Understanding Aggressive Behavior

Jason Cook

APL_logo_black [Converted]The term aggression refers to a constellation of behaviors that range from warnings to attacks.  Warnings take the form of the dog becoming still and stiff, barking in a threatening way, showing teeth, growling, and lunging towards the object of his aggression.  Biting behavior can include a quick nip that doesn’t break skin, a bite that tears the skin, a bite that causes bruising, a bite that leaves puncture wounds, repeated bites in quick succession, and a bite paired with a shake.  In almost all cases, the dog will give a warning before he bites.  Sometimes, though, the warning behavior can be very subtle and easily missed.

In diagnosing and treating aggression, it is important to first understand the dog’s motivation and the function that the aggressive behavior serves.  You should ask yourself:

  • At whom is the aggression directed?
  • When and where does the aggression occur?
  • What was happening to the dog right before the aggression occurred?
  • What else was going on in the dog’s environment?
  • What stopped the aggressive behavior?

Working with a dog who behaves aggressively can be dangerous and complicated, so it is necessary to enlist the help of a professional trainer or behaviorist.  She can help you to answer the questions above and develop a behavior modification plan that will address the particular needs of your dog.

There are several kinds of aggression.  These include territorial, protective, possessive, fear-based, defensive, frustration-based, and redirected aggression.

Territorial, Protective, and Possessive Aggression

Dogs who are territorially aggressive direct their aggression at perceived intruders.  The aggression may occur inside the home or at the boundaries of the property where the dog lives.  Territorially aggressive dogs bark and charge at the person or animal entering their space.  This type of aggression typically develops in dogs between the ages of one and three years old.

Dogs who are protective feel the need to defend their people or their animal friends from perceived danger.  Protective aggression might seem desirable to people who want a dog that will guard them or their property.  However, this kind of aggression can become problematic when the dog begins to regard everyone outside of his immediate family as a threat.  The dog may then show aggression to friends and more distant family members.

In possessive aggression, the dog guards objects from other animals or from humans.  These objects can include his food, toys, bones, or sleeping places.  Dogs who have possession aggression only show aggressive behavior when they have something they perceive as special.  Both puppies and dogs can become possession aggressive.

Fear-based and Defensive Aggression

Fear-based aggression results from the dog’s natural fight or flight response.  When threatened, the dog most likely will try to get away from the danger.  However, if he feels he cannot escape, he will attack.  Before biting, the dog will show a fearful posture and attempt to leave the situation.  This kind of behavior often develops in puppies and dogs who were undersocialized while they were young.  The bites that are delivered by a fearful dog are usually quick because the dog will fight and then try to flee.

Defensive aggression is closely related to fear-based aggression.  In both cases, the dog is motivated by fear.  However, in defensive aggression the dog adopts both fearful and offensive postures and makes the first move.  He will stop only when the object of his aggression retreats.

Frustration-based and Redirected Aggression

Frustration-based aggression results when the dog is held back from approaching something he desires or that excites him.  This is also known as barrier frustration.  The dog sees what he wants to reach, but he is prevented from getting to it by a leash, fence, or his owner’s grasp.  A dog who is frustrated may lash out at whoever is holding him back.

Redirected aggression is related to frustration-based aggression.  The dog is aroused by something in the environment and someone gets in his way.  He may turn around and bite his owner if that person is closest in proximity to him.  Frustration will often elicit this behavior.  For a dog who is reactive to other dogs while on leash, the excitement of seeing another dog but being unable to reach him might cause the dog to bite the person holding the leash.  If two dogs are barking at something from behind a fence, one may bite the other as a result of redirected aggression.

What You Can Do

If your dog is showing signs of aggression, first make an appointment with your veterinarian to rule out medical causes for the behavior.  Then seek the help of a professional trainer or behaviorist.  Aggression cannot usually be “cured,” but the dog’s environment and routine can be managed so that the risk of aggressive behavior is minimized.

Safety is your first priority.  Take the necessary precautions to keep yourself and other people and animals safe.  Your dog’s behavior is your responsibility, and it is essential that you do everything you can to prevent your dog from harming a person or another animal.

Avoid exposing your dog to situations that provoke his aggressive behavior.  If your dog is possession aggressive or territorially aggressive, do not give him “special” objects and prevent him from accessing those locations that he likes to guard.

What NOT to Do

Never punish your dog for growling or giving other warning signals.  This can cause the dog to stop offering warnings and progress right to a bite instead.  You may then have the perception that the dog bites “out of the blue” when, in reality, he has learned not to show signs of impending aggression.

Do not punish your dog for aggressive behavior because punishment in these situations can lead to increased aggression.  Attempting to “dominate” your dog will often lead to an attack and an escalation of the aggressive behavior.  If your dog’s aggression is fear-based, punishment will only serve to make the dog more fearful and, thus, more aggressive.