Understanding Aggressive Behavior in Dogs

Is your dog’s bark worse than his bite? Most dog owners would rather not find out the hard way. In addition to growling, barring teeth, snarling, snapping, and biting, dog aggression includes any other behavior meant to intimidate or harm a person or animal. But because dogs and humans have different communication systems, these signals often can be misread.

Keep in mind that from a dog’s perspective, there’s always a reason for aggressive behavior. A person may intend to be friendly, but a dog may feel threatened or intimidated. That doesn’t mean that the dog is being crazy or vicious. But because aggression is so complex, and the potential consequences so serious, professional in-home help from an animal behavior specialist is advised if your dog is displaying such behavior.

There are several different types of aggression. Dominance aggression is motivated by a challenge to a dog’s social status or control of a social interaction, and can be directed at people or other animals. Fear-motivated aggression is a defensive reaction that occurs when a dog believes he is in danger of being harmed. Protective, territorial, and possessive aggression involve the dog’s defense of what he considers to be block), a family member or pack, or food, toys and other valued objects (including those stolen from the trash). Redirected aggression—a common type, often misunderstood by pet owners—occurs when a dog is provoked by a person or animal he is unable to attack (someone on the other side of a fence, for example) and turns his aggression on whoever is nearby instead.

The likelihood of aggressive behavior varies markedly from dog to dog. Both environmental and genetic factors influence these differences. Some dogs respond aggressively with little stimulation, while others never attempt to bite despite being subject to all kinds of threatening stimuli and events. This threshold can be raised using behavior modification techniques, but these should only be attempted under the guidance of an experienced professional.

Where to begin? First, check with your veterinarian to rule out medical causes. Then supervise, confine, or restrict your dog’s activities until you can obtain professional guidance. For example, consider using a muzzle when your dog is out in public. Avoid exposing your dog to situations where he is more likely to show aggression. Try preventing access to locations where your dog is territorial. In an emergency, if he’s possessive of certain inappropriate objects, bribe him with something better—a treat or a shoe, for example. Above all, spay or neuter your dog. Intact dogs are more likely to display aggressive behavior.

Finally, be sure you don’t make things worse! Punishment won’t help and may even escalate the behavior. Also, don’t encourage aggression by wrestling or playing tug of war. When dogs are encouraged to “Go get ‘em” or to bark and dash about in response to outside noises or someone’s approach, territorial and protective aggressive behavior may result.

Adapted from materials developed by the HSUS: Pets for Life Series

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