Understanding Aggression in Dogs

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Though aggression is often perceived as a natural response, it is not normal behavior for dogs who have been socialized.  Because aggression is so complex and its consequences can be very dangerous, we recommend that you consult a professional behaviorist if your dog is displaying serious signs of aggression.  Here are the four basic types of aggression in dogs:

dog showing teeth

Dominance Aggression

Though you may not notice it, your dog is constantly monitoring the dominance hierarchy in your home and evaluating his place in the pecking order.  If your dog perceives his own ranking in this hierarchy to be higher than yours, he will likely challenge your position in certain situations.  Because dogs and people communicate differently, owners often inadvertently challenge their dog’s dominance.  For example, a dominance-aggressive dog may head turn or snap at you abruptly when you reach for his collar.  He may growl when disturbed while resting or asked to move from a favorite spot.  Dogs who display dominance aggression often are described as having split personalities because they can be friendly in one moment and then suddenly aggressive when unintentionally challenged.  Dominant-aggressive dogs can be aggressive to people as well as other animals.  Most fights among family dogs are rooted in instability of the dominance hierarchy.

Fear-Motivated Aggression

Your dog may react aggressively when he feels that he is in danger of being harmed.  Keep in mind that what your dog perceives as frightening may not be something you would ever identify as a threat.  For example, a new person’s friendly hand may seem harmless to you, but to a teacup chihuahua, this stranger is a very large and possibly too close for comfort.  Dogs of any size can display fear aggression towards people, animals, and even inanimate objects.

Protective, Territorial, and Possessive Aggression

These types of aggression are all very similar in nature.  Protective aggression occurs when a dog acts aggressively towards perceived threats to his family.  Territorial aggression occurs when your dog reacts aggressively to anything he believes is a threat or challenge to his ownership of an area.  Keep in mind that what your dog understands to be “his territory” can extend further than the simple boundaries of your home and can extend as far as his entire walking route.  Possessive aggression is displayed when your dog identifies a threat of losing his possessions such as toys, food, and any other object with perceived value.

Redirected Aggression

This is a commonly displayed form of aggression that owners often misunderstand.  Dogs who display redirected aggression do so when their arousal level is heightened and they do not have an appropriate outlet for their excess energy.  For example, your dog may get overstimulated by passing a neighborhood cat and because he is not able to exert his energy on that cat, he may redirect his energy onto you in the form of a bite.  Though this type of aggression may seem innocent in nature, it is potentially very dangerous.

Every dog will react differently to different stimuli.  Watch your dog closely and examine every aspect of the situation when he displays any type of aggression. In any case, it is important for you to work with a behaviorist if you observe any type of aggression in your dog.  The following are tips you can use if your dog is acting aggressively:

• Safety first: your priority should be the safety of people and other animals.  Restrict and supervise your pet until you are able to obtain professional assistance.

• Take your pet to the veterinarian for a full checkup to ensure that what you perceive as a behavior issue is not a medical problem.

• Avoid situations that have upset your dog in the past.

• If your dog is territorial or possession aggressive, prevent his access to these things.  In an emergency, offer him something of higher value such as a particularly tasty treat and then confine or restrict him.

Spay & neuter your pet: intact pets are often more likely to act aggressively.

• Do not attempt to punish your pet for aggressive behavior, as it will likely worsen the situation.

• Do not encourage aggressive behavior by playing tug-of-war or wrestling games or by teaching your dog to bark in response to outside noises or people.

For more useful information, please download our free Dog manual.

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