How do you know if you have an aggressive dog? A Complete Guide

WASHINGTON — The longtime owner of a large mixed-breed dog was mauled to death in her D.C. home earlier this week, leaving her husband and neighbors surprised that the dog turned on her. Following her death, and similar dog attacks in the area, veterinarian Dr. Katie Nelson talked to WTOP about what warning signs to look for and what owners can do to prevent aggression.

“Aggression is a huge topic,” Nelson said. “I think we need to focus on what aggression truly is, and we have to realize that it is a range of behaviors. It’s not just the most severe case like what we just saw. There are a lot of warning signs that come with aggression.”

While some aggression requires more serious intervention than others, a dog’s aggressive behavior could also be an indication of pent-up energy or old age, which can be eased through training and medication.

In more serious cases of aggression, such as resource-guarding or protective behavior over humans, Nelson recommends that owners work with a trainer and their veterinarian to identify a dog’s triggers and help the dog get through their aggression.

Just as there are a wide range of aggressive behaviors, any type of dog can exhibit aggression regardless of breed or size, Nelson said. So it’s important to treat each dog individually.

Family Members, Strangers or Other Animals

Determining whom your dog is aggressive toward is essential to understanding her behavior. It’s common for dogs to behave aggressively toward unfamiliar people. Some studies report that as many as 60 to 70% of all pet dogs bark threateningly at strangers and act unfriendly when around them. Aggression toward unfamiliar dogs is also widespread. It’s less common for dogs to direct aggression toward family members or other pets in the home. Most problematic are dogs who are aggressive toward children, especially children in the family. Not only is aggression toward children exceedingly difficult to treat because of safety concerns, the likelihood that a dog with this problem will ever become trustworthy is slim.

Some dogs are aggressive only to a certain category of people. A dog might be aggressive only with the veterinarian or groomer, or with the postal carrier, or with people in wheelchairs or individuals using canes and walkers. In some cases, it’s easy to limit a dog’s access to the people that upset her. For instance, if your short-haired dog dislikes the groomer, you can just groom her yourself at home. But in other cases, the targeted people are impossible to avoid. For example, if you have a dog who dislikes children and you live in a densely populated urban apartment building next to a preschool, it will be difficult to avoid exposing your dog to children.

Aggression toward people, aggression toward dogs and aggression toward other animals are relatively independent patterns of behavior. If your dog is aggressive toward other dogs, for example, that doesn’t mean she’s any more or less likely to be aggressive toward people.

If you’re deciding whether to live with and treat your aggressive dog, there are several factors to consider because you, as the pet parent, are ultimately responsible for your dog’s behavior. These factors involve the level of risk in living with your dog and the likelihood of changing her behavior:

  • Size. Regardless of other factors, large dogs are more frightening and can inflict more damage than small dogs.
  • Age. Young dogs with an aggression problem are believed to be more malleable and easier to treat than older dogs.
  • Bite history. Dogs who have already bitten are a known risk and an insurance liability.
  • Severity. Dogs who stop their aggression at showing teeth, growling or snapping are significantly safer to live and work with than dogs who bite. Likewise, dogs who have delivered minor bruises, scratches and small punctures are less risky than dogs who have inflicted serious wounds.
  • Predictability. Dogs at the highest risk of being euthanized for aggression are those who give little or no warning before they bite and who are inconsistently, unpredictably aggressive. Dogs who give warning before they bite allow people and other animals time to retreat and avoid getting hurt. As counterintuitive as it might seem, it’s easier to live with a dog who always reacts aggressively when, for instance, every time you push him off the bed than a dog who does so only sporadically.
  • Targets. How often your dog is exposed to the targets of her aggression can affect how easy it is to manage and resolve her behavior. A dog who’s aggressive to strangers is relatively easy to control if you live in a rural environment with a securely fenced yard. A dog who’s aggressive to children can be managed if her pet parents are childless and have no friends or relatives with children. A dog who is aggressive to unfamiliar dogs poses little difficulty for pet parents who dislike dog parks and prefer to exercise their dog on isolated hiking trails. In contrast, living with a dog who has recurring ear infections and bites family members when they try to medicate her can be stressful and unpleasant.
  • Triggers. Are the circumstances that prompt your dog to behave aggressively easy or impossible to avoid? If your dog only guards her food while she’s eating, the solution is straightforward: Keep away from her while she’s eating. If no one can safely enter the kitchen when your dog’s there because she guards her empty food bowl in the cupboard, that’s another story. If your dog bites any stranger within reach, she’s a lot more dangerous than a dog who bites strangers only if they try to kiss her.
  • Ease of motivating your dog. The final consideration is how easy it is to motivate your dog during retraining. The safest and most effective way to treat an aggression problem is to implement behavior modification under the guidance of a qualified professional. Modifying a dog’s behavior involves rewarding her for good behavior—so you’ll likely be more successful if your dog enjoys praise, treats and toys. Dogs who aren’t particularly motivated by the usual rewards can be especially challenging to work with, and the likelihood of such a dog getting better is small.
  • Some aggressive dogs behave the way they do because of a medical condition or complication. In addition to acute painful conditions, dogs with orthopedic problems, thyroid abnormality, adrenal dysfunction, cognitive dysfunction, seizure disorders and sensory deficits can exhibit changes in irritability and aggression. Geriatric dogs can suffer confusion and insecurity, which may prompt aggressive behavior. Certain medications can alter mood and affect your dog’s susceptibility to aggression. Even diet has been implicated as a potential contributing factor. If your dog has an aggression problem, it’s crucial to take her to a veterinarian, before you do anything else, to rule out medical issues that could cause or worsen her behavior. If the veterinarian discovers a medical problem, you’ll need to work closely with her to give your dog the best chance at improving.

    Some Signs of Dominant Aggression

    First of all, if you think your dog might be aggressive, do not “test” your dog at a dog park where you don’t know the other dogs and the other dogs and owners don’t know your dog. If he is aggressive, not only do you risk hurting your dog, yourself, someone else, or another dog, you also risk a lawsuit. Call a professional and work with them to test, and if necessary, address any aggressive behaviors.

    Signs of dominant behavior include blocking people’s/dog’s path; barging through doors; demanding attention; protecting of sleep area; stopping eating when approached; mounting legs or other dogs; approaching another dog from the side and putting his head on the other dogs back/shoulder; inserting himself between you and another person or dog (e.g. when you and your significant other hug); and lunging at people. Any one item may not turn into a big deal, but should be monitored. If you are comfortable, you should discourage dominant behavior with training and diversions so your dog will look to you for direction.

    Furthermore, intact males are most likely to be dominant aggressive. If you are not going to breed your dog, get him or her fixed! Not only to help reduce the likelihood of dominant behaviors, but to also keep the unwanted pet population down.

    Recognize when dominant behavior crosses the line to aggression as dominant-aggressive dogs are dangerous. The signs of a dominant and aggressive dog include staring; excessive low-range barking; snarling; growling and snapping; standing tall; holding ears erect; and/or carrying tail high and moving it stiffly from side to side. However, beware, often a dominant aggressive dog will give no sign before biting. Remember that a dominant-aggressive dog is likely to attack; retreat without running.

    Familiarize yourself with the characteristics of a defensive-aggressive dog, which are more ambivalent and difficult to predict. A defensive dog will display submissive body language. Look for ears held back; avoidance of eye contact; lowered head and body; tail tucked between legs; and submissive urination. Be aware that defensive-aggressive dogs dislike being touched and will bite out of fear.

    Only train with an aggressive dog under the guidance of a professional trainer and remember that staring down an aggressive dog, punishing, attempting to remove food or a toy, and touching or grabbing the dog or its collar can result in a dog attack.

    There is people aggression (dog aggression towards people) and dog to dog agression. I want to talk a little about dog to dog aggression. Some signs of dog to dog aggression include:

  • Lunging
  • Posturing
  • Direct eye contact
  • Raised hackles
  • Pricked ears
  • Teeth exposed toward the other dog
  • Play bow, growling and barking is fine if the dogs body language is still relaxed, however, humping is a sign of dominance. It can be okay as dogs occasionally need to workout their own social ladder (at home), but it does need to be monitored and should not become excessive. With two dogs displaying dominance, you need to closely monitor them and they should work it out.

    There is no place for aggressive behavior at a dog park. Dogs DO NOT need to “work out their social ladder” at a dog park. I hear people say all the time – they will work it out. Why do they need to? Why risk it? You should take a dog to a dog park to play, and playing does not require a social ladder. If your dog shows aggressive behavior, remove your dog. If another dog is being aggressive towards your dog, remove your dog. You might just be able to go to another part of the park with different dogs, but if the behavior continues, leave and come back another day.

    Additionally, one dog being chased by many dogs is not okay at a dog park. The dogs can get into a pack mentality and bite the dog being chased. If your dog is the one being chased, remove your dog from the situation. If your dog is one of the dogs doing the chasing, call your dog and have him play with some other dogs. One dog being chased by one other dog is fine – if neither looks aggressive or scared. This is especially true if they change roles on occasion.

    Speaking of role reversal, when dogs are at play role reversal is a very good sign. For example, when one dog is being chased and then he becomes the chaser. Another sign of good play is if a bigger, or stronger, or more agile dog “handicaps” himself to pay with a smaller, weaker or less agile dog. This is a very good socialization behavior. An example is when a large dog lays down and plays with a puppy.

    Also a good sign at play is when dogs will self monitor themselves. This is where two dogs will play and then both stop at the same time and sniff around or get a drink. Dogs do this when they are playing well and things are getting rough or they want a break. If both dogs stop – good. If one dog trys to stop and the other dog keeps going – bad.

    Obsessive behavior is also bad. We have all seen at a dog park where for some reason one dog is just obsessed with another dog. He will not play with any other dogs, and will not leave the dog he/she is obsessing over alone. If you experience this, remove your dog (if he is the one being obsessive or if he is the one being obsessed over), the situation is likely to escalate if you do not.

    I write a lot about about two dogs playing with each other. Really, in almost all situations, that is all that should play with each other at a time. If there are lots of dogs, they can change partners, but usually three or more dogs do not play well together. Usually one dog ends up being picked on.

    Even if a dog is genetically inclined to be aggressive (rare), a good training program and socialization can almost always mange or resolve the behavior. There’s no surefire way to prevent aggression, but there are basic steps you can take to greatly decrease the chances your dog will develop a problem:

  • Socialize your puppy. Arrange supervised play dates with other pups and encourage interaction with well-mannered adult dogs who can teach your puppy how to behave.
  • Neuter or spay your dog as early as possible. This will greatly reduce hormone-driven aggression.
  • Always treat your dog with kindness and respect, using positive reinforcement to train. Physical correction, intimidation, and isolation only encourage aggression by adding to a dog’s anxiety.
  • Bottom line: Dog-dog aggression is treatable but nearly always requires the help of a trained professional (and lifelong vigilance). Doing everything you can to prevent it in the first place is a much better option.

    Lack of training and socialization is almost always the cause for either people or dog aggression. It is so important the dog understands you are the leader. As I said in other articles, I do not subscribe to the need to “dominate” most dogs. Most dogs will understand you are the leader if you just lead. The problem is, many people don’t know how to lead their dog or what their dog needs. Instead they attribute human emotion to the dog – and dog’s are not human and do not process the world the same way that humans do. If you think your dog might be showing any signs of aggressive or dominant behaviors, please contact a dog trainer. A good dog trainer will teach you how to work with your dog and through simple exercises and obedience training show your dog you are the leader and that he or she can trust you!

    Don’t Ignore these signs of Aggression in your dog! ( Warning)

    Dealing with dog behavioral issues is never easy, but having an aggressive dog is particularly hard.

    It frequently passes the point of simply being worried about coming home to a wrecked living room or having an overly yappy pooch. You’re constantly worrying if your dog will attack someone – whether it’s another pet or a stranger, and it can be nerve-racking.

    In this guide on canine aggression, you’ll find out what causes this type of behavior, how it usually manifests, and, most importantly, how to handle and prevent it.

    When someone says their dog is aggressive, the first thing that comes to mind is that they have a dog that bites, but aggression can mean a lot of different things. Some canines keep their aggression toned down and never act out more than the occasional growl, while others can attack other dogs or even people.

    Whatever the signs of aggression your dog displays, the most important thing is to understand what triggers the behavior. There are many different reasons why a dog might be angry, and knowing what the underlying cause is will make the dog aggression treatment easier and more efficient.

    Even though dog aggression is among the most serious behavioral problems you might have to deal with, it is still just that – a behavioral problem that can be corrected. It is one of the more difficult to handle though.

    How can you tell if a dog is nervous to the point of being aggressive? What kind of body language and signs is a precursor to an attack? Knowing the answer to these questions can help you anticipate aggressive behavior, and, hopefully, stop it in time.

    Apart from Sudden Onset Aggression syndrome, which is a rare condition, an aggressive attack can always be predicted by the specific behavior that precedes it.