Dog Aggression: Dos and Don’ts

Keke’s just playing here, but I might have nightmares!

Not sure what it is about the brisk fall weather, or the alignment of the planets (or more mundanely, as it turns out, the management of which “keywords” are triggering my Google Adwords account), but I’ve sure been getting bit a lot recently!

In the past month I’ve been growled at, snapped at, and bit by tiny little Yorkies and Chihuahuas with Napolean complexes (I have in my bag of tricks a pair of leather gloves that I call my “Chihuahua gloves”), prey-aggressive Pits, environmentally anxious Blue Heelers, a sizable resource-guarding Ridgeback, a Great Dane with no manners, and one very intimidating German Shepherd who even succeeded at latching onto my coat through the tip of his muzzle!

I’m pretty good at neutralizing an aggressive reaction so that it doesn’t really do me any damage; the most I’ve suffered recently is a few holes in my leather shoes, my jacket, and my folder of handouts. (In that least case the owners can really say their dog ate their homework!) The main thing is that I don’t see aggressive tendencies as signs that a dog is a “bad dog”, but rather as a clue to an unbalanced emotional mindset that is wanting to be healed.
Head over body means dominance
– except when accompanied by a bellyrub. :) 
Unfortunately many people’s initial or instinctive reactions to dog aggression are often exactly the wrong thing, precisely what you DON’T want to do to ease or resolve the situation.
  • Many people overreact when confronted with their or other dogs’ signs of aggression. Overreacting never helps, and can often exacerbate a tense situation. Stay calm. Extremely few dogs will continue to attack someone who remains calm and exhibits neither fear nor aggression of their own.
  • Don’t punish the dog. This can often escalate the aggression, and where it does succeed at removing precursors to aggressive behavior like growling, it only creates a more dangerous creatures. Signs of aggression are often adapted for precisely to AVOID violence, confrontation, fighting, or other unpleasantness. Growling, ears lowered, tail tucked, mouth taut…these are all signs saying “Go away! I don’t want to hurt you!”
  • Many people get scared, angry, or embarrassed that they have a “bad dog”. Instead try to figure out what is causing the aggression (is it fear? dominance? protectiveness? guarding?) and make a plan (probably with an experienced professional) to help heal that injured mindset.

In my opinion however, the most common yet detrimental reaction is to immediately remove whatever is causing the aggression. For instance I see it all the time in dog parks, when two dogs get into a minor scuffle because the play got too rough or one is trying to dominate the other, the owners scoop their pups up in their arms, worried, embarrassed, and angry at each other, and high-tail it out of there. Think of what just happened: the dogs growled and snapped at each other, which caused their enemy to disappear! It worked! You’ve just rewarded your dog’s aggression. Reward means reinforcement. If it worked this time, be sure they’ll do it again – only quicker next time.

“If i hide in the corner no one will see me.”

Or in fear cases: the dog gets scared at the sound of a bus, or the approach of a bigger dog on the sidewalk, and you cross the street. The fear emotion and behavior succeed at saving your dogs life, as far as he knows. The fear worked! Once again, it is reinforced.

In resource guarding cases: you try to take your dog’s bone, and he growls or snaps at you so you give him the bone and say “Sorry!” and tiptoe away. Again the aggression is reinforced. 
With pack protection: your mailman comes to the door and your pup barks and snaps, so you duck back inside with Fido. You survived intact; your dog thinks he just succeeded in saving you from the evil mailman.
The right reaction to aggression is to “Correct, redirect, reward”. By “correct” I again don’t mean “punish”; what you want is to simply stop the bad behavior. It’s a subtle art to do so without rewarding or punishing; a clap, snap, turn, block…often just relax and wait for the tension to pass and ease. The exact reaction is situational but the goal is to put an end to that reaction. “Redirect”: you tell your dog what you DO want him doing instead. Sit, lie down, walk, come to you…it doesn’t really matter. Because what you’re looking to do is “Reward”: give praise, belly rubs, treats, walk, run, play, give the bone back to chew, or release to go back and socialize. With 90% of dogs that have snapped at me, a few minutes later I’ll be running with them in the park, throwing a toy for them, sitting peacefully with them on the couch, or rubbing their belly. These “reparative experiences” are crucial and far too rare for most aggressive dogs.
Stop the bad behavior, get the behavior you want, then reward it. 
Easily said. Not always so easily done.
Which is why I need new gloves for Christmas.
Published On: December 7th, 2011Categories: Yelp


  1. Karin strandnes April 30 at 10:09 PM

    Hi. Iam a dog walker and pet care provider. I am looking for arm protection gloves. To protect not just my hands but forearm. Needs to be a glove that allows ease of handling animals and leash. Need bite protection. But also have good dexterity. What do you reccomend. Thank you for your time and consideration

    • Anthony May 3 at 1:24 AM

      I use normal leather winter gloves much of the time (esp in winter). When dealing with real biters I have a few sets of various-strength Bite Buster gloves, made of Kevlar and leather.

    • James west September 14 at 6:10 AM

      Hi I have a English bulldog and every time my mother in law comes over, when me and my wife leave her mother in law in the house with our dog , and come back my dog starts to bark and aggressively growl at me and my wife. This has happened 4 times now, we tried telling my mother in law to go into the room, as to remove what my dog think she is protecting. But my dog will keep up with the growling and barking. I’m angry and frustrated and I don’t understand why my dog will bark at me or my wife when we feed her and love her. Please any info will help

      • Anthony September 22 at 3:50 AM

        That is certainly upsetting, and can be caused for a number of reasons. The baseline to start will be to condition your arrivals with positive things — e.g. leashing up and heading out for a fun walk and socializing. You can also bring treats. Whatever the case I wouldn’t walk straight in and toward her, but go about your business and sit down, put down your bags etc, and let your dog come to you. That’s always less threatening.

  2. Jennifer ODay June 30 at 9:39 PM

    We got two cocker spaniel litter mates who are seven months old. Seemingly out of nowhere they get into fights. It appears to be “resource guarding” over me. I have tried ignoring, time outs, walking away…but my inner self is anything but calm. They do this with my husband too. Sometime what seems like normal puppy play will escalate out of control. I neglected to say I have a female and male. We are getting the male fixed on July 3. This has never resulted in either dog being injured, however sometimes they will fight on us and both my husband and I have been bit while they were in the middle of the confrontation. Other than this, they are fun puppies. I would appreciate suggestions!

    • Anthony July 19 at 12:53 AM

      Do they socialize regularly (i.e. every day) with lots of other dogs? This is often the cause of sibling in-fighting, lack of proper socialization. You can’t just live with your brother and never see anyone else, it’ll drive anyone nuts! Plus they learn social rules from other dogs at the dog park. Aside from that, working obedience rituals to keep them both seeing you guys as the leaders, not them just making their own rules, should help. Put in the work and let me know how it goes!

  3. Joanna July 31 at 7:56 AM

    We have just added a 3rd dog to our all bulldog pack a week ago. We have 2 males -12 1/2 and 5 1/2 and the new dog is a rescued 20 month old female. They are all fixed. I’m having an issue with her and my 5 1/2 year old. They are both dominant dogs and she becomes very aggressive with food, toys and HIS bed. They will get into knock out drag our fights that my husband has to break up. When those 3 items aren’t in the picture, they get along fine. She is the instigator and she’s still a puppy and wants to play. How do we correct her behavior? I want everyone to be in a happy, safe and stable home.

    • Anthony August 1 at 12:04 AM

      This can be difficult and complex. First of all for a family to socialize well together it always helps to have them socializing early and often with lots of other dogs. Brothers don’t want to only hang out with each other, for instance: they need their own friends outside. And the young female probably has a ton of energy she needs to get out. Yes you should correct any tenseness or guarding or beginnings of fighting — redirect it at a low level before it explodes. Work obedience rituals like “Bed” with all of them: you be the boss, they’re all the kids. Don’t let them set their own rules, or it will be “Might makes right” — they’ll fight it out. In general, try to feed the more peaceful, submissive, and older ones first while the younger, brasher, or more dominant ones wait patiently until you release and reward them. Same with who walks in front, is allowed up on the couch, etc. Try to set rules and be very strict but also very rewarding when they’re good! Of course hiring a professional will probably be helpful, and always put safety first when dealing with genuine aggression: if you need to you might eventually need to separate or crate. Good luck and keep me posted!

  4. James Klieber October 1 at 7:18 PM

    Morning Anthony, i just rescued a 3-4 year old chihuahua and i already have a 6 yr old chihuahua jack mix. the new dog is very timid around me and my wife and is very loving but if we are holding the new dog and my dog comes up to us the new dog goes crazy and tries snapping and my dog. i separate them and have been putting the new dog in a crate because she gets hysterical for a couple of minutes. when she calms down i let her out and they will smell each other and a little light growling but then they calm down and will even lay next to each other out side. not on the same bed but within a foot or so. i only rescued the new dog 2 days ago but i want to fix the problem because it causing stress for me my wife and my dog.

  5. Elena June 28 at 2:25 AM

    We rescued a chihuahua mix and he is very growly . If you try to pick him up or pet him he can growl and become very agitated. How do we get him to trust us?

    • Anthony September 22 at 3:26 AM

      I generally recommend trying to avoid picking up your dog! Sometimes it’s needed for little’uns . . . But work on obedience commands offleash and leadership on leash. Most dog’s don’t like getting manhandled! If we want to condition it we have to build trust slowly, with lots of positive reinforcement and freedom and play.

  6. Gina March 1 at 7:17 AM

    We have a 2 year old Jack Russell, she becomes aggressive in the evening. Almost similar to sundowning in humans. She will sit under the table when we have dinner and growl when we move.
    Any suggestions?

  7. Sarah June 15 at 8:05 PM

    Hi Anthony, my 2 year old Havanese started grueling at me or my husband when we pet him sometimes. And if he’s sitting next to me and my husband walks up he growls at my husband. This is an aggressive growl and if not stopped he curls his lips. Any tips on how to stop/redirect in a situation like this?

  8. ashley July 26 at 2:20 AM

    I am educating myself on dog behavior and have been successful in most areas. I am a dog walker and try to help owners understand their dogs needs. My own dog is great in all areas except when I board another dog. Outside of the home she is socially normal, plays, runs and socializes. If the dog exhibits weak energy she will tend to bark at those dogs but not in an aggressive manner. I would love some guidance on how to better control my dogs territorial nature when I bring in another dog into our home. I usually try to redirect that unbalanced energy of hers and give attention to the dog who is not misbehaving (the new guest dog). It works for a few minutes but anytime we want to give affection or play with the other dog she gets tense, sometimes growls or makes other noises that don’t feel balanced. This in turn usually stresses the other dog out and the tension creates a vicious circle. Any suggestions are much appreciated, thank you

    • Anthony July 26 at 10:23 PM

      First of all I recommend keeping her very social every day outdoors in parks with other dogs as much as possible. Then at home my guess is that the jealous guarding you describe are created because she worms her way in-between you and the dog you’re boarding. If you can physically and visually with body language send your dog out of the circle, ideally to far side of the room and down so she’s lying in her bed, then she’s far less likely to guard; instead you’re taking ownership of the other dog, welcoming them into your pack, making your dog be a submissive team player. Practice the bed command, which means lie down on it and chill, and keep geometry in mind: your dog out away, on the far side of the boarding dog, ideally at a respectful distance and even lying down. Let me know if this helps!

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