While all of us dog owners love our furry companions, dog aggression ranks highly in the list of problem behavior that we want to eradicate. Although dogs have been domesticated over many thousands of years, our canine companions still occasionally demonstrate some behaviors that would serve them well in the wild but may be less than ideal for living in human homes.
Once you understand these behaviors and their underlying origins, however, it’s easier to develop and stick with a plan for trying to minimize these problematic behaviors.
Why do dogs act aggressively?
There are many possible triggers that may contribute to aggression in dogs. Some dogs are aggressive in a wide variety of contexts, while other dogs show aggression only in a very specific set of circumstances.
In general, the possible triggers of aggression in dogs can be divided into five categories: fear, possessiveness, frustration, dominance, and pain/illness.
Fear is a common cause of aggression in dogs. Have you ever heard the phrase “fight or flight response?” When your dog is scared, they have two options - run away or stick around and fight.
While many dogs prefer to flee, aggression can arise if your dog feels trapped in a fear-inducing situation. Fear aggression is most common in a dog that feels cornered.
Possessive behavior can also trigger aggression. If your dog feels strongly about protecting their food, treats, toys, resting places, home, or even family members, aggression can arise towards any person or animal that is perceived as a threat to those items.
Frustration can also cause aggression in dogs. Think of a dog that is left chained up outside all day, unable to interact with the humans and animals that walk by their home. Over time, these dogs can become hyper-aroused, and this excitable state can lead to aggression. Frustration-related aggression can occur not only in chained dogs, but also while dogs are outside on a leash or in a fenced yard.
Dominance is an often-discussed cause of aggression in dogs, but is actually less common than you might expect. Dominance aggression occurs when a dog feels that their role in the social hierarchy is being challenged. In this case, they show aggression to retain “top dog” status.
While many dog trainers on television and social media act as if dominance is a common cause of canine aggression, this myth has largely been debunked. Dominance-related aggression affects a relatively limited number of dogs.
Aggression caused by pain or illness is perhaps the most easy to understand. If you have ever been sick with the flu or had a significant injury, you may have noticed that you were more short-tempered than usual. Dogs can be the same way. Anything that causes your dog to be painful or feel unwell can contribute to aggression.
Understanding these common causes of canine aggression can help provide a framework for thinking about aggression problems that you may be observing in your dog.
Now that you are familiar with the general causes of dog aggression, let’s discuss some specific scenarios and how you can address them.
How to stop dog aggression
Tackling aggression on walks
Dogs that show aggression on walks will benefit greatly from professional help, especially if it’s a severe case of dog aggression and/or if your dog is difficult for you to control. However, there are steps you can try at home, if your dog is mild enough to be controlled and you can do so safely.
First, focus on basic obedience; ensure that your dog is dependably trained to sit, stay, lay down, and come. Work on these commands in a quiet area first, then expand to asking your dog to obey these commands even while distracted.
Once your dog reliably obeys basic obedience commands, you can easily distract your dog when another dog is approaching; your dog can’t bark or lunge at other dogs while he’s sitting quietly and waiting for the best dog treats!
Now, it’s important to realize that this is not probably going to work when another dog is just five or ten feet away. Instead, start working on this skill when the other dog is far away, using a friend or neighbor to help you create a scenario that sets your dog up for success.
Have your friend stand with their dog at a far distance (for example, at the end of the block), while asking your dog to obey a command. If your dog obeys, give a treat. Then, gradually move closer to the other dog and repeat this process.
Stop for the day once you reach the point where your dog is struggling to obey. After repeating this process for several days, you should gradually progress to a point where your dog is still obedient even when the other dog is standing just across the street. This process requires commitment, but it’s the best way to address dog aggression towards strange dogs.
Aggression towards other dogs in the home
There are two different types of dog aggression: aggression towards dogs outside the home (as described above) and aggression towards other dogs within the home. These two types of aggression differ in their underlying causes and management.
Aggression between housemates is an emergency. Fighting dogs can seriously injure each other. They can also injure you, their owner, if you attempt to intervene in a fight. If your dogs have shown any signs of significant aggression towards each other, take immediate steps to keep them separated at all times to prevent further fights.
Next, talk to your veterinarian about a referral to a veterinary behaviorist who can help you manage this problem (or a high-quality trainer, if a behaviorist is not available in your area). Interdog aggression between housemates is not a problem that you should try to manage alone!
Barking at sounds, people, or even nothing at all
Dogs use barking as a form of communication. Although barking is a normal behavior, it can become irritating if you have a dog that barks all the time! Dogs bark for a number of reasons, but the most common reasons include territorial or alarm barking (directed at possible intruders) and attention-seeking.
The easiest way to manage territorial barking is to limit your dog’s ability to see what’s going on outside. This may be as simple as closing blinds or curtains on the front of your house, or you may need to buy the best dog crate you can find that features a cover.
Another option is to teach your dog a command that can be used to stop his barking. For example, you may teach the command “quiet” as a cue to stop barking, or the command “go to your spot” to direct your dog to go lay calmly in his dog bed.
If your dog’s barking is an attention-seeking behavior, it’s important to make sure you aren’t reinforcing the behavior. When your dog is barking, make every possible effort to completely ignore him. Don’t yell, don’t make eye contact, and don’t engage in any way. Look away from your dog and leave the room. When your dog stops barking, then you can look at him and give him attention. Over time, most dogs will learn that barking no longer results in attention.
Jumping up during greetings
Excited dogs often jump up on people during greetings. Some owners even encourage this behavior when their dog is young, but it’s a habit that can become annoying over time.
You’ve probably heard a number of different suggestions for keeping dogs from jumping up, such as raising your knee, grabbing your dog’s paws, or trying to push the dog away. Unfortunately, all of these options seem like attention to your dog, further reinforcing the behavior of jumping up.
Instead, take a different approach. What does your dog want when he’s jumping up on you? Attention. Therefore, the easiest way to stop this behavior is to ensure that you don’t reward your dog by giving him attention. When your dog jumps up, your goal should be to completely ignore him.
Turn around and walk away, without speaking or making eye contact with your dog. Wait for him to calm down and sit, then reward him with attention. Over time, your dog will learn that jumping results in him being ignored, while calm sitting results in him getting the attention that he wants.
Chewing or destroying household items
Chewing is a normal dog behavior, but is one that can become frustrating when we bring dogs into our homes. If your dog is chewing on your possessions, you need to ask yourself why. If the chewing only occurs when you’re away from home, and is accompanied by signs of separation anxiety, then dealing with separation anxiety will be necessary before the chewing issues will resolve.
If your dog is just demonstrating normal, everyday chewing that happens to involve your shoes or other prized possessions, there are several steps you can take to help. First, move as many items as possible to drawers, closets with closed doors, high shelves, and other inaccessible areas. Next, offer your dog a wide variety of the best dog chew toys, ranging from plastic or nylon bones to edible chews such as rawhides.
Avoid cooked bones and be sure to supervise your dog closely with the chew toys, to ensure that he doesn’t swallow anything that could get lodged in his gastrointestinal tract. Over time, you will begin to determine which chew toys your dog prefers and can offer those on a regular basis. Once your dog consistently chews his toys instead of your belongings, you can probably begin to move your valuables back to the main living area of your home.
Consistency is key
When trying to resolve any behavior problem, from dog aggression to destructive chewing, the key is consistency. Once you have figured out the problem (and its underlying cause, if applicable), you need to come up with a behavior plan that can be consistently enforced by everyone in your household. Consistency is key to correcting your dog’s behavior issues.
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Dr. Barnette is a graduate of the University of Florida, where she received both her B.S. in Zoology and her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM). She has 15 years of clinical experience as a small animal veterinarian, treating dogs, cats, and occasional exotic patients. She now works as a freelance veterinary writer, creating educational content for veterinarians, veterinary team members, and dedicated pet owners. Dr. Barnette lives in southwest Florida with her husband and daughter (plus two cats, a dog, and a rescued dove!) and enjoys kayaking, biking, and hiking. Learn more about Dr. Barnette at www.linkedin.com/in/catherinebarnette.