Aggression is the most common behavior problem reported in dogs.

According to veterinary behaviorist Dr. Nicholas Dodman [1], forty-two percent of dog owners report their dogs as having behavior problems of some sort.  About three times as many dogs are destroyed because they have behavior problems as die from cancer.[1]  Dog aggression is the most common behavior problem of them all.

Bad dogs? Or bad owners?

There is a prevailing attitude that there are not bad dogs, only bad owners. This attitude is often unhelpful to most owners and misguided.  People avoid talking to an expert about dog aggression because they feel they might be told they are to blame.

While it is possible to make a dog aggression situation worse [2], any dog may become aggressive and bite if it is anxious or afraid, frustrated or in pain. In addition dogs often have the instinct to protect their territory. There would have been an evolutionary basis for this, as any intruder would reduce access to food and potential mates.

Factors Influencing Dog Aggression

Dog aggression is a natural behavior and in some cases entirely appropriate. However issues arise when dogs perceive threats where there aren’t any or whose behavior seems much more over-the-top than is warranted for the situation. Here are a few factors that can influence the problem of dog aggression.

  • Genetic components: There can be a genetic component that makes some dogs more predisposed to react aggressively than others.
  • Poor socialization, or socialization that resulted in a negative experience can cause a dog to become aggressive later.
  • Bad experiences at any time can cause dog aggression.
  • Dogs are likely just as vulnerable to mood disorders as people are as well.  
  • Health issues: A dog who feels unwell is more likely to behave aggressively
  • Age related changes
  • Unmet species-typical needs: humans overwhelming do not understand what dog’s need resulting in frustration, boredom and other conditions that affect their well being
  • Chaotic, unpredictable environments
  • Chronic stress: chronic stress is detrimental to both mental and physical health

Yet most dog aggression can be improved – the majority of dogs can improve to the extent that their owners would be willing to keep them.  And yet many dog owners also avoid consulting an expert because they are afraid they will be told to put their dogs down.

Dog aggression and children don't mix
You should step in between a child and an aggressive dog and remove the child away immediately.

Ignoring a Growing Problem

Puppies bite and growl and sometimes they are just trying behavior on to see what happens. Other times a dog may react negatively to a situation until they learn more about it and realize it’s not a threat. But most of us realize it’s a problem when the behavior seems to be inappropriate to the situation.

Unfortunately, without treatment dog aggression does not improve. It can become a real problem if your dog bites someone and they can sue you years after the incidence. You can also lose your homeowners insurance if your dog bites someone. In some areas, authorities can euthanize your dog on the spot after a biting incident.

Dog aggression can affect your life in subtler ways too, causing more stress and conflict for you and your family.  Isolating your dog as a means to control it can affect the wellbeing of your dog.

Is my dog aggressive? Take the quiz

The Bite on Being Alpha

Dominance theories have been around a long time in part by early research on captured wolves. But that research didn’t reflect how wolves actually organize themselves naturally. Nor did it describe how humans might best interact with them or how we might interact with their cousins, our common domestic dog.

Over time science and research continues to evolve our objective understanding. But for the average human, we can’t easily escape our human tendency to look for information that confirms our beliefs and reject information that challenges it.

But studies and empirical evidence show that dog owners are at risk using certain “dominance” techniques work to improve dog aggression. See The World’s Worse Training Advice for dog owners and 5 Treatment Methods to Avoid.

Even more concerning, dog owners are more at risk to getting bitten themselves trying dominance strategies and methods as a way to manage aggression. Threatening, or intimidating any dog can be dangerous, much less a dog who has shown aggression in the past.

The Desire for a Fast Fix

It’s not always because we believe in a dominance theory that lands us in hot water. In many cases dog owners know nothing about dominance theories.

Dog aggression is unpleasant at best and a serious and potentially dangerous problem and its usually after something upsetting happens that we finally can’t ignore or justify any longer, we start on our journey. We are rarely in a calm and rational state when this happens. The desire for a fast fix can overshadow any distaste people have around intimidating or bullying a dog into submission.  

Treating dog aggression the right way can be challenging. At the same time, those who can commit to the effort often find they become way better dog owners overall and learn about themselves in the process. It can be incredibly satisfying knowing that you are improving the life of the dog you committed yourself to caring about for the life of the dog.

If you’re here now, it helps to slow everything down.

If you have an aggressive dog, what can you do right now before learning about anything else?

Learn more about Treating Dog Aggression

Will my dog outgrow the aggression?

Puppies may go through a biting phase that they will often outgrow.  Unfortunately in most cases, true dog aggression often escalates as the dog ages. While it may be natural to make excuses, all dogs are capable of causing serious harm. The sooner you get help with your dog’s aggression the easier it will be to help your dog live a more harmonious life with you.  Keep in mind that the behavior modification methods used to treat dog aggression are often just as beneficial for normal dogs as well.

If you are not sure whether your dog is actually aggressive or whether or not it’s a problem, check out the quiz at the bottom of the article: Is My Dog Aggressive?

You might be interested in

Can dog aggression be cured?

Keep a dog from biting

Causes of dog aggression


[1]The Dog Who Loved Too Much, Tales, Treatments, and the Psychology of Dogs, Dr. Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, MRCVS, Bantom Books, 1996

[2] Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals, Karen L. Overall, M.A., V.M.D., Ph.D. Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Behavior, Department of Clinical Studies, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. Pennsylvania, Mosby, Inc. 1997

Photo credit Mr. Dtb


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