We have a lab who is around 10 years old and they get along great! Seem like the best of friends, but I’m worried Molly (our great pyr) has aggression toward other dogs because she barks at them so much but I’m afraid to let her get around one because like you said in your article, I don’t want either dog getting hurt and I definitely don’t want a lawsuit. I don’t know how to tell if she is just barking (her barks don’t have very many different ranges) or if she could she would “attack”. When she sees another dog she goes crazy! She barks, jump, pulls on the leash, all of it. We have been trying so hard for the past year to help her but she is VERY stubborn. My main problem is that I can’t tell if her deep barking is because she is angry or mostly just intimidating because of her size. At home she is not aggressive one bit. She has never bitten us or even acted angry with us, she loves babies and children and is more than sweet to all of our guests. I have contacted a professional and am willing to take those measures if necessary.
    Thank you.

    • Troy Pfeifer October 8, 2013 at 9:50 am #

      Hi Chelsey,
      I am wondering what the professional you contacted suggested? I would suggest you schedule a FREE consultation with us (or the other professional) where they can 1) meet you and your dog; 2) see how your dog reacts around other dogs with and without you present; 3) discuss with you what obedience, structure, etc is present in your home on “normal” days; 4) demonstrate, withy our dog, how they would address the problem and how their training works; 5) Demonstrate a happy, obedience dog of their own; 6) discuss with you other similar cases they have worked with and been successful with; 6) discuss how they would work with you and what training programs would be appropriate. You should not be charged for an initial consultation. A pyrenees is a large dog and we want you to be able to confidently take her places without fear she might attack another dog. We would work with you to teach her she can trust you and does not need to constantly be in protection mode with you. We would discuss how to safely get her around other dogs (probably ours at first) to determine if it is aggression (and the cause of that aggression), or if she just doesn’t have proper “manners”. In our consultation we can normally show you on the spot some improvement.

      Best of luck. Whatever the professional you work with, as long as they are competent, I hope you see success!

  12. Pamela Rodriguez October 2, 2013 at 11:01 pm #

    The family I live with just got a 3 yr old female Rottweiler mix from the pound. They were told the dog doesn’t do well with children (they have 4) but got her anyway. She appears to be dominant aggressive and the other day my son (who works in a kennel) came to visit and did what he normally does with a new dog, ignores them, lets them sniff, etc and watched the dog all the time. As soon as the dog locked eyes with him she started growling and hackles raised. The owner got mad at my son for antagonizing her dog and asked him not to return unless he can be nice to the dog. The dog uses bedrooms to dedicate and urinate, climbs over kids sitting on couch, barges in the door, barks incessantly, has severe separation anxiety, doesn’t listen to commands when she decides to do something, and has the run of the house. Gets no exercise, only lots of loving since she was a rescue. We are all required to never discipline her in a mean or loud voice. She has broken out of her crate (folding wire) several times and requires a 250 lb man to get her into the garage when they leave. The mom doesn’t think there is anything wrong with this behavior, the dog just needs us to let her get adjusted. Next week she wants to bring in a pit bull puppy to the mix. She won’t listen to me or my son, who have worked with dogs. This is her first time as a dog owner. I am thinking of moving because if the dog continues to be the dominant creature in the house I don’t want to be around much longer. She agrees that the dog needs some more training, but is happy with her behavior and doesn’t want to invest money or time. I am concerned for her kids and my son in the future. Any suggestions?

    • Troy Pfeifer October 4, 2013 at 10:25 am #

      Honestly, short answer, I would move. From your description it sounds like the family you live with does not believe in providing structure for a dog. This is always a problem, but how big a problem depends on the dog. Any dog will take it upon himself to figure out what his job is and what he should do.

      Obviously you would not allow a 3 year old to figure out how to behave and what he can and cannot do – you would provide direction. A complacent and relatively calm dog can sometimes adapt to this lifestyle. However, a fearful or introverted dog will likely become very nervous, often neurotic, and sometimes exhibit signs of fear aggression. A confident and/or dominate dog will decide to take on the leadership role and run roughshod over the family. This can be relatively benign behaviors like pushing people around; constant marking (outside and sometimes inside); mounting people; getting between the dog’s owner and other people/dogs (even between husbands and wives); etc. But, it can also take on much more serious dominance and aggressive behaviors.

      The sad thing is, this dog (like so many others) will likely end up back in a rescue and likely destroyed simply because the people want the “dog to be a dog”. That statement makes me sick. What does that mean? Do you let your baby just “be a baby” or your 3 year old “just be a 3 year old”. If the answer is yes, please do NOT get a dog. People and dogs need direction and structure!!! Just imagine if you, or someone you know, let their kid from birth to 3 years old do whatever he wanted to do. If the child did not seriously hurt or even kill himself, he would be a complete mess. Unfortunately, I have witnessed exactly this. A 3 year old can “be a three year old” at the playground or during play time. Even then, there is some direction. A reasonable parent does not let their 3 year old bite, punch or bully another 3 year old. So why do people let their dogs bite, mount, bully them, other people and other dogs?

      The other thing we often see is what we call “rescue dog syndrome”. We are going to write an article on this next. But basically a person wants a dog from a rescue to “adapt to the new home” and not be sad, etc. So they baby, pamper, and let the dog do whatever it wants. The dog is very uncomfortable because their is no structure and ends up with behavior problems (that often originally didn’t exist) and ends up back at the rescue because of the adopter’s good intentions but ignorance.

      Enough of a rant! Sensitive subject :-), so I feel your pain. If your friend is open to getting some help, they should schedule a consultation with us so we can discuss how to make their dog happier by providing structure!

  13. Cassie September 8, 2013 at 3:21 pm #

    Thank you for the introductory information – very helpful.
    I just got a 4yo desexed male beagle yesterday who I was told was highly trained. This morning when I took him for a walk, he lunged at two different dogs.
    I have concerns for this due to my having three young children.
    Do you have any advice?
    Thank you

    • Troy Pfeifer September 8, 2013 at 4:37 pm #

      Hi Cassie,
      First, not that you are, but it is not time to overreact. Your Beagle may be trained or may not. However, the fact that he showed some potential leash reactivity to another dog does not in any way say that he would (or would not) have reactivity to your children. That is a very different situation. Furthermore, leash reactivity, while something that needs to be addressed, is not all that uncommon. Finally, he may be trained, but is not yet responding to you and your family. You likely need to enforce boundaries in your household so that he knows the rules he learned previously apply is this new environment with his new family. The training he received my not be relevant or yet understood in your home, or even match up to your expectations or needs.

      You did the right thing by being concerned with his reaction and reaching out. It is better to address any concerns now then to wait as any unwanted behaviors worsen. I would suggest you reach out to a trainer and meet with them so they can meet your dog and discuss with you not only your concerns but also your goals, lifestyle, etc. The trainer should then set you in the right direction. We at Sit Means Sit [512-750-7060 / 210-414-2788] provide free consultations so that we can meet you and your dog as well as give you a chance to meet us and our dogs. Sometimes we end up just answering questions and giving some advice. Often we recommend some range of training programs. Any trainer should be willing to meet with you before requiring you to spend money. Finally, you should be able to see the work they have done with their dog(s) as well as other clients dogs (especially work relevant to your concerns). They must also explain the approach they would recommend for your dog and why.

      Best of luck. I am sure with a little training for you and him as well as some clear structure everything will be great.

  14. Kathleen August 24, 2013 at 11:14 pm #


    My boyfriend and I just got a 3.5 month old red nose pit. We already have a 9 month old amstaff mix. When they play, the puppy makes aggressive sounds and snarls that alarm me and sound very much like he’s trying to attack our other guy. The older guy is very submissive and was fixed early so he retaliates but sometimes I feel like it’s not in a play mode.

    What behaviour should I be watching out for? Is any of this normal? Thanks!

    • Troy Pfeifer August 26, 2013 at 3:12 pm #

      It is really difficult to tell from what you wrote if your new dog is being aggressive or not. Some dogs are vocal and play hard. Playing hard might cause your other dog to become aggressive (if he is scared or annoyed). This would in turn cause your new dog to retreat or to respond aggressively. If either dog corrects and the other dog does not respond to the correction by backing off or leaving, it is your job to help them out (since they have to live together). This should not be a harsh correction but rather redirecting their energy. We tend to tell people to watch for soft, curvy, goofy appearance during play. Stiffness or very rapid movements (movements you really cannot see) might be a sign things are going to far. You are doing the right thing by being concerned, but we just don’t know if it is warranted based on your description. I would suggest you contact a trainer so they can see the behavior first hand. We do free consultations where we can see the dogs interact and talk to you one on one about what is going on. You can call us at 512-348-7833 to schedule that. In the meantime, it is best if you keep both dogs on leash and only have calm interactions so that things do not escalate. However, I do strongly recommend you seek the advice of a trainer in person.

  15. Kieshaa May 16, 2013 at 10:02 am #

    I have a five month old female pit bull. She is very good with my 4 year old son and there are children over at my house all the time and there is never any problems. But for about 3 months she’s been aggressive towards strangers… She has to warm up to people. She growls really deeply and tucks her tail and her ears are back. If they try to touch her she lunges to bite. She doesn’t bite them but its almost like a warning. I’m worried that she may be a human aggressive dog and if that the case I would like to know some ways to correct it otherwise I cannot keep her. My family and I have a busy life and I truly want to be able to take her places with us but its just not acceptable to have a humAn aggressive dog. I’m starting to take her to public places and I’m asking people to not per her because I trying to figure out if its just nervousness and social anxiety. I’m trying to get her used to being around people but I’m afraid it might be a system overload. Any advice would be helpful.

    • Troy Pfeifer May 17, 2013 at 4:22 pm #

      Hi Kieshaa,
      With an potential aggression issues it is always a good idea to meet with a trainer because there are lots of nuances that we might see or that we might want to communicate that cannot be done over email and the internet. However, the most common approach is to work your dog around her stresses but not so close as to be more then she can handle. As she looks to you and/or when she is relaxed you reward her with prise, treats, play (depending on what she likes). What you describe sounds like fear and we would work with you to build up her confidence around the things (e.g. people) that cause her anxiety. At the same time (or prior) we work on strong obedience which also will give her confidence, structure and trust in you. People underestimate the importance and impact strong obedience has. Often people tell me they don’t care if their dog comes when called, or sits even when distracted, they just want the dog to be nice, or not bark and strangers on walks, etc. In order for a dog to trust it’s owners and be confident and stable a dog needs structure and routine which obedience training provides. Then, if obedience training is not sufficient to resolve the problem, it is possible to work building additional structure and attention to work through fear and aggression issues.

  16. Troy Pfeifer April 12, 2013 at 8:49 pm #

    Someone from our office should have already contacted you. First off, you need to stop physically correcting your dog. There MIGHT be a time and situation for a proper correction but it would not be by hitting the dog! Secondly, you need to get in touch with a trainer with experience with aggressive dogs (e.g. us). Obviously as time goes on, things are not getting better. You situation clearly needs some professional assistance before someone gets seriously hurt.

  17. Fernando Covarubias March 25, 2013 at 11:23 pm #

    When I take pitbull/lab for a walk he starts to lunge on the leash when he sees other dogs. I’m getting woried because he looks like he wants to attack them. What should I do??

    • Troy Pfeifer March 26, 2013 at 9:54 am #

      Hi Fernando,
      Leash / boundary aggression is very common. It might be (or have started out) as frustration at not being able to get to the other dog or fear. However, that frustration, especially if it was accompanied by harsh corrections, can lead to actual aggression. Is your dog socialized well with other dogs when off leash? If you don’t know, I would recommend meeting with a trainer before attempting to find out! If your dog is socialized well with other dogs when off leash, then the dog might be trying to protect / own you; say “hi” and is just being overly boisterous and simply needs to learn how to say hi; be fearful when tethered and is trying to scare away the other dog; etc. We would really need more information to make an accurate diagnosis and recommendation. I would suggest you meet with a trainer. If the problem is not getting better, then it is probably getting worse. In any case, it is unnecessary stress for both you and your dog (and the people and dogs you come into contact with). It is better to start solving the problem as soon as possible.

      A good trainer should meet with you for an initial discussion free of charge. They should listen to what you describe and ask probing questions. They should work with your dog to show you how they would address the problem and to see how your dog responds to training. And finally, they should be able to demonstrate their training by working with their own dog – preferably around distractions. We offer a free consultation and demonstration if you would like to meet with one of our trainers.

  18. Lavonne February 28, 2013 at 5:04 pm #

    I have a 3 yr old lab/pit mix she use to have a male partner but he passed after being hit by a car. It took her a while to get use to him when we first brought him home she was very aggressive and showed him who was boss biting him if he went near he bowl and towards other dogs too. Well my point is now its just her again in the house she doesn’t growl or bite or get upset if I go near her dish but she will bite another dog so I can no longer take her to the dog park or dog beach but I have a 2 yr old with another baby on the way she sits when I say sit she is very obedient I don’t know how a dog who is so good with me and my family be so aggressive with other dogs and she barks at people who walk by the house and idk what to do

    • Troy Pfeifer March 1, 2013 at 7:50 am #

      Aggression or signs of aggression can be caused by many different things. In fact, often aggression is misplaced fear and/or anxiety. It is not uncommon for a dog to display aggression to other dogs and people outside the household. The people outside the household are not part of the “pack” and the dog might be defending the “pack”. However, this is not proper behavior and should be addressed. Uncontrolled guarding can be very dangerous especially with a large dog. In most cases, the dog does not truly want the roll of guardian but does it because he/she feels nobody has taken that roll. I would strongly suggest you meet with a reputable dog trainer or behaviorist who has experience with aggressiveness – such as most Sit Means Sit trainers. I always struggle using the word “aggression” as it may not be true aggressive behavior, but you will not know unless you meet with a professional. Then I would conduct a regimin of very strict obedience and behavior modification as prescribed by the trainer. You can contact us, as we offer a free consultation so we can meet you and your dog and see first hand what is going on and make recommendations based on what we learn.

  19. Sheila Miller December 11, 2012 at 5:06 pm #

    Our 1yr old female germanShepard/lab is fearful (no eye contact, tail between legs, barking loudly, won’t approach, stiff when sniffed)
    We brought home a 1-2yr old female Mastiff from a shelter. She’s very sweet and cuddly.
    For three days we kept them separated, though they could sniff and see each other through a metal “gate” with open slats that we used between rooms.
    Tried placing them on the deck together and the Mastiff sniffed the lab a little then ignored her. The lab pressed herself against the door to get in.
    They (mostly the madtoff) played a bit yesterday. Today the we’re both lying on the living room floor ans my son said the Madtoff suddenly jumped towards the lab. She barked, and suddenly they appeared to be in a brawl. We stopped it and the lab went to her room with a limp. We found one place pierced on the leg.
    H E L P! What do I do?

    • Troy Pfeifer December 11, 2012 at 6:54 pm #

      Hi Sheila,
      You need to look at getting training to help you to socialize both your dogs and to work on getting your lab mix more confident. There are several things that could have precipitated the action from your Mastiff and/or lab. I would continue to conduct the same socialization steps you were doing before (being around each other but not able to get to each other) until you can speak to a trainer to get some more specific help. This might include having them both in the same room but on leash and connected to separate family members and unable to reach each other. Alternating which dog is in a kennel. Constant and controlled supervision to ensure there is NOT another fight. Each fight will likely make things worse. Having the dogs in different rooms with a separator. I would also suggest you walk them together (maybe not side by side) as much as possible.

  20. Carissa Cowgill November 24, 2012 at 1:35 pm #

    My husband and I just got a black lab from the humane society. She likes to chase our cat. How can I tell if she is playing with the cat, or if she is being truly aggressive or mean? She does watch the cat closely, but she is wagging her tail the whole time. When the cat runs away, she chases. Yesterday, she caught up with the cat. She proceeded to paw at her face, nip very gently, wag her tail, and croach in a seemingly playful position — front paws down on the floor, and rear end in the air. Any thoughts? I interpret this as playful behavior. Do you agree?

    • Troy Pfeifer November 26, 2012 at 3:12 pm #

      Hi Carissa,
      From your description I would agree that it sounds like play behavior. It is always difficult to say for sure without seeing the behavior though. Also, likely your cat, if not elderly, can harm the dog and defend herself. Just because the dog is displaying the play behavior, the cat may not want to play and might scratch your dog. Play signals for cats and dogs differ so they might misinterpret each other. The good news is the cat can probably escape to higher areas. But I would keep a close eye on them, and potentially a leash on your dog, until you are certain they are getting along or they learn to start ignoring each other. We also teach a command called place. We use this command for many things, but one is to have a dog relax on a dog bed or other spot when she is pestering the cat and the cat does not want to play. This way the dog learns to go to the “place” when the cat gives warnings. Of course you treat the dog when she goes to and stays at her “place”.


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