Understanding Canine Aggression

Dog Training Advice

Common Myths about Dog Aggression Abound. 

People's inability to understand "dog" creates a roadblock to dealing with aggression.

Many dog owners refuse to see their canines for what they really are…dogs. Instead, they see them through human eyes and attempt to explain their behaviors in human terms, as if dogs were “fur people.” This is not to say that people can’t love their dogs or give them a respected place in the household. But treating dogs as if they were human is at the least misguided and at the most a formula for disaster.
Many people (and this can include canine professionals such as veterinarians, breeders, and, yes, sometimes even dog trainers) don’t really understand dogs, especially when it comes to aggression.

Myth: Certain Breeds are Aggressive and Certain Breeds Aren't
Any dog is a potential biter. Without this ability, dogs would not have survived as a species. Aggression has nothing to do with breed. It is a product of such considerations as breeding, training, socialization, and environmental conditioning. A Rottweiler can be very friendly while a Labrador retriever can be very aggressive.
Often dogs behave aggressively because they have been pushed beyond their stress threshold or because they have somehow learned through experience that a certain behavior gets them what they want or helps them to avoid what they don’t want. Some dogs, because of poor or deliberate breeding, are genetically hardwired for aggression.

Myth: Dogs Know Right from Wrong
Dogs have no moral or ethical sense.
Often a distraught dog owner is shocked by a pet dog that has bitten the owner or a family member, often a child.
“You don’t understand,” the owner explains. “Bailey has never been mistreated. She is like our own child. She is a sweet, lovable dog. Why would she do this? She knew it was wrong. Right after she bit me, she whined and licked me because she was sorry for what she did to me.”
The above scenario is a very common one for status, aka instrumental or dominance aggressive dogs (see description below). During the bite, the dog goes into a heightened, “zoned out” state. After the bite, the dog comes back to reality and can be her sweet self again.
Bailey’s reaction may seem remorseful, but that is a human misinterpretation of her behavior. What Bailey knows is that her human is screaming in pain or otherwise yelling at her, and she may respond to that by whining, licking, or cowering.

Myth: People Can Always Tell When Their Dogs Have Aggression Issues
A dog that bites for the first time has been sending out signals to his or her humans all along. Dogs rarely go from zero to 100, i.e. never having acted aggressively to the act of biting. Much aggressive display goes undetected or is rationalized or justified by owners. Besides biting, aggressive displays include aggressive barking, snapping, growling, or aggressive body language, sometimes very subtle.
Aggression usually progresses in stages. For ease of understanding, these can be described as follows:

  1. subtle body language meant to intimidate or scare off a person or another dog(refer to the following for illustrations of canine body language: Canine Body Language – A Photographic Guide by Brenda Aloff 
  2. lip raise, snarl
  3. snap at the air, lunge, or bark
  4. contact with no bruise
  5. contact with a bruise
  6. contact with puncture
  7. contact with multiple punctures

Dogs do not necessarily move from one stage to another in rigid sequence. Also, one never knows when a dog will move from one stage to another, e.g. from aggressive body posture to growling or from the latter to biting. Sometimes once a dog bites, it can be a while before the second bite occurs, months or even longer. However, often after the second or third bite, the interval between bites shortens.

Even when their dogs bite, owners will often rationalize or justify the first bite or two: the dog was startled while he was sleeping and bit my husband’s leg when he was on his way to the bathroom in the middle of the night; the child was trying to take the dog’s bone away; the dog is teething. These may all reflect the facts of these situations, but many dogs do not bite when startled or when a bone is taken from them. As for teething, a puppy has to learn that human body parts don’t belong in a dog’s mouth. Waiting to see if the dog will outgrow the biting once he has stopped teething is taking a risk.

Often dog owners will explain that their dogs lunge, bark, and/or snap but that their canines are “not biters”. In a sense this is true, as dogs aren’t labeled biters…well, until they have bitten. But a dog can sink its teeth into human flesh for the first time at any age. So a two-year-old Lab that lunges, growls, and/or snaps but hasn’t bitten should be more precisely labeled not-a biter-yet. And if that dog has plenty of opportunity to engage in these aggressive displays, then an even more precise label might be biter-in-training.

Myth: Aggressive Dogs Always Act Aggressively
Dogs that act aggressively do so only when certain triggering agents are present. Sometimes it is very clear what triggers the aggressive display. Sometimes the trigger is not immediately clear; this is especially true when it comes to status aggression. A trigger can be very specific, e.g. a bone, or quite general, e.g. anything the dog claims as his (food, toys, people, and territory). Additionally, many months or even a year or more can elapse between bites.

A dog can have one or more than one type of aggression. Karen Overall in her book, Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals, includes some of the following types of aggression:

  • possessive (aka resource) aggression
  • dominance (aka status or authority) aggression
  • territorial aggression
  • fear aggression
  • play, or excitement, aggression
  • displaced aggression
  • inter-dog aggression
  • maternal aggression
  • pain aggression
  • idiopathic aggression

Fact: Canine Aggression is a Very Complex, Multi-faceted Problem
The understanding that aggression is a multi-faceted rather than a unitary phenomenon is fairly recent and, as Overall points out, not completely known. Calling in a professional that has experience working with dogs that act aggressively is essential. Knowing the first subtle signs that a problem exists and learning to read "dog" might just save your dog's life.



I have a rotti that is 8 months old. He is a large puppy even at his young age. He is always with me or my partener at all times. This is to include around the home and when he goes potty outside. We have a large family mostly young adults. He was raised with a pit bull who he is relatively close to. They are about the same age. Both dogs are very sweet. They have never showed aggression to any family member- with the exception of keeping his eyes pinned on one of the grandchild because of abuse on the child's part. However, we have begun to enroll both puppies into obedience class and its been a disater for our Rotty. He is VERY aggressive lunging and growling to the point that I have a hard time holding onto him. It's like looking at two different rotts. He was conditioned just like the pit bull yet they are like night and day. The pit is a fixed female while the rotty is not neutered and is a male. When I read some of your responses regarding aggression I saw that you thought perhaps the dogs were not exposed to enough external stimuli such as other people or animals. My confusion here is that we got the puppies to protect our family. The advise given in several books was to keep the puppies close with only family contact but it seems like you believe the opposite to be true. Is the answer as simple as we can't have it both ways in which the puppies are both well socialized and protective? Thank you in advance for your advice- April M.


You asked, “Is the answer as simple as we can't have it both ways in which the puppies are both well socialized and protective?”
The answer is yes …and no.

If you get a dog for protection, then you must take the dog (and yourself) to a trainer that trains for protection.
A protection dog is like a loaded pistol; you have to learn how to use it effectively and only when absolutely necessary.
A protection dog NEVER protects unless told to by his handler or in situations he has been trained to act if the owner is not present or unable to. The dog must stop the attack immediately when the handler tells him to do that.
A protection dog should look to you for his cues, never making decisions on his own unless trained to do that only in certain situations.

Your Rotti and you have never had formal protection training; therefore, your Rotti is just a pet and should be trained and socialized as one.
Dogs, all dogs, need to be socialized from day one with people and other dogs. This should not be limited to only family members and other dogs in the household. The more different dogs and people they get to interact with, the less likely they are to act aggressively (although there are never any guarantees).

Dogs at an early age should be socialized with people of all ages, genders etc. and other dogs (4 wks – 4mos for other dogs and 5wks – 5mos for people are the optimum times, though socializing can and should continue beyond this throughout the dog’s lifetime).
Ideally protection dogs should be fine with people and other dogs unless instructed by their owners to do otherwise. However, this is difficult to achieve, which accounts for my yes/no answer.

Your Rotti is an unneutered male. Not all, but some tend to act aggressively, esp. towards other males (both neutered and intact). Also neutered males that are fine with other neutered males sometimes act aggressively towards intact males.

There is also the matter of genetics, so your Rotti may be somewhat hardwired for aggressive behavior depending on his breed line.
Your Rotti is eight months old, so is going into his early teens, more or less (given he is a large breed dog). This is prime time for aggression to surface if training and socializing have not been ongoing.

There is much more to say about this, but I think you get the general picture.

Dog-to-Dog Aggression


My 2-year-old lab, Midnight, has recently become very aggressive with other dogs. When he was a puppy, I tried not to have him around other dogs too much, as the breeder suggested. He gets along really well with my sister’s golden and the poodle next door.

About a year ago, he was attacked by two Dalmatians, and, after that, he became cautious around other dogs. At first he would just bark. Then he started lunging and growling when we would pass dogs while out on our walks, so I started to walk very early in the morning or at times when I knew other dogs would not be around..

Then, last week we met up with a dog who was not on leash. The dog seemed friendly, but when he approached, Midnight lunged at him without warning and they started to fight. The owner of the other dog and I finally got them separated. This really upset me.

The final straw came yesterday. I was taking groceries into the house and trying to get Midnight out of the car and into the house. A woman was walking her little dog past our house. Midnight went flying out of the car and after the dog. The dog wasn’t hurt too badly, but the woman and I were really shaken up.

I just don’t know what to do. Midnight is really a sweet, lovable dog in every other way. Is there anything I can do to make him a more sociable dog again?

-Miriam from Andover


Although we realize the futility at this point of pointing out the “should of’s” in your situation, Miriam, for the sake of our other readers and their now and future pups, let’s take a look at the ideal scenario for a truly socialized puppy.

Although your breeder’s well intentioned advice was meant precisely to avoid the situation Midnight encountered with the Dalmatians, it would be best to qualify that advice: pups should not interact with other dogs in uncontrolled or unsupervised situations. Or to state it in positive terms, puppies need to socialize with other dogs frequently, but in controlled situations. Frequent early socialization with other dogs (and people of all ages and sexes) is an essential part of the formula for a friendly canine. Limiting a puppy’s social circle to just one or two dogs, like your sister’s and the neighbor’s, is not advisable; it does not provide sufficient exposure, so social skills are  less likely to generalize to new dogs in new situations.

Even given proper socialization, dog fights do occur. What is important to understand is that (1) dogs act in the ways nature intended dogs to act; (2)most fights are essentially a lot of noise and commotion and often result in little or no physical injury; and (3) often, a dog who has come to trust and depend on his owner as the leader will be less likely to feel the need to fight.

When a dog does begin to show signs of fear aggression—following a traumatic experience, for example—the reactions of the owner are crucial. Just as the electricity traveled down Ben Franklin’s kite, so too does an owner’s fear and nervousness travel down that leash. Of course, we realize that to tell the owner of a dog-aggressive dog to relax would be futile. It would be very difficult not to tense up every time another dog was in sight.

So what do you do? Well, the first rule of any canine behavior modification program is obedience training. An owner must have established a certain amount of trust and control before any real problem solving can begin, so early training of this type is essential.

Given the many nuances of dogs and owners and resocialization programs and the limited space of this column, it is difficult to present a detailed, comprehensive guide for you and Midnight . Basically, a desensitization program would begin by placing Midnight where there are other dogs, but at a threshold distance (distance at which the dog is relaxed when another dog is somewhere present), maybe initially even in a car (over the weeks or months, the threshold distance would become shorter). Then, with a variety of calming sensory techniques and rewards, Midnight would learn that good things happen when other dogs are present and he is relaxed. The techniques might utilize sound (intoning in  a low, slow, calming voice) and/or touch (massaging the scruff, for example, if Midnight  enjoys that area being touched) and/or smell (using aromatherapy). You would reward your dog in personally significant ways when he was relaxed and calm.

Once the desensitization process was successfully underway, the next step would be reeducation: Midnight would need to learn that most dogs are fun to be around and, at the least,  tolerable. This would entail putting Midnight into small, controlled, friendly social situations. Other strategies, like T-wrapping,  might now be employed to facilitate the learning process.

As for how long this whole process might take, it all depends on the length of time since the onset of the problem,  the temperament of the individual dog,the owner-pet relationship, and the persistence and follow through of the owner. The resocialization process can take only a few weeks or many months. In most cases, the problem can be eliminated or at least managed.


Our seven-year-old female black lab has always been aggressive with other dogs and it is getting worse lately. I always thought females weren’t aggressive and I didn’t think labs were an aggressive breed. Is it too late to do anything about this?

-Selma from Beverly


Both genders and all breeds can be aggressive. Most people mistakenly believe that only certain breeds, like pit bulls and Doberman Pinschers, become aggressive. In fact, many of the dogs that we see because of aggression problems, both dog-to-people and dog-to-dog aggression, are the very common family choices such as Labs,cockapoos, beagles, Labradoodles,and golden retrievers.

You should contact a behaviorist or a trainer well versed in aggression for help. You may or may not be able to change this behavior. If you are not able to extinguish this aggressive behavior, you will at least develop effective management skills.

Good luck.


Dog-to-People Aggression


We have a 5-year-old Akita that we've had since mid-February.  He's a great dog for me and the kids (ages 7 and 11), but he is deathly afraid of my husband.  At first he cowered and shook terribly when my husband was near.  At this point, he cowers, but is also starting to growl (no teeth showing).  We can find no reason for this.  My husband has never mistreated nor threatened the dog in any way. Quite the opposite.  He is not this way with any other person, male or female, young or old. The dog was given to me by a friend who swears he was not mistreated in any way. Any ideas/solutions you can give us would be great.

-Karin from Hamilton


In order to effectively address your problem, there is much additional information we would need: Is your Akita neutered or intact? This could have a bearing on the situation. How did you and your husband react the first time your dog shook and cowered? Was the previous owner male or female? When did the cowering begin? From day one? What was going on the day the dog came home with you? Did your husband have to reprimand the kids that first day? What is your husband like physically? Is his voice particularly deep? When did the growling begin? What does your husband do for a living? Perhaps there is some negative association for the dog with certain smells (doctor, auto mechanic etc.). The list of questions could go on and on.

Since we don’t have much information, we can only give you limited advice and insight into the problem. 

First of all, as difficult as this might prove to be, your husband should not be alone with your Akita. Second, whenever the dog growls at your husband, a response from him might intensify the situation. Your husband should slowly turn his body 90 degrees away from your dog and avoid eye contact, as your Akita could interpret direct eye contact and full frontal display as a challenge. Meanwhile, if you are present, you need to be the one to respond. In a calm, low, slow voice, use words like 'easy,' 'relax.' If you don't respond, your Akita might interpret your silence as approval or afirmation that your husband is a threat. Your response should be firm but calm. Avoid saying, "It’s ok. Good dog." The latter will only reinforce the negative behavior. Your dog is afraid and his growling is appropriate, in that it alerts you that he perceives a threat and that you need to take appropriate steps to diffuse the situation. 

At least once a day, your husband, along with a "secure person," like you, should take the dog for a walk. Initially, the dog and your husband will be walking next to the safe person, ie.your husband is NOT next to your Akita.Take walks in areas where the dog will be distracted by lots of sights, sounds, and smells. The other person should start out holding the leash; when the dog is sufficiently distracted, that person should pass the leash to your husband. 

Caution your husband never to have direct eye contact with your dog. He can look at the dog’s ears or shoulders, for example. Your husband should never approach the dog too quickly or too slowly, as either can trigger a negative emotional response. In addition, your husband should never get down to the dog’s eye level. He should never bend over the dog. All of these behaviors can be misconstrued.

Eventually, make your Akita dependent on your husband for most things—walks, food, praise, treats, toys and fun time—at least for now until the problem is resolved. For example, your husband should be the one that feeds the dog. Also, put some of your husband’s unwashed clothing in the dog’s sleeping area. 

Our best advice would be for you to consult with a professional, who can do a thorough evaluation. A five-year-old Akita that is presenting in the way you describe can definitely cause some serious problems.


I'm not sure you can answer my question but it’s worth a try.  My husband and I recently purchased a golden retriever puppy and are having some problems.  We obtained the dog at 6 1/2 weeks. We now know that was illegal and that we should have looked for a more reputable breeder.  Anyway, from about week 8 the dog has displayed food aggression around his bowl and the same behavior if we try to take a particularly delicious bone away from him.  We have consulted some vets and some breeders/ trainers for their opinions. Now we are more confused than ever.  Some say this dog is aggressive by nature and that we should have him put down. Others say he is an alpha dog just testing the waters.  We have secured a good trainer and are willing to work with the dog IF AND ONLY IF this problem is not a huge red flag about how the dog is going to act the rest of its life (constantly testing us and not safe around visitors).  What do you think?

--Danielle via e-mail


Our first reaction is that if, indeed, you have located a reputable trainer, then you need to trust that person’s professional judgment. We are assuming the trainer feels your dog can become a well-adjusted member of your household.

However, you do need to realize that in working with dogs to modify behavior, just as in working with people, there are no guarantees.  There are any number of variables, the most difficult of which to control is owner input.

It is our experience that MOST dogs and humans can peacefully co-exist. This can be achieved by using positive training techniques, being consistent and persistent in training, being proactive rather than reactive, and understanding canine behavior.

All of this is to say that it is ultimately the owners (not the trainer) that will effect the change. The trainer is merely a coach or facilitator.

It is true that pups should not be taken from the litter too early, as much is learned from both the mother and littermates. However, even pups that are not taken too early can display food/possession aggression.

The number of dogs whose behaviors cannot be modified due to genetic predisposition is comparatively low. From what you have described, we would venture that you will be able to successfully work with your pet to modify this behavior.

Food / Resource Aggression


My puppy growls every time anyone gets too close to his dish while he is eating. I have warned my children not to touch the dish or get too close to it when my dog is eating. Should I be concerned or is it normal for a dog to guard his food in this way?


“Don’t bother the dog while he is eating,” “Don’t go near the dish,” "Stay out of the kitchen while the dog is eating,” “Don’t go downstairs when the dog is eating” … Sound familiar?  

It may be “normal” for some dogs to guard their food this way , but it is UNACCEPTABLE for ALL dogs.

You could try instituting the following changes.

Increase the number of meals (four to six a day) and randomize feeding times, so that your dog never knows when his next meal is coming. This will lessen the heightened peaks of excitement that often occur just before his expected meals.

Continually change the place where your dog eats (in different sections of the kitchen, for example, or in different rooms). This will diffuse any territorial guarding behavior.

Be sure that your dog earns his meals. Have your dog sit or lie down or follow some other command to earn his food. If he does not obey, he does not eat at this time. Leave the feeding area. Try again a few minutes later.

Getting him to obey your commands increases your control and his respect for you. Eventually, even the children (under adult supervision) should be able to do this.

If the behavior continues, get professional help. Often this type of food aggression indicates that a bigger problem exists or is brewing.



A problem seems to exist between Ollie, our 4-year-old English springer spaniel, and my husband. Ollie is doing well in most respects, but the only thing we can't seem to "cross the line" with Ollie on is his rawhide bone.  He growls -- at anyone, everyone, dogs and human -- who approach him when he has a bone in his mouth.  I've simply told all the kids -- my own, and others --- not to go near him if he has a bone. My husband believes even the bone should belong to "us," not him. Ollie will growl and fight with my husband. I don't believe he's ever bitten or nipped, but it is quite scary to watch.  I don't know what to make of it. Ever since attending your obedience classes, I have been able to take the bone right from his mouth, first by saying "Give, Ollie.... give"  and putting one hand on his neck to massage his scruff, and one hand in front of his face so he can see that I am coming for the bone.  Then I tell him, "Leave it, leave it....."  and gently take it from him.  He doesn't like it, and immediately wants it back, but I don't let him have it until I say the words "Take it." So far, though, I am still the only one who can do this.  My husband is unsuccessful, and I am still very concerned about children and other dogs. What are your thoughts on this?



We would suggest no rawhide bones for Ollie at all right now. His response when your husband tries to take the bone—growling and snapping—is self-reinforcing, so the more often this happens, the more entrenched the behavior becomes. Eventually, his response could generalize to other objects.

Make a list of objects that Ollie likes. Rank them in importance to him. Then your husband (and the children, under your guidance) should start the "give" & "take" exercise using the object of lowest value to Ollie. After a while, slowly work your way up the list. Eventually, you may even be able to give him rawhide bones again. A professional evaluation at that point would be wise.

Dr. Nancy Crowley

Beverly Animal Natural Health Center

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