Canine Aggression – How it Starts, and How to Stop It


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I’ve posted about canine aggression on more than a few occasions. In Do Dogs Ever Bite for No Reason?, I talked about the importance of knowing why a dog might bite, and how people often fail to understand the signals a dog is giving when a bite is about to happen. In The Perils of Tying Your Dog Outside, I talked about how chaining can build aggression. And in 5 Ways of Dealing With Aggression When You Have More Than One Dog, I talked about canine-on-canine aggression.

This time around, I’d like to focus a bit more on canine aggression toward humans, what causes it in the first place, and how to deal with it. Canine aggression can be a big problem, and very dangerous if you’re dealing with a large breed. So it’s important to identify it in its early stages and then work to overcome it.

The Biggest Problem You’ll Ever Have

There is no such thing as a problem-free dog. From Day 1, you’re going to be dealing with issues like destructiveness, house training, nipping and more. It’s part of raising a puppy, and most issues are fairly easily ironed out. Aggression, though, is dangerous. It’s also preventable and curable.

The statistics on dog aggression are sobering: over a million people end up being bitten in any given year, and more than half of those people are kids under 10. Keep in mind that these are only the bites that are reported – the ones that lead to the need for emergency room treatment. There are probably countless bites by small dogs that are never recorded simply because they don’t require treatment.

If you understand how dogs grow and develop, then you’re probably better than halfway toward ensuring that your dog is no threat to anyone.

A Dog’s Growth Period

Puppies need to be socialized, and the socialization period should begin at about three weeks – in other words, as soon as their eyes are opened and they are able to hear. At this point, they should be handled frequently by humans. A puppy should never be taken from his mother before he reaches the age of eight weeks, and then his adoptive human family should understand that the period between 8 and 10 weeks is the period when the puppy will be exploring new environments, and will be a bit fearful. Puppies at this age should never be disciplined or shouted at, and should always be handled gently.

At 14 weeks, the puppy enters what might be considered to be the human period of adolescence, and it will last until he is somewhere between 14 and 15 months old. The 14-week marker is critical, though. If the puppy has not been handled a lot by humans at that point, he may never become properly socialized and may never get past the fearful period.

Depending on the breed, a dog will reach sexual maturity somewhere between the ages of 6 and 14 months. This is the point where they will begin to be territorial and protective. Human contact is even more important now, and if you haven’t introduced your puppy to people outside the family unit, you can’t waste any more time. You want to expose him to friends, strangers, the letter carrier, the homeless guy on the corner – in short, anyone and everyone who is willing to meet him and socialize with him.

Related Content:

Top 3 Reasons for Aggressive Dog Behavior, and What to Do About It
Fear Aggression in Dogs: How to Manage and Help!
5 Ways of Dealing with Aggression When You Have More Than One Dog (Video)

Factors that Influence Aggression

You might ask yourself: is it nature or nurture? Having pointed out the importance of socialization, I’d have to reiterate that nurture is a good part of what will determine your dog’s aggression level. Nature can’t be discounted, though. Some breeds are more protective than others.

In addition, the circumstances of breeding can play a part. A friend of mine has an Akita that she has to keep under close watch, because he’s very aggressive. Now, this is a strong-willed breed to begin with, but the dog was confrontational to the point of appearing pretty much unstable. My friend later found out that the dog’s parents were siblings. She loves the dog, but pretty much has to keep him away from people.

Dogs Are Not People

This sounds pretty obvious on the face of it. Pack mentality can also have a huge influence on aggression. Now, you could argue that even in human relationships, there’s always someone who is stronger-willed than another, but with dogs, it’s highly structured. In the wild, you’d typically have an alpha, a beta, and low-ranking omegas. When dogs share living quarters with people, they see those people as pack members, and they may try to “work their way up” through the pack hierarchy by challenging those whom they see as low-ranking, regardless of whether they are human or canine.

As an example, dogs will often perceive children as omegas. That’s why kids get growled at when they approach the dog’s food dish, or try to take away a toy. If the behavior isn’t corrected, then the dog figures, ‘Okay, I outrank this one.”

Sometimes, signs of dominance can even go unnoticed, or be misinterpreted as playful behavior – “He won’t give baby the toy; isn’t that cute? They’re playing tug of war!” Um, NO. This is dominance behavior, and the next thing that is likely to happen is that the dog is going to bite, and end up being put to sleep for being a dog. Aggression simply has to be nipped in the bud, and you’ll have a better chance of doing it if you know the different kinds of aggression that a dog might display.

Kinds of Aggression

There are a number of types of aggression, including territorial, possessive, intra-sexual (two females or two males fighting), and more, but basically they can all be boiled down to dominant aggression or defensive aggression.

A dominant aggressive dog is very demanding and extremely confident. He will be reluctant to obey commands, demand to be petted, and walk tall with his ears forward and up and his tail high. If confronted, he will usually growl and raise his hackles. He will also probably engage in undesirable behaviors like mounting and pushing people out of his way. Males will probably also “mark” their territory, even in the house.

A defensive-aggressive dog is a little harder to peg. He’s still aggressive, but his behavior suggests otherwise. He’ll probably avoid eye contact, urinate submissively, roll over on his back to expose his vitals, resist having his feet handled and may not even enjoy being petted. This type of dog is what is often known as a “fear biter.” He could snap at someone if he’s backed into a corner, and might even attempt to bite people who are walking away from him.

Two Dogs, Same Treatment

Whether your dog is dominant-aggressive or defensive-aggressive, the treatment is the same: you don’t allow him to dominate. You never let him challenge, and you always let him know that he’s not the boss.

I’ve taken a fair bit of flack for this from time to time, but I’m still a big believer in the alpha roll – never as a first resort, but when aggression gets to the point where someone could end up being bitten, there’s nothing quite like flipping a dog over onto his back and making him submit to get the point across as to who’s going to be in charge. As long as it’s not accompanied by shouting or yanking, it’s a simple statement, the same as an alpha would do in the wild: “I am the boss. You are not. You do not display aggression toward me. I am a kind boss, though, and I am not going to hurt you; I just want you to learn how to behave.”

No dog should ever be allowed to dominate anyone in your family. If you want to be safe, and you want your kids to be safe, then your dog has to know that the humans outrank him, and that’s not going to change.

Choosing the Right Breed

Now, having said all that, I have to point out that sometimes, when it comes to aggression in dogs, people can be the authors of their own misfortune because they’ve chosen the wrong breed. Dalmatians, for instance, can be awfully snappish with kids. Chihuahuas typically don’t relate well to children either. And if you’re a meek sort of person, a Cane Corso or a Dogo Argentino is probably not the right dog for you.

Know your limitations. Aggression cannot be met with submissiveness on the part of the dog’s owner, so if you’re naturally fearful, non-confrontational and, well, okay, wimpy, choose a dog that is known for having a calm, complacent temperament.

Train Your Kids

Having already pointed out the importance of gentle handling during the early months, I should also point out that puppies reach the rambunctious stage pretty quickly. So you want to get your kids used to handling the puppy very early on. Let the kids hand-feed the puppy, using basically the same approach that you would with a horse. Have them hold the food out on the flat of their hands. It reduces the likelihood of nipping. If the puppy does nip, he shouldn’t be shouted at or punished. Just get the kids to keep working with him before those little nips end up being painful. If he nips, have the kids withdraw the food and then try again. Puppies catch on pretty fast, and will learn that rough behavior means the reward is taken away. The goal here is not to punish bad behavior; it’s to reward good behavior.

Teach your kids too, not to play aggressively with the puppy. As the twig is bent, so grows the tree and all that. So, no teasing, no wrestling, no tug-of-war and no hands in the face.

If the puppy jumps on your child, tell the child to cross his or her arms, say “Off,” and turn away. It’s no fun jumping on someone who isn’t responding, and the puppy will soon get the idea that if he wants to keep on playing, he can’t jump.

Remember, though, that it is never a good idea to leave a dog of any age alone with a young child. Kids and dogs need to be supervised when they’re together, until the child is actually able to control the dog.

A Word on Neutering

Meh. That’s my word on neutering. Meh. Leroy is intact, and very well-behaved. Now, having said that, sometimes neutering at an early age will prevent fighting between two males, but it might not do much to solve dominance issues where people are concerned. There’s really only one way to deal with human versus canine aggression, and that is simply this:

Win. Every Time.

I’m not kidding here. If your dog becomes aggressive toward you, you have to win every single battle. You cannot back down. If you back away, for instance, when you try to take your dog’s dish away and he growls at you, or you tell him to get off the bed and he snaps at you, you’re stating very clearly, “Okay, you won this round.” And your dog is going to take that a step further, thinking, “Well, I won this round, so I bet I can win the next one, too. In fact, maybe I would be a better pack leader than this person.”

So, win. And remember, even the most aggressive dog can be rehabilitated if he knows that you are always going to win. You’re not being cruel, and you’re not being unreasonable. Most dogs are quite happy to have you lead, but you have to let them know that you are capable of doing it, and willing to do it. And if that means facing him down or even alpha rolling him, do it. Your safety and that of your family could be at stake.

Related Content:

Top 3 Reasons for Aggressive Dog Behavior, and What to Do About It
Fear Aggression in Dogs: How to Manage and Help!
5 Ways of Dealing with Aggression When You Have More Than One Dog (Video)

The Final Word

If you take nothing else away from this, then please take this: once your dog’s aggression reaches the point where he is dominant over you, punishment is probably going to be useless, and if you’re dealing with a big dog, you could be in big trouble. So work early on to reduce aggression. Watch for instances of aggression, and be prepared if it escalates. The last thing you want is to have to euthanize your dog because he’s bitten someone. The signs of aggression are visible early on, and aggression can be corrected early on.