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A Guide to Understanding and Managing Dog Aggression

                 What happens when man’s best friend suddenly turns to his enemy? If you have ever been a victim if there is anything that gives dog owners sleepless night, it is most likely how they will deal with their dog’s aggressive behaviour. Everyone loves a calm, friendly and loving dog that obeys simple commands and behaves well. Unnecessary growling, snarling, or lunging is the last thing you want from your dog.

                 Any offensive or defensive behaviour attempted to cause injury or threaten other animals or human beings is referred to as aggression.


                Offensive aggression: happens when a dog tries to gain access to toys, treats, food or any other thing that is of great interest to him. In most cases, the attack is intense because it is fuelled by anger.

                Defensive Aggression: When a dog comes face to face with a threat and the only escape route is to become aggressive to avoid an attack. The threat can be a strange person, a new environment or another dog that looks huge and intimidating.


                Dominance Aggression: 

A dominantly aggressive dog wants to be in control of situations involving other dogs or people (strangers or people in the house). However, you cannot conclude a dog has dominance aggression based on one incident.

                Possessive Aggression/Resource guarding:

In this case, the dog prevents a valuable resource from being taken away. The so-called “resource” may not be something useful in the human sense; it could be a piece of rag or a rope on the floor. Possessive aggression worsens when such dog lives with other dogs (he sees them as competitors.)

               Territorial Aggression:

This is another common form of attack where a dog protects his area or space from other dogs or even human beings! Territorial behaviour runs in the veins of canines, but many dogs take it to the extreme.

               Protective Aggression:

This is quite similar to territorial aggression. In this case, the dog becomes aggressive when he feels his loved ones (the owner or any other member of the household) are in danger.

               Redirected Aggression:

Your dog is mad at his toy, or his doggy friend and you try to be a peacemaker. The aggression is then transferred to you.

               Pain-induced Aggression:

A study carried out by researchers from the Department of Animal and Food Science at the University of Barcelona, (UAB, Spain), found that any of the test dogs handled in pain, quickly showed some aggressiveness just to avoid further discomfort. Pain caused by hip dysplasia may increase aggression in big dogs.

              Sex-related Aggression:

This has little or nothing to do with the owner; it’s about competing to find a mating partner. It could be inter-male or inter-female aggression.

              Social aggression:

This has some elements of dominance aggression, but more often, it refers to superiority shown by dogs of higher rank (according to their social hierarchy)



              Ever since man started manipulating the biological configuration of dogs through selective breeding, things have not been the same. Although selective breeding has produced hundreds of dogs (of different sizes and shapes)—Chinese Shar-Pei, Dalmatians, Pekinese, Bloodhounds, Basset hounds, Labradors, Alaskan Malamute, among others, but it has also affected certain substances (enzymes, hormones, and neurotransmitters) that are involved in controlling particular behaviour in dogs. One of such substances is Serotonin, which has been linked with canine aggression many times. Certain genes are responsible for the synthesis of serotonin. Interestingly, dogs treated with drugs that increased serotonin level experienced reduced aggression.




              In addition to the “serotonin-aggression” theory, genes also influence so many things about a dog; the muscles, thinking ability and to an extent, temperament. Genetics made it possible for some breeds to have powerful jaw muscles, strong neck, and well-built body stature which makes it very easy for them to lunch attacks.

Training Methods

              Confrontational methods: The use of confrontational methods (Yelling, hitting or kicking) has been linked with aggression! If you are aggressive to your dog, then your dog will be aggressive too (Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour).

              Use of harmful devices (shock collar, prong collar, choke collar): This is a highly controversial topic that has been debated over and over. People who have had “success” with these devices,do not see anything wrong in their “winning formula.” In a study conducted, dogs trained using electric collar DID NOT respond better than other dogs trained using a reward based method. Instead, the use of collar poses serious welfare concern to the dogs.

              Dominance Training: The perfect example here is “Alpha Roll.” It is recommended by some dog “experts” who believe in using force and fear to correct your dog. Whenever a dog goes wrong, they tell the owner to pin him down forcefully and roll him over his side or back until he finally submits to you.

Is it effective? Absolutely No! It may have worked years ago, but it’s completely useless now.

If you pin your dog to the floor, the first, second and third time, after some time (probably when your dog is older), he wouldn’t have any other option than to fight back when you try it.

There is an interesting story about the book- “How to be your Dog’s Best Friend?”, written by monks of the New Skete Monasteries. In the first edition of the book, “Alpha Roll” was highly recommended, but years later, they publish a revised version and this time around, “Alpha roll” was completely missing. The monks said “We no longer recommend this technique and strongly discourage its use to our clients…….It is potentially very dangerous and can set up the owner for a serious bite in the face…..”

The authors saw the doom ahead, but unfortunately, many dog trainers don’t consider the long term effect of dominance training on their relationship with the dog

Environment-linked factors

(interaction with other dogs, relationship with the owner and experiences while growing up.)

              Interaction with other dogs: Puppies that nip on the mother dog may end up biting people around if the owner does not take time to train them properly.

              Relationship with the owner: Maintaining a great relationship with your dog is a must! Any form of abuse or cruelty may result in aggression in the long run

              Early experiences with people, sound, place, etc.

Puppies are likely to develop aggression if they are not given the opportunity to interact with different people, animals, and environment at the early stage of their life


Prevention is a million times better than cure! The following are simple tips that can help prevent aggression

          1. Know Your Dog:

                a. As a breed

You need to know who your dog is, and the unique behaviour of the breed. A dog’s breed will often influence many of his behaviours or actions! A herding dog will always love to herd! A working dog will always love to work!

Long ago, the Rhodesian Ridgeback was bred to hunt lions! As a first-time dog owner, you will be a making a big mistake by choosing a Rhodesian Ridgeback. Why? Such an athletic dog requires a significant level of ENERGY and TIME for training. Unfortunately, If you don’t live an active lifestyle or you don’t love to exercise, you will never build a lasting relationship with this kind of breed. Not only this, it is not uncommon for such dogs to get destructive when then exercise enough

Another example of a unique breed is Terriers! Digging seems normal for every bored dog, but terriers are bred to dig. Stopping terriers from digging is like preventing them from fulfilling their purpose on earth. When you try to punish (in the wrong way) him for doing it, he could become unfriendly and frustrated. You can set-up a digging area or try some “stop-digging” training.  You must always think of how to meet his needs of your dog in a way that is of mutual benefit to you and him!

              b. As an “Individual”

The temperament of a dog depends on the genes inherited and the breed (some breeds are just friendly and easily trainable). However, you must consider a dog as an individual in order to make a complete description of his temperament. Wayne Davies of the West Virginia K9 College gave a good definition of dog temperament—Temperament is the physical and mental characteristics of an individual dog, made evident through its reaction to stimuli in its environment.

    When you understand your dog’s temperament, you will:

  • Know what your dog expects from you
  • Learn how to build a great relationship with him
  • Respect your dog
  • Avoid unwanted behaviour

         2. Socialize your dog

By “exposing” your dog to different people, places, animals, sounds, and situations at a very early age, you can prevent aggression. Such positive experiences are very vital and will go a long way in helping him develop the right responses and attitude. You can read more on why and how to socialize a dog under section 2 of the article

        3. Use the right PUNISHMENT and REINFORCEMENT

Virtually every training method involves the use of punishments or reinforcements! Not all PUNISHMENTS are wrong, and not all REINFORCEMENTS are right.

“Punishment” and “Reinforcement” can be “positive” or “negative.”   When it comes to behavioural study, “positive” does not necessarily mean “good” while “negative” does not necessarily mean “bad.”

Positive means “Add” while negative means “Take Away.” “Punishment” is anything that discourages behaviour while “reinforcement” encourages behaviour.

To summarize it all, we can have the following

Positive Punishment —“To Discourage/Reduce particular behaviour by adding something.”

Example: The use of electric collar to stop your dog from barking. When you ADD the collar, barking is DISCOURAGED.

Negative Punishment —- “ To Discourage/Reduce particular behaviour by taking something away.”

Example: Ignoring your dog while barking for attention. When your TAKE AWAY your attention, barking is DISCOURAGED.

Positive Reinforcement —“Encourage/Increase particular behaviour by adding something.”

Example:  Giving your dog treats when he obeys the “sit” command. By ADDING the treat, sitting is encouraged.

Negative Reinforcement—- “Encourage/Increase particular behaviour by taking something away.”

Example: Pinching your dog’s ear to cause pain, and then stopping the pinch when he finally obeys.  Obedience is encouraged/reinforced when the pinch is TAKEN AWAY

The Best Punishment and Reinforcement

              Negative punishment and positive reinforcement give great results because they are friendly, safe and also help to build a stronger bond between you and your dog. Positive punishment and negative reinforcement have been found to increase aggression and behaviour problems.



              Several precautions must be taken in dealing with a dog of bad temperament and the most important of all, is to avoid anything that can cause aggression in the first place. This is because every recurrence will further reinforce and aggravate the problem. Your dog could be reacting to another dog’s behaviour, so, watch out for other snarling, growling and barking in the surrounding. In such a case, it is better to keep your dog at a distance from such dogs.

              However, an interesting fact is that every dog is capable of showing hostility and aggression to an extent. While you are a dog owner, the most crucial thing you need to know is that you can’t deal with your dog’s aggression by showing anger.

Keep Calm

              Even if it seems difficult, make sure you never freak out when your dog starts to display. Dog aggression must be handled with the right approach, and for that, you must be calm. If it happens at home, treat your dog gently, leave him or her alone in the room for a minute or two. Do not try to drag your dog if you’re outside; you’ll only make it worse.

Keep the Distance

              Next, you need to communicate with your dog, call his name in the softest tone, try to make him sit or stay. This is one of the reasons your dog must responds consistently to basic obedience commands like “come,” “sit” and “stay.”

              Other safety tips (10 of them) are presented in the infographic below

MANAGEMENT: How to manage/deal with Aggression

              It is very important to managing aggression but, unfortunately, all the articles online and YouTube videos may not provide a lasting solution. You must seek PROFESSIONAL advice from an animal behaviour specialist. An animal behaviourist has in-depth knowledge on animal behaviour. If you need to consult an animal behaviourist within the United States, check the Certified Applied Animal  Behaviorist (CAAB) directory

              In the meantime, the following steps will help you

Behavioural Modification

              Altering their dog’s behaviour can make a difference! A dog aggression treatment plan is incomplete without assessing and modifying the behaviour of the dog.

Rewarding and Conditioning for Aggressive Dogs

              If you love your dog, you will go to any limits to make him better. On a serious note, some dogs show aggression when they are in a particular situation, and counter conditioning can help. If you experience such an intensified aggression in certain situations, you can offer him a little treat to calm down. In this way, he will overcome their aggression gradually.

             Also, pamper your dog by taking him to his favourite spot whenever he starts showing signs of aggression. The bottom line is, petting an aggressive dog is not an easy task.  If the aggression is temporary or situational, it may be modified through conditioning, rewarding and understanding.


             Training plays a significant role in addressing the causes of aggression. In this context, training may not necessarily get rid of the problem but can help you deal with situation in a calm and “cool” way.


             Like humans, dogs are affected and stressed by the different things going on in the environment. Being an owner, you must keep a check on the things that could trigger the aggression. The aggression could be a reaction to a sudden change, confusion, anxiety and even boredom. As much as possible, try to eliminate such things.

Physical Health

             Physical health affects the behaviour of every dog! Sometimes, aggression is a sign that your dog is not having enough exercise.  In addition, you need to consult your vet about making new diet plans


             For most cases of aggression, a class of anti-depressant called Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) (such as fluoxetine and paroxetine) are used. They work by blocking the reuptake of serotonin into the neurons. The role of serotonin has already been established in various studies. In addition, immediate-acting medications like benzodiazepines (e.g., alprazolam and diazepam), might also be used concurrently.

NOTE: Consult your vet before administering any drug




              Many dog owners agree to the fact that it is very stressful and frustrating to cope with an aggressive dog, especially after going through lots of training, boot camps, and consultations. Finding a new home for such dogs may be a good thing, provided it will help the situation.

              Sending your dog to another home is always a difficult decision, and needs to be planned, keeping in mind the following.

  • Your dog is going to live in a different home.
  • Your dog is going to live with another, unfamiliar owner.
  • Your dog may not welcome the change.
  • Your dog can harm the new owner.

              With all these, there should be some preventive measures while making plans for a new home:

  • You should always look for a dog lover, who had or still has dogs at home.
  • Even better, if the new owner has some experience with aggressive dogs.
  • The new home should not be an environment where the problem can get worse.

              Dog rescues and shelters are the first options you may think of, but many of them have been stretched to their limits, and they may not accept your dog. However, you can do a quick search on Google or Yahoo for shelters and rescues very close to you. Here is a simple search string to use:

Search “Breed” “Rescue” “Your Location.”

For example, you can search “Golden retriever” “rescue” “Ohio.”

              Facebook groups are another means of finding a new home for your dog. Join a dog group related to your location. Post pictures of your dog and explain to everyone why you want a new home for your dog



NB: Always discuss with a veterinary behaviourist before rehoming your dog. He will suggest the kind of environment that suits your dog.


              As a dog owner, putting your dog to sleep is the most painful decision to take! However, as hard as it sounds, it is unavoidable when things have gone beyond control. Some people hate to hear it! They think it’s inhuman and wicked, but when you consider the risks of having a dangerous dog or the damages the dog already made, you will say YES to it. For instance, if your dog gets anyone hospitalized for months or somebody dies after an attack, or there is no hope of managing the situation again.

             However, do not euthanize your dog based on your friend’s advice or some information Google led you to. Here is a fantastic piece of content by Patricia Cornell, on when you need to euthanize your dog.


              Every dog owner should have adequate knowledge of his or her dog’s breed and also maintain a great relationship with the dog.

              Do not be aggressive to your dog! Teach him the correct way to behave; positively reinforce every good behaviour, socialize your dog and avoid training methods that are confrontational or inhuman.

              However, if your dog has bitten anyone or another dog, seek professional help IMMEDIATELY before things get out of hand.

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