Overview of Canine Aggression

There are three general types of aggressive behavior in dogs: dominance aggression, fearful aggression, and protective (territorial) aggression. The most common type is dominance aggression.

Dominance Aggression

Dominance aggression is a manifestation of inappropriate responses to specific situations related to control. It usually develops in dogs at social maturity, between 18 and 36 months of age.

Dogs with dominance aggression are dangerous because the problem is caused by a struggle with people over control. Dogs live in social systems based on deference rather than physical control that are similar to human social systems. They live in extended family groups with parental care and use extensive vocal and nonvocal communication.

Canine social systems are based on a hierarchy, meaning that some animals rank higher than others. Status is affected by age, sex, performance, and skills. Problems arise between dogs and humans when signals given by the dog are misunderstood. For example, a person may think that their dog is "giving them a hug" when the dog places its front paws on the person's shoulders. In reality, this is a challenge from the dog. This behavior is often rewarded and encouraged when it should be aborted and discouraged.

Dominantly aggressive dogs

  • dislike being pushed from sofas and beds,
  • act aggressively when stared at,
  • dislike having their shoulders and back pushed on,
  • may react aggressively when a person reaches over their head,
  • may become aggressive when corrected verbally, and
  • intensify their aggression if physically punished.

Some dominantly aggressive dogs subtly lie in front of doors and furniture to make the person avoid these areas and lean against or rest their paw on the person at every opportunity. Dogs with dominance aggression react to corrections of this behavior by stiffening, "talking back," or becoming aggressive. Dogs without dominance aggression react with solicitous behavior such as turning their head on their side, rolling over, whining, wagging their tail, and putting their ears back loosely.

Dominantly aggressive dogs frequently victimize young children in the household. They are often at eye level with the dog and are less confident dealing with it. Some dominantly aggressive dogs challenge the more forceful person in the household.

Dogs may exhibit dominance aggression because they are unsure of their place in the hierarchy and this causes anxiety. Fair and enforced rules treat aggression and reduce anxiety.

Treatment for Dominance Aggression

The key to treating dominance aggression is to avoid all situations in which the dog may be provoked to react inappropriately. If the dog growls when stared at, do not stare at it. The dog interprets the stare as a challenge and responds with a challenge that it cannot back down from. If you back down from its responding challenge, you are intensifying the dog's dominance aggression.

By avoiding this situation, you are not allowing the dog to manipulate you and are reducing its anxiety. You must gradually teach the dog that it must defer to you to get attention. When the dog reacts inappropriately, it learns your weaknesses and its behavior is reinforced because it continues to happen.

Do not disturb the dog when it is resting. Before interacting with the dog, make the dog sit and stay.

Do not let the dog sleep on your bed. Command the dog to get down. Do not push the dog off a sofa or bed or push it away from you if it paws or pushes you.

Do not play aggressively with the dog. Play only with toys and only if the dog sits, takes the toy on command, and relinquishes it on command.

If feeding promotes aggressive behavior, feed the dog in a separate room with a closed door. Do not feed the dog from the table.

Do not physically punish the dog. If it acts aggressively say "No" and disrupt the situation by removing the dog from the situation. Banishment is the most effective form of correction because it removes the dog's ability to control the situation.

Anti-anxiety medication may be used in combination with behavior modification to help control dominance aggression.

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at Healthcommunities.com

Published: 01 Dec 2001

Last Modified: 04 Nov 2014