Understanding Aggression in Dogs

Some owners suddenly find themselves with dogs that are lunging at people with baring fangs instead of rolling over for belly rubs. As you may have guessed, this could present a number of issues — aggression is a very real problem. It is not something that’s funny, something you should take lightly or something you should delay in correcting. Aggression is highly misunderstood and often poorly managed. Most often, it’s because the aggression is not addressed early on and is allowed to continue. Aggression always escalates, and unfortunately the longer it’s ignored, the harder it is to control. But there’s a few steps that you can take if you find yourself in need of help. Below are some very basic tips on becoming proactive with your aggressive dog, but they should always come with the help and guidance of a professional trainer.

  • Identify the aggression, or the potential for aggression — This is important. Many people cannot read a dog’s body language to understand when they are scared or uncomfortable. When dogs feel insecure, they will often become aggressive. Dogs are aggressive for a variety of reasons, but many of them exhibit one or more of the behaviors listed here:

Stiffness: A dog will go rigid when he’s uncomfortable. This is a preparation for a flight or fight response, and since dogs are typically stuck to the end of a leash, it ends up being fight.

Growling: A growling dog will bite you, almost without a doubt. Dogs growl as a warning sign to stay away.Snapping: Sometimes dogs will snap at you instead of biting you. This does not mean that’s all they will do. This is a dog that doesn’t want to bite you but is trying to warn you that he will. Believe him. If you continue allowing the dog to be uncomfortable, his teeth will meet your body and that snap will become a bite.You can view more signs of stress in dogs with helpful photos here. Click on the pic below:

Do you speak "doggie" language?
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earn more about how your dog’s actions tell you what they are feeling, thinking, or even about to do. The more you know how to read your dog, the better you can make them feel safer and happier.
  • Hire a trainer — And hire a good one. Dog aggression is not the time for you to take that quick obedience class you intended to take when he/she was a puppy. It would be like taking cough medicine after you got pneumonia. It simply is too late…
Quality, professional, experienced trainers will cost more than a class at PetSmart. But you will get what you pay for.

Aggression always requires detailed, dedicated, and serious work, and having one-on-one time with a private trainer who will train you and your dog is a key step in getting lifetime results. Your trainer will have full control of the situation (unlike in a group class) and will be able to help you understand how to manage and control your dog. There are many trainers who specialize in all types of aggression (ie. dog to dog or dog to people aggression, food, etc). They are well worth your time and money. Trust me, these types of trainers have dealt with far more aggressive animals than you ever want to experience, and they bring a wealth of knowledge and training that you simply can’t get anywhere else.

  • Aggression is managed — Living with an aggressive dog doesn’t have to be difficult or unpleasant; it just has to be understood. Crating and kenneling dogs when people are at the house, never leaving your dog unsupervised around other people or animals, or muzzling him on a walk or a visit to the veterinarian are all steps to preventing dog bites.
  • Understand the source of the aggression — Sometimes there is a medical component to aggression. Dogs with ear infections, arthritis, and many other ailments can seemingly become suddenly aggressive. Others are resource guarders, and need to understand that their behavior is not acceptable. Some dogs that are dog aggressive were attacked and are now just afraid of all dogs. Sometimes we don’t know why the dog is aggressive, and that’s okay too. The training and management will almost always be the same.
  • Stop making excuses — This is something everyone likes to do, especially with dogs with an unknown history. Many people with aggressive rescued dogs feel that they are aggressive because they were abused. This is very often not the case. But if it is, it’s not really all that important. What’s important now is that your dog is aggressive and you need to manage that aggression. Many people will allow aggression to continue because they think their dogs are protecting them, but the reality is, this is far from the truth (Unless your dog was specifically trained by a dedicated professional as a protection dog, but we will cover that in the next bullet). Understanding the source of the aggression can be useful, but it should not be an excuse for enabling the behavior.
  • Dogs don’t differentiate — Most people want to view their dogs as some sort of protection against the bad guys in the outside world. We don’t mind when our dogs bark to alert us when someone comes to the door, or even stop a robber from entering our homes. Unfortunately, you can’t have a friendly buddy and a protection dog all in one package. As much as we love them, Lassie and Rin Tin Tin are fictional characters. A truly aggressive dog will not see the difference between Uncle Jimmy and a burglar when one or the other walks in your front door. If you want a protection dog, you need to realize that this same dog will not be the same one lounging by the fireplace during the Christmas party. He’s going to need to be contained when people are coming over.

Aggression is serious. Whatever the cause may or may not be, an aggressive dog will hurt somebody. Aggression left unaddressed will escalate and become a liability for you and your family. This not only puts you and other people at risk, but your dog as well. Dogs with bite histories do not fare well with authorities and will eventually be sentenced to humane euthanasia if they’re allowed to continue the aggressive behavior. So if you notice any aggression in your dog at all, it’s time to take action. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, take control with the help of a professional, and start the path to a safer, healthier, and more enjoyable life with your furry best friend.


Enrique is owner / head trainer at DogWorx, a premier dog training and rehabilitation facility, located in Savannah, Ga, focusing on dog aggression, dog anxiety and behavioral modification. If your’e struggling with your dog, contact us — you are the person we want to help! Follow us on Facebook and YouTube for more videos and tips on how to train your dog at home.