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Aggression in Dogs

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Possessive Aggression

Dogs evolved from wild ancestors who had to compete for food, nesting sites and mates to survive. Even though our pet dogs no longer face such harsh realities, many still show the tendency to guard their possessions from others, whether they need to or not. Some dogs only care about their food. These dogs might react aggressively when a person or another animal comes near their food bowl or approaches them while they’re eating. Other dogs guard their chew bones, their toys or things they’ve stolen. Still others guard their favorite resting spots, their crates or their beds. (Often, these dogs also guard their pet parents’ beds!) Less common are dogs who guard water bowls. Usually a possessive dog is easy to identify because she’s only aggressive when she has something she covets. But some dogs will hide their cherished things around the house and guard them from unsuspecting people or animals who have no idea that they’re anywhere near a valued object. Male and female dogs are equally prone to possessive aggression, and this type of aggression is common in both puppies and adults. For more detailed information about food-related possessive aggression and how to treat it, please see our article, Food Guarding.

Fear Aggression

When animals and people are afraid of something, they prefer to get away from that thing. This is called the flight response. But if escaping isn’t an option, most animals will switch to a fight response. They try to defend themselves from the scary thing. So a dog can be afraid of a person or another animal but still attack if she thinks this is her only recourse. A fearful dog will normally adopt fearful postures and retreat, but she may become aggressive if cornered or trapped. (Please see our article, Canine Body Language, for more information about what fearful, aggressive dogs look like.) Some dogs will cower at the prospect of physical punishment but attack when a threatening person reaches for them. Fearful dogs sometimes run away from a person or animal who frightens them, but if the person or animal turns to leave, they come up from behind and nip. This is why it’s a good idea to avoid turning your back on a fearful dog. Fear aggression is characterized by rapid nips or bites because a fearful dog is motivated to bite and then run away. Sometimes the aggression doesn’t begin with clear threats. A fearful dog might not show her teeth or growl to warn the victim off. In this kind of situation, the only warning is the dog’s fearful posture and her attempts to retreat. Male and female dogs are equally prone to fear aggression, and this type of aggression is common in both puppies and adults.

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