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Pet Behaviour Articles - Canine Behaviour
Recognizing, Preventing, And Handling Dog Aggression
by Darrin Donaldson
A dog is an instinctively aggressive creature. In the wild, aggression came in very handy:
dogs needed aggression to hunt, to defend themselves from other creatures, and to
defend resources such as food, a place to sleep, and a mate. Selective breeding over the
centuries has minimized and refined this trait significantly, but there’s just no getting
around it: dogs are physically capable of inflicting serious harm (just look at those teeth!)
because that’s how they’ve survived and evolved. And Mother Nature is pretty wily – it’s
hard to counteract the power of instinct!
But that doesn’t mean that we, as dog lovers and owners, are entirely helpless when it
comes to handling our dogs. There’s a lot that we can do to prevent aggression from
rearing its ugly head in the first place – and even if prevention hasn’t been possible (for
whatever reason), there are still steps that we can take to recognize and deal with it
- Different aggression types -
There are several different types of canine aggression. The two most common ones are:
- Aggression towards strangers
- Aggression towards family members
You may be wondering why we’re bothering categorizing this stuff: after all, aggression is
aggression, and we want to turf it out NOW, not waste time with the details – right?
Well … not quite. These two different types of aggression stem from very different causes,
and require different types of treatment.
- Aggression towards strangers -
What is it?
It’s pretty easy to tell when a dog’s nervy around strange people. He’s jumpy and on the
alert: either he can’t sit still and is constantly fidgeting, leaping at the smallest sound, and
pacing around barking and whining; or he’s veerrrry still indeed, sitting rock-steady in one
place, staring hard at the object of his suspicions (a visitor, the mailman, someone
approaching him on the street while he’s tied up outside a store.)
Why does it happen?
There’s one major reason why a dog doesn’t like strange people: he’s never had the
chance to get used to them. Remember, your dog relies 100% on you to broaden his
horizons for him: without being taken on lots of outings to see the world and realize for
himself, through consistent and positive experiences, that the unknown doesn’t
necessarily equal bad news for him, how can he realistically be expected to relax in an
What can I do about it?
The process of accustoming your dog to the world and all the strange people (and animals)
that it contains is called socialization. This is an incredibly important aspect of your dog’s
upbringing: in fact, it’s pretty hard to overemphasize just how important it is. Socializing
your dog means exposing him from a young age (generally speaking, as soon as he’s had
his vaccinations) to a wide variety of new experiences, new people, and new animals.
How does socialization prevent stranger aggression?
When you socialize your dog, you’re getting him to learn through experience that new
sights and sounds are fun, not scary.
It’s not enough to expose an adult dog to a crowd of unfamiliar people and tell him to
“Settle down, Roxy, it’s OK” – he has to learn that it’s OK for himself. And he needs to do it
from puppyhood for the lesson to sink in.
The more types of people and animals he meets (babies, toddlers, teenagers, old people,
men, women, people wearing uniforms, people wearing motorcycle helmets, people
carrying umbrellas, etc) in a fun and relaxed context, the more at ease and happy – and
safe around strangers - he’ll be in general.
How can I socialize my dog so that he doesn’t develop a fear of strangers?
Socializing your dog is pretty easy to do – it’s more of a general effort than a specific
First of all, you should take him to puppy preschool. This is a generic term for a series of
easy group-training classes for puppies (often performed at the vet clinic, which has the
additional benefit of teaching your dog positive associations with the vet!).
In a puppy preschool class, about ten or so puppy owners get together with a qualified
trainer (often there’ll be at least two trainers present – the more there are, the better,
since it means you get more one-on-one time with a professional) and start teaching their
puppies the basic obedience commands: sit, stay, and so on.
Even though the obedience work is very helpful and is a great way to start your puppy on
the road to being a trustworthy adult dog, really the best part of puppy preschool is the
play sessions: several times throughout the class, the puppies are encouraged to run
around off-leash and play amongst themselves.
This is an ideal environment for them to learn good social skills: there’s a whole bunch of
unfamiliar dogs present (which teaches them how to interact with strange dogs), there’s a
whole bunch of unfamiliar people present (which teaches them that new faces are nothing
to be afraid of), and the environment is safe and controlled (there’s at least one certified
trainer present to make sure that things don’t get out of hand).
Socialization doesn’t just stop with puppy preschool, though. It’s an ongoing effort
throughout the life of your puppy and dog: he needs to be taken to a whole bunch of new
places and environments.
Remember not to overwhelm him: start off slow, and build up his tolerance gradually.
- Aggression towards family members -
There are two common reasons why a dog is aggressive towards members of his own
- He’s trying to defend something he thinks of as his from a perceived threat (you).
This is known as resource guarding, and though it may sound innocuous, there’s actually a
lot more going on here than your dog simply trying to keep his kibble to himself.
- He’s not comfortable with the treatment/handling he’s getting from you or other members
of the family.
What’s resource guarding?
Resource guarding is pretty common among dogs. The term refers to overly-possessive
behavior on behalf of your dog: for instance, snarling at you if you approach him when he’s
eating, or giving you “the eye” (a flinty-eyed, direct stare) if you reach your hand out to
take a toy away from him.
All dogs can be possessive from time to time – it’s in their natures. Sometimes they’re
possessive over things with no conceivable value: inedible trash, balled up pieces of paper
or tissue, old socks. More frequently, however, resource-guarding becomes an issue over
items with a very real and understandable value: food and toys.
Why does it happen?
It all boils down to the issue of dominance. Let me take a moment to explain this concept:
dogs are pack animals. This means that they’re used to a very structured environment: in a
dog-pack, each individual animal is ranked in a hierarchy of position and power (or
“dominance”) in relation to every other animal. Each animal is aware of the rank of every
other animal, which means he knows specifically how to act in any given situation (whether
to back down, whether to push the issue, whether to muscle in or not on somebody else’s
turf, etc etc).
To your dog, the family environment is no different to the dog-pack environment. Your dog
has ranked each member of the family, and has his own perception of where he ranks in
that environment as well.
This is where it gets interesting: if your dog perceives himself as higher up on the social
totem-pole than other family members, he’s going to get cheeky. If he’s really got an
overinflated sense of his own importance, he’ll start to act aggressively.
Why? Because dominance and aggression are the exclusive rights of a superior-ranked
animal. No underdog would ever show aggression or act dominantly to a higher-ranked
animal (the consequences would be dire, and he knows it!)
Resource guarding is a classic example of dominant behavior: only a higher-ranked dog (a
“dominant” dog) would act aggressively in defence of resources.
To put it plainly: if it was clear to your dog that he is not, in fact, the leader of the family, he’
d never even dream of trying to prevent you from taking his food or toys – because a
lower-ranking dog (him) will always go along with what the higher-ranking dogs (you and
your family) say.
So what can I do about it? The best treatment for dominant, aggressive behavior is
consistent, frequent obedience work, which will underline your authority over your dog.
Just two fifteen-minute sessions a day will make it perfectly clear to your dog that you’re
the boss, and that it pays to do what you say.
You can make this fact clear to him by rewarding him (with treats and lavish praise) for
obeying a command, and isolating him (putting him in “time-out”, either outside the house
or in a room by himself) for misbehaviour.
- If you’re not entirely confident doing this yourself, you may wish to consider enlisting the
assistance of a qualified dog-trainer.
- Brush up on your understanding of canine psychology and communication, so that you
understand what he’s trying to say – this will help you to nip any dominant behaviors in
the bud, and to communicate your own authority more effectively
- Train regularly: keep obedience sessions short and productive (no more than fifteen
minutes – maybe two or three of these per day).
Why doesn’t my dog like to be handled?
All dogs have different handling thresholds. Some dogs like lots of cuddles, and are
perfectly content to be hugged, kissed, and have arms slung over their shoulders (this is
the ultimate “I’m the boss” gesture to a dog, which is why a lot of them won’t tolerate it.)
Others – usually the ones not accustomed to a great deal of physical contact from a very
young age – aren’t comfortable with too much full-body contact and will get nervy and
agitated if someone persists in trying to hug them.
Another common cause of handling-induced aggression is a bad grooming experience: nail-
clipping and bathing are the two common culprits.
When you clip a dog’s nails, it’s very easy to “quick” him – that is, cut the blood vessel that
runs inside the nail. This is extremely painful to a dog, and is a sure-fire way to cause a
long-lasting aversion to those clippers.
Being washed is something that a great many dogs have difficulty dealing with – a lot of
owners, when confronted with a wild-eyed, half-washed, upset dog, feel that in order to
complete the wash they have to forcibly restrain him. This only adds to the dog’s sense of
panic, and reinforces his impression of a wash as something to be avoided at all costs – if
necessary, to defend himself from it with a display of teeth and hackles.
Can I “retrain” him to enjoy being handled and groomed?
In a word: yes. It’s a lot easier if you start from a young age – handle your puppy a lot, get
him used to being touched and rubbed all over. Young dogs generally enjoy being handled
– it’s only older ones who haven’t had a lot of physical contact throughout their lives that
sometimes find physical affection difficult to accept.
Practice picking up his paws and touching them with the clipper; practice taking him into
the bath (or outside, under the faucet – whatever works for you, but warm water is much
more pleasant for a dog than a freezing spray of ice-water!), and augment the process
throughout with lots of praise and the occasional small treat.
For an older dog that may already have had several unpleasant handling/grooming
experiences, things are a little more difficult. You need to undo the damage already caused
by those bad experiences, which you can do by taking things very slowly – with an
emphasis on keeping your dog calm.
The instant he starts to show signs of stress, stop immediately and let him relax. Try to
make the whole thing into a game: give him lots of praise, pats, and treats.
Take things slowly. Don’t push it too far: if you get nervous, stop.
Dogs show aggression for a reason: they’re warning you to back off, or else! If your dog
just can’t seem to accept being groomed, no matter how much practice you put in, it’s best
to hand the job over to the professionals.
Your vet will clip his nails for you (make sure you tell him first that he gets aggressive when
the clippers come out, so your vet can take the necessary precautions!). As far as washing
and brushing goes, the dog-grooming business is a flourishing industry: for a small fee,
you can get your dog washed, clipped, brushed, and whatever else you require by
experienced professionals (again, make sure you tell them about your dog’s reaction to the
For more information on handling aggressive and dominant behaviors, as well as a great deal of
detailed information on a host of other common dog behavior problems, check out SitStayFetch.
It’s a complete owner’s guide to owning, rearing, and training your dog, and it deals with all aspects
of dog ownership.
To get the inside word on preventing and dealing with problem behaviors like aggression and
dominance in your dog, SitStayFetch is well worth a look.
About The Author Darrin Donaldson
You can visit the SitStayFetch site by clicking on the link below: