Dogs acting out in aggression is one of the most common reasons that people will seek professional help with training. Dogs will also get passed around from family to family or end up in pounds or shelters because people feel their aggression can’t be managed or kept under control.
Everyone knows someone who’s afraid or uncomfortable around dogs. A lot of people’s discomfort typically stems from an instance or experience they’ve had that involved dogs acting out in aggression. It’s an unfortunate and common occurrence that reinforces the idea that dogs are simply aggressive by nature. This simply isn’t the truth though.
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The truth is, a lot of common aggression issues that are displayed in canine behavior can be managed and even prevented simply from a nurturing standpoint. Dogs are not aggressive by nature but can end up growing into an adult dog that feels aggression is a necessary response in order to function, stay in control, or survive.
It all starts with being educated about canine behavior and also learning how to raise a fur baby to not only be a well socialized and behaved member of the family and society but to also feel secure and stable enough to the point they don’t instinctively feel aggression is necessary.
In this article, we’ll go over some common dog behaviors that do demonstrate aggression and some behaviors that can be confused with aggression, along with some body language cues to be aware of and how to prevent a dog from becoming aggressive over time.
There are many different types of aggression and reasons/triggers for why a dog may be showing signs of aggressive behavior. It’s important to be able to understand these common forms in order to be able to appropriately handle them.
- Reactivity – This is most often interpreted as aggression because it may cause a dog to display defensive or overly alert behavior. Dogs are considered reactive when they have a tendency to overreact to certain situations or triggers. This reactivity can be cultivated over time due to the lack of socializing, genetics, trauma or fear, which is one of the most common triggers for aggressive behavior. Reactive dogs can be triggered by unfamiliar people, children, feeling trapped, etc.
- Fight Or Flight – Again, fear is one of the most common triggers for aggressive behavior in dogs. Most times, a dog will try and run away or escape whatever it’s afraid of, but if a dog feels trapped or like they can’t get away, they may resort to simply defending themselves. In this case, body language can be the only cue that aggressive behavior is a potential outcome.
Behaviors Often Confused With Aggression
- Mouthing/Nipping – Puppies interact with the world and explore through their mouth. They love to put their mouths on everything, chew on things, lick things, tug on things, etc. It’s also a common and natural part of puppy play and roughhousing. Sometimes when puppies get a little too rough or bite a bit too hard, it’s typically just because they’re excited and super into their playtime and haven’t quite learned how hard is too hard. Nipping and mouthing aren’t coming from a place of aggression in puppies, they just simply need a break and to be told when their bites hurt, especially when they’re playing with humans.
- Rough Play – Roughhousing isn’t just puppy behavior, grown dogs will do it too, often as a favorite and natural go-to when making a new canine friend. They like to play mock fighting and sometimes it can get wild, loud and seemingly aggressive, but no actual harm will be happening during the play. Body language can be very important to take note of when dogs are playing roughly, there’s a stark difference between play fighting and real fighting.
- Resource Guarding – Dogs have a natural tendency to guard and protect things that they feel have high value or that they really want, such as toys, food, bones, etc. This tendency comes from their wolf heritage, as wolves need to protect things of value in order to survive. This tendency can be tempered through training, such as using commands like “leave it” or “drop it” and helping them not develop any aggressive tactics of guarding, such as growling or nipping.
- Leash Reactivity – Dogs who are leash-reactive tend to react outwardly towards certain triggers (such as people, other dogs, cats, things that make them nervous, etc.) while they are leashed that can appear aggressive, especially when they react through growling, barking, lunging, etc. Dogs who behave this way aren’t actually intending on being aggressive, they are trying to prevent a fight or conflict by making the threat or trigger go away or creating distance between them and the trigger/threat. It’s best to give dogs space when they behave this way and not approach them; it’s the owner’s responsibility to help train and manage this behavior.
Learning Dog Body Language
Obviously, dogs can’t talk – they have their own form of communication with each other and depend on body language to communicate their feelings and intentions. Learning what their common body language signals are can really help determine when a dog is truly being aggressive or is simply playing or guarding, or is nervous, or is just happy.
- Body is relaxed
- Wearing a happy expression (as if they’re smiling)
- Tail is wagging
- Demonstrate a play bow (when they drop down onto their front legs and their behind is in the air)
Signs A Dog Is Anxious
- Frequent yawning when not tired
- Constantly licking their lips
- Suddenly scratching themselves
- Chewing at their feet
- Sniffing the air and their surroundings
- Pacing or circling
- Ears are forward, their mouth is closed
- Eyes are focused and intense
- Body is directed forward and tense
- The tail is held high, maybe slowly wagging
- Hackles maybe slightly raised
Signs A Dog Is Aggressive/About To Bite
- Similar signs to anxiety/arousal
- Making direct eye contact
- Whites of eyes are showing
- Exposing teeth
- Raised hackles
How To Prevent Aggression
If you have an older dog and they have already developed aggressive habits or behaviors, then professional help may be needed and is highly recommended to help you learn how to help manage your dog and train them to be well-behaved and safe to be around. Rewiring a dog’s mentality and behavior to stop responding to stimuli with aggression is difficult and can be challenging, but it isn’t impossible.
However, when a dog is still young or if you bring home a brand new puppy into the family, the best thing that all pet parents can do for their new fur babies is to train them from the start to not respond to triggers or stimuli with aggression and to also raise them in a way where they don’t feel aggression is a necessary go-to response.
Dogs are not aggressive by nature, they are not born aggressive, but they can grow to become aggressive if they aren’t socialized properly, don’t undergo proper training, are allowed to be the alpha of the household, or – in more extreme cases – are neglected or treated with abuse.
Some of the top recommendations for raising a dog to not resort to aggressive behavior are proper socialization (with both people and other dogs) and basic (yet essential) training.
Properly socializing a dog from the time they are little is incredibly important, and not just because it helps them find new friends. Socializing a puppy with other dogs helps them get used to interacting with other dogs and learning essential social cues and behaviors that help them grow into a dog that’s confident, playful, and social, rather than a dog that’s fearful, overly shy, defensive and wary of every dog they come in contact with.
This goes for socializing them with people too. From the time dogs are young, it’s important to help them get to know and interact with people, as this sets up the perfect scenarios for them to not only learn that people can be trusted, but also when playtime with people goes too far and how to remain gentle when interacting with and meeting new people.
Including children in a puppy’s socialization process is important too, especially if you have children of your own. This not only helps the dog learn how to behave around children but also gives you the opportunity to teach your kids how to safely approach and interact with dogs and also how to give the dogs their own space.
Frequent exposure to other dogs and people is key when it comes to socialization. To socialize your puppy, you can seek out professional guidance or socialization groups, which is recommended, or it’s also very effective to set up playdates with other puppies and dogs too. Also, let your dog be involved in social events and playtime with kids to help them get used to being surrounded by people.
Basic training is pretty straightforward and simple, but it goes a long way when it comes to raising a well-behaved, sociable dog. Having a well-trained dog helps you to establish your position as their leader or “alpha,” and also helps you to have control of every situation they may be presented with in socialization opportunities and encounters with dogs and people.
These are some basic commands that should be known by every dog from the time they are young:
- House Training – House training your dog not only helps them learn to not pee on the carpet but also where their boundaries are and that they don’t run the household, you do. House training takes patience, consistency, supervision, and positive reinforcement.
- Come – Teaching a dog to come when you call is essential, especially when they are out in the world and are surrounded by all sorts of distractions. It also helps keep them safe and from getting themselves into trouble.
- Stay – Stay is also an essential command to help you keep your dog calm and controlled, and also to keep them safe.
- Leave It – This command helps you keep your dog from getting anything in their mouth that shouldn’t be there – food they shouldn’t eat, toys that aren’t theirs, dangerous objects, household items, etc
- Sit – Sit is one of the most common commands to teach, but essential nonetheless. Being able to have your dog sit on command in any scenario, especially in social or distracting situations, helps you keep the peace and your dog to understand where their place is.
- Down – Down is also a common command to teach, but is also very effective when you’re able to get your dog to do it on command.
- Settle – Teaching your dog to settle is a great way to help them manage their feelings of restlessness or anxiety. This helps you cue them to take the time to calm down and ascertain any situation, rather than immediately reacting with wild or fearful behavior.
When it comes to training your individual dog, it’s important to find what training tactics work best with your dog since all breeds have different attention spans, needs to please, intelligence levels, etc. It’s highly recommended to consult a professional or attend one-on-one or group training classes. These can be exceptionally helpful in teaching your dog and helping the commands stick.
Again, dogs are not aggressive by nature, dogs simply can grow to be aggressive if they are raised in a way where they feel aggression is either necessary or acceptable. Education on the matter is the first step, then taking action is the key. Let’s do what we can to end the stigma that dogs are aggressive by nature and take the steps needed to help people and dogs coexist in a happier, safer way.
Do you have any further questions on aggressive behavior in dogs? Do you have any thoughts, tips, or experiences you’d like to share? Let us know, we’d love to help support you and your fur baby as much as we can.