Dog aggression

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Dog aggression can refer generally to all canine aggression or can be used as short-hand for what is more accurately termed dog-dog aggression or dog-dog reactivity.[1] Dog aggression is the number one reported issue to veterinary behaviorists, followed by other issues such as phobias or separation anxiety. [2] Dog aggression is a common dog behavior exhibited by all breeds of dogs under the right circumstances, although some breeds may, for a variety of reasons, have a higher incidence of aggression than others.[3] Although evidence has been found for different types of aggression like threat displays, defense displays, and attack, it is important to realize why this aggression takes place. It can take place because of ownership, fear, territory, possession, and health.[4]

Types of aggression[5][edit]

  • Idiopathic aggression: can be defined as behavior for which there is no known cause. The stimuli for this type of aggression are often difficult to determine.
  • Interdog aggression: can be defined as aggressive behavior between two dogs. Among familiar dogs, social hierarchy is likely being reestablished or behavioral signals from one dog are being ignored or misinterpreted. In situations with unfamiliar dogs, the underlying reasons for the aggressive behavior are fear, anxiety, dominance or protective behavior.
  • Redirected aggression: can be defined as aggressive behavior that is directed towards a stimulus instead of the actual target or trigger. Usually, this can be caused by noises or visual stimuli.
  • Territorial aggression: can be defined as behavior expressed when an object or individual enters into the dog's territory, usually their home property. The target of aggression are normally unfamiliar and threatening to the dog.
"Head of snarling dog" as shown by Charles Darwin in his The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals

German Shepherd displaying threat behavior


Many dogs show "displays of aggression" such as barking, growling, or snapping in the air, which are considered distance-increasing actions, those that intend to get the person or dog to move away from the dog. There are several types of aggression in dogs such as human directed aggression, idiopathic aggression, interdog aggression, redirected aggression and territorial aggression. [5] Some dog-aggressive dogs display aggression that is mainly defensive, and they harm another dog only if they perceive that they have no option. Yet, other dogs may develop dog-aggressive behaviour due to medical reasons, such as hormonal imbalances, neurological problems and seizures. [6]

As well as breeding, a dog's experiences may affect his chance of developing dog aggression. A dog that is attacked as a puppy may develop fear-based dog aggression towards all dogs, or perhaps only towards dogs that resemble the dog that attacked him. [7] Although people tend to bring these reactions out of dogs more often than dogs themselves, dogs only pay attention to what their owners allow.

Dogs that display dog-aggressive behaviour do not necessarily show aggressive behaviour towards humans. The two types of aggression are not necessarily related, and do not always occur in the same individual dog.

Dog aggression manifests at the age of adolescence to social maturity (6 months to 4 years). Warning signs such as fear and/or nervousness around other dogs, displays of aggression only under certain circumstances (while on leash, in the presence of food, in the presence of the owner, etc.), or most commonly, over-the-top play behavior can be seen at any stage of the dog's development. Play behavior such as tackling, chasing, mouthing, nipping, pawing, and wrestling are all normal canine behaviors that serve the evolutionary function of preparing the young dog for later combat and hunting. Young dogs that engage in excessive amounts of these behaviors are much more likely to develop dog aggression as they age.[8]

Dog-dog aggression should not be confused with dog-human aggression (in the past, this was referred to as "dominance" aggression when directed at the owner, but is now simply called owner-directed aggression).

Many people commonly mistake fear and anxiety-related aggression as "dominance aggression," which is inaccurate. Dominance is rarely the cause of aggressive behaviors in dogs, with fear and anxiety being the greatest cause of both dog- and human-directed aggression.[2]

Lack of exercise is not a cause of aggressive behavior, although exercise boosts serotonin levels, which offsets stress hormones such as cortisol, and can complement a behavior modification program. According to certain animal behaviorist, lack of exercise can contribute to certain types of aggression as excess energy can cause the dog to perform undesirable behaviors. [9]

Factors contributing to aggression[edit]

Factors contributing to the likelihood of the development of dog aggression include:[10]

  • Anxiety, fear or phobia
  • Lack of structure
  • Lack of proper exposure to other dogs during the critical socialization period
  • Early imprinting by an aggressive or nervous dam
  • A traumatic experience
  • Territorial behavior
  • Thyroid malfunction or other medical conditions
  • Abuse from owners
  • Medical or physical ailments
  • Breeding and genetic predisposition
  • Taken from mother too soon
  • Lack of clear direction from owner

The relationship between breed and aggression[edit]

Breed standards will usually address whether dog aggression is common in a particular breed, but this provides a potential dog owner only a general guideline since all breeds are capable of both aggression and friendliness. [11] Certain breeds have developed reputations for being more aggressive than others, such as the Pit bull. It is difficult to gather information on this topic, as the number of acts of aggression is nearly impossible to compute since many cases go unreported. [12]

Treating dog aggression[edit]

Boston Terrier with a chew toy. Toys are useful rewards when training dogs.

The form that treatment for dog aggression takes depends on the underlying cause of the aggression, and an accurate assessment is therefore essential. Most reputable trainers recommend that a dog has a vet screen for medical changes that may cause aggression before attempting any form of behavioural modification.[7]

Dogs that are aggressive from fear can be that way either from genetic predisposition ("weak nerves"), or from a traumatic experience. With these dogs, a programme of gradual desensitisation (DS) and counter-conditioning (CC) is often used to reduce the dog's reactivity to the stimulus that triggers the aggression. This process involves gradually introducing the dog to the stimuli with which the aggressive behaviour is associated. [13] This can be accomplished through management (minimizing the dog's exposure to situations where he can practice the behavior while working on the training program) food rewards, toy/play rewards and praise as a reward. Ignoring aggressive behaviors is not standard or sound advice when implementing a DS/CC program. It is important to work through the process slowly, and ensure to not move on to the next step until the dog is comfortable to do so.[13]

Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) is a newly publicized treatment option that uses functional analysis and systematic desensitization. With BAT, the dog's original function of increasing (or decreasing) distance is used as a reinforcement for alternate behavior (head turns, ground sniffing, body turns, etc.). This is done by creating set-up situations in which the dog is able to offer alternate behavior, and allowing or encouraging the dog to walk away. With repetition, the dog learns to turn their head or sniff the ground as a way to increase distance without aggression, and gradually becomes comfortable with the former trigger. [14]

Punishing aggressive behaviors through the use of leash corrections, the use of training collars such as choke, prong or shock, are not recommended in cases of fear-based aggression, as these measures run a high risk of increasing the dog's anxiety in those situations. Additionally, these corrections have been found to increase aggressive behaviour rather than correct it.[15]Further, it is difficult to control what the dog associates the punishment to, as it is often what the dog is looking at the moment it is corrected, therefore sloppy application of punishment can create a more negative association to the stimulus. The final risk with punishment in treating aggression is that it runs the risk of punishing the aggressive display, such as growling, barking or baring teeth which are all warnings. Punishment decreases behaviour, but does not modify it. The dog may stop exhibiting aggressive displays (designed to increase distance between the dog and the stimulus) and skip straight to aggressive actions, such as biting.[15]

Dominance based approaches such as growling at the dog or gripping the scruff of the neck are highly controversial and more formal study is needed to validate these methods. These approaches carry a greater risk of behavioral fallout, such as the escalation of the aggressive behavior and/or redirected aggression on the owner or other family members. [16]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ Victoria Stilwell. "Aggression". Retrieved 27 November 2016.
  2. ^ a b Ciribassi, John (2015). "Forget dominance: Fear-based aggression in dogs". Retrieved 2019-04-01.
  3. ^ Deborah L. Duffy, Yuying Hsu, James A. Serpell (2008). "Breed differences in canine aggression". Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 114 (3–4): 441–460. doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2008.04.006.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  4. ^ "TYPES OF DOG AGGRESSION". 2011-11-04. Retrieved 2018-04-23.
  5. ^ a b Horwitz, Debra (2018). Canine and Feline Behavior. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons Inc. ISBN 9781905319879. OCLC 961208198.
  6. ^ Righetti, Joanne. "Dog Aggression Causes and Prevention". Retrieved 2019-04-01.
  7. ^ a b Landsberg, Gary (2016). "Canine Aggression: Risk Assessment, Prognosis and Safety" (PDF). Indiana Veterinary Medical Association.
  8. ^ "Mouthing, Nipping and Play Biting in Adult Dogs". ASPCA. Retrieved 2019-04-01.
  9. ^ "Understanding dog aggression". Cesar's Way. 2015-06-17. Retrieved 2019-04-01.
  10. ^ "Dog Aggression". The Humane Society of the United States. 14 June 2013. Retrieved 17 January 2015.
  11. ^ Flint, Hannah (2017). "Risk Factors Associated with Stranger-Directed Aggression in Domestic Dogs". Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 197: 45–54. doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2017.08.007.
  12. ^ Wright, John C. (1996). "Canine aggression: dog bites to people" (PDF). Readings in Companion Animal Behavior. 1: 240–246.
  13. ^ a b "Counter conditioning and desensitization". Animal Humane Society. Retrieved 2019-04-01.
  14. ^ "BAT 101: Introduction to Behavior Adjustment Training | Grisha Stewart". 2015-01-14. Retrieved 2019-04-01.
  15. ^ a b "Is Punishment an Effective Way to Change the Behavior of Dogs?". Psychology Today. Retrieved 2019-04-01.
  16. ^ "Dog Discipline – Should We Beat or Hit a Dog as Punishment?". Retrieved 2019-04-01.