I have been a dog trainer for over twenty-five years now…
Yikes, I feel old saying that! But it’s true…
And I mention this because I have to admit: what I believed was true about dog aggression at 20 versus 45 years of age has changed… a LOT!
I have trained police dogs… worked in a bite suit… and seen the purest forms of dog aggression. With so much experience that I now see the very subtle changes in a dog’s countenance and behavior right before he bites.
So much that the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I see certain changes in a dog’s behavior…
… Changes that my coworkers in veterinary medicine never notice.
I remember about a year ago, a two-year-old Cane Corso came to our clinic. I was the “room tech” so I greeted him and his mom, put them in a room, and discussed what he was due for that year. The dog was admittedly nervous, sitting in his mom’s lap, but he seemed alright.
He was due for a heartworm test. A heartworm test requires a tiny blood sample and most owners don’t want to watch you poke their dog in the jugular with a needle.
So I took the dog, on leash, to the back treatment area to meet one of my coworkers.
As I put him into a “sit” and my coworker got on her knees to draw his blood, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.
There was a slight change in his behavior, he stiffened.
Doesn’t sound like much, but it can be a telling warning sign.
I suggested a muzzle, to which a few of my coworkers scoffed. But I was always a better safe than sorry tech.
He did okay, he survived; I took him back to the room and his “mom”.
But when the vet entered the room he lunged and tried to bite her face.
Thankfully, I was her technician and already didn’t trust the dog and was prepared for aggression.
Point of the story? Signs of aggression aren’t always easily spotted until the aggressive behavior turns into a dangerous dog bite.
Even after the lunging episode at the vet and the near bite, the owner was in denial. She didn’t want her dogs muzzled (which I completely don’t understand since a muzzle is better than a reported dog bite and a mauling) and she was praising and cooing to her dog as he growled and snarled when he got his vaccines.
Listen To What Your Dog Is Telling You… Before He BITES!
At this stage in my career, I rarely pull punches. At 20 years of age, I would have sugar-coated to this dog’s owner that perhaps they could use some training with this dog and perhaps she shouldn’t reward him while he is growling.
At 45 years of age, I will tell you that this dog is going to bite someone, badly, and likely need euthanasia if the owner doesn’t get the aggression and the fear under control.
People often start a conversation off with:
“Don’t worry… He would never actually bite…”
“He is sweet at home.”
“He has never acted like that…”
“He was a rescue…”
… These are some of my first indicators that the dog has AGGRESSION ISSUES!
Let us be honest.
If you find yourself making excuses that sound like these… you’re in denial… lying to yourself.
Nobody Wants To Admit Their Dog Is AGGRESSIVE…
Nobody wants to have the “bad dog” …
… Or the dog that needs a muzzle … or the dog with aggression issues.
But just because your dog has “never bitten” doesn’t mean he never will. And if you’re already making excuses for borderline behaviors that are making you NERVOUS around your dog… Or, you’re brushing off or soothing other people’s concerns about your dog…
… I must warn you:
You’re risking the safety and lives of other people and kids.
You’re risking the safety and lives of other dogs.
And you’re the life of YOUR DOG!
(Who may be euthanized if he bites, attacks, or mauls someone.)
It is always better to err on the side of caution than to have a dog bite or maul a human or another dog.
It’s Always Better To Be SAFE Than SORRY…
At one clinic I worked at; one of our technicians almost got bit in the face. She was young and new as a veterinary technician and she was down on her knees in front of an aggressive dog (something I rarely if ever do without a muzzle). Thankfully, as the dog lunged for her face, the owner intervened and blocked the attack with his arm. The dog had never bitten before, but left the owner with huge gashes.
Even though the dog bit his OWNER… the bite had to be reported… the dog quarantined… and the dog was added to the “dangerous dogs” list.
It would have been so much easier to just have the owner muzzle the dog.
People get so wrapped up in what other people may think of them, or their dog. They don’t want us to judge them or to blame them, or to hate their dog.
The truth is that what other people think literally doesn’t matter at all. People tend to be a judgmental and will judge you for the shoes that you wear or the car that you drive, so why would you care about how they feel about your dog?
Stop Caring What Others Think And Protect Your Dog
We need to stop caring what others think and protect ourselves and our dogs.
If your dog is fearful… skittish… anxious…. or aggressive… teach your dog to HAPPILY wear a muzzle.
Keep your dog from putting his life on the line. Keep him from having a true aggressive experience.
I don’t care if he has never bitten anyone before. I understand that you love him and 90% of the time he is a great companion. No dog is aggressive 100% of the time. Most dogs are only sporadically aggressive. Most often, he is your best friend.
But believe him when he warns you.
The Warning Signs: Your Dog Is Getting Ready To Bite
Staring/Hard Eyes: Dogs don’t usually stare unless they are stimulated or overstimulated. When your dog sees a squirrel, he likely stares because of prey drive. His eyes lock on and he stares at his prey. Equally, when a dog stares at another dog or a human, his pupils will often grow and harden. Instead of sweet squishy face, his countenance changes.
Freezing/Stiffening: His countenance changes and then his body freezes or stiffens waiting for impending attack. Both of these warning signs are often ignored by owners and even those in the field. But, these are usually the first signs that make most of us on a primary and instinctual level take note or feel uneasy. I remember reading a book called “The Gift of Fear” in which the author begs you to listen to that prehistoric part of your brain that is telling you something is wrong. Don’t get on the elevator with a person if your amygdala is telling you not to. Who cares what people think. Listen to your instincts, don’t push that aside and wait for a serious injury.
Wide eyes (a.k.a. “whale eyes”): The “whale eye” is a real thing. I first heard the term maybe 20 years ago from a trainer and expert in the dog bite field named Sue Sternberg. She studied dogs in shelters and performed temperament tests in order to adopt out adoptable dogs while euthanizing those with aggression. As she explained; right before a dog bites he often looks to the side so that you can see the whites of his eyes (whale eye). Nothing showed me this phenomenon quite as clearly as being in a dog bite suit. Over and over, I could see the dogs look to the side and then bite. It is an interesting phenomenon for sure. So, when I see the whites of a dog’s eyes, I know I am moments away from an actual bite. But how many people know that?
Hackles up/Growling/Barking/Lunging/Hiding/Snarling: These are all indicators that your dog is uncomfortable! He is trying to communicate this to you with his body language. By ignoring or rationalizing these behaviors … or worse, making excuses… you are setting him up for a BIGGER SHOW of aggression — potentially a bite! These signs tell us your dog is uncomfortable and emotionally triggered.
Don’t Let It Get This Far!
Your dog doesn’t have the ability to understand the repercussions of his aggressive behavior.
He is simply reacting, trying to stop behavior he finds stressful or triggering. And maybe, he’s already received positive reinforcement for these aggressive behaviors. He’s learned, for example, if he growls when someone tries to pet him, the person backs away. Or if he barks, people jump back.
He sees these “smaller” acts of aggression getting results.
So it’s only a matter of time before he escalates to a BIGGER SHOW of aggression… when people or dogs don’t respond as he expects to the smaller acts of aggression.
Lunging… biting… mauling. That’s what’s next.
Will you let it get that far? Or will you act to prevent aggressive behaviors now?
The 8 Types Of Dog Aggression
When we talk about aggression or aggressive behavior we often talk about Fight or Flight. When challenged will you stand and fight or will you give up or run? What happens if you run but can’t get away or your aggressor continues the aggressive behavior? Will you resort to violence and fighting then?
Aggression training has a few vital components that are important to understand!
#1 – Forward Aggression
Forward aggression is outright aggression or confident aggression. This has no components of fear aggression.
When the dog is aggressive it is making a conscious and bold choice toward the behavior. When I think about this kind of aggression I picture the perfect police or protection dog (Belgian Malinois or German Shepherd). They assess the situation and are confident in their aggression. And, although this is a dangerous dog, this kind of aggression is fairly rare without extreme training or having something wrong physically (think seizure disorder) and genetic conditions.
Occasionally I hear from dog owners or young puppy owners whose puppies are showing extreme and confident aggression at a very young age. This is not normal, and usually means there is something wrong genetically or mentally. This is when I often recommend the help or assistance of a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. Why? Because a veterinary behaviorist can help not only with behavior modification training but they can also prescribe medications.
Be aware, anyone can call themselves a “behaviorist”, only seek those with a veterinary degree and who went to school for several more years to attain. Often, veterinary behaviorists then utilize good positive professional dog trainer to help with that behavior modification schedule.
#2 – Prey Aggression
Prey aggression is exactly as it sounds. This is the desire to chase and hunt. Again, this is a very forward behavior.
Most dogs will exhibit SOME form of predatory behavior… but some dogs have MORE prey drive than others.
(Especially some working breeds.)
Extreme predatory behavior and prey drive can be hard to control. There’s an old saying: “Once a dog tastes blood, you will never break him from killing.” True or not, the challenge is that chasing and killing other animals is FUN for many dogs, due to their predatory instincts.
When we train police dogs and protection dogs, we train them mostly by building their prey drive, letting them chase and bite and then building their confidence. We often begin this training at anywhere from 6 to 8 weeks of age. We allow them to win and conquer and build that confidence so that they believe they can win any war against human aggression even when conflict arises, they are taught how to battle. We also work with their feelings of “possession” or possession aggression. Once they have bitten the assailant, we want them to hang on and possess that person. We teach them to possess and defend what they win.
Essentially these dogs are taught and molded toward this forward aggression. These are ALL of the things you want to avoid with pet dog training!
#3 – Possession Aggression
Possession aggression is often a more forward type of aggression. It can be genetic, as I have seen 6-week-old puppies with severe aggressive possessive behaviors that can only be explained by genetics.
But often this dog behavior arises from some conflict with the dog owner. The dog or puppy, steals something that he should not have and the owner chases him down and snatches it out of his mouth. The behavior also often comes with a reprimand verbally and sometimes often physically. These encounters fill the dominant dog or puppy with hostility and anger.
Imagine going to school every day and having the school bully hit you in the face and take your dessert. If you were submissive, you would give it up. But if you were confident and a little bit dominant you might decide to fight. Day after day you are filled with rage until one day you stand up for yourself and prepare to fight.
This is how your puppy or dog feels when you snatch “his things or the things that he wants.” And, then if he snarls or growls, most dog owners will stop their forward behavior. This teaches the dog that their aggressive behavior keeps that conflict away and they win!
Winning brings confidence, and confidence backed by aggression in dogs often brings more severe aggression the next time.
Keep the dog on leash and teach him appropriately how to give up things and exchange.
#4 – Territorial Aggression
Dogs who are more dominant in nature will often exhibit guarding behaviors… and be territorial about their property, their people, and objects/items they perceive as belonging to them.
This form of aggression can be both FORWARD and DEFENSIVE.
But most often it is blatant with no component of fear. This dog will bite you for coming on his property or coming in his home. He may even bite you for touching or coming near his owner. He sees these things as HIS THINGS, to be defended.
Plus, it’s important to be aware that guarding behaviors can be FUN for dogs. It breaks boredom and gives them something “fun” to do–which can make it DANGEROUS as it becomes a habit or even an addiction in some cases.
#5 – Defensive Aggression
Defensive aggression comes from that feeling of “flight” or getting away. Your dog is feeling afraid and often his inability to get away from the situation brings out aggression. This, in my opinion, is the most dangerous form of aggression because it is hard to know where the dog’s confidence lies and where his breaking point lies.
#6 – Fear Aggression
Fear aggression is very difficult for dog owners. Most want to deny it is happening at all, some want to make excuses (like he was abused), or you have the dog owners who ignorantly praise and making “comforting” noises at dogs who are exhibiting fear aggression.
This inadvertent praise raises the dog’s confidence with his fear and his aggression.
Instead of teaching true confidence or working on problems, the dog becomes complacent and contented by his own aggression and aggressive displays.
We often see this in veterinary medicine! The dog is crawled up in the owner’s lap, trying to get away, growling and snarling, sometimes lunging then retreating; all while the owner pets the dog and tells him “It’s okay, it’s okay” and describing what a tough life he is lead.
And if a muzzle is recommended to keep everyone safe this dog owner is horrified.
Yes, aggression, especially fear aggression, can be rewarded by an ignorant or even calculated dog owner.
Some dog owners, intentionally reward defensive dog aggression whenever the dog hears a sound outside or someone comes to the door. They want a “protective” dog, but don’t realize the dog is barking because he is fearful and unsure; and by rewarding that they are creating an unpredictable monster.
I would much rather deal with a forwardly aggressive dog because I can clearly read his terms. Fearful or defensive dogs are almost impossible to accurately read because they are unpredictable, even to themselves. I have seen fearful dogs bite people and then look amazed and horrified by their actions.
This kind of aggression needs to be recognized and dealt with as soon as possible so that owners can encourage confidence instead of fear.
#7 – Reactivity Aggression
Reactivity is a learned behavior that stems from fear and discomfort.
Often, ignorant dog owners teach their dogs these behaviors by both ignoring or trying to correct these fearful behaviors.
Let us first talk about ignoring the behavior. When your dog sees another dog and becomes slightly aggressive or reactive and you do nothing, this defensive behavior grows as a form of displaced confidence. The next time he sees a dog or a person and you do nothing this displaced confidence that came from a place of fear, well, it grows.
Eventually, it is out of hand and can no longer be controlled.
At the point that most dog owners seek help for dog aggressive behaviors their behavior have spiraled out of control and are just then being addressed by the dog owner who has allowed these behaviors to flourish.
On the other hand, some owners try to correct this behavior… The dog sees another dog and doesn’t know what to do, so maybe he barks or growls. The dog owner swiftly reels in the dog with a tight leash, possibly yells or physically disciplines the dog to stop the behavior. What happens is the nervous dog, unsure of himself around this other dog, feels the physical and emotional pain of discipline. He is confused. He associates the correction with the other dog… and this further reinforces his fears and uncertainty about other dogs.
The next time the dog encounters another dog, he’s once again unsure of himself… the dog owner confirms these fears again with a physical correction… and the downhill spiral continues, with the dog owner unwittingly making the aggression worse.
So What’s A Concerned Dog Owner Supposed To Do?
Now let’s have an honest conversation …
… If your dog shows any degree of aggression, what can you do about it?
Even if you suspect that you’ve inadvertently made the problem WORSE?
The MOST IMPORTANT thing I can tell you is this:
Don’t make excuses. Don’t ignore the problem.
Your dog doesn’t get a free pass to behave aggressively because he’s a rescue… he was abused… he had a bad experience…
Whatever happened, wherever he came from, there are to be no more excuses.
His present behavior, today, matters. His future with you matters.
Live in the present, deal with the aggression issues he’s exhibiting TODAY.
STEP #1 – Be the person in your dog’s world who deals with all things scary.
Stop allowing him to feel in charge of everything in his environment. Never make your dog feel like it’s his duty to defend or protect your family or property. Let your dog see that he can rely on YOU to deal with everything scary. People ask me: aren’t I afraid something may happen to me or someone may break into my house? NO, ABSOLUTELY NOT!!! If something were to happen and I was scared, truly scared, I know that my dogs would step up and deal…. But those are the contingencies.
STEP #2 – Teach your dog CONFIDENCE!
Teach CONFIDENCE!!!! We want confident and independent children, don’t we? So why then are we fostering fear in our dogs?
Confident dogs are crucial. If you see a fear don’t ignore it or keep him from it. I can’t believe how many owners come to me saying their dog fears the clicker. And, let me tell you, that was me in the beginning of my career. I was training service dogs taken from shelters, I got a dog and she was terrified of the clicker…
I went to the “powers that be” of the organization and they basically told me “if she couldn’t get over the sound of the clicker, then she couldn’t be a service dog” I was horrified at first! How could they be so uncaring, then I realized they were right… imagine the sounds you hear in public… waaaaaay worse than a click.
So, I clicked until she could care less. In the beginning, it sent her running…. But after I did it nearly constantly while I watched TV etc. she got over it. She learned to be successful and she was placed! It taught me to reevaluate a dog’s fears.
STEP #3 – Make & Teach Eye Contact
Know what else gives dogs confidence? EYE CONTACT!!!! Eye contact and focus gives an under-confident dog a coping mechanism.
I currently own an under-confident dog, my Malinois. He is also not necessarily friendly. So I have taught him to give me eye contact and focus when he is nervous. If he does so, I will reward him heavily and valiantly for making a good choice.
He was honored a few years ago for being one of the fastest swimming dogs in North America. If you look at him you can’t see his under confidence because he gets his confidence from me. He gives me eye contact and his own focus in trials such as this, and it has become his coping mechanism.
I have told this story before, but I’m a runner … And while running with me, my dogs can’t pull but they don’t have to be in perfect heel position; it isn’t rational.
So we were running in the neighborhood when I saw a dad out walking with his double stroller. I knew it was a guy with 2 kids… my dog didn’t.
Apparently, he was scared or at least feeling unsure, because he immediately put himself in the heel position and gave me eye contact and focus!
I instantly knew: my dog didn’t know what the strange-looking contraption was. But I had given him the confidence and coping mechanisms to deal with his insecurity in an appropriate way! Teach your dog good coping mechanisms.
#4 – Be Willing To Admit You Need Help
Working with dogs exhibiting aggression isn’t something you should tackle alone.
If you don’t feel SAFE handling your dog… if you’re AFRAID of your dog… then get a professional involved: a board-certified behavioral specialist. Speak with your local vet, see who they recommend. Ask around before investing any money in training to be certain you’re dealing with a professional who is prepared to help YOU train your dog safely, not a snake oil salesman who will use fear and punishment to dominate your dog FOR YOU — and ultimately make your dog’s fear and aggression issues worse.
If you’re still comfortable handling your dog, and you feel like you’re dealing with more minor aggression and fear issues, then consider checking out our 8-Week “Emotional Recalibration Training (ERT) Program, delivered 100% online, that teaches you to control your dog’s reactive and fear-driven behaviors… so he’s less likely to have an aggressive outburst.
And he’s finally predictably calm and trustworthy around other people and dogs.
However, keep in mind this isn’t a quick fix either. You need to be willing to watch the videos we’ll send you, and do the assigned training exercises with your dog.
It comes with a money-back guarantee, and you can try the first 4 weeks for free, but still — you need to do the work if you want to see the results.
But honestly… wouldn’t it be NICE to stop feeling afraid… that your dog is going to bite someone (a child?) or attack another dog? And relax when you’re out in public with your dog? Or having guests over to your house?
Aggressive dogs need to be handled like loaded guns. With care, concern, and the right training and information. The wrong move can have deadly consequences.