Signs of Aggression in Dogs: Beware the Warning Signs
There are always signs of aggression in dogs – though sometimes subtle — to control his environment. Most loving dog owners will often miss the cues until the situation becomes dangerous. Dog aggression is frightening to witness.
Angry, out-of-control dogs are unpredictably dangerous. Dogs do not, however, become aggressive overnight.
The more I hang out on the Internet, the more horrified I am.
Just Google “Dog bites baby” and you will find horrifying videos of diverse breeds of dogs being videotaped, biting children.
Actually, don’t google it – Just take my word for it. And, although it is horrifying, in some respects, it is important that the average person watch these videos so that they can understand more about dog behavior problems. I just wrote an article about two of these videos.
In the first video, the dog doesn’t show any blatant warning. I can see the signs the moment the video starts, but I suppose the average person doesn’t always notice the subtle signs. In the second video, a very blatantly aggressive small dog is held still while he barks, snarls, growls and snaps and a tiny hand is encouraged to pet this dog… until the dog reaches his limit and he lashes out and bites the hand.
This is totally the fault of the adult humans who are videotaping and holding the dog still. I am saddened that charges were not brought in this case, as the dog is clearly protesting and telling everyone that he is about to bite. Both situations are horrifyingly sad, because neither had to happen.
Both dogs are giving information that they are uncomfortable. But, I can assure you that I couldn’t continue to live with a dog that bit my child. Lack of training and socialization is almost always the cause for either people or dog aggression. It is so important the dog understands you are the leader.
As I’ve said in other articles, I do not subscribe to the need to “dominate” most dogs.
Most dogs will understand you are the leader if you just lead.
The problem is, many people don’t know how to lead their dog or what their dog needs.
Instead they attribute human emotion to the dog – and dogs are not human and do not process the world the same way that humans do. If you think your dog might be showing any signs of aggressive or dominant dog behavior problems, please contact a professional dog trainer. A good dog trainer will teach you how to work with your dog and through simple exercises and obedience training show your dog you are the leader and that he or she can trust you!
Why Is My Dog Aggressive?
To be able to truly understand how to avoid or stop dog aggression, you’ll need to find out what makes your dog aggressive in the first place.
It’s very rare for a dog to become violent out of nowhere.
Most often, the main culprit is a lack of proper socialization and training, but there are other circumstances that can contribute to this issue.
Here are the most common causes of dog aggression:
- Pain or illness
- Establishing dominance
- Protecting territory or possessions
Maybe your dog has a stressor that makes him defensive, or he’s are acting out as a residual consequence of trauma.
In cases where your dog suddenly starts acting aggressive out of the blue, it is a very good indication that he’s signaling that he’s in pain or sick.
But how are you to know, for sure, what is the cause of your dog’s aggressive behavior?
Signs of Dog Aggression
In the first video, I hope that the mother is just too uneducated about dog language to notice the subtle signs, so let’s discuss and share the signs of dog aggression so these sad videos can cease.
It is crucial to respect what the dog is saying during both the blatant and subtle signs of aggression. Do NOT ignore these signs like in the second video.
There will always be a “first” bite and it could be devastating!
- Stiffening (freezing of the body)
- Looking away (note that dogs in both videos looked away prior to biting)
- Hard dark pupils
- Whale eye (flashing of the whites of the eyes just prior to the bite)
- Trying to get away
- Wagging (yes, a fast stiff wag is often seen prior to a bite)
- Lips drawn back (this may look like a submissive grin but can also be a sign of stress – seen in the first video)
- Lips forward (this often happens just prior to a growl with the lips tightening)
Body Posture and Dog Body Language
Both a fearful dog and blatantly dominant aggressive dog should be judged as a threat.
Checkout this great cheatsheet we created to help understand body language:
Signs of Dominance Aggression
Signs of dominant behavior include blocking people’s/dog’s path; barging through doors; demanding attention; territorial over sleep area; stop eating when approached and guarding the food bowl; mounting legs or other dogs; approaching another dog from the side and putting his head on the other dogs back/shoulder; inserting himself between you and another person or dog (e.g. when you and your significant other hug); and lunging at people.
Any one behavior may not turn into a big deal, but should be monitored.
If you are comfortable, you should discourage dominant behavior with training and diversions so your dog will look to you for direction.
Furthermore, unneutered males are more likely to become dominant aggressive. If you are not going to breed your dog, get him or her fixed!
Not only to help reduce the likelihood of dominant behaviors, but to also keep the unwanted pet population down, and most importantly to prolong your dog’s life by avoiding health problems and diseases.
Recognize when dominant behavior crosses the line to aggression as dominant-aggressive dogs are dangerous.
The signs of a dominant and aggressive dog includes prolonged eye contact or staring, excessive barking, snorting, snarling, growling and nipping.
Dominant Aggressive Posture:
- Ears HIGH
- Tail HIGH, most likely will be wagging
- Body stiff but leaning forward as if ready to pounce
- Pulling forward
- Lips drawn tight
- Eyes hard and staring straight at you
Some Signs of Fear Aggression
Get Familiar with the characteristics of a fear aggressive dog, which is more unpredictable and difficult to predict. A fearful dog will display submissive body language. Look for ears held back; avoidance of eye contact; lowered head and body; tail tucked between legs; and submissive urination.
Be aware that dogs with defensive aggression dislike being touched and will bite out of fear. These dogs are usually a product of abuse. Only train with an aggressive dog under the guidance of a professional trainer and remember that staring down an aggressive dog, punishing, attempting to remove food or a toy, and touching or grabbing the dog or its collar can result in a dog attack.
- Ears tucked
- Tail tucked (may wag)
- Body stiff but tucked back, as if ready to run
- Lunging forward and then running backward
- Lips drawn up
- Eyes hard and darting
Dog to Dog Aggression
There is people aggression (dog aggression towards people) and dog to dog aggression.
I want to talk a little about dog to dog aggression. Some signs of dog to dog aggression include:
- Direct eye contact
- Raised hackles
- Pricked ears
- Teeth exposed toward the other dog
Play bow, growling and barking is fine if the dog’s body language is still relaxed, however, humping is a sign of dominance.
It can be okay as dogs occasionally need to work out their own social ladder (at home), but it does need to be monitored and should not become excessive.
With two dogs displaying dominance, you need to closely monitor them and they should work it out.
Bottom line: Dog-dog aggression is treatable but nearly always requires the help of a trained professional (and lifelong vigilance). Doing everything you can to prevent it in the first place is a much better option.
Leash Aggression in Dogs
If your pooch is friendly and calm for most of the time, but starts lunging, barking and trying to bite as soon as you put on their leash, it’s a clear sign your dog is leash-aggressive.
Commonly directed at other dogs, this type of aggressive behavior stems from the fact that your pooch is feeling restrained and frustrated by their leash.
Although it rarely ends with a leash-aggressive dog attacking a canine passerby (after all, you’re holding the other end of the leash), it certainly is frustrating when your dog acts out in public.
This often happens when dogs are not trained on time and it can be a type of aggressive behavior that is the easiest to correct.
Social Aggression in Dogs
It’s all about the instincts in this case. Dogs are social animals who function in packs, meaning that there is a strict hierarchy in the household, even if you’re not aware there is one. Other pets might be lower in status, so a dominant dog will "remind" them who’s the boss every once in a while by displaying aggressive body language. In some instances, a dog can lash out at people that they consider the runt of their pack. The key here is to be assertive and act as the pack leader, rather than a two-legged beta!
Pain-induced Aggression in Dogs
Dogs are very good at hiding their pain, but if something is really bothering them, they might start growling or nipping.
Although this is perceived as aggressive behavior, it’s actually just a defense mechanism.
Injured dogs, for example, have been known to bite their owners while they were trying to help, so it is important to be careful when handling a dog in pain.
If you notice your older dog is starting to act aggressively out of the blue, chances are they are experiencing discomfort, pain, or even have an illness.
Rather than trying to correct the behavior, make sure to take them to a vet to eliminate any medical condition that might be triggering it.
Dog Breeds Predisposed to Aggression
There are many misconceptions about different breeds, but the most prevalent ones are about a dog’s aggressive tendencies. You’ve probably heard it already.
There are dangerous breeds, such as Pitbulls, Dobermans or Rottweilers, who are specifically bred to be bloodthirsty and aggressive.
The truth is… It’s a myth. There is no such thing as most aggressive dog breeds or least aggressive dog breeds.
And it’s not just my personal opinion: scientists have proved this time and time again.
Veterinarians agree when it comes to so-called most aggressive dog breeds. The only factors that contribute to aggressive behavior that are biological in nature are a dog’s age and sex.
For example, a dog that is poorly socialized, unneutered, and becoming sexually mature, might be more prone to aggressive outbursts than, let’s say, a spayed female of the same species.
The key to preventing dog aggression is good socialization, proper training, and lots of love. Breed has nothing to do with it!
These are ALL Very Serious Signs of Aggression that Should be Respected!
It is crucial to keep yourself, but even more crucial to keep your children from being bitten. Not all dogs like children. Some dogs even see children as prey.
You must be vigilant to educate your children and ensure that they are not bitten!
If I had children of my own, I would almost rather they be scared of dogs than running toward all dogs.
I would also rarely let them pet dogs, unless I was 100% sure that they were safe.
Dog mouths are the equivalent of human hands. Happy people use their hands to pat a head or tickle a chin.
Similarly, contented canines nuzzle and lick to convey affection or curiosity.
In both species, however, some use these instruments to communicate in harmful ways, ranging from annoyingly bossy to dangerously aggressive ones.
Dogs act aggressively when they are uncomfortable with a situation, and may growl to indicate their fear and frustration.
If your dog is growling at you, see if you can understand why. Is he growling when you interrupt his feeding, napping, or during a chewing frenzy?
Here, his growls are saying, "I want to be left alone." The next time the situation arises, offer him a treat as you approach to show him that you come in peace.
Alternatively, is your dog growling while playing? As with kids, when dogs play, they express a lot of emotion, and your dog may simply be yapping playfully.
In interpreting your dog's intentions, consider what else your dog is doing while growling.
Dogs who growl and stare directly at their trigger are showing more assertiveness than dogs who growl and withdraw.
The trick is in the parenting: good dog and puppy parents help condition their "children" to the stressor, and then teach their "child" coping skills.
Dogs bite when their fear or frustration has become overwhelming, especially if they aren't taught alternative ways to soothe themselves.
Consider the dog who is held against his will, and, though growling, is still forced to greet a stranger, or the puppy who gets whacked repetitively for growling over a bone.
In neither case is the dog respected or taught how to better manage the situation.
My clients are often confused as to why their dog is only aggressive sometimes. This is normal.
The situations that trigger aggression are predictable and routine, and a dog may only express aggression in these situations.
Puppy Temperament Testing; Does it Really Benefit You?
While puppy temperament testing can provide some insight into a puppy's personality, there are serious limitations on the temperament test’s ability to predict how a dog will behave when it reaches adulthood.
Far and away, the most important factor in an adult dog's behavior is the training and socialization they receive throughout their life.
Any pup can be trained, regardless of how they perform on a temperament test.
There are two very distinctive camps when it comes to puppy temperament testing.
The PRO side who are very adamant about the positive results of puppy aptitude tests. And, the ANTI side who don’t believe that puppy temperament tests are valid for assessing what the adult dog will be like when he is older.
I suppose that I am somewhere in between these two camps. I have certainly temperament tested puppies that I have adopted and taken into training, hoping to get a glimpse into what the dog will be like one day. And, I have had and seen puppy temperament tests that have proven absolutely no validity later in life.
It is also important to note that it is much easier to choose a puppy and temperament test puppies from known breeds or purebred puppies, simply because it gives you more solid information. That is not to say that mix breed puppies in the shelter cannot give you some information, it just means that the information is less.
A short story versus a novel, if you will.
Figure out what dog temperament is ideal for your circumstances. If you want a dog with a known temperament or specific qualities, then it is best to adopt or purchase an adult dog. Adult dogs have developed their temperaments and behaviors. Puppies, like children, are constantly developing who they want to be when they grow up and are ever-changing.
A confident puppy can develop into a nervous adult, or vice versa. A social puppy can even develop into an antisocial adult, despite socialization. But a social adult will mostly likely remain a social adult and an anti-social adult will likely remain antisocial or at least stand-offish and aloof.
You just can’t change inherent temperament. Having worked for many Service Dog organizations and started and run my own for years, I have seen hundreds of temperament tests on both adults and puppies.
Best Ways to Handle Aggression in Dogs
Aggression in dogs is a complex issue. There is no "easy fix" or an overnight solution that will turn your pooch into a well-behaved canine, especially if their aggression is in the severe stages.
However, with the right approach and a lot of patience, you can learn how to stop dog aggression in its tracks.
As is usually the case with all behavioral issues, prevention is the key. If you nip the problem in the bud, you’ll save yourself the trouble of correcting a major issue down the road. In most cases, being diligent with puppy training is what does the trick. Most aggressive dogs tend to display early signs, which, when noticed on time, can be solved.
These are some tried and true tips that can help prevent the development of aggression in dogs:
- Discourage dominant behaviors
- Watch out for signs of resource guarding
- Pay attention to socialization - both with other pets and strangers
- Use positive reinforcement training
If you adopted an adult dog with behavioral issues, or missed the symptoms of aggression in your pet’s puppyhood, there are still ways to stop aggression even when it becomes a serious problem.
Would you like to Learn How you can Program Your Puppy’s Personality?
Our ‘Puppy Programming Course’ lets you look over our shoulder as we raise LIVE puppies, where you get to discover what exercises and games you should be playing with your dog during each new week of his life, so that they learn to handle fear, other dogs, new people, and control impulsive behaviors.
Living with an aggressive dog is not easy, but it’s not the end of the world, either. Even though it might seem scary at times, it is dog behavior problems that can be solved with proper socialization and training. Underneath that snarling and snapping, your dog might be just a scared, poorly socialized puppy. When given a chance, any aggressive or nervous dog can change for the better!
Depending on the severity of your dog’s aggression issues, the solution can be anything from a simple change in routine to working with a professional dog trainer. Whichever ends up being the right choice for you and your dog, just remember: it’s an effort well worth it.
I have been a professional dog trainer and pet sitter for over 20 years. I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, through the international Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers. I have trained and worked with police, Schutzhund and personal protection dogs. I trained Assistance Dogs in a men’s prison and ran my own nonprofit organization to take adult dogs from shelters and to train them to assist children and adults with disabilities, at no charge to my clients. My nonprofit organization and I were nominated for several awards of merit and even made the front page of the Denver Post. I was a veterinary technician for many years, where I learned about all aspects of health and preventative medicine. I have trained and worked with exotic animals and cheetahs. I introduced a temperament testing program in my local shelter and sat on the board of directors. I volunteered with my dog “Mr. Snitch” and helped local children learn to read. I have attained obedience titles and several blue ribbons. I am constantly in search of ways to continue my education and excellence when it comes to animals, their behavior and their health.