Understanding why a dog shows aggression is the first step to effectively reducing and preventing it.

In a world where our canine companions are often considered our “best friends,” it’s surprising that so much dog-human communication (or should I say lack of communication?) translates into behaviors that we perceive as aggression, whether it’s a freeze (standing still), a stare, a growl, a snap or bite, or a full-blown attack.

If you were to ask your dog, he would probably tell you that these behaviors are just different degrees of canine communication. He might also say, “My human made me do it.”

All of these behaviors are natural and normal social expressions, the dog’s attempt to communicate something important. Generally, the mildest behavior that humans may recognize as aggressive-a low growl, for example-is not a dog’s first sign of aggression. A growl is actually within a continuum of increased emphasis in canine communication. A dog that is uncomfortable often attempts to communicate its discomfort through much more subtle behaviors, such as avoidance, yawning, avoiding eye contact, low posture, raised ears, and rolling onto the back.

These behaviors are an attempt to resolve a situation without resorting to serious aggression. It may be a claim to a valuable resource: “I don’t want to share my bone!”. It may be an expression of fear: “You are making me very uncomfortable, please go away.” It may be that the dog is in pain: “This hurts, please stop!”.

When gentle communication fails to achieve its goal, the dog may feel compelled to resort to stronger or more violent actions (e.g., attacking or fighting) to get its message across.

Some or all of the mild and avoidant behaviors often precede the dramatic behaviors that most people recognize as aggression; however, most or all of these behaviors go completely unnoticed by many people.

On the other hand, if these signals are ignored or misinterpreted, the human may respond inappropriately (“Oh, you want me to rub your belly?”), forcing the dog to increase the intensity of his behavior and eventually escalate to serious aggression. Growling, growling, hitting or biting may be the “first signs of aggression” for many people, but most dogs (or experienced observers of canine behavior) would recognize many earlier signs.

Why are dogs aggressive?

When dogs exhibit aggressive behaviors, humans rarely take into account what the dog was trying to communicate. Instead, these behaviors are considered unacceptable, threatening and dangerous. But put yourself in their shoes. Dogs are supposed to be able to cope with any situation they encounter (including those that annoy, frighten or intimidate them) and to get along with all dogs and people they encounter (including those that annoy, frighten or intimidate them) without ever expressing boredom, fear, apprehension or discomfort using their natural and normal means of communication.

We give them valuable resources-delicious food, tasty chews, comfortable furniture-and tell them not to covet those resources or protect them from anyone who tries to take them. When a dog tries to keep something for himself (by growling or snarling), he is usually punished. Dogs that try to communicate using normal dog language to say they need more space, are upset or scared, or want to keep something for themselves are often labeled “aggressive.”

Think about it for a moment: Dogs are often forced to escalate – muffled growls, stiff posture, hard stares, pawing, growling or worse – because we simply don’t listen.

It’s true that we can’t know for sure what the dog is saying. However, as a species that is supposedly more intelligent and has a better understanding of dogs, we can usually deduce something fairly close to the dog’s intent. And if we have an idea of what he is trying to say, we can respond appropriately and take steps to reduce the intensity of his communication rather than force him to escalate it.

The more we humans are able to listen and understand “canines”, the more our dogs will be able to communicate in a way that is less threatening to us, while still meeting their needs and desires.

Aggressive dog types

There is no universal scientific list of aggression designations. Different sources offer different labels for different types of aggression, and these labels change constantly. However, there are many commonalities. The following is a description of some of the most common forms of aggression and the usual motivation for the dog to exhibit each form.

In this general discussion of aggression, I will not go into specific solutions for each situation in which a dog exhibits aggressive behavior, but I will outline the most effective approach.

If you are dealing with your dog’s aggressive behavior, I strongly recommend that you seek the help of a qualified intemperate behavior professional who can help you create and implement an appropriate behavior management and modification program.

Fearful Aggression

This is by far the most common type of aggression that people often respond to inappropriately. When a dog shows signs of fear and aggression, it often tries to force those around it to stay away; it needs more space to feel safe.

Many people assume that a fearful dog prefers avoidance to aggression – and in many cases, this is a correct assumption. However, if a fearful dog is trapped or has been trapped in the past, he may adopt an “attack is the best defense” approach, especially if he has already been punished for his agonistic signals. Keep in mind that “being trapped” may mean being kept on a leash, being chased and cornered when he tries to retreat, or simply being confined in such a small space that he feels uncomfortable (such as your living room).

To make matters worse, it is natural for humans to comfort someone who appears to be frightened, but that is often exactly what the fearful dog does not want, especially from a stranger or someone who has punished the dog in the past.

The first thing to do with a dog that appears to be fearful-aggressive is to give it a little more space: create more space between the dog and the perceived fear-inducing stimuli. Next, begin to implement a counter-conditioning and desensitization plan with the goal of changing the way the dog perceives the stimuli.

pain aggression

Every animal control officer knows that the first thing to do when picking up an injured dog that has been hit is to muzzle it, as pain can easily lead to biting even the most docile dogs. Dogs in pain often do not want to be touched and may show signs of aggression to get people or other animals to leave them alone.

What many owners don’t realize is that less obvious pain can also contribute significantly to a dog’s tendency to bite. Arthritis, spinal problems, sore muscles, gastrointestinal problems…there are many “invisible” conditions that can cause or contribute to a dog’s aggressive behavior.

An elderly dog with aggravating arthritis may start growling at the approach of children because he knows from experience that they are likely to fall on him or play roughly with him. “I’m very uncomfortable with you,” he says, “please don’t come any closer.” A protective parent who becomes indignant because the family dog growls at the child is physically punishing the dog, reinforcing his pain as well as his expectation of punishment when children approach, increasing the likelihood that he will become more aggressive toward children, not less.

A much better solution: whenever you suspect your dog is in pain – or in the case of an older dog or a dog that hasn’t been to the vet in a while – arrange an examination and veterinary consultation as soon as possible. Ideally, the veterinarian will be able to diagnose an illness and prescribe medication to relieve the dog’s pain. Also, if necessary, use basic handling tools (such as baby gates, cages or locked gates) to protect it from unwanted and sometimes inappropriate attention from children.

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