What is Dog Aggression and How to Stop it.

Dealing with dog behavioral issues is never easy, but having an aggressive dog is particularly hard. It frequently passes the point of simply being worried about coming home to a wrecked living room or having an overly yappy pooch. You’re constantly worrying if your dog will attack someone - whether it’s another pet or a stranger, and it can be nerve-racking. But, even though it’s undoubtedly a major problem, aggression in dogs can be corrected. In this guide on canine aggression, you’ll find out what causes this type of behavior, how it usually manifests, and, most importantly, how to handle and prevent it.

What Is Dog Aggression?

When someone says their dog is aggressive, the first thing that comes to mind is that they have a dog that bites, but aggression can mean a lot of different things. Some canines keep their aggression toned down and never act out more than the occasional growl, while others can attack other dogs or even people.

Whatever the signs of aggression your dog displays, the most important thing is to understand what triggers the behavior. There are many different reasons why a dog might be aggressive and knowing what the underlying cause is will make treatment easier and more efficient. Even though dog aggression is among the most serious behavioral problems you might have to deal with, it is still just that - a behavioral problem that can be corrected. It is one of the more difficult to handle though.

Signs of Aggression in Dogs

How can you tell if a dog is nervous to the point of being aggressive? What kind of body language and signs is a precursor to an attack? Knowing the answer to these questions can help you anticipate aggressive behavior, and, hopefully, stop it in time.

Apart from Sudden Onset Aggression syndrome, which is a rare condition, an aggressive attack can always be predicted by the specific behavior that precedes it. Here are the most common signs of aggression in dogs:

  • Stiff body posture
  • Ears pinned back
  • Growling
  • Baring Teeth
  • Snarling
  • Bites of different intensity (from light snipping to puncturing bites)
  • Causes: Why Is My Dog Aggressive?

To be able to truly understand how to stop dog aggression, you’ll need to find out what makes your dog aggressive in the first place. It’s very rare for a dog to become violent out of nowhere. Most often, the main culprit is a lack of proper socialization and training, but there are other causes that can contribute to this issue. Here are the most common causes of dog aggression:

  • Pain or illness
  • Fear
  • Establishing dominance
  • Protecting territory or possessions

Maybe your feisty furball has a stressor that makes them rage, or they are acting out as a consequence of a past trauma. In case your dog suddenly starts acting aggressive, it might be their way of signaling they’re in pain. But how are you to know, for sure, what is the cause of your dog’s violent behavior?

Types of Dog Aggression

More often than not, there might be a common reason for different types of aggressive behavior. For example, a dog that is establishing dominance by being aggressive can exhibit that by attacking other dogs, being unfriendly with new family members, or lashing out when on a leash. To better understand what exactly motivates your dog’s bad behavior, and, how to prevent and treat your pooch’s aggression, determining the right type of dog aggression is essential.

Possession Aggression or Food Aggression in Dogs

Also known as resource guarding, this type of behavior is centered around a dog’s obsession with certain objects. The item in question might be their favorite toy, their bed or a bowl of food, but the outcome is always the same. Once another person (or a pet) approaches their belongings, possessive aggressive dogs will immediately react. Territorial dogs can also react when perceived intruders come to their turf. Depending on the gravity of the problem, the reactions can range from just growling to a full-on attack that includes biting.

Fear Aggression in Dogs

As with humans, fear is a powerful motivation for dogs. When faced with a scary situation, a nervous dog can turn to a flight or fight response - and fear aggressive dogs choose the latter. Unlike most other types of dog aggression, fear aggression in dogs has no warning signs. Because they will react only when they think that there is no other option but to defend themselves, these dogs won’t growl, bare their teeth or snarl before they nip at their source of fear. In most cases, this behavior is caused by a trauma in the dog’s past.

Leash Aggression in Dogs

If your pooch is friendly and calm for most of the time, but starts lunging, barking and trying to bite as soon as you put on their leash, it’s a clear sign your dog is leash-aggressive. Commonly directed at other dogs, this type of aggressive behavior stems from the fact that your pooch is feeling restrained and frustrated by their leash.

Although it rarely ends with a leash-aggressive dog attacking a canine passerby (after all, you’re holding the other end of the leash), it certainly is frustrating when your dog acts out in public. This often happens when dogs are not trained on time and it can be a type of aggressive behavior that is the easiest to correct.

Social Aggression in Dogs

It’s all about the instincts in this case. Dogs are social animals who function in packs, meaning that there is a strict hierarchy in the household, even if you’re not aware there is one. Other pets might be lower in status, so a dominant dog will "remind" them who’s the boss every once in a while by displaying aggressive body language. In some instances, a dog can lash out at people that they consider the runt of their pack. The key here is to be assertive and act as the pack leader, rather than a two-legged beta.

Pain-induced Aggression in Dogs

Dogs are very good at hiding their pain, but if something is really bothering them, they might start growling or nipping. Although this is perceived as aggressive behavior, it’s actually just a defense mechanism. Injured dogs, for example, have been known to bite their owners while they were trying to help, so it is important to be careful when handling a dog in pain. If you notice your older dog is starting to act aggressively out of the blue, chances are they are experiencing discomfort, pain, or even have an illness. Rather than trying to correct the behavior, make sure to take them to a vet to eliminate any medical condition that might be triggering it.

Dog Breeds Predisposed to Aggression

There are many misconceptions about different breeds, but the most prevalent ones are about a dog’s aggressive tendencies. You’ve probably heard it already. There are dangerous breeds, such as Pitbulls, Dobermans or Rottweilers, who are specifically bred to be bloodthirsty and aggressive. The truth is… It’s a myth. There is no such thing as most aggressive dog breeds or least aggressive dog breeds. And it’s not just my personal opinion: scientists have proved this time and time again.

Veterinarians agree when it comes to so-called most aggressive dog breeds. The only factors that contribute to aggressive behavior that are biological in nature are a dog’s age and sex. For example, a dog that is poorly socialized, unneutered, and becoming sexually mature, might be more prone to aggressive outbursts than, let’s say, a spayed female of the same species. The key to preventing dog aggression is good socialization, proper training, and lots of love. Breed has nothing to do with it!

Best Ways to Handle Aggression in Dogs

Aggression in dogs is a complex issue. There is no "easy fix" or an overnight solution that will turn your pooch into a well-behaved canine, especially if their aggression is in the severe stages. However, with the right approach and a lot of patience, you can learn how to stop dog aggression in its tracks.

As is usually the case with all behavioral issues, prevention is the key. If you nip the problem in the bud, you’ll save yourself the trouble of correcting a major issue down the road. In most cases, being diligent with puppy training is what does the trick. Most aggressive dogs tend to display early signs, which, when noticed on time, can be solved. These are some tried and true tips that can help prevent the development of aggression in dogs:

  • Discourage dominant behaviors
  • Watch out for signs of resource guarding
  • Pay attention to socialization - both with other pets and strangers
  • Use positive reinforcement training

If you adopted an adult dog with behavioral issues, or missed the symptoms of aggression in your pet’s puppyhood, there are still ways to stop aggression even when it becomes a serious problem. Depending on the specifics of your problem, here are some effective solutions that will transform a grumpy pooch into a calm pup.

Situation #1: My dog is aggressive toward strangers

Solution: Understanding how to stop dog aggression toward strangers starts with pinpointing the situation in which the behavior begins. Is it every stranger, or particular type of people - men, women, kids, people in uniform, etc.? Does your dog get aggressive when a stranger comes to your home, or when they see them on the street? Answering these questions will help you determine the cause of the problem and the type of dog aggression. It might be leash aggression, which requires lead training, or it can be a past trauma or abuse that they connect with a certain type of people. In both cases, positive reinforcement training and a gradual desensitization to the stressor are what leads to the best results.

Situation #2: Dog is aggressive toward cats

Solution: Contrary to the popular belief, cats and dogs are not natural enemies. In households with multiple pets, both canines and felines, having a pooch that gets agitated around cats can be a major issue.
Depending on the level of aggression your pet displays, learning how to stop dog aggression toward cats can be a matter of safety, so it’s crucial to put in the effort to socialize them. Cats can be finicky and moody, so keep in mind that socializing cats and dogs can be a long process.

Situation #3: Dog aggressive toward owner

Solution: Nothing is so devastating as when your own pet acts aggressively toward you. But you shouldn’t take it personally! In the majority of cases, the aggression your dog is displaying is redirected from another issue, like resource guarding or dog-on-dog aggression. Of course, there is always a chance that your dog’s unusual behavior is caused by an underlying medical condition. If your pooch started growling or nipping at you suddenly, make sure to rule out any illnesses and injuries first.

Situation #4: My dog is aggressive while eating

Solution: Your pooch doesn’t believe that sharing is caring and starts snapping at anyone who approaches their kibble. How should you deal with possessive aggression in dogs? The trick is to help them realize that no one is trying to take away their food. Start slowly, by standing near them while they eat, until they get comfortable enough for you to pet them during meals. Do your pets fight over the food you leave out while you’re at work? Use a pet camera that gives treats to remotely monitor their behavior and interrupt their aggression.

Final Thoughts

Living with an aggressive dog is not easy, but it’s not the end of the world, either. Even though it might seem scary at times, it is a behavioral problem that can be solved with proper socialization and training. Underneath that snarling and snapping, your dog might be just a scared, poorly socialized pup. When given a chance, any aggressive or nervous dog can change for the better.

Depending on the severity of your dog’s aggression issues, the solution can be anything from a simple change in routine to working with a professional dog trainer. Whichever ends up being the right choice for you and your dog, just remember: it’s an effort well worth it.

22 comments

  • We adopted a 2 year old cocker in Odctober of 2019. She is a beautiful dog inside and out. After we got her home, we discovered she was pregnant and had 6 puppies Veteran’s Day that year November 11 2019. We surrendered 5 of the puppies to an organization that adopts pups out to ther homes. We kept one. Paisley the 2 year old cocker ( the mom) occasionally will lash out at her daughter Star Now 2 . Star is one of the pups we kept from the Paisley’s litter) What do I do to prevent this. They are both fixed and this does not always happen, but occasionally. I have taken pictures where the 2 of them are sleeping together and everything. I do not believe Paisley does not totally like Star just maybe has a bad temper? Paisley has never lashed out onus and is a social butterfly to other people, just Star at times. Any suggestions on how to improve this behavior on Paisley?

    Dorothea
  • My daughter moved back home in Feb 21. She brought a 2 yro female pittie that was given to her after some mild abuse from children. ( they shaved her) and a 1.5 yro little 10 lb cutie off the road side. They were both easy to get along with and were spaded quickly.
    I have a 9 yo F Boxer and a 10 yo M Staffie. They are very peaceful at this age until stirred up by a playful pit pup.
    My concern however is for MYSELF!! I have bites and scratches all over me. Her name is Blu. She will get a NoNo article, run with it and when I tell her to sit and drop it she will sit then it becomes a game about half the time to get it away from her. She will drop it at times also. Not every time…. but she will come at you jumping on you and on my 43 yo daughter start humping her leg.
    I’m working in my backyard now and I had the rake. She jumped on me, bit my hand and left a puncture- gash in my fatty thumb palm area. We were both going for the rake so she may have missed her target?? For the last 2 days in the yard she has hurt me by jumping at me. She bit the back of my R arm, my L hand and my L arm.
    I am starting to dread her and I love her like a child. I want to spank her and send her to her room like my brothers got. Haha.
    I’m going to take her to the Vet and try the Head collar thing. I have tried Rescue Remedy and would love to give her a Valium or something.
    Any help is greatly appreciated. We live rural so she doesn’t get much Human socializing and cows are fenced away from us so none there either. She did try the 13 yo cat tonight tho. He ran away safely.

    Jimmie
  • My dog is a terrier—looks like Benji—it a love bur when it is just me and my husband. When he sees other dogs, cats, peop,e kids, bikes, squirrels, he very intently barks and barks. Tries to get away

    Kim
  • Just back in with my parents with my 2yr chow chow/Rottweiler mix. Dog is being aggressive only to my parents dog and very territorial over our room, his cage, and recently the entire living room. I’ve been working with him on correcting his behavior but any tips on getting them to cohabit?

    Gabbi Flores
  • I have a 2 year old yorkie puddle mix and she has an issue with nail clipping and groomers. The last groomer I took her to I helped to hold her while she was trying to clip her. Since that time if I try to scratch her around her head or face she gets aggressive and nips at me. Not usually a hard nip but none the less unacceptable behavior. Any help would be appreciated.

    Karen K

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