Aggressive dogs


We do not know why dogs become aggressive under certain circumstances. Why they dislikes other dogs or certain people. There could be many reasons for the behaviour and spending time on the “cause” is not always very helpful. What really matters is the fact that the dog becomes stressed, insecure and in an emotional state around other dogs or people. Our task is to try and control that stress because biting is the one problem dog owners cannot live with.

It must be remembered that dogs are animals and that biting is natural, normal dog behaviour. They do not have language and cannot argue their case. Biting and threatening are how they solve their problems and defend themselves from danger. Their ancestors needed to chase and kill prey for food in order to survive in the wild. In the pack, aggression determined a dog’s social position and how much he got to eat etc.

 All dogs are potential biters. To say that nice dogs do not bite and vicious dogs do is like saying that nice people do not get angry and that vicious people do. Although aggression can be regarded as “normal” behaviour for dogs, it does not mean that it must be allowed in human company. They can and must be taught proper behaviour in their new settings.

Around 90% of dogs referred for “aggression problems” are not truly aggressive. These dogs display some forms of aggressive behaviour such as growling, snarling, barking, nipping or biting etc. when it’s not a true threatening situation. However, the dog may feel threatened. Once they have been properly socialised or the stress has been taken away they may never repeat these behaviours. This is not true aggression, but learnt behaviour and is usually caused by human mismanagement. This means that the owner did not correct the behaviour in the beginning and the dog did not know that it was wrong to behave in that way. The owner may pet the dog to reassure or calm him during or after such behaviour and this is interpreted by the dog as encouragement to continue such “aggression”.

Remember also that dogs do what works! If growling and barking in the past kept scary people away, you can bet your bottom dollar that the dog will use this strategy again and again. People, unfortunately, tend to think they can help the dog by encouraging it to be friendly. They think that if only they can touch the dog it will overcome its fear. To a dog their behaviour is threatening. What they should be doing is to ignore the dog by turning sideways to it while talking to the owner. Before long most dogs will become curious and edge closer to investigate the stranger. Wait until the dog looks relaxed and then offer it a treat from a sitting position.

The body language of an aggressive dog includes signals such as curling of the lips upwards, baring of teeth, growling, aggressive barking, snapping or biting with or without hackles up. Watch out when the body stiffens and quivers and the tail curls high over the back. If the lips retract horizontally and the tail wags, it is generally a friendly smile. Jumping up is not a form of aggression. It is simply bad manners unless some of the signals above are also present. If the behaviour of the dog scares you – its aggression!

When a dog feels threatened it has three options available: Fight, Flight or Freeze.

Freeze is when the dog loses control of the situation and his whole body stiffens into a staring ahead posture.

Fight (Active Defense Reflex ADR) or Flight (Passive Defense Reflex PDR) reactions may be triggered, depending on the breed. When the dog reacts to an action he sees as a threat to his safety or well-being, a dog with ADR is likely to attack while a dog with PDR is likely to run away. So, a new, older dog or a rescue dog that has not been socialised sufficiently and who does not yet trust the new owner or his visitor’s intentions, may see a threat in what they are about to do and either attack or run away. Lack of trust in human behaviour is very often the reason why many dogs end up being called “aggressive.” Proper socialising and hand feeding will provide the necessary trust and confidence in a dog. Confident dogs do not usually bite!

Barking is an alarm of being fearful of something.”Go away.” The fear level is low.

Growling means the dog is insecure of the situation. The fear lever is moderate or high.

Snarling indicates very high fear level and insecurity of the situation.

There are many labels for canine aggression. However, they may be divided in three broad categories: aggression towards owners, aggression towards strangers and aggression towards other animals, but in reality are much the same and can be somewhat confusing to people:

Dominance Aggression: The dog attempts to move higher or maintain his position in the pack. He may claim your bed and keep you away from it or keep other dogs away from you because he has claimed you as his own. A dog displaying this type of aggression will bite when one attempts to dominate him or when he feels that his position as pack leader or “alpha dog” is threatened. This dog has not learnt that you and other family members are in charge and wants to be pack leader. He also does not like his head patted. Food guarding or being overprotective of a particular family member also applies. Dominance need not be aggressive as when a dog lies down when told to sit and/or refuses to move. This behaviour is often called “stubbornness.”

A protest bite is when the dog wants to dominate you to become the boss. He will growl at you when you want him to “down”. If you ignore the growl and try to force the dog down, a protest bite is likely to occur.

Fear or Defensive Aggression: The dog is shy, insecure or lacks trust. Fear aggression may cause a dog to see a person, animal or situation as a threat. The dog may “freeze“, “flee” or “fight.” These dogs will bite when cornered and are often under socialised. Innocent actions are misinterpreted such as the little girl who was bitten in the face when she tried to chase a fly from the dog’s nose.

Territorial Aggression: The dog perceives someone (usually a stranger) as a threat to his yard, the house, car or family. He becomes hostile and runs up and down the fence barking if someone approaches. Lifting his leg on trees, walls and other objects may be because he sees the whole neighborhood as his territory.

Learnt Aggression usually occurs in intelligent, smart, manipulative dogs. They learn that certain aggressive behaviours get results and they copy other dogs e.g. by barking at the postman because another dog barked.

Pain Aggression: This is simply a response to sickness or injury aimed at the nearest human or animal. Dogs may growl or bite when touched in a sore spot. Dogs need to learn that touching is pleasant and rewarding, not painful. Puppies should be groomed, have their ears, chests and paws touched and their mouths inspected by their owners and other people…

Maternal Aggression: This occurs when a human or animal gets too close to the litter. It usually disappears when the pups are weaned. Puppies must be socialised by people so it is very important to teach the mother that it’s fine for people to touch her babies.

Prey Aggression: This natural instinct may result in the dog mauling or killing cats or even small dogs, which it mistakenly perceives as prey. Dogs should always be kept on a leash if there is a chance that he may want to chase a cat or other prey. Sometimes the dog may even bite a child, when his/her high-pitched voice or strange movements trigger the prey drive.

A pet that has been abused is more likely to use his teeth on others. Some owners even encourage their pets to play roughly.

Aggressive behaviour must never be ignored. Chances are that it will not get better and it may become worse! When dogs bite they are often called “vicious” and may even be put down. However, dogs are unaware that they now live in a world that will not tolerate biting and they can be dangerous unless we train and guide them not to be. Dog bites are after all the main cause of child disfigurement.

Treating Aggression Problems: `

Seek professional help! You cannot learn to play the piano by reading a good book. You need to get your fingers on the keys and you need someone to watch you and to demonstrate how to go about it. In the same way, for you to be able to treat your dog’s aggression, you need to see methods of treatment in action by watching closely how an animal Behaviourist or trainer handles the dog. Begin by taking your dog to a vet to rule-out pain aggression or health problem.

Avoidance is the first step you can take. If you know what sets the aggression off, like touching his paws, then don’t touch them. The dog no longer has reason to act aggressively to you. In most cases of aggressive behaviour, your dog will allow you time and opportunity to act before a confrontation takes place. Staring or growling is the first sign of coming aggression and you need to act quickly to avoid setting it off.

Behaviour modification for aggressiveness refers to efforts to change the dog’s behaviour and could include passive or active techniques. By ignoring the dog, no touching or attention like touching or speaking to him, soon teaches the dog that he is no longer able to manipulate the situation and must work for your attention and food. After a week or so, begin to give some attention on your terms like demanding a “sit” or “down” before giving a treat. A dog suffering from prey aggression must be kept in a yard or on a leash so that he cannot chase animals or children. Obedience training and the use of a halti will soon have the dog realise that you are now in charge. Reward him when he behaves nicely. The “stay” commands are very useful exercises to prepare the dog for the next level:

Remedial socialising and desensitising exercises: The dog is gradually exposes to the things that in the past had made him aggressive.

All the risk factors must be listed and worked out separately and safely. For example, a dog that dislikes strangers and also is touch-sensitive is likely to bite a stranger who wants to pet him. Separate approach and handling exercises are required. What the dog has missed out as a puppy must now be installed. The dog must learn to control his bite or bite with a soft mouth. This is slow and painstaking work and requires patients. For example; Territorial aggression is now treated by making the dog sit every time a stranger walks by and then treated/rewarded for good behaviour.

Learnt Aggression: This is not true aggression and can be modified as follows:

1) Effective obedience training that will train the dog to walk on a loose leash will eliminate most of his problems. The dog cannot attend to the handler and another dog at the same time. The leash remains connected to the owner, which will instill confidence in the dog.

2) If the owner is a true Alpha pack leader the dog will want to keep an eye on him and will want to please him.

Fear or Defensive Aggression: Dogs that are naturally timid or fearful need a strong pack leader to give them security and thus correcting the dog-owner relationship can be the basis for lessening fear aggression.

1) Often owners and handlers unintentionally reward the dog for the very behaviour they want to stop. For example, by comforting, mothering and reassuring the dog when he displays fear aggression the handler is conditioning the dog to believe that aggression is the right response to fear.

2) A dog that is fearful or aggressive towards a stranger can be desensitised by putting him under leash control next to the handler. A stranger approaches and backs away some distance as soon as the dog notices him. The dog is kept next to the owner/handler until he settles and is then praised and given a food treat. The dog must NOT be rewarded until he calms or settles down as this will serve to reward the fearful behaviour! If corrected the dog may become more defensive and growl at the owner. Stop immediately and let him cool off.

3) If he is spooked by the postman and barks, then the approach of the postman can be a signal to meet at the dog biscuit jar to distract him while the postman leaves in silence or you can give him a down stay in the passage and then together go to fetch the mail.

Dog on Dog Aggression: It is difficult to make two dogs get along if they don’t want to. Dogs are pack animals, so when they meet other dogs, chances are that they try to determine pecking order with the new dog which often leads to posturing or a fight. The best approach is to discourage or avoid any form of fighting by teaching the dog to focus on the handler. The handler MUST be able to GET and MAINTAIN the dog’s attention at any time and in any situation. (See “Attention getting”)

This must first be done at home, away from other dogs and then, when he is able to focus on the handler, some distance from other dogs and finally around them. The dog’s name means, “Pay attention.” Regularly practice is needed in getting and maintaining the dog’s attention in lots of situations and ultimately for him to “ignore” other dogs. The dog can then be rewarded for NOT growling or lunging in the presence of other dogs. Bring out the food and reward and as soon as the dog stares at the other dog, get him to focus on you and distract him with a food reward.

The dog soon learns that when other dogs are near he has a better chance of getting food and he is going to be praised by his owner if he ignores them.

When a dog becomes extremely excited or “loaded”, he needs to bite. If the owner tries to restrain the dog by holding the collar or leash, even he can be bitten. If the dog is too excited to take treats, continue to growl or lunge at other dogs, it should be moved away rather than be punished. If pain is inflicted the dog may think that it is the other dog that is hurting him and become even more aggressive.

At the club, in class with other dogs, the stress factor is very high and the handler/owner must learn to keep his/her dog focused and working all the time! Owners cannot simply stand and watch other dogs working. They must remain 100% focused on their own dog and the dog must focus on them.

It must be remembered that early socialisation and free play for puppies are of the utmost importance. Prevention is better than cure. Puppies should be allowed to play off the leash with as many other friendly and tolerant dogs of different ages as possible. Fear usually begins to develop at around 12 weeks and thus socialisation should begin even before that.

It should be said that that 90% of dogs do not “fight” when they interact freely with other dogs on neutral territory. In fact it is often an owner’s interference that sparks a “fight”, since the dog perceives the owner as “backing him up” or he feels the need to protect him. Much of this is usually only a case of “posturing” i.e. the dogs are sorting out their dominance positions.

Dog on Dog Aggression in the home: This can sometimes be more difficult to solve. Owners often assume that the older dog or the one they have had the longest must be the top dog. When two dogs think they are of equal status, the younger or newer dog may soon challenge the other one for higher status. If left alone, they can often solve the matter themselves after a bit of posturing or a short skirmish. The owners, unwilling to accept the new arrangement, scold, punish or banish the “aggressor” and send him to a back yard to calm down. By promoting the underdog they make matters worse and the fighting will continue when the owners are away and will usually become worse. I have experienced this when, having been away from home for some time at shows with “Coyote”, he resented “Bosun” (his dad) rushing to greet me. As Bosun grew older and weaker the challenges became more serious and they had to be separated when alone. Aggression between two brothers or two dogs of equal statusinvariably results in one finding a new home because the fighting will persist as when “Loupe” (Coyote’s brother) came to visit.


Although drug therapy is useful for some forms of aggressive behaviour, it must always be used in combination with behaviour modification. Several types of drugs may be prescribed for aggression such as those that relieve anxiety, anti-depressants etc. depending on the experience of the vet in this regard. It has been noted that an injection of cortisone and antibiotics, for example, solved a rash, but made the dogs aggressive to other dogs and people.  None of the drugs currently prescribed for aggression has in fact been approved for that use (aggression).   It must be remembered that drugs are expensive and the amount given depends on the size of the dog, so the bigger the dog the more it is going to cost. It can also take six to eight weeks before any change appears in the dog’s behaviour. Homoeopathic remedies could provide a suitable alternative treatment for dogs. Also known as the TEETH principle: Tried Everything Else, Try Homoeopathy!  Behaviour modification should always be attempted first before drugs are considered.

Lifestyle and Diet:

Diet and exercise may also be a factor in aggression. High energy food and a lack of exercise can be the problem. The dog can be allergic to something in the food such as a high sugar or salt content or the preservatives used. Most people cannot be bothered to read the details of the ingredients on the food packets they buy. It is in fact quite meaningless to most of us. “30% Protein” may sound better than “20% Protein” but unless we know if it is animal or vegetable protein it can be misleading. 18% Animal protein is enough but 100% vegetable protein is not enough. If sufficient exercise does not bring about a change, try a change in diet. Possible behaviour problems such as the following could be diet related: Allergic reactions; Flatulence; Inconsistent stool; Smelly motions; Failure to put on weight; Hyperactivity/low activity; Excessive water intake; Poor coat quality; Scratching and licking; Eating grass.

Remember that punishment alone is pretty useless and could even be dangerous. The reason for the behaviour must be found and the dog must then be desensitised. Treating aggression not only takes time but it is going to require a change in your lifestyle. There is no easy way out. We cannot guarantee that a dog that has bitten before will never bite again so you need to remain vigilant. Unpredictable, impulsive and sudden aggressive behaviour is less likely to be successful.