Why is My Dog Becoming Aggressive?

Aggression is a term to describe a set of behaviors that can begin with a simple warning and end up a full-blown attack.

Dogs can show symptoms of aggression, such as:

  • Staring
  • Rigid body
  • Lunging
  • Growling
  • Snarling
  • Biting

Dogs behave aggressively for many reasons, and it is vital to understand the cause of aggression so you can modify this behavior.

There Are Some Common Types of Aggression Shown by Dogs Such As:

  • Territorial 

A dog protects its territory or home from threats such as intruders. To an aggressive territorial dog, an intruder doesn’t necessarily have to be a stranger; it can be a human or another dog they know.

  • Protective

When a dog protects fellow pack members from perceived threats (other dogs or humans), the dog feels they need to protect their own, and this protection can be primarily reserved for pack members they perceive as being vulnerable.

  • Possessive

Possessiveness occurs when a dog is overly protective of objects such as toys or food. The dog may become aggressive when approached while eating or playing with their favorite toy. They may also protect their favorite hang out spot.

  • Fear

Aggression is shown when a fearful dog is trying to retreat from a scary situation but has been cornered (flight response).

  • Defensive

Instead of retreating when fearful, a defensive, aggressive dog will attack first. (fight response)

  • Social

Can be aggressive towards another pack member (another dog or human) if he feels that pack member has overstepped acceptable pack boundaries.

  • Frustration-Elicited

A dog can feel frustrated when restrained (either by a leash, crate, or fence) from approaching something exciting, leading to aggressive behavior.

  • Redirected

A dog shows aggression towards a human or another dog who has interfered or interrupted aggression being shown caused by another trigger.

  • Pain

Signs of aggression being shown by a dog who is in pain. Handle an injured dog with care as they may lash out if you unintentionally hurt them. Never use punishment methods on a dog. Inflicting pain on a dog through punishment can lead them to become aggressive towards the pain source.

For more information regarding health related behavioral problems see our article ‘Behavior Problems as a Symptom of Illness in Dogs

  • Sex

Aggressive behavior exhibited between two intact same-sex dogs in an attempt to vie for a mate.

  • Predatory

Aggression is shown by dogs who love to chase moving things. The aggression can come without any warning, and as a result, they may bite or kill whatever they are pursuing.

Why is My Dog Aggressive to Other Dogs?

There are a variety of reasons a dog behaves aggressively towards another dog. Providing there is no medical cause underlying aggression. The dog may have been conditioned to react aggressively towards other dogs by not being appropriately socialized as a puppy, a traumatic encounter with another dog, and being part of a dogfighting operation or other abuse and neglect. A dog could also be aggressive to protect its territory or social status.

We’ve all been there. You go to visit your friend, your neighbor, your co-worker, etc., and then before you even walk in the door, you hear it. Barking. Growling. Lots of anxious movement.

Dealing with an anxious and aggressive dog is scary and, for the owners, can be a bit embarrassing. Barring the invention of a time machine that would allow you to go back in time to when your dog was 6-12 weeks old to focus on behavioral training. Time travel is what Oscar E. Chavez, DVM, MBA, Member of the American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition, says he likes to suggest to aggressive dog owners. You can do a few specific things to try to help curb your dog’s wrong (and often dangerous) behavior.

Can You Train Aggression Out of a Dog?

“Aggressive dogs, if truly aggressive, usually require professional behavior modification and the attention of a trainer or professional,” says Dr. Chavez. “This doesn’t mean you need to work with them at all times, but it does mean that they need to be a part of the behavior modification program.”

When dealing with aggressive dogs, the key is to identify which type of aggression your dog is exhibiting and then develop an appropriate strategy to reverse it. “This process can take days, weeks, months, or even years,” says Dr. Chavez. “But if done right, it can be effective over 90 percent of the time. Truly ‘evil’ dogs are rare, and most of the time, it’s poor socialization or training during puppyhood that leads to problems.”

When it comes to training, the key is to ignore bad behavior (provided it’s not immediately threatening) and reward good behavior with attention. “Negative attention is still attention, so yelling and shouting your dog’s name when it’s lunging and growling may only fuel the problem,” says Dr. Chavez.

One common technique that helps in the initial stages is Dr. Chavez called the ‘invisible dog’ approach. “This is where you are instructed to ignore the dog completely, except for only feeding and potty walks for two weeks,” he said. “Even during these allowable interactions, you are instructed to avoid eye contact and be very cold to the dog.”

Dogs who are being given the ‘invisible dog’ technique go through a mourning phase, where they miss the attention and affection of their pet parent so much that they become open to training and to being very cooperative. After this period, the dog’s behavior is usually better modified. “Invisible dog is tough because the last thing we want to do is ignore a pet we love,” says Dr. Chavez. “But it must be adhered to very consistently for it to work, and when it fails, it’s usually our fault for giving in.”

If your dog’s aggressive behavior worries you, Dr. Chavez suggests checking out The Animal Behavior Network as a great place to start for advice.

Handling Dominance Aggression in Dogs the Alpha Way

Has your dog ever raised hackles at the letter carrier or growled at the neighbor’s kid? Untreated aggressive behavior in your dog can escalate to tragic consequences unless you take control. By treating domestic dogs more like the wolves from which they originated, trainer Jennifer McCarthy of Longmont, Colo. believes severe dog behavioral problems, most notably aggression, can be solved. “I have a better success rate with this approach than with other methods I’ve used,” she says. “It’s a different mind-set on how to communicate with dogs.”

McCarthy’s wolf approach can help you to take control of your seemingly “angry” dog or prevent your dog from trying to step over you in an attempt to become the leader of your pack. “We can’t completely take aggression out of a dog since a dog has the capability for it,” she explains. “The difference is that your dog should look to you to decide whether or not to be aggressive.” In short, you need to be the alpha dog in your pack.

Growl like Wolves

The concept came to McCarthy while she was researching Mission: Wolf, a sanctuary located in the remote mountains of Westcliffe, Colorado. McCarthy placed her three German Shepherd dogs fence to fence with a female full-blooded wolf to document how the wolf’s behavior would affect her dogs. “When the wolf growled at my dogs, her meaning was profoundly clear,” McCarthy says. “Wolves only bark in fear.” She adds, “We’ve bred barking into dogs for guard use, but I growl at them as a wolf would.”

Along the same lines, McCarthy believes that it’s best to instruct and not ask your dog to follow basic commands, such as to stay, stop, move forward, and so on. She even recommends growling instead of saying, “No.” Growling can be imitated with a deep, low voice that commands attention. If you want a dog to wait patiently for a treat in your hand, growl, she advises.

Of course, all growl and no approval would disturb anyone, including your dog, so McCarthy also emphasizes that you should frequently praise your dog when appropriate, such as providing your pet with a good rub down after it demonstrates good behavior.

Nip Dog Aggression in the Bud

Like any true leader, alpha wolves take on more responsibility than anyone else in the pack. You can assert leadership by making the decisions with a calm, no-nonsense disposition. Imagine that your dog is like a kid in the backseat, and you’re the driver. Take control by providing direction, and don’t let it get away without listening to you. Dogs are hard-wired to vie for alpha if they think the leader isn’t strong enough. When you’re in control, your dogs are less likely to become aggressive or defensive.

Here Are Some Other Wolf-Inspired Tips to Improve Your Chances of Gaining the Top Dog Spot:

  • Feed According to Pack Status 

As a dog owner, you need to establish your rank as a leader. You can learn to do it in the same way McCarthy does by replicating wolves’ behavior in the wild, which can even apply to dinnertime. Wolves usually run before eating, so exercise your dog before feeding. Feed multiple dogs according to their pack status because, after a wolf pack has hunted, the alpha wolf eats first and then decides which dog gets to eat and which has to wait. To do this with her own, McCarthy first dishes out her dogs’ meals. She then gets on the floor and growls at them to back off until she instructs them to have the food. When she walks away, they’re allowed to eat.

  • Be Alpha and Don’t Baby 

Dogs, like humans, rest easier under good leadership. If you are a thoughtful yet decisive head of the group, you will help reduce your pet’s stress levels and probably your own. “Anxiety often stems from confusion about a place in a pack,” says McCarthy. She believes that the largest single cause of dog/owner problems is treating dogs like spoiled children. Instead, set boundaries for your dog and don’t praise lavishly for anything. Reserve your approval for when they have earned it.

  • Be Decisive 

Being alpha is all about attitude. If you give mixed messages that you are the alpha in one context but not in others, your dog may show signs of dominance, anxiety, fear, or aggression. McCarthy says to present yourself as confident but kind, fair but tough, loving, but firm. Prove your leadership to earn respect. A true alpha never gets into a fight because the pack leader wouldn’t need to do this. Your dog sees your confidence and leadership as safety and security. If you assert your leadership through body language, attitude, and, yes, a little growling, your dog will understand.

Article written by Author: Cheryl LockPhyllis DeGioia, and The Dog Daily Expert

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