Dog Aggression

by Brandy J. Oliver, MA 

Per kind permission of the author

This article is meant to give simple ideas to help some dominant dogs realize their place in the pack and to help some fear-aggressive dogs gain confidence in themselves and their people.  It does not cover all aspects of, or all the different types of aggression that can be diagnosed.

Recommended Books by the Doggie Webmaster.

Dogs Are From Neptune

Jelly Bean VS. Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde: Written for the Safety of Our Children & the Welfare of Our Dogs

Dog aggression is a serious problem for people,their families, and their dogs.

Dog aggression (in general) is easy to diagnose, but many times is difficult to treat. Many "dog trainers" do not specialize in dog behavior, let alone dog aggression, so it can be difficult to find someone that can help you with your problem. There are only a few excellent sources on dog aggression that have published material.  One is Jean Donaldson and her book Dogs Are From Neptune.   Another is C.W. Meisterfeld, Ph.D. His philosophy of teaching based on mutual respect and trust has earned him many awards. He is the pioneer of canine psychoanalysis and Psychological Dog Training. He is considered the first canine psychoanalyst expert witness to be recognized/approved in the judicial system of the United States California Supreme Court. He has written many wonderful books, including one that I especially urge you to read if you're having aggression problems with your dog: "Jelly Bean VS. Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde." You can find more information about his philosophy at Meisterfeld's Psychological Dog Training website.

It is usually not recommended to suggest treatment for dog aggression without actually having studied the dog, his environment, and his family in person. If your dog has bitten someone, and especially if he has drawn blood, he has a much greater chance of repeating this action. I strongly urge you to seek a reputable animal behaviorist to help you with your dog.

Dominance Aggression

Dominance aggression is many times seen when a dog perceives that his place in the pack hierarchy is being threatened. This can refer to his place in the "family" or in just the "dog pack" if there are two or more dogs in the household and it usually occurs when there is a change in the living environment of the dog in question, such as getting a new puppy, moving, someone moving out of or into the house, or a change in working schedules, and/or where the dog spends his time.

Scenario 1:

When dogs are insecure in their place in the pack, they will exaggerate the essence of where on the hierarchy ladder they think they should be. For instance, if you bring a new puppy or dog home and your original dog becomes insecure in his status, he may exaggerate his dominance. Exaggerating dominance = aggression. In his view, his aggression will secure his position. If you feel this is the cause of your dog's aggression, please read the Two or More Dogs article.

Scenario 2:

Some breeds of dogs, and some individual dogs, tend to be more dominant than others by nature. These dogs tend to be very intelligent as well, and if you're not careful they can have you trained before you realize what has happened. This type of dog, if in the wild, would be the leader of a pack of dogs. They have a strong "Will to Power" (WTP), meaning that they have a high potential for dominance and assertiveness. They are leaders. Because they are natural leaders, it is then your responsibility to make sure you are the leader by harnessing their "Will to Serve" (WTS.) A dog's WTS is directly affected by the training he receives (or lacks.) This means that the sooner you begin teaching your dog proper behavior, and the more time you spend teaching your dog, the greater his WTS will grow. When your dog is fulfilled by his WTS, his WTP will diminish. If you feel your dog has a strong WTP and is a natural leader, and that he may be "challenging" or "testing" you, the first recommendation would be to enroll him in a basic obedience class as soon as possible. Once your dog understands and can regularly demonstrate stay and settle you can begin incorporating these commands in your daily activities. In order to harness a dog's WTS he must feel he is "serving" you. When you command him to "down" while you prepare his meal, "sit" before you give him a treat, "wait" before he goes out the door, you are taking control of these situations by becoming the "leader" and commanding your dog to "serve" you. This reassures the dog about his proper place in the pack hierarchy.

Scenario 3:

Some well-meaning people simply do not understand the behavioral patterns in dogs and can actually be the catalyst for some unwanted behaviors. A dog is a living, breathing animal. He deserves respect; however, sometimes people confuse respect with giving in to their dogs' every whim and desire. Do you move over on the couch or bed if your dog wants to lie where you are? Does your dog "demand" when you should play with him? Give him a treat? These are simple examples that show you are being submissive to your dog. You are leader of the pack, you should not be submissive to your dog. Many other instances, sometimes complex in nature, can signify your submissive position to your dog. When a dog does not sense that there is a leader of the pack he will many times instinctively assume the leader role. When this scenario happens, the people involved often don't realize that their dog views himself as the "true alpha, leader of the whole family."

If a dog with a strong WTP assumes the leader role in the family, he may become very dominant and aggressive, as any good doggie leader would. If a dog does not have a strong WTP, yet assumes the leader role due to lack of anyone else assuming that role (according to the dog's perception), he will most likely experience a great amount of anxiety with his new awesome responsibility. This anxiety will infiltrate his instinctive protective behavior and (seemingly) unexplained aggression will occur. If this sounds like your dog, you also need to harness his WTS as mentioned above, but at the same time you need to change your behavior so that your dog will feel confident in you as his leader.
In all of these scenarios, your dog needs to know where he stands on the hierarchy ladder. He needs to know he is on the bottom of the ladder, below all humans. This does not mean you should be mean or harsh with your dog. Unfortunately, many normal "corrections" that are taught in many obedience classes are quite coercive.  Sometimes very dominant dogs will not respond to force, punishment, or other means of a negative nature. Over time, (and sometimes quite quickly) these types of actions can be severely detrimental to your dog. If you use harsh techniques and coercion on your dominant dog, instead of making him feel submissive, it can trigger his "survival instinct." When dominant animals are cornered, they do not submit - their survival instincts kick in and they fight back. The more punishment, or threats of punishment, given the stronger their inborn survival instinct becomes. Therefore, it is very important that you teach with positive reinforcement and praise.

Fear Aggression

Fear aggression in dogs is usually misdiagnosed and misunderstood by the family involved. Fear aggression does not display itself as fear. The dog usually does not look or act fearful, so the dog's family does not realize the complex behavioral patterns taking place within their dog.

Many dogs that are fear aggressive were not properly socialized when they were young. Others may have been socialized but may have experienced a traumatic situation (many times unbeknownst to their family). I have come across many people who purposely do not socialize their dog in the hope of making him a watchdog. This is a grave error. They usually produce a dog that displays many of the characteristics they were hoping for, with one catch: their dog is unpredictable. An unsocialized dog will react aggressively to a new person or situation, but their aggression is based on fear, not confidence. For more information on this subject, please read "How to Train Your Family Watchdog"."

A lot of the fear aggression I see in dogs manifests itself into dog-to-dog aggression. These dogs will growl, snap, and pounce other strange dogs when they meet. Fear-aggressive dogs usually behave more aggressively when they are on lead, but can show aggression off-lead as well. It is my personal belief that the fear-based, dog-aggressive dog was either not properly socialized, or experienced a traumatic event with another dog. A traumatic event to a dog is not necessarily traumatic to a person, therefore it can be easily overlooked or may even be completely unknown to the dog's family. For example, I have a fear-based, dog-aggressive dog, Tsuwa. She was very socialized as a puppy and adolescent, but somewhere in her growing up I am convinced that she experience one or more traumatic events. These events involved Tsuwa being on lead, and an over-exuberant dog running up to her to say hello, but plowing into her in the process. Because she was on lead, she could not run and get out of the way. After a few episodes (I believe) her survival instinct kicked in. She realized she could keep other dogs away if she acted aggressively toward them. It was a protective maneuver and it worked! Dogs didn't like coming up to her anymore. Unfortunately, it was very difficult to to take Tsuwa to the many places she liked to go. If there were dogs around, I always had to be "on guard." She created quite a display of viciousness.

I realized that in order for Tsuwa to change her behavior while on lead, she needed to trust me as her leader on the other end of the lead. If I could not be trusted to keep dogs from plowing her over, she would have to take that responsibility on to herself (which she had already done.) I began building trust again by teaching Tsuwa the Say Hello command. After she understood the command with people and dogs she was familiar with and liked, I began using the command with strange dogs. When we approached a strange dog I would tell her "Say Hello" and let the two dogs sniff for about 3 seconds. Then I would immediately call/pull Tsuwa away in a happy voice saying "Good Say Hello!" and give her a food treat. The trick to being successful at this exercise is to take your dog out of the situation before she shows any sign of aggression. If she growls or snaps then pull her away, and say "No Growling" in a non-emotional tone and do not give her a food treat. Then immediately let her say hello to a dog that she likes (if there is one!), with praise and a food treat. Some dogs can not begin meeting strange dogs by sniffing.  They may need to "Say Hello" at a distance of 3 - 10 feet.   But if no aggression is displayed, they are successful and should be awarded.   In order to shape this difficult, new behavior, your dog needs to succeed as many times as possible.

Because you are the leader and your dog needs to trust you, you need to become very aware of the other dogs around and what they're doing at your dog's level. Don't allow other dogs to put their face in your dog's face. Even on a "Say Hello" command, don't hold the lead so tight that the two dogs can only sniff noses. Proper doggie etiquette is to sniff backsides, so that they are side-by-side when greeting. Intentional face-to-face greetings among dogs usually is a ploy for dominance and at worst will result in a fight. Unfortunately, many people "make" their dogs meet face to face and I believe it can sometimes instigate the "dominance" ritual to take over, resulting in aggression.

 Tell people that your dog is friendly but needs her "personal space." They should ask permission (as everyone should for every dog) before they allow their dog to say hello to yours. Remember, even if the other dog seems fine to you, if your dog perceives a threat, she will react instinctively with aggression. She needs to learn to trust that you, on the other end of the lead, won't let her get "clobbered" with nowhere to run, or even make her stand close to a dog she detests for her own reasons. Your behavior is very important and you need to make sure that you are not unintentionally making matters worse. For instance, if you tense up and tighten your grip on the lead when you see another dog, your dog will also tense up and will probably take your tightened grip as a sign for aggression.

Say "Say Hello!" in a happy manner as you walk by a dog. If she sniffs at the dog without hackles up ( for a maximum of 3 seconds), then praise her and give her a food treat for a good "say hello!" Gradually let her sniff the other dog for longer periods, always calling/pulling her away in a happy manner before she shows signs of aggression. Avoid (as best you can) dog-to-dog confrontations, and praise any non-aggression when around other dogs. Again, your "say hello's" should start at about 3 seconds in length. You want to praise her before she shows aggression, so don't even give her the chance! Make it as easy as you can (and I know it won't be easy) for her to do good. This will take a long time to master.  Tsuwa took about 4-5 months of going to doggie class once a week before she stopped her consistent aggressive behavior.  Her "say hello's" were about 5 seconds in length for a long time.  I would see that (evil) look in her eye and I would immediately call and pull her away before she outwardly showed aggression, praising her and giving her a food treat.  I still have to watch her, but she usually says hello (i.e. sniffs) for about 3-10 seconds, then turns to me for her praise (and food treat if I have one.)  Every once in a great while she'll surprise me (and everybody in class) and behave very friendly with a particular dog that she really likes for some reason and this with a dog that a year ago she would have snapped and growled at, no questions asked!

In Conclusion:

 When working with an aggressive dog (or any dog) it is very important that you teach with praise. Using aggression to solve aggression simply doesn't work.  You want to harness your dog's WTS so that he becomes happiest when he pleases you. If he presently has a high WTP, or a strong fear-base for aggression, it will undermine your attempts to scold him. So... never scold him; teach him instead. Teach him how you want him to behave. He's behaving the only way he knows how and it's probably worked very well for all of his life! You need to give him a reason to change his behavior.

Take your dog to an obedience class as soon as possible. This will strengthen the bond between you and your dog and will help establish you as leader. I also recommend a book called So Your Dog's Not Lassie. Be careful using harsh corrections with your dog. Harsh corrections or scolding can many times back-fire, making matters worse. If your dog perceives the correction as a "threat" he may react instinctively to your threat by showing aggression. This is very natural for him, because your perceived "threats" create a confusing and unstable atmosphere for your dog and lessen the bond between both of you. How can he "trust" you if he thinks you're always threatening him?    Two recommended books on Dog Aggression are Dogs Are From Neptune and Jelly Bean VS. Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.  Both are very insightful and will help you understand your dog's aggression so that you can help your dog become a trusted family member again.

Lastly, encourage all petting from family members, and especially strangers to be only be on the neck and chest. Petting a dominant dog on the head or behind the ears can trigger a defense mechanism. Petting a fear-based aggressive dog on the head or behind the ears can be perceived as a threat.  Petting on the neck and chest shows affection in a non-dominant manner.

Remember that aggression can usually be controlled through proper techniques, including positive reinforcement for the desired behavior. If you cannot control your dog, or if your dog has bitten a person or animal and drawn blood, please seek advice from a reputable animal behaviorist.

Doggie Door to Canine Behavior

written by Brandy J. Oliver, MA 1996, revised 1997, 1998, 1999, copyright protected. May be distributed for educational purposes as long as it is reprinted in full, including by-line, website address, and copyright notice.  If you would like to use this article in your newsletter or other publication, please email for permission and requirements.

Feel free to file for your personal reference.

Do you have a question?  Read the articles mentioned above, and be sure to visit  "My Doghouse, Your Doghouse" and see if you find your answer there!  

Back to Articles

Back to Home Page

submitted by Secretary.ACDSCNQ