Dealing with Aggression

Dealing with Aggression

In This Chapter

  • Understanding what aggression is and what causes it
  • Managing dogs high in prey drive, fight drive, and pack drive
  • Dealing with a dog who’s aggressive about his food bowl
  • Working with a fear-biter
  • Knowing how to handle an attack by another dog
  • Digging up the scoop about electric fences
The term aggression means different things to different people. For example, a dog that runs along the fence in his yard barking and snarling furiously at a passerby may well be considered aggressive. But if he’s your dog, you may consider the behavior to be a perfectly normal reaction: The dog is defending his territory, which is what you expect from him.
Many dog owners want a certain amount of protectiveness, or “aggression,” from their companions — but only at the right time and under the right circumstances. For the dog, determining the right time and right circumstances can be a tough call. This chapter helps you sort out how to manage the aggression issue in a variety of situations.

What Is Aggressive Behavior?

The terms aggression and vicious are often used incorrectly for behaviors that aren’t true aggression. Eberhard Trumler, the noted German behaviorist, defines true aggression as “unpredictable and unprovoked biting — without warning — with the intent to draw blood.” By far, the greatest majority of so-called aggressive incidents are predictable, provoked, or both.

For example, you’re walking your dog when a stranger approaches, and your dog starts to growl, maybe because he’s afraid (defense flight; see Chapter Understanding Your Dog’s Mind) or maybe because he wants to protect you (defense fight; see Chapter Understanding Your Dog’s Mind). In either case, it isn’t true aggression, because the dog is giving you ample warning of his intentions. It’s now your job to manage the situation correctly.

A good reason to be aggressive

A good friend of ours, who was raised on a large farm, recalls an incident involving two of her younger brothers, ages 10 and 8. One morning, the boys announced they were going down to the pond to fish. Off they went with the family dog, Lucy, in tow. A short time later, they returned crying and sobbing: “Lucy won’t let us dig for worms. She growled at us and showed her teeth.” Because this behavior was uncharacteristic for Lucy, their mother decided to investigate. She found Lucy sitting at the edge of the pond where the boys had tried to dig for worms, intently staring at a rock. As the mother approached, Lucy became agitated and started barking. The mother then called one of the farm hands. With the aid of a rake, he turned over the rock, and they discovered a nest of copperheads.
You can cross the street; you can turn around and go the other way; or you can tell your dog to heel and pass the stranger, keeping yourself between the stranger and your dog. Under no circumstances should you make any effort to calm your dog by reassuringly petting him and telling him in a soothing voice, “There, there, it’s perfectly okay, blah, blah, blah.” Buddy will interpret your soothing as, “That’s a good boy. I want you to growl.” Well, perhaps you do, but if you don’t, these kinds of reassurances reinforce the behavior.
Aggressive behavior can be directed toward any or all of the following:
  • Owner
  • Family
  • Strangers and other dogs and animals
Signs of aggression include the following:
  • Low-toned, deep growling
  • Showing of teeth and staring
  • Ears and whiskers pointing forward with the dog standing tall with his hackles up from his shoulders forward and his tail straight up
  • Actual biting
When this behavior is directed toward you, ask yourself whether the question of who is Number One has been resolved. Usually it hasn’t been, and the dog is convinced that he’s Number One or thinks that he can become Numero Uno. He’s not a bad dog; he’s just a pack animal and is looking desperately for leadership. If that leadership isn’t forthcoming on your part, he’ll fill the vacuum. Dogs are quite happy and content when they know their rank order (see Chapter Setting the Stage for Training).

Looking at the Causes of Aggression

Aggressive behavior can be hereditary, can be caused by poor health, or can be the result of the dog’s environment. Hereditary aggression, unless selectively bred for, is relatively rare, because it contradicts the whole concept of domestication. Aggressive behavior is more frequently the result of the dog feeling bad or being in discomfort, or even pain (see Chapter Understanding Your Dog’s Health). In these cases, the dog’s action isn’t a behavior problem, but a health problem. The most common cause for dog bites is environmental — the result of a misunderstanding or outright mismanagement.
A misunderstanding can occur when the puppy nips at the owner’s hand during play or when the puppy/dog is playing retrieve and accidentally bites the hand when he tries to get the stick. And some dogs, like our Newfoundlands for example, gently take our arms and try to guide us to the play area when they want to play. Most dog owners can recognize when a bite occurred due to a misunderstanding — the dog will be as horrified as the owner.
Bites occurring because of mismanagement are a different matter. For example, the kids are playing with Buddy, when Buddy has had enough and retreats under the bed. When one of the children crawls after Buddy and tries to drag him out, Buddy snaps at the child’s hand and may even make contact. Not an uncommon scenario and certainly not aggression, even though there was no warning. Or was there? The fact that Buddy retreated should’ve told the children he’d had enough.


Aggression is a natural and even necessary phenomenon. In the case of unwanted aggression, human mistakes or misunderstandings are the usual cause. The owner may be unintentionally rewarding the undesired behavior, causing it to occur again and again, or the owner may not have socialized the dog properly. Only when you’re unable to manage aggression, or don’t understand its origin, does it become a problem.

A few years ago, it was brought to our attention that a number of Rottweilers had bitten the veterinarian when taken for their six-month checkups. Apparently, the situation had gotten so bad that many vets didn’t want these dogs as clients anymore. At that point, the Rottweiler Club of England consulted us. We found that the same veterinary community that didn’t want these dogs as clients anymore had advised the dogs’ owners not to let the dogs out in public before they had all their vaccinations — that is, until they were 6 months of age. Those owners who followed this advice ended up with completely unsocialized dogs.
This example is a classic case of aggression on a grand scale caused by a lack of understanding of behavior. Socialization is a continuing necessity throughout your dog’s life. If you don’t socialize Buddy, you will have problems as he grows up. Take this advice seriously, and get Buddy into a good puppy class as soon as you can. And continue to take him out so that he can mix with other dogs as he continues to mature. (Check out Chapter Surviving the Puppy Period for more about puppies.)


Keeping your dog at home until he has had all his vaccinations at 6 months of age prevents proper socialization with people and other dogs, which can be a cause for aggression.

Managing Your Dog’s Aggression — Prey, Pack, Fight, and Flight Drives

This section examines the triggers of aggression in the context of the three drives — prey, pack, and defense. The triggers are different in each drive, and so is the management, or cure. Your dog’s Personality Profile (see Chapter Understanding Your Dog’s Mind) will tell what the likely triggers are going to be so that you can predict what Buddy will do under certain circumstances.


Discovering how to anticipate your dog’s reaction under certain situations is part of managing his behavior.

Other than ignoring or putting up with the behavior, you have three basic options:

Expending the energy: Each behavior has a timeframe, or energy, and it can be managed by expending that energy, which means exercise specifically focused on that energy. The exercise can be playing ball, jogging, playing tug-of-war games, or whatever. Training is always a good idea.

Suppressing the energy: This option means that the dog isn’t given an outlet for the energy. Suppression can be an effective temporary solution, provided that the dog has periodic opportunities to expend the energy. Absolute or long-term suppression isn’t a good idea. The energy only redirects itself into another undesirable behavior.

Switching the drive: When Buddy growls at another dog, for example, he’s in defense drive. To manage the situation, switch him into pack drive. Cheerfully say something like “You must be joking” and walk away in the opposite direction.

Depending on the situation, you’re going to use a combination of the three options in your management program.

Aggression from dogs high in prey drive

You shouldn’t be surprised that prey behaviors, those associated with chasing and killing prey, are one of the leading causes for aggression. In a sense, aggression coming from this drive is the most dangerous, because so many different stimuli can trigger it. Dogs high in prey drive are stimulated by sounds, smells, and moving objects.


Anything that moves triggers prey behaviors. Dogs high in prey drive chase cars, bicycles, joggers, cats, other dogs, squirrels, bunnies, you name it. And if they catch up with whatever they’re chasing, that’s when the problem starts.


Play retrieve games on a regular basis, and make sure the dog gets plenty of exercise. When you take him for a walk and he spots a cat or squirrel, distract him, redirect his attention on you, and go in the opposite direction. The “Leave it” command may be sufficient, or you may have to give him a check on the leash to refocus his attention on you.
If he doesn’t reliably respond to the “Come” command, don’t let him loose in situations where he may take off. Better yet, train him to come reliably on command. Whatever you do, don’t let Buddy chase cars, joggers, or cyclists.

Aggression from dogs high in fight drive

Survival and self-preservation govern defense drive, which consists of both fight and flight behaviors. Defense drive is more complex than pack or prey because the same stimulus that can cause aggression (fight), can also elicit avoidance (flight) behaviors.
After they understand who’s in charge, these dogs are terrific companions and protectors, great competition and show dogs, and a joy to own. As young dogs, they may start bucking for a promotion. You may see signs of aggression toward you when you want the dog to get off the furniture or in similar situations — when he doesn’t want to do what you tell him.


If a puppy is allowed to grow up doing anything he likes and isn’t given parameters for what he can and can’t do, he’ll assume that you’re not strong enough to be the pack leader.

If you don’t give your puppy strong, consistent guidance as to what he may and may not do, he’ll develop a sense that you’re a pushover. He’ll try to take over. Full-fledged signs of aggression don’t just suddenly occur. He’ll give many warnings, from growling to lip lifting to staring at you. If you condone these behaviors and don’t deal with them, your dog is on his way to becoming aggressive.
Buddy may also be aggressive toward other dogs. When meeting another dog, he’ll try to dominate the other dog. The classic sign is putting his head over the shoulder of the other dog. The dog of lesser rank lowers his body posture, signaling that he recognizes the other dog’s rank.
But when two dogs perceive each other as equal in rank, a fight may ensue. Left to their own devices, though, both dogs most often decide that discretion is the better part of valor. Both know that there are no percentages to fighting. They slowly separate and go their own way.
A true dogfight is a harrowing and horrifying experience, and most people prefer not to take the chance that it’ll occur. Discover how to read the signs and take the necessary precautions by keeping the dogs apart. Dogs are no different from people: Not all of them get along.


Some owners inadvertently cause dogfights by maintaining a tight leash on the dog. A tight leash alters your dog’s body posture, thereby giving an unintended aggression signal to the other dog. Maintain a loose leash when meeting another dog so you don’t distort Buddy’s body posture. And at the slightest sign of trouble, such as a hard stare from the other dog, a growl, or a snarl, happily call your dog to you and walk away. Happily calling is important because you want to defuse the situation and not aggravate it by getting excited. You want to switch the dog from fight drive into pack drive.


A female dog is entitled to tell off a male dog that’s making unwanted advances. She may lift her lip, a signal for the male dog to back off. If the male doesn’t take the hint, she may growl or snap at him. This behavior isn’t aggression but perfectly normal dog behavior.


There can be a variety of triggers for aggression. Some of the more common ones are
  • Approaching the dog in a threatening manner
  • Hovering or looming over the dog
  • Staring at the dog
  • Teasing the dog
  • Telling him to get off the couch
  • Trying to take something out of his mouth (see the sidebar, “Taking something out of Buddy’s mouth”)


Taking something out of Buddy’s mouth

Sometimes you’ll have to take something out of Buddy’s mouth. It could be a chicken bone from the garbage or anything else inappropriate. Don’t yell at him or chase him. He’ll redouble his efforts to eat whatever it is. Try the “Leave it” command (see Chapter Canine Cruise Control: Walking, Coming When Called, and Leaving Stuff Alone). If that doesn’t work, try a trade. Offer him a fair trade, such as a piece of cheese or raw meat. As he reaches for it, of course, the chicken bone will drop out.
Remember: Never chase Buddy and corner him. Doing so destroys the very relationship you’ve been working so hard to achieve.
You can avoid some of these triggers altogether — like teasing him, staring at him, or hovering over him. Just don’t do them. Other triggers, though, you need to deal with.


You have four ways to manage aggression triggered by fight drive.

Provide exercise and training

One way is to provide plenty of exercise and training. Exercise physically tires the body, and training tires the brain. In this situation, lack of mental stimulation gets the dog into trouble. Aim for two training sessions a day, each at least ten minutes long. If you keep to the same time schedule, you’ll have a happy puppy.

Play tug of war

Another way is to expend the energy in this drive by playing a good game of tug of war. This game allows the dog to use up his timeframe of wanting to growl, tug, and bite. Instead of trying to suppress the behavior, dissipate its energy. The absence of an outlet for that energy, or efforts to suppress it, only makes matters worse.


Put aside ten minutes several times a week to play tug of war at the same time every day. Here’s what you do:

1. Get a pull toy, a piece of sacking, or a knotted sock to use for the game.
2. Allow your dog to growl and bite the object and shake it.
3. Let him bring the object back to you to play again.
4. Be sure to let him win each and every time.
5. When he’s had enough, or the ten minutes are up, walk away from this session with the dog in possession of the toy.

The game effectively discharges the energy and the timeframe in that drive. The game should be removed from regular training sessions and done when you and your dog are alone with no distractions. It’s his time and his only. You’ll be amazed at how satisfying the game is to your dog and at the calming effect it has on him.

Practice the Long Down

A third way to manage this type of aggression is with the Long Down (see Chapter Setting the Stage for Training). We can’t emphasize enough the importance of this exercise. It’s a benign exercise and establishes quite clearly who’s in charge in a nonpunitive way. For dogs that express any kind of aggressive behavior, go back to this exercise and do a 30-minute Down, last thing at night, two or three times a week. It reinforces in your dog’s mind that you’re in charge. The Long Down and the tug-of-war game are simple solutions for the good dog that gets too pushy.

Use a muzzle

If your situation has reached the point where you’re afraid of your dog, he tries to bite you, or you can’t get him into the Down position, use a muzzle. You may also require professional help (see Chapter Seeking Expert Outside Help).
When you’re nervous or anxious about what your dog may do if he encounters another dog or person, your emotions go straight down the leash, which can cause your dog to react in an aggressive manner. In a sense, your worries become a self-fulfilling prophecy. You can solve this dilemma with the use of a muzzle.
A muzzle allows you to go out in public with your dog without having to worry about him. A strange thing happens to a dog while wearing a muzzle. After you’ve taken away his option to bite, he doesn’t even try. It’s almost as if he’s relieved that the decision has been taken away from him. Even better, it allows you to relax. On the other hand, although your dog acts differently, so will people you encounter. A muzzle should be a last resort and isn’t a substitute for seeking professional help.

A tug-of-war case in point

When we came up with this tug-of-war-is-good concept, we were teaching a class of students who were very advanced in their training. Many of them were training their second or third dog, and all were experienced competitors. They’d chosen dogs with a relatively high fight drive because they knew how well those dogs trained and how good the dogs looked in the show ring — bold and beautiful. But they had to live with the dogs’ tendency toward aggressive behavior and always had to be careful in a class or dog show situation — when the dog was around other dogs.
For the entire eight-week session, they were told to put time aside daily to play tug of war with their dogs. By the third week, we already noticed a big difference in the dogs’ temperaments. When together in class, the dogs became friendly toward each other, played more, and trained better, and they were perfectly well behaved when away from home.


Using a muzzle is a simple solution to a complex problem. It takes the decision about whether or not to bite away from your dog and gives you peace of mind.

Training to a muzzle should be done slowly and gently because, at first, many dogs panic from having something around their faces. But with diligence, common sense, and some compassion for the dog, you can train him quite easily to accept it. Here’s what you need to do:

1. Put the muzzle on your dog for a few minutes, and then take it off again.
2. Give him a treat, and tell him what a good boy he is.
3. Repeat Steps 1 and 2 over the course of several days, gradually increasing the length of time your dog wears the muzzle.
4. When he’s comfortable wearing the muzzle at home, you can use it when you take him out in public.
In some European cities, ordinances have been passed that require certain breeds to wear muzzles in public. We’ve seen many of these dogs happily accompanying their owners on walks. They were well behaved and seemed to be quite comfortable with their muzzles.
Many owners are reluctant to use a muzzle because of the perceived stigma attached to it. You have to make a choice — stigma or peace of mind. Something else to think about: Suppose that your dog actually bites someone. When you have such a simple solution, why take the chance?

Aggression from dogs high in pack drive

Pack drive consists of behaviors associated with reproduction and being part of a group. Believing that a dog high in pack behaviors could be aggressive may be difficult to grasp, but this dog may
  • Show signs of aggression toward people
  • Attack other dogs with no apparent reason
  • Not stop the attack when the other dog submits


The problem with this kind of aggression is that there don’t seem to be many obvious triggers. It’s frequently observed in dogs that are taken away from their litter and mother before 7 weeks of age. Between 5 and 7 weeks of age, a puppy learns to inhibit his biting (see Chapter Surviving the Puppy Period). He also learns canine body language at this time. In short, your puppy learns he’s a dog. Puppies that haven’t learned these lessons tend to be overly protective of their owners and may be aggressive to other people and dogs. They can’t interpret body language and haven’t learned bite inhibition.


In a household with more than one dog, while one dog is being petted and the other is seeking your attention at the same time, the dog being petted may aggress toward the other dog. This overpossessiveness isn’t uncommon from adopted older dogs and rescued dogs.

Lack of adequate socialization with people and other dogs prior to 6 months of age can cause subsequent aggressive behaviors. We can think of several instances when a female owner has come to us because her dog was aggressive toward men. The cause in each case was lack of socialization or exposure to men. As long as the dog didn’t come in close proximity with men, there wasn’t a problem. A change of circumstances, such as a boyfriend, however, made it a problem.


You can solve a lack of socialization with other people by gradually getting the dog used to accepting another person. Take the case of a man-aggressive dog, for example. As always, the job is made easier when the dog has some basic training and knows simple commands like “Sit” and “Stay.” Here’s what you need to do:
1. Begin with Buddy sitting at Heel position, in Control Position (no tension on the leash and only 1⁄2 inch of slack).
2. Have the person walk past the dog from a distance of six feet, without looking at the dog.
3. Just before he passes the dog, have the person throw Buddy a small piece of a hot dog or another treat.
4. Repeat Steps 1 through 3 five times per session — but no more.
5. When Buddy shows no signs of aggression at six feet, decrease the distance.
6. Keep decreasing the distance until Buddy will take a treat, open palm, from the person.


The person shouldn’t look at the dog. He should pause just long enough to give the dog the treat and then pass.

7. After you’ve gotten to this point, follow the procedure outlined for submissive wetting (see Chapter Dealing with Doggie Don’ts).

Aggression toward other dogs, especially if the aggressor has had a few successes in his career, isn’t so simple to resolve. Prevention here is the best cure: Keep your dog on leash, and don’t give him a chance to bite another dog when you’re away from home.


To calm dogs with aggressive tendencies, get some essential oil of lavender from a health food store. Put just a couple drops on a small cloth, and wipe it onto your dog’s muzzle and around his nose. Lavender has a calming effect, and we’ve had great success with it in class situations, where one dog aggresses at another dog. It enables the dog to concentrate on his work.

We’ve also used it in a spray bottle (four drops of oil to eight ounces of water) and sprayed the room before the dogs come in. It really works wonders with the dogs and even calms the owners. Some of our students who’ve been in agility competition, and have dogs that couldn’t concentrate because of the number of dogs and people around them have found that wiping their dog’s muzzles and noses with the oil has made a dramatic improvement in their performances.

Feeding and Aggression

Your dog may growl when you get close to his food bowl. From his point of view, he’s guarding his food — an instinctive and not uncommon reaction. The question is this: Should you try to do anything about it? And if so, what?
We’ve never been particularly concerned by food possessiveness in a dog, provided that it’s the only time we see him act aggressively. However, some owners unwittingly exacerbate the behavior by trying to take the dog’s food bowl from him while he’s eating. Doing so definitely isn’t a good idea. Why create unnecessary problems? Don’t attempt the practice of taking food away from him and then putting it back. Imagine how you’d feel if someone kept taking away your dinner plate and putting it back. In no time at all, you’d become paranoid at the dinner table. That sort of thing creates apprehension and makes the guarding and growling worse.


In order to change the behavior, you need to change the environment. Make sure Buddy is fed in a place where the children or other dogs can’t get to his food. A good place to feed him is in his crate. Give him his bone in his crate, and give him peace and quiet. And make sure that when he’s in there, everyone leaves him alone.

Dealing with Fear-Biters — Dogs High in Flight Drive

The term aggression for fear-biters is actually a misnomer. They don’t aggress — they only defend themselves. When they do bite, it’s out of fear. And hence they’re called fear-biters. Anytime this type of dog feels that he’s cornered and unable to escape, he may bite. Biting to him is an act of last resort. He’d much rather get away from the situation.


Avoid putting this dog in a position where he thinks he has to bite. Use a similar approach to the one described in Chapter Dealing with Doggie Don’ts for submissive wetting. Fear-biters are most comfortable when they know what’s expected of them, as in training. Timid behavior can resurface when they’re left to their own devices and not given clear instructions on how to behave.

Dogs high in flight drive can appear shy around strangers, other dogs, or new situations. They may hide behind their owners and need space. Keep them a good distance away from people and other dogs, and don’t corner them for any reason. Use your body to reassure these dogs; bend down to their level, bending your knees and not hovering over them, and coax them to you with some food. Be patient to gain their confidence, and never, ever grab for them.


What this dog needs is confidence building. Training with quiet insistence and encouragement is one way to achieve a more comfortable dog. To get the dog used to people and other dogs, enroll him in an obedience class. You need to be patient with this dog and figure out how to go slowly. If you try to force an issue, you may wipe out whatever advances you’ve made.

This dog needs a structured and predictable environment. Walk, feed, and play at certain times of the day so the dog knows what’s coming. Dogs have a phenomenal biological clock, and deviations from the time of walking and feeding can make undesirable behaviors resurface.
Rescued dogs — in particular, those that have gone through several homes — often have large numbers of flight behaviors. A tightly controlled schedule greatly helps in their rehabilitation.

Getting Attacked by Another Dog

What do you do when you’re walking your dog down the street on leash and another dog comes out of nowhere and attacks your dog? You do this:

– No matter what, don’t yell or scream. Remember, prey drive is stimulated by sound — especially high-pitched sounds.


Screaming just escalates the intensity of a dogfight. Try to keep calm at all times.

– While you have hold of the leash, your dog is at the mercy of the other dog. Let go so he can either retreat or fend for himself.

– For your own safety, don’t try to separate the dogs, or you may get bitten. In the vast majority of incidents like this, one dog gives up, and the other one walks away.

– Find out who the loose dog belongs to so you can take appropriate action.

Success Story

When we trained and exhibited our Yorkshire Terrier, Ty, we got into the habit of being ever vigilant about the intentions of other dogs. We learned to position ourselves between Ty and other dogs so that they couldn’t make eye contact with each other. Fortunately, we never had any incidents with him.

Discovering the Truth about Electric Fences

Many housing developments have covenants against fences. That’s a problem when you have a dog you want to keep confined. Tying a dog out on a line, except for brief periods, isn’t a humane option.
Never fear, technology is here, and the electric fence is the answer. A wire is buried around the perimeter of the property, where a fence would normally be. The dog wears a collar, which serves as a receiver. If he tries to cross the invisible fence, he receives an electric shock. The dog figures this out very quickly and stays in the yard, well away from the fence.


Sounds too good to be true, and it is. In the heat of chasing a cat, a dog, or another animal, dogs high in prey with a high discomfort threshold sometimes don’t honor the fence and break through. The dog is then faced with a dilemma: Now that his adrenaline has worn off, he can’t get back into the fenced area for fear of getting shocked. Another potential drawback is that when the fence works as it’s intended to, it keeps your dog in the yard, but it doesn’t keep other dogs or children out. It’s no protection against bullies coming into your yard and picking on your dog, and it won’t protect a female in season from unwanted suitors. Having an electric fence may make your dog fearful of other dogs or aggressive toward them. Keep an eye on him when he’s out there, and don’t leave him for prolonged periods without supervision.

by Jack and Wendy Volhard