AGGRESSION IN DOGS: A NORMAL MODE OF COMMUNICATION
Aggression is a normal way for dogs to communicate. That’s why all dogs, even yours, have the potential to be aggressive, regardless of breed or age.
There’s a big difference between a dog giving an acceptable warning and one using aggression in a way that’s inappropriate or out of proportion to the context.
It’s also important to understand the distinction between aggression stemming from fear or discomfort and what we call predation, or predatory behaviour.
Let’s examine this in more detail.
WHY IS YOUR DOG AGGRESSIVE?
ANY NUMBER OF REASONS
Various factors can cause aggressive behaviour in dogs, including:
- Anxiety or fear
PAIN AND ILLNESS
Your dog may become aggressive if they feel secondary pain as a result of an injury or illness. The pain may be:
- Acute, as with a fracture
- Constant (e.g., aches and pains in the back or paws), making them irritable
Aggression can also be a symptom of a hormonal imbalance or neurological condition.
ANXIETY, FEAR, AND ENVIRONMENT
While many people think dogs that act aggressively are vicious or mean, it’s usually because they’re afraid or uncomfortable in a particular situation or environment.
When you understand the emotion behind the aggression, you realize that just because a dog behaves aggressively, it doesn’t mean they’re a bad dog or have a bad owner.
DIFFERENT TYPES OF AGGRESSION MEAN DIFFERENT THINGS
Your dog may express different types of aggression for different reasons. Here we examine 2 of the most common types: distancing aggression and predatory aggression.
This is when a dog uses aggression to create distance between themselves and something that’s bothering them, such as:
- Other dogs
- Other animals
- Being handled
In such situations, being aggressive is how a dog expresses fear, anxiety, or psychological or physical discomfort (pain). They’re sending a clear message (“Please stay away from me”) and will usually give multiple warning signs before resorting to biting.
The distancing aggression sequence
There may be different signs of anxiety leading up to it, but distancing aggression tends to follow a predictable pattern:
- A threat phase when your dog:
Bares their teeth
- A pause so your dog can analyze the reaction of the potential threat
- One of the following two responses:
- Your dog backs off if the individual or stimulus stops approaching or ceases to be a threat
- The aggressive behaviour escalates if the individual or stimulus ignores the initial warning
Escalation may take the form of:
- Snapping at the air
- Controlled biting by using pressure without breaking the skin
- More intense biting that breaks the skin
Since aggressive behaviour is an effective way to keep a perceived threat at bay, it tends to get more intense over time.
Does your dog’s aggression not follow this pattern?
Dogs with behavioural disorders like anxiety, hyperactivity, or phobias tend to follow a different pattern of behaviour. It’s hard for them to accurately assess a threat, so their aggressive episodes may be difficult to explain or seem out of proportion to the situation.
Your dog’s aggression may stem from a predatory response, which follows a very different pattern than distancing aggression. In this case, your dog’s goal is to kill their prey.
The sequence of events is fast, silent, and virtually impossible to stop once it starts. It can be shocking to people less familiar with canine communication.
Small animals are the most common victims of predatory aggression. But your dog may also engage in predatory patterns with people, objects, or things that move. If so, follow the safety steps described further below.
IS YOUR DOG AGGRESSIVE? TALK TO YOUR VET
Have your dog checked by a Globalvet veterinarian at the first sign of aggression. That way you can eliminate any underlying cause like pain or illness that could explain or exacerbate their behaviour.
And don’t worry—your vet won’t judge you, hold you responsible, or tell you to get rid of your dog. The faster you see your vet, the faster they can help get to the root of the problem so you know what situations to avoid.
Your vet can also refer you to other experts to help you retrain your dog. In the meantime, be sure to follow the safety measures below.
SAFETY STEPS: THINGS YOU CAN DO TO PREVENT AGGRESSION
Taking the steps below may not eliminate the aggressive behaviour completely, but it can keep it from getting worse and reduce the risk of biting
FOR ALL TYPES OF AGGRESSION
Whether your dog is engaging in distancing or predatory aggression toward another animal or a person, you should:
- Avoid situations that may trigger such behaviour in your dog. For instance:
- If they’re aggressive toward other dogs or people, don’t take them to the park
- If they growl when you try to move them, don’t let them on the couch or your bed
- If they don’t like strangers, confine them when people come over
- Can’t avoid certain high-risk situations? Muzzle your dog in scenarios where their aggressive side could come out:
- Some muzzles, like those made of fabric, prevent the dog from breathing with their mouth open and are not designed to be worn for long periods of time
- Ask your veterinary team for advice on choosing and safely introducing your dog to a muzzle.
- Leave a leash on your dog all the time so you can quickly redirect them without getting too close
- Don’t confront your dog if they growl:
- Remove them from the situation that’s making them aggressive
- Try to avoid similar situations in future
- Never physically or verbally reprimand your dog if they behave aggressively
- Pay attention to your dog’s body language, look for signs of aggression, and try to understand their emotions. Remember that distancing aggression is usually preceded by different signs of anxiety, and there’s a pause before the dog resorts to biting. Keeping a close eye on your pet and monitoring their interactions will prevent the vast majority of biting incidents.
IF YOUR DOG IS AGGRESSIVE TO PEOPLE
If your dog behaves aggressively toward people:
- Never leave them unattended around children or people with reduced mobility
- E.g., people with a disability or the elderly
- Always take your dog’s warnings seriously
- Never move abruptly or quickly toward your dog (or let anyone else do so) and avoid leaning toward them:
- Instead, let your dog initiate interaction or call them to you
- Make sure your dog is never physically restrained or cornered and unable to escape
- Don’t take your dog by surprise or disturb them while they’re sleeping
IF YOUR DOG IS AGGRESSIVE TOWARD OTHER DOGS OR ANIMALS
Is your dog showing aggression toward other dogs or animals? Follow our recommendations:
- Never try to physically separate two fighting dogs:
- If the risk of injury is high, use an object to force them apart instead
- Never leave two dogs at home unattended if one of them is aggressive toward other dogs
- Confine the aggressor when you leave the house or if you can’t closely monitor them
- Never leave a dog unattended with a cat, other small animal, or young child if they show signs of predatory aggression