About Aggression

Learn to read your dog and recognize there is no quick fix.

Extreme territorial aggression is shown by this wirehair directing a threat toward an approaching dog.

Ask anyone dealing with dog problems or, more appropriately, problem dogs, what the biggest problem is today and everyone will unhesitatingly say aggression. That is scary, but more scary is the change in the breeds now being labeled as aggressive. Not long ago you would have heard that the German shepherd, rottweiler and pit bull top the list. But at the behavior clinic here, while the rottweiler is still tops just behind it, and climbing, is the golden retriever.


Certainly popularity plays a role. Of 22,000 dogs of hunting breeds registered in the Canadian Kennel Club last year, over 10,000 were golden retrievers. Someone sold the idea that a golden makes a wonderful pet and you just aren't a typical suburbanite unless you have at least one. And don't even dream of having it retrieve something that you shot. There is nothing that can ruin a breed like popularity.

Aggression in todays domestic dog is far more complex than the slight changes in facial expression or tail posture that tells another dog (or a person astute enough to observe and to understand it) what the intentions are that were described by Konrad Lorenz in his early work on dogs and on aggression in animals in general. The facial changes, hair erection and tail posture are all expressions of readiness to attack or to defend and which it will be. The Lorenz model of dog-body language assumes the dogs concerned are normal in all respects and know the meaning of the signals they receive. Unfortunately, an alarmingly high number of dogs today carry a lot of baggage. The baggage includes genetic and hormonal based behavior problems, learned problems, problems acquired in training and those problems related to improper primary socialization.


Behavior therapists recognize up to 16 different types of aggressive behavior in dogs. However, the types they list are not mutually exclusive, and how many there are really depends on whether you want to be a lumper or a splitter. I tend toward the more practical approach, grouping related types but treating each dog as a specific, individual case. So first we define limits for aggression, keeping in mind that aggressive behavior is normal and necessary for all animals, and the only thing that makes it unique in some species is the possession of tools like teeth in dogs, claws and teeth in cats, antlers and hooves in deer, money and power in people and so on.


Predation is a specialized use of the tools and should not be included under the aggressive behavior umbrella. Killing of small predators, what is referred to as predator sharp, is a type of predation and should not be construed to be aggression. A dog is a predator and even small predators such as cats are prey. Predation is designed to kill the prey animal. The same weapons--teeth--are used in aggression, but the brain center that controls predation is located in the lateral hypothalamus, a portion of the mid-brain. Stimulation of this center evokes eating and killing prey.

Aggression--intraspecific fighting--still uses teeth, but in a controlled way designed not to kill but to bring the other animal into submission. The center that controls intraspecific aggression is located in the median-ventral portion of the hypothalamus, a totally different center from that used for prey killing. As the two behaviors are controlled by different brain centers and are for very different purposes, predation must be put into a separate category apart from aggression. This might be a hard concept for a neighbor to grasp when your dog has just killed his cat.

For our purposes then, aggression is primarily intraspecific, dog to dog, mostly within the same gender but not always, and mostly within the same age class (for example, between two adult males). Aggression can be for defense of space, a possession such as food, bedding sites, young or any other thing that can be a source of contention. Therefore, all dogs will be aggressive at sometime as a normal pattern of social behavior. But there is also the problem of dogs biting people, and if the papers I read are any indication, it is still newsworthy. This interspecific aggression occurs because we have included dogs in our social order and imposed ourselves into theirs. Therefore, dogs react toward people in the same way they would toward a dog and for the same reasons. By lacking the proper tools for communication of intent, people will get hurt more often by dogs than other dogs will. Also, relatively few people can read a dog well enough to predict the next things that a dog will do.

This German wirehair intensely threatens a person encroaching on his territory--his kennel.

Fewer still know what to do to defuse a dangerous situation. So, aggression is normal for dogs and they will use the offensive and defensive tools they have. Depending on what tools are used and how, aggression can escalate or it can de-escalate. Usually it is under control but for lots of reasons it can become out of control and result in a dog or a person getting seriously hurt or killed. Of the several to many types of aggression, I prefer to classify aggression based on cause and this results in fewer types than the 16 or so types often referred to. All or nearly all the types of aggression delimited by the splitters can be pretty well shoe-horned into the following four types.

Territorial defense is a normal inborn behavior for dogs and all other animals as well. Normal dogs all inherit some amount of or potential for territorial aggression. Therefore, genetics will determine how defensive a dog will be. It will also control fearfulness. Fearfulness is a necessary part of defensive behavior. The normal dog will have the proper balance of attack and fearful backing off. Learning can also play a role. Suppose a normal or slightly fearful dog or slightly more aggressive than normal dog had a person approaching and the dog barked causing the person to stop. The next time a person approaches, the dog barks sooner and more aggressively and the approaching person backs off. The person backing away is reinforcing to the dog so each successive time the dog's apparent viciousness will escalate. The dog has learned he can control the situation, expand his individual space by being aggressive. Learning can also determine what is defended as well as the intensity of the defense of the various objects that signify his defended space. A dog might be defensively aggressive in the car or in the kennel but not be defensive in the house or the yard. Or, a dog might defend his owner when on leash but not when hunting or otherwise running free.

Dominance aggression is the most feared type of aggression

both from the human safety and from the dog safety stand point. It is the most commonly encountered aggression problem, possibly because it is the type that affects people most. Dominance is the struggle for power, or whatever else represents status. All dogs, and people too, seek the highest possible level in the order of things, within the family, with other dogs, generally within any social ordering. Whereas territorial aggression is space-related and can be defused by giving the space the dog requires, dominance aggression is not so easily side tracked because it is status directed not just space directed. Dominance aggression can be stopped only by one of the combatant pair giving the correct submissive signals. If one of the pair is a person, there are neither the physical attributes nor social behavior know how to turn it off. Distraction is the only way to change the mind of an out of control dominant wannabe.

Dominance aggression is primarily genetically determined, but with a considerable amount of learning tossed in. Dogs, like people, vary in their innate aggressive potential. Those innately most aggressive are the ones most likely to demonstrate dominance aggression and are most likely to be out of control in recognizing an I-quit-already gesture and so keep right on pushing. Or they are more likely to skip the preliminary posturing and cut right to the bottom line, the knock-down-drag-out fighter. Winning is reinforcing and the dog has learned that to win is better and so will increase the intensity of his aggression.

The major reason the dominant aggressive dog fails to recognize signals of aggression or appeasement is inadequate primary socialization. Non-fighting breeds like our hunting breeds if taken from litter too young developmentally, just never had enough exposure in the language. The aggressive dog might give no signal or inappropriate signals so the target dog is essentially being lied to. Or, the aggressor dog is not literate enough to recognize signals of submission given by the target dog. How young is too young for complete primary socialization? Because developmental age varies among individuals, even in the same litter, and certainly among litters, and most likely between breeds, we should err on the conservative side and leave pups in litter at least 10 weeks. Removing pups from litter at the overly popular seven weeks can, among other things, act to increase dominance aggression because the pup simply can't read dogs and this can result in a dog version sociopath.

Another reason signals are not legible to target dogs is the aggressor dog has been selectively bred or physically altered to mask signals both physically and behaviorally. Though not done to any extent in hunting breeds, they can be the recipient of an attack because the hunting dog had no clue that an attack was coming. The most worrisome thing in a rottweiler is that they are as hard to read as the face of a dead pan comedian. Eyes are rounded, not squinting, ears are proportionately small so not a good signal device and tail is cropped so short it cannot serve as a signal device, cannot tell another dog it is about to get clobbered. Other breeds have been shaped by selection to induce fear in anyone seeing them because they are simply unable to not send signals. The German shepherd, doberman and bouvier are just this. German shepherds are used less now for seeing eye dog work in favor of the Labs and goldens and less for drug and explosives detection dogs at airports in favor of beagles because people are afraid of shepherds, but want to cuddle the big teddy bear golden retriever or Snoopy the beagle. So now we have more aggression problems with goldens than with shepherds. Apparently, physiognomy counts for little as signage for aggression. This is not just a function of total numbers as there are still many more shepherds or mixed breeds than goldens, and "mixes" are also much lower in aggression. The shar-pei and pit bull and other fighting breeds are selectively bred for aggressiveness toward other dogs and are both dead pan and illiterate when it comes to reading signals. That can be deadly to the dog that is trying to quit.

Selectively breeding dogs for predator sharpness can also increase the probability of non-predator aggression if breeders don't recognize the difference between aggressive and predator sharp. There is a difference. Dogs that are aggressive toward dogs or people are not necessarily sharp dogs, and dogs that will tear a predator or predator-like animal (e.g. ground hogs) to pieces can be totally non-aggressive toward dogs of all sizes, love people of all sizes and would never even harm a stuffed toy.

This golden retriever gives a lateral threat display of territorial aggression toward the author and his dog. The tail is vertical and slowly flags, hair on lower neck and shoulders is erected, ears are back and a junk-yard growl is issued.

Another type of aggression which is turning up at an alarmingly increasing rate is pain aggression. Pain aggression used to be pretty much limited to biting the veterinarian when he/she was poking, prodding, palpating, twisting, pumping, pulling, pressing, just to diagnose where it hurt. Or sticking in needles for the annual immunization. This can create a fear biting or defensive biting and it can generalize so the dog spots someone in a white lab coat and bites first, before he can be hurt, and apologizes later. This bite the hand that hurts you aggression is usually situation specific and is easily controlled by avoiding the situation or desensitizing the dog to the specific situation. But, a more insidious kind of aggression comes from repeated low level (or not such low level) painful stimulation which acts to reduce the threshold for aggressiveness.

The aggression is almost always redirected, aimed at a dog or other animal or person that has no connection to the pain and is subordinate to the aggressor. I know of no research done specifically on dogs to measure the effect of low intensity pain the dog cannot get away from and cannot control. However, there is plenty of conclusive evidence that pain triggers redirected aggression in laboratory rats and in doves. All research in this area concludes that repeated low level pain stimulation results in greatly escalated aggression toward any animal within reach and more so if the animal is subordinate to the one getting the pain. Anecdotally, we have all been there, getting just a tad crabby and lashing out at anyone in sight or within reach because of the misery of a toothache or a cold. Discomfort in the form of mild pain that one is not able to get away from or in some way control or eliminate most certainly acts the same on dogs as it does on rats, doves or people.

The source of the painful stimulus is more and more associated with training techniques too enthusiastically or too frequently applied. One of these is the famous ear pinch used to "teach" retrieving. What started out as a pinch of the ear between the thumb and forefinger quickly became thumb nail against forefinger, then an inventive soul used pliers, not to be outdone, another used a staple remover, and finally, the ultimate of actually biting the dog's ear, getting maximum effectiveness by having the dog's ear between upper and lower canine teeth (referred to often as eye teeth in people). This latter technique has been demonstrated at training clinics, and why the

yahoo giving the show didn't get his face ripped off and spit out into his hand is a monument to the good temperament of the demo dog. The toe pinch sits in the same section of the ball park.

Another overly used and badly misused--if a little is good, a lot is much better--pain source training tool that produces redirected aggression is the shock collar or what is now euphemistically referred to as the e-collar. And why not, the e-prefix has become the buzz letter in selling. But a shock is a shock is a pain. At subliminal levels, repeated shocks summate and though it might take 10 or more, sooner or later it hurts. My good and long-time friend Bodo Winterheld used to say, "A shock collar in the hands of a novice is like a straight razor in the hands of a monkey. You can bet there is going to be damage done." We can define that as any pain with an undefined cause can result in redirected aggression.

One of the main selling points of the collar is that the dog doesn't know where the pain comes from. The trainer is not associated with the shock and so is presumed innocent by the dog. At least that's what the instruction books say. But any painful, negative reinforcement to be effective must be associated with some unwanted (by the trainer) behavior and the timing must be impeccable. A few milliseconds off and it is just a painful stimulus with an undefined cause that the dog can't associate with anything specific and so "blames" whomever or whatever is near at the time. The pain is redirected as aggression toward the dog or person that is equal to or below it in the dominance order. So one shock too many or too often, and in some dogs just one shock is one too many, or if the timing is off or if the dog gets zapped by accident, saying "Oops, sorry there old buddy" just won't erase it. The collar is not really an ideal pill for all ills.

Fear-induced aggression, often referred to as fear biting, is another type of aggression common in dogs. In this case learning is often the main proximate cause. A dog is fearful, usually of people, and the dog has a relatively large individual space. When a person invades that individual space and the dog has ambivalent feelings as to whether to bite or run away, and if run is not an option, the dog can do several things to stop the space invasion. It can send an aggressive signal to try to push back the invading person. It might be a low-level threat at first, then increase in intensity to baring teeth, growling and if that works to turn back the person, the dog is reinforced and learns that aggressive behavior maintains the distance he wants. If it doesn't work he might resort to biting, but usually the threat is enough to turn most people away. Next time he will immediately start with the level that he had to go to in order to turn back the intruder before and maybe elevating the intensity a bit. A few times and he cuts right to the lunge at anyone invading his space--especially a small invader who isn't clued in on dog body language. For that matter, most adults can't or don't read the dog's body language either, especially the subtle, low intensity signals. Small children rarely can read these signals. A violent threat they can read but by then the aggression is too imminent to stop. Someone is hurt.

Another way fear aggression is acquired is the result of improper secondary socialization. Dogs with no or too little exposure to people during the first 10 to 12 weeks of life is pretty well guaranteed to be fearful of people, or what is called kennel shy or kennelosis (a kind of made-up veterinarians' term; I take no credit for it). Such a dog is extremely fearful of all people and each person presents a brand new situation. Usually a kennel shy dog is too fearful to bite but some have learned that an aggressive threat or a full-blown bite will push the person back and remove the fearful stimulus. A dog like this must be desensitized through very careful gradual exposure to each new person and eventually the dog can get over it but it will take a long time with a lot of patience and the understanding of a lot of people. Training a dog with this type of problem is extremely difficult and is rarely a total success.

But knowing the types of aggression and a definition of them, and the causes in a general way, does not do much for helping out if you decide your dog (more often someone else's dog, right?) shows one or another type of aggression problem. What do you do if it's there? How do you cure it? Earlier I inferred that each dog is an individual and for each problem, the cause must be accurately assessed. Sometimes the cause is obvious, like the dog spent his first six months in a stall in a barn with nearly no human contact. More often the cause is a lot less obvious and it takes a lot of detective kind of digging to get at it, especially if an owner doesn't remember or, more commonly, is afraid to admit that he/she just might have screwed up. This is more often in he than in she people. Guys have a problem with thinking they might not know it all as well as they think they should in order to be the macho guy they know they are. Ladies are generally not so much in denial. They ask. But given that there is a problem, and the cause is not in-your-face obvious, communicate with a person who is well versed in dog behavior and I mean tell it all. If the person you talk to is knowledgeable, you won't get an immediate quick fix answer, you will get questions asked and a narrowing down to cause. Then you will get a treatment program individually tailored to your dog (or some guy's dog you know about). There are no pills, no shots that make it better by tomorrow. The problem took a long time getting there and it will take a long time to make it go away and you are the one that has to do it, not the therapist or the trainer. Oh sure, they can do it, and it will work for them, but when push comes to shove, it is your thing to fix by doing exactly as you are told.

This wirehair cross-breed anticipates a shock from an e-collar. This dog attacked his kennel mate by redirecting pain-induced aggression.

There are a lot of mythical cures that don't work and in most cases make the problem worse. The knee-jerk reaction, which is usually useless, is punishment. There is no hope for the mentally challenged person who will tell you to grab a handful of skin on each side of the dog's neck and lifting the dog to your face level, yell as forcefully as possible at the dog while shaking it till its teeth rattle, then throw the dog on its back, fall on top of it still yelling to assert your dominance. If someone tells you to do this, don't. First, pat him on the head and tell him you will think about it for next Tuesday. It's their cure for everything from shingles to drought so they think it should work on your dog too no matter what ails him. Similarly, shocking the dog into oblivion will cure nothing. Beating, chaining, tying a dead chicken around his neck and anything else that might do a lot for getting rid of your aggression will do little for getting rid of it in the dog. So, if blasting the dog into submission won't do it, what will? If your dog bites you, getting physical can stop him from biting you, but it will not help anyone else or any other dog that your dog has it in for. He will redirect his aggression. The first defense is to get a pup that has parents and grandparents with no history of aggression. This is difficult because most breeders will tell you what they th

ink you want to hear. The next thing is to be sure the dog you get has proper primary and secondary socialization. That means the pups should have been in litter getting an education from mom and their siblings for 10 weeks, and that it had a lot of hands on work from people from birth until you take it home when it is 10 to 12 weeks old. The next line of defense against getting an aggressive dog is a well organized training program that integrates every member of the family including animals previously ensconced in your house. But what if Murphy and his laws take over and, having taken everything into account, what can possibly go wrong will, what to do when punting is not an option?

I am going to reiterate what I alluded to above. Know, upfront, that there are so many possible combinations and permutations of genetics, learning, accidental interventions and happenings that it would be impossible to say, "Do this" and have it work except by coincidence in any given dog and at about the same level of probability as winning a huge lottery if you expect it to work on two dogs. Chances are that it just won't get rid of aggressiveness in every situation for one dog, let alone work twice. And that is why a lot of people who profess to be dog shrinks feel comfortable charging a hundred and a half per hour or for any part thereof.

Many of the cures are based on desensitizing techniques, especially those cases of aggression toward other dogs when the handler is, or apparently is, a source of contention. It is the type of aggressiveness that is more defensive than offensive in its root cause. If it is off the scale offensive type aggressiveness, other approaches, like months of solitary confinement will be more effective. But again, the tailor-made fix will simply do a better job than any canned fix on the market. The steps to best manage an aggression problem are:

  1. Recognize that a problem exists and admit the dog is aggressive. Don't even consider denial.
  2. Keep a very careful and objective record of everything that is happening for a period of a few weeks minimally. Write everything that is happening in the environment, in the personal relationship, in the training, the diet, everything you can think of that might have a bearing. Be tedious in your record keeping and leave nothing out whether you think it is important or not. When it comes to providing information on what has been going on, there is no such thing as overkill.
  3. Pay close attention to reconstructing each time the dog is showing some aggressive tendency. Start with the event and work backward. Then compare this event with previous ones and compare for similarities. That's why you need to keep meticulous records.
  4. Get to a good dog-behavior therapist. Most veterinarians just do not have the behavior background to be of much help. Similarly, much of the psychology training does not apply to treating dog problems. An animal behaviorist with a particular interest in dogs is best suited for the job of helping you get your dog back into being a solid citizen.
  5. If you think you might have made mistakes in training or earlier in the dog's career, or even suspect you have, own up. Admit you are fallible just like the rest of us. Don't cover it up, and don't put blame on everybody and his brother. Accept that you screwed up and get on with fixing it before you have to appear in court to find out you have to euthanize your dog because it savaged someone or someone's dog. Or at best, your dog tells you, in no uncertain terms, that there is no way you are going to put him out of your bed.

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