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Latest health and behavior news and advice from the veterinarians at Tufts University.

Features August 2014 Issue

What Color Is Your Dog’s Aggression?

The two most common types of aggression and how to temper them.

“About 70 percent of the people who come with their dogs to see me come because of the dog’s aggression,” says Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM, who helps dogs and their owners sort through problems at the Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic. Often, the relationship is out of balance, she notes. The owner might be too strict or not enough in charge, but either way, it can lead to aggression on the dog’s part — toward his own family, toward other people, or toward other dogs.

The onset of aggression in dogs often starts at the age of physical maturity, somewhere between eight months and two years of age. And it’s not all aggression all the time. “People say to me, ‘98 percent of the time my dog is great,’ Dr. Borns-Weil relates. ‘It’s only two percent of the time that he goes off.’” But that two percent can make life with an aggressive dog extremely difficult and unpleasant, if not downright miserable. You never know when the aggression is going to flare, so you’re anxious about it 100 percent of the time.

The good news is that in the overwhelming majority of cases, aggression can be attenuated to the point that the dog becomes a pleasure to live with. The solution, notes Dr. Borns-Weil, starts from a place where “people have more empathy for their dogs, more understanding. That’s the beginning of change rather than just giving up on a pet and saying he’s a bad, or incorrigible, dog.” Dogs are not bad, she says. Indeed, aggression even has a biochemical component: research has indicated that aggressive dogs have low, unstable serotonin levels compared to their more easygoing counterparts. And the aggression tends to be worse at night, when serotonin is at its low ebb.

Aggression is probably the number one reason people bring their dogs to veterinary behaviorists.

What dogs need to smoothe out their issue is the right type and the right level of structure in their lives from you. An aggressive dog is actually often an insecure dog who craves your guidance to help him get on better in the world.

Herein, the two most common types of aggression dogs display — and the solutions for teaching them better ways to interact.

Conflict aggression. Conflict aggression is aggression directed at the owner. Sometimes a dog with this problem is perfectly fine with strangers. But he will snap at a family member if she goes to pet him in ways he doesn’t prefer. He will snarl or even bite if someone in the household takes the ball while playing fetch with him or will growl if the owner walks by while he’s snacking on a treat the person just gave him a few minutes ago.

Conflict aggression has traditionally been called dominance aggression, but “the concept of dominance is problematic,” Dr. Borns-Weil comments. “When you say a dog has a dominance issue, it gives people permission to use coercive measures” to handle the problem, which only breaks down the bond between person and dog and in fact generally has the paradoxical effect of making the animal even more aggressive. Dogs trained using physical punishment are two and a half times more likely to show physical aggression toward their owners than dogs trained without physical coercion. Granted, if the aggression is checked through the use of devices like shock collars and other aversive techniques, the dog may stop acting aggressively but will live in fear. “No bond, just fear,” says Dr. Borns-Weil.

Punishment as a reaction is understandable, she adds. “People’s impulse is often to want to punish what they don’t like instead of working to understand what they don’t like.” The problem is that it simply doesn’t work.

It goes back to the fact that true dominance, as Dr. Borns-Weil points out, is not a character trait but an aspect of a relationship between, say, one dog and another. Dominance simply describes who in the group has priority access to preferred resources. Maybe it means that the dog who came to live in the house first is the one who is fed first, or gets the doggie bed in the better spot in the family room, or receives the first petting when you come home from work. It actually tamps down aggression because it means everybody knows their place.

Aggression, on the other hand, connotes insecurity. The dog doesn’t know his place in the family; he’s lacking rules, structure, and therefore is acting out because more control has been put into his hands than he can handle.

Who tends to own dogs with conflict aggression that gets out of control? “Such owners are kind and accommodating,” says Dr. Borns-Weil. “Their body language doesn’t carry confidence. They’re inconsistent or inadequate with rules and structure.” That is, they’re nice to a fault, literally, at least when it comes to the dog’s needs, with the dog left not knowing what’s expected of him. That’s actually the “conflict” part of conflict aggression. The conflict is all in the dog’s head. He feels conflicted because of miscommunications from his owner.

Solution. A cream puff of an owner whose manner has allowed aggression toward her to bloom needs to take steps to introduce structure and boundaries. That might seem harsh, but it will actually make the dog end up feeling more comfortable. “If the dog were a teenager,” notes Dr. Borns-Weil, “he would be going to military school. ‘Make your bed so I can bounce a coin on it.’ No beating, no punishing. You just have to let him know where the edge is.”

It basically comes down to firmness. Don’t feed the dog until he sits — and waits. Don’t stroke the side of his face just because. Make him work for affection, perhaps by having him bring to you a certain toy first. Show him, in other words, that you’re the leader, and that if his behavior falls into line, life will go well for him.

One simple but effective measure is not to let a dog with conflict aggression on high places, such as the couch or bed. “High places are very valuable to dogs,” Dr. Borns-Weil points out. By letting a dog know that you but not he are allowed on, you’re sending a very clear message about who is the leader. You’re not being mean. You’re simply showing who’s in charge and making it clear that you must be respected for the dog to have the things in life he enjoys.

Admittedly, taking charge can be hard for gentle owners. (Women are more often targeted by aggressive dogs than men.) But “sometimes you have to find new parts of yourself that haven’t come naturally before,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. “You need to rise to the occasion — for your dog’s sake. It can be a real growth experience. It doesn’t have to be awful.”

None of this means becoming unnecessarily confrontational with your dog. In fact, you want to avoid unnecessary confrontations. “If the dog bothers you the whole time you’re in the kitchen cooking, just keep him out of the kitchen,” Dr. Borns-Weil advises. “If he gives you a hard time when you go to trim his nails or give him a bath, have the groomer do it. Some things have to be done, but they don’t have to be done by you.”

The idea is not to show the dog who’s “boss” with a lot of swagger, but to keep him from walking all over you, not giving him everything he wants when he wants it but instead making it clear that you hold the keys. You want to get the dog to stop snarling at you so you can stop worrying about your physical safety in your own home. Who cares if he has to stay out of the kitchen while you’re cooking? Besides, your closing the door on him is leadership, too.

Fear aggression. Whereas conflict aggression is directed at people within the household, fear aggression is aimed at people — and dogs — outside the family. “The dog acts fiercely so his perimeter stays safe,” Dr. Borns-Weil remarks. He is actually very scared and wants to create distance between himself and others. You know the type. He barks ferociously at passers-by on the street and other dogs, or scares people who come to your front door, perhaps lunging toward them. Maybe he has never actually bitten anyone, but the impulse is there, and you take him outside in fear that one day his anxiety is going to get the better of him and cause him to clamp his teeth on someone else. It makes life miserable because you know how sweet your dog is — but others don’t.

Solution. The trick here is to keep your dog from fearful situations. We know one owner whose dog growls and barks loudly when he comes across strange dogs in the local dog park. Sometimes he runs over to another dog at breakneck speed and works to threaten it with a lot of gesticulating — running forward, backing up (a direct manifestation of the fear), then coming forward again, anything to try to get the other dog to cower.

The owner’s response: He puts the dog on the lead, apologizes over his shoulder, and walks his pet away, assuring him that it’s okay; he will protect him. Others at the park sometimes get furious that the man is working to keep his own dog feeling safe rather than “letting him know” what he did wrong, since even while attached to the leash the dog maintains a fair amount of “let me at ‘em” posturing before calming down. But the owner has the right idea. His dog is scared, not bad.

An even better solution would be to walk the dog using a head halter, which should never be jerked and therefore should never cause the dog any pain. Rather, it uses sensitive areas on the dog’s head and nape to send gentle but firm messages, forcing the dog to relax. Head halters apparently mimic the pressure a mother dog applies when she picks up one of her puppies by the scruff of the neck and leads him away in a soft-touch rebuke. When the dog starts acting out, the idea is for the owner to gently pull up on the leash, which activates biologically sensitive areas along the two straps — one around the nose and one around the base of the muzzle. That automatically signals a dog to calm down and also reminds him that his human guardian is in charge and will not let any harm come to him.

You can train a dog by saying “Leave it” while you are applying the tension, then praise him for being wonderful because he did, in fact, calm down (even though he had no choice). Better still: the dog will see that you kept him safe and created distance between him and the other dog (or person) without his having to make a big, aggressive display.

Some owners might balk because they want their dog to be able to have some time off-leash. They will even say that their dog does better off leash than on. It’s understandable, because being off-leash allows a dog to decide on his own how much distance he wants to create. But it can be very touch-and-go. A single bite from an overly fearful dog can get him put to sleep, or at least get you in trouble, depending on local legislation.

A safer way to let a dog who exhibits fear aggression run free is to fit him with a basket muzzle so he can’t bite. “It’s a short-term fix, not an end-game,” says Dr. Borns-Weil. But while you’re teaching your dog that you will keep him safe, that that’s not a job he has to tackle, it allows him to get some exercise in public places. It’s not a punishment,” Dr. Borns-Weil, makes clear. “It’s prevention. You can even teach a dog that he gets a treat when the basket muzzle goes on.”

Along with keeping your fearful aggressive dog from hurting others, it’s important to protect him from fear-inducing situations. If someone asks, “May I pet your dog?” and you know that makes your dog act out, then the answer is always “No.” Fearful dogs want to be ignored; they don’t want to make friends, and it’s up to you to manage the dog’s environment.

At the Tufts Behavior Clinic, helping owners understand that it’s okay to protect their fearful dogs is “sort of like family counseling,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. “You have to help people be the advocate for their dog in social situations and not worry about hurting people’s feelings, not feeling bad about telling a child he can’t pet the dog.” It’s not mortifying. It’s your role, your responsibility, as a dog “parent.” (For more on desensitizing your fearful dog, aggressive or not, see the first Q&A on page 15 of this issue.)

No matter how consistently you work with an aggressive dog to help him stay calm, in some cases he is going to need anti-anxiety medication “to get to square one,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. “Some dogs have such a big flight zone,” she notes, “that they’ll fly off the handle if they see another dog a football field away. Some dogs with owner-directed conflict aggression might also “need meds to feel a little more comfortable in their own skin,” Dr. Borns-Weil notes. “It’s hard to learn a new way of being when you’re terribly, terribly stressed out.”

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