Dogs have been man’s best friend since their wolf-y ancestors first discovered food was easier to get by following around human hunters. However well dogs have adjusted to domestication, they have retained some attributes and habits from their feral predecessors, including aggressive behaviors. Even the most docile of dogs can display aggression when confronted with threatening situations, and identifying and knowing how to control these behaviors is integral to maintaining a long and loving relationship with your pup.
Fear aggression occurs when a dog is frightened or intimidated in his or her current surroundings. Unfortunately, owners of dogs with fear aggression often attempt to comfort or reassure the dog, thereby reinforcing the adverse behaviors. Snapping, growling, and attempts to escape ones surroundings are all signs of fear aggression. Body postures such as a lowered head and flattened ears, raised fur, and lip retraction can be signs that your dog is feeling afraid and ready to defend himself (or you!) if provoked.
Most dogs with fear aggression will try to avoid a fearful situation by slowly reversing away from the person, predator, or situation causing them fear. Once they are cornered, however, they will likely attack and attempt to defend themselves.
While there is no specific action you can take to completely solve fear aggression, you can become adept at preventing or managing it:
- Prevent situations that provoke a fear response in your dog. Repeatedly putting your dog in situations that trigger this response will help him become better at employing the fear response behaviors, and they can be difficult to eradicate once they are ingrained. If your dog is consistently fearful of crowds or other dogs, avoid taking him to places where he may encounter them.
- Never turn your back on a fearful dog, even your own. Slowly walk backwards away from the dog until you are a safe distance away.
- Begin regular obedience training to help reinforce positive communication between yourself and your dog. This also helps the dog learn to perform acceptable behaviors instead of unacceptable ones in tense situations.
- Do not use punishment to address fear responses. This makes an unpleasant situation even worse for your dog, and could cause an escalation of defensive behaviors.
Dogs that have food-related aggression tend to react strongly when people or other dogs approach her during feeding time. Protecting one’s food source is a deeply-ingrained evolutionary imperative that can result in plenty of trouble if not managed properly.
- To avoid food aggression, feed your dog in an area away from disturbances such as children or other dogs that may trigger defensive reactions. This won’t solve your dog’s food aggression tendencies, but some obedience training can help.
- Do not free-feed a dog with food aggression, as this can cause her constant anxiety in her attempts to protect her food from would-be predators.
- Desensitization techniques can work to help overcome a dog’s aggression when food is involved, but if not done properly, desensitization can be dangerous for both the dog and the owner. Consult your vet or a professional trainer for help with this technique.
Territorial aggression occurs when a dog attempts to protect its surroundings (whether appropriate or not) from perceived intruders. This does not necessarily mean only your home; dogs can be territorial about the area they’ve in which they’ve been playing at the park, surrounding neighborhoods, cars, and so on. Territorialism is closely related to fear aggression in that the dog perceives a threat to his surroundings, or even to his human, and he becomes ready to defend either. The body language and behaviors of a territorial dog also mirror that of a fearful one: lowered head, flattened ears, snarling or lunging.
Again, there is no “cure” for territorial behaviors, but you can control them.
- Safety should always be a primary concern when addressing territorial behaviors; don’t assume that your dog will not defend himself against you or a trainer.
- Any attempt at behavior modification should not include punishment or dominance-based approaches, as this can actually escalate territorial behaviors.
- Basic obedience training goes a long way towards controlling territorial behaviors. Your dog will learn how to appropriately react to other humans or animals entering their space.
- Physical and mental stimulation will also help “run out” any excess energy your dog is holding onto that he could put towards territorial behaviors. A tired dog is a happy dog.
Aggression in Other Dogs
As summertime approaches, we’re all quite excited about spending more time outdoors enjoying the sunshine with our best friends. Frisbee in the park, walks along a riverbank, and other fun outdoor activities can be just what you and your dog need to shake off any residual winter blues and soak up some vitamin D – and you’re not the only ones who are looking forward to it. You will likely encounter other dogs in your summertime adventures, and you should know what to do if those dogs are less than friendly.
- First, never approach a dog, even one on a leash, without first addressing her human and asking permission. The owner will know best how the dog will react to new people or surroundings. If you get the “okay,” hold out your hand palm down, fingers closed, for the dog to sniff and wait for the dog’s “approval.” If a dog wants your attention, she will lower her head, perk up her ears, and perhaps move closer to you. If the dog growls or flattens her ears against her head, do not attempt to pet her.
- Don’t lower yourself to eye-level with the dog and smile (we know it’s hard, they’re adorable, but trust us on this one). When you smile at dogs, they can interpret this as bearing your teeth or snarling, and that is a classic dog-language invitation to fight. Avoid surprising a dog or allowing small children to run towards an unknown dog. Lastly, avoid potential “problem areas” when petting even a seemingly calm and friendly dog. Many dogs do not like having their belly, tail, ears, or feet touched by strangers.
- If threatened by an aggressive dog, remain calm and do not run. Do not turn your back, but walk slowly backwards and away from the dog. If you are on the ground, curl into a ball tightly and protect your head with your arms, keeping your fingers curled into a fist. Avoid making eye contact or smiling at the dog, as these are both signs of further hostility. As difficult as it may be, if you are bitten by a dog, do not pull away, as this will only encourage the dog to attack further. Try to place a purse, jacket, backpack, or anything you have handy between you and the dog to create space, but don’t hit the dog, as this will, again, only make things worse.
Stay alert and stay safe this summer by recognizing the signs of aggression in your own dog or others. If your dog doesn’t respond to attempts to control aggression, consult your veterinarian or professional trainer for assistance. With the right approach, even the most anxious dog can learn to control his aggression and be a happy, well-adjusted companion for years to come.