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Healthy Dogs

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Aggression in Dogs

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Defensive Aggression

Closely related to fear aggression is defensive aggression. The primary difference is the strategy adopted by the dog. Defensively aggressive dogs are still motivated by fear, but instead of trying to retreat, they decide that the best defense is a good offense. Dogs who are defensively aggressive exhibit a mixture of fearful and offensive postures. (Please see our article, Canine Body Language, for more information about what defensive, aggressive dogs look like.) They may initially charge at a person or another dog who frightens them, barking and growling. Regardless of whether the victim freezes or advances, the defensively aggressive dog often delivers the first strike. Only if the victim retreats is the defensively aggressive dog likely to abort an attack. Male and female dogs are equally prone to defensive aggression. It’s slightly more common in adults than in puppies simply because dogs need to have some confidence to use this defensive strategy, and puppies are usually less confident than adults.

Social Aggression

Animals who live in social groups, like people and dogs, typically live by certain rules in order to minimize conflict between group members. Canid species, including the dog, adopt a type of hierarchical order that influences which group members get first crack at food, the best resting spots and opportunities to mate. So rather than having to fight for access to valued things each and every time, those lower down on the totem pole know to wait until the higher-ups have had their share before taking their turn. These ordered relationships are frequently reinforced by displays of ritualized aggression. Individuals of high status use aggressive threats to remind the others of their place in the pack. The relationships between people and dogs who live together are certainly more complex than this simplified description, but it’s still important to know that a dog who perceives herself as high in status may show aggression toward family members. (This kind of behavior is sometimes called dominance or status-seeking aggression.) This is why a dog might be perfectly trustworthy with one pet parent but react aggressively toward the other or toward young children in the family. Such dogs are often described as “Jekyll and Hyde” because, most of the time, they’re happy-go-lucky, friendly dogs. But if they feel that someone in the pack has overstepped his or her bounds, these dogs can quickly resort to aggression. An aggressive response is usually provoked by things that a dog perceives as threatening or unpleasant, such as:

  • Taking food away
  • Taking a chew bone, toy or stolen object away
  • Disturbing the dog while she’s sleeping
  • Physically moving the dog while she’s resting
  • Hugging or kissing the dog
  • Bending or reaching over the dog
  • Manipulating the dog into a submissive posture (a down or a belly-up position)
  • Lifting or trying to pick up the dog
  • Holding the dog back from something she wants
  • Grooming, bathing, towelling or wiping the dog’s face
  • Touching the dog’s ears or feet
  • Trimming the dog’s nails
  • Jerking or pulling on the dog’s leash, handling her collar or putting on a harness
  • Verbally scolding the dog
  • Threatening the dog with a pointed finger or rolled-up newspaper
  • Hitting or trying to hit the dog
  • Going through a door at same time as the dog or bumping into the dog
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