Why is my dog acting like that?

In many cases we intuitively understand why our dog acts the way they do. They’re hungry, and stranger has come to the door, they want attention, they want outside and so on. But in the case of behavior problems, particularly aggressive behavior it may be a little more tricky.

Dog aggression in particular can be puzzling when we know (or we think we know) there really isn’t a threat. However, much of the time we misinterpret why the dog is acting the way they are.

We tend to lump unfriendly behaviors like aggression, barking, lunging, biting, etc. all into one aggression category that is on a progression scale towards harm. Instead we should be looking at some behaviors like barking, growling, baring teeth, etc. as modes of communication.


Dogs bark for a number of different reasons, but the barking that feels aggressive can be combined with a certain amount of fear or alarm. Not only does it communicate to the threat that the dog is concerned, but much like shouting for help, barking is loud and can be used to let other trusted people or dogs know there’s a problem.


Growling, on the other hand tend is very directed and usually occurs at a close proximity to the person or animal it’s targeting. In some cases dog simply issue warning growls, much like the way we tell someone to stop irritating us.

More serious threatening growling specifically communicates that the dog is feeling threatened on some level and communicates to the other to stop what they are doing and back off. Usually this is combined with stiff body language.

This is why trying to punish or otherwise inhibit a dog from growling is a mistake. A growling dog has not yet made a mistake no matter how rude or inappropriate we might feel the behavior is. In many cases the dog has already been communicating he or she was uncomfortable before the growling started and we just missed it.


Lunging either occurs when the dog is intent to arrack, but more often occurs when the dog is feeling trapped. A dog is more likely to lunge while on a leash for example. It is an action designed to be threatening to the other.


Biting occurs when these communications signals fail. When there is a pattern of repeatedly ignoring communication like growling (or the dog is punished for growling), they skip the ritualized communication and just progress straight to biting.

Getting to the Source of the Problem

There are good reasons to discover what is causing your dog to behave aggressively.

One reason is to predict when it might happen so that it’s easier to keep others around you safer. The knowledge that your dog reacts badly when people come into the house allows you to handle the situation differently. For example you can put your dog into another room.

We often want to know why our dog acts the way they do, in part because if we can understand it, we can make sense of it. Unfortunately this leads us to minimizing the circumstances.

It makes more sense to be as objective as possible about all the circumstances in which aggressive or reactive behavior has occurs in the past. Whatever is happening in the environment most certainly plays a role.

Without identifying the triggers of your dog’s aggression, you can’t do much to try to improve the behavior. Yet it’s possible to improve most aggressive behavior in dogs.

But along with being objective about the details of the circumstances around your dog’s aggression, we also have to understand there can be additional underlying issues contributing.

Chronic stress has a direct relationship to anxiety which has a direct relationship to aggression. Anxiety, frustration or fear, pain or health problems may be underlying the aggressive behavior. Dog aggression can even be influenced by medication. Learn more about the causes of dog aggression.


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