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Understanding Dog Aggression

As Bark Busters trainers, we work with aggressive dogs on a regular basis. About 70% of our cases involve some form of dog aggression or human aggression. In this post, I hope to share some information that may help you understand what might be causing your dog’s aggression. More importantly I hope to help you understand that no matter how severe (toward humans or other dogs) your dog’s aggression might be, it can be resolved with the right combination of training and management. The image you see above is Red, a dog we trained for the Humane Society. He was highly aggressive when we met him but he turned around very quickly (you can view the before and after video HERE).

Before we talk about aggression causes and resolutions, remember that your dog’s personality is not going to change drastically with training. His behavior and reactions to certain situations can definitely be improved but for the most part, Fido will always be Fido. Like people, some dogs just don’t really like dogs or people outside of their packs. It’s best if we don’t try to change a dog’s personality through training, as it would be frustrating and stressful for the dog and the owner. Its OK if Fido doesn’t particularly like other dogs or humans, we just have to make sure Fido can and will tolerate and behave around other dogs (or humans) when they are present. Think about that person you know who would rather chill out and read a book than go out to a nightclub. You might get them to the club and they might tolerate the experience but they would have preferred to skip the outing. If your dog is an introvert, consider avoiding dog parks and playgrounds etc. and take him for a walk instead. He’ll enjoy being with you and can easily be trained to ignore other dogs and humans so that you can have peaceful walks and a peaceful home.

There are a few types of dog aggression and its helpful to understand the causes and the solutions for each one. Keep in mind that there is no “this is true for every dog” or “this works for every dog” answer when it comes to aggression and the below guidance is meant to be interpreted as general information and not as instruction, training or diagnosis for your dog’s specific behavior. With aggression, it’s always the best course to hire a professional trainer.

Fear-Based Dog Aggression

In almost all of the dog aggression cases we work with, the dog’s aggression is fear based. Fear-based aggression is normally very easy to recognize because the dog will be very demonstrative. The dog will typically bark, growl, and lunge while keeping a relatively safe distance from the perceived threat. Their ears are typically back/down, their weight is normally shifted back and their tail is neutral to down and wagging (a wagging tails DOES NOT necessarily mean a dog is happy!). If the dog approaches, it tends to be from the rear or side as they are not comfortable approaching from the front (remember they are scared). The very vocal display of aggression is really an all out effort to avoid confrontation, not to cause or invite it. The dog is hoping that its display will cause the threat to retreat. Fear aggression also often manifests more often in the dog’s home or on lead when the dog doesn’t have the option to retreat. Remember that a dog that is cornered or tethered is more likely to be aggressive because they cannot flee. Fight or flight is well imprinted in your dog’s DNA and they will by nature, almost always choose flight when they can unless they are protecting their den (your home) and pack members or they are on lead and can’t retreat. We often hear about dogs that are highly aggressive on lead but mellow off lead with dogs and/or humans. Remember that a leash limits the dogs ability to leave so it feels it must hold its ground and fight.

To understand how to treat fear-based dog aggression, its helpful to think about how the dog might be feeling when the aggression manifests. Imagine you are walking down the road with your adorable three-year old nephew. You are minding your own business but notice a group of thugs approaching you and you know they mean to do you harm. Try to imagine your state of mind knowing that you need to try to protect both yourself and the child you are responsible for. Pretty rough scenario, right? Most of us would have very strong feelings of fear accompanied by lots of adrenaline and potentially some level of panic. As the thugs approach, these feelings would intensify, as would our desire to flee or resolve to fight if we can’t flee.

Now imagine you are walking down the very same road at the very same time being approached by the very same thugs but instead of you’re your nephew being your companion, you are accompanied by a different person. He is a seven foot tall, 300 pound, world ranked ultimate fighter who is a decorated navy seal and an active duty police officer who is in full uniform and is heavily armed. How do your emotions and physical responses differ from the when you were with your nephew?

We all hope we never find ourselves in either situation but the example will help you to empathize with what your dog might be going through when his aggression manifests. When your dog feels like it is its job to take care of you and to provide you with safety and security, unless it’s a naturally dominant alpha, he/she will likely be highly agitated when encountering anything that could (in the dog’s mind) be a threat. Remember that dogs are pack animals and therefore it’s not in their nature to leave their territory and mix with other packs/dogs. In a natural environment, dog packs stick to their territory and if they meet another pack or animal, it won’t normally be a friendly encounter. Your domesticated canine is long way from being a wild animal but many of the traits of its ancestors remain.

If your dog regards you as a capable, assertive, can handle anything leader that can’t be rattled, scared or overcome, he will be you with the navy seal. If he thinks he has to take care of you in any way, he will be you with your nephew. This displays as aggression but is really just intense fear and anxiety.

The resolution for fear-based dog aggression is to focus on helping your dog to understand that no matter what comes along, YOU have “got this”. Doorbell rings-you’ve “got this”, dog approaches-you’ve “got this” etc. In other words, your dog should be looking to you to provide its safety and security not the other way around. Remember, this is about your dog’s perception. You might well feel safer with your dog but if you want to resolve your dog’s aggression you must make him feel safe with you at all times. At Bark Busters, we use a training system based on natural canine communication that allows our clients and their dogs to build the trust and respect and admiration required to set the dog’s mind at ease.

Dominant Dog Aggression

Between our volunteer work with the Humane Society of St Lucie County and our client cases, we work with 20-30 dog aggression cases every month. It’s rare that we come across an aggression case that is not some form of fear aggression. If I had to put a number to it, I’d guess about 1 in 200 dog aggression cases we are engaged to resolve involve some form of dominant aggression. This is largely because dominant aggression is typically a trait that only manifests in a true alpha. There are precious few true alphas in domesticated dogs. There are dogs that are more alpha-like than others but the “lone wolf” aloof personality of a real alpha male is quite rare.

Dominant aggression is very different to fear aggression. Dogs that are dominant aggressive are far less demonstrative than those with fear-based aggression. Think about the Rottweiler in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (if you haven’t seen the movie, check it out, it’s a classic!). As Rooney crawls through the doggie door, the Rottweiler is not agitated and jumping around going nuts. Rather, he is calm and assertive almost saying “please, come on in, I’m begging you to cross that line”. That is what we’d expect to see from a dominant aggressive dog. He’ll attack because he thinks you are challenging him or entering his territory and he is quite happy to help you understand the error of your ways. A typical dominant aggressive dog will growl, he may bark, ears will be forward, body and head tall, tail up and movements will normally be slow and decisive until attack. T

Dominant aggressive dogs are not elevating from fear, they are elevating because they are protecting (territory or pack) and they are comfortable doing so. Unlike dogs with fear aggression who would much rather follow than lead, the dominant aggressive dog is in charge and is quite comfortable in the role. To resolve dominant aggression, both trainer and owner need a well-organized plan that will allow the owner to assume and maintain the leadership/alpha role in a progressive manner. Pushing too hard or going to fast can result in the dog elevating or attacking. Think “who are you to correct me?” as the alpha dog’s natural response to any demand from a subordinate pack member. These are challenging cases but as with fear aggression, they can almost always be resolved albeit over a longer period of time.

Associative Dog Aggression

Associative aggression is very common in fear aggression cases. It occurs when a dog associates a particular person (or characteristic of a person or animal such as gender, height, appearance, clothing etc.), place or thing with a negative experience. This type of aggression can manifest in dominant aggressive dogs as well but it’s normally the domain of fear aggression.

We often see associative aggression in dogs that have been trained using physical interventions of some sort. These include pinning, rolling, face grabs, hitting, prong collars, shock collars etc. Unfortunately, all of these methods are widely used by professional trainers and dog owners who simply don’t know better. Imagine your dog is nervous and becomes aggressive whenever the pizza guy comes to the door. In response, you shock him with a shock collar whenever he elevates. Do you think your dog will become more or less comfortable with the pizza guy? Your gut probably tells you that if your dog is getting shocked whenever he sees the pizza guy, he will become more fearful of the pizza guy and probably of anyone resembling the pizza guy. Similarly, if a dog charges the door to enthusiastically greet guests and its owner pins and alpha rolls the dog to teach it not to answer the door, the dog may indeed stop answering the door because it doesn’t want to get pinned. The dog may also become aggressive when it sees a human approaching or human hands approaching because it associates the approach with losing control and feeling trapped. At Bark Busters, we NEVER use physical intervention with a dog as it will almost always have negative long-term consequences.

The path to resolution for associative aggression is to very gradually change the way the dog feels about the person, place or thing that causes the fear to manifest. This is one of the few cases in which high value treats may be used in our training protocols. Sometimes the problem resolves entirely when the dog becomes comfortable with its owner’s ability to keep it safe in general, which is always our focus. However, stronger associations may require an incremental longer-term approach. Either way, we can help Fido feel at ease with whatever person, place or thing is causing their unease.

A few months ago, we had a very interesting and challenging case with two aggressive pitbulls. We had one fearful aggressive and one dominant human aggressive pittbull with very strong associative aggression. We resolved the core aggression toward humans in both dogs quite quickly (two training sessions) however the associative aggression in the dominant aggressive dog remained. The dominant aggressive dog would attack its owner (owner and girlfriend had both been hospitalized after being attacked by the dogs) whenever he went to sweep the floor with a broom. These dogs were rescued and their history is not known to the owner but clearly, the dog was abused in some way and probably with a broom. We provided the owner with an incremental plan to change the dog’s association with the broom. A few weeks later, Karen and I were in the car on our way back from an appointment when the owner called us. I looked and Karen and whispered, “I’ll bet we’ll need to go back to work with them on Zeus’ aggression.” I was wrong! The aggression toward the broom was gone and Zeus’ owner was calling to thank us. “I am sweeping the floor right now and Zeus is right here.” Needless to say, we were thrilled and I’ll never forget that call.

Management vs. Training for Dog Aggression

Can every aggression case be 100% resolved? The short answer is no but most can get to 99.9%. Most aggression cases are actually fairly simple and we love seeing the dramatic and rapid improvement in these cases. Some take longer and can only get so far. ALL aggression cases require a combination of intelligent management combined with appropriate training because as with humans, you can never be 100% sure that the behavior will not be triggered by an unknown factor. For instance, if a dog has a bite history or any history of aggression, it should be crated or muzzled when small children are present. The aggression may be completely absent in the dog but that doesn’t mean that you should act as if you are 100% sure that it can never resurface (99.9% is not enough to justify poor judgment especially when kids are involved).

Once you have completed training your dog, remember to always use sound judgment and manage the dog’s environment on an ongoing basis. If your dog has hand fear and reactivity that has successfully resolved, keep in mind that your dog still probably prefers not to be petted by strangers. Ask your guests not to pet your dog and provide your dog with a place he can go to if he wants some peace and quiet (a crate set up as a “Zen Den” is a great example). He may not bite anymore but if you have party and 20 new sets of hands approach him in a short period of time and he can’t get away, that one one-hundredth of a percent chance of regression might come back to “bite” you.

This blog entry is a very broad and generalized discussion on dog aggression and is not by any means a comprehensive. Every dog, like every human is unique and should be treated as such. Hire a professional trainer to help you work out your furry friends behavior. The good news is that all dogs are trainable and if you have an aggressive dog, there is always a way to train and manage the dog successfully. The bad news is that in my experience, not all humans are trainable. You know who you are! J

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