Anthony De Marinis, CBDC, ADT, LFDM, FFCP, VSA-DT
I thought it was finally time to write a blog on what aggressive behavior actually is. After all, it is what I specialize in. Here is a simple guide laying out what aggressive behavior in dogs is. This blog could go on forever (and anyone who knows me knows that I go on and on!). But this blog is simply meant to help you understand what aggressive behavior is and why it might occur. So, let’s get to it!
What is aggressive behavior and what causes it?
Aggression encompasses a spectrum of behaviors, ranging from minor posturing to serious, dangerous attacks. Aggressive behaviors typically occur when a dog is:
- Feeling threatened
- Protective (resource guarding or territorial)
- Experiencing impulse control-related issues
- Overstimulated or having sensory overload
- Frustrated or dealing with a low frustration tolerance
- Suffering from health/medical issues
- In pain or associating pain. For example, if a dog had a painful ear infection in the past and you go to pet your dog on the head or ears, your dog might display aggressive behavior because she has learned that getting touched near the ears is painful. Remember, it only takes one bad or painful experience for a dog to learn what they like or, in this case, don’t like.
You might also see aggressive behavior occur:
- In dogs who display controlling types of behaviors such as herding breeds or in dogs who display severe resource guarding behavior, also in a very controlling manner.
- As predation. While predation isn’t technically considered aggression (it’s a type of food-acquisition behavior), it can surely be experienced as aggression to those observing it or on the receiving end of such an instinct. Both genetically modified predation (such as inhibited predation like chasing, barking and biting in herding) as well as genetically intact predation (actually following through with a predatory attack) can absolutely result in what humans experience as aggression, even though the motivation for the behavior is different. The reason I have included predation on this list is I have personally worked with many dogs who have quietly stalked other dogs, and even children and adult humans, and made an attempt to go after the intended target in a very intense manner, in some cases actually making contact with the intended target and causing harm. Regardless of whether predation is considered to be true aggression, the individual on the receiving end of it will find it aggressive. Furthermore, living with a dog who displays predation can be dangerous, depending on what the dog is predating and the intensity level.
- In dogs who have a chemical imbalance in the brain. This is not common but occurs when the dog has too many or too few neurotransmitters, which can affect or cause behavior issues, or lead to abnormal behavior. You can think of this as a wiring issue in the brain.
- In dogs who have neurological issues such as seizures.
- As a genetic predisposition, meaning that some or all of the behavior responses are characteristics that could have been passed down from one or both parents.
Why does a dog display aggressive behavior?
Aggressive behavior serves many different functions, and so the reasons a dog uses aggressive behavior vary. Dogs typically display aggressive behavior to:
- cause harm
In effect, aggressive behaviors serve the function of increasing distance from a perceived threat or danger, to move it away from the dog, or causing harm to the threat or danger.
As an example: Your dog may chase a person off the property. This is your dog’s way of increasing distance between herself and what she perceives to be a threat. She was able to make that person run away or move off the property, which may make the dog feel safer or might make her feel reinforced, as she just did “her job.”
Remember, the behavior is based on what the dog perceives, NOT what you as the human perceive. This is important because many dog owners feel insulted and embarrassed if their dog displays aggressive behavior toward a family member or friend. However, just because you do not feel threatened, conflicted or angry about that family member or friend, that does not mean your dog won’t feel those things. Again, aggression is based on what your dog perceives, not what you perceive.
Lastly, some breeds of dogs were bred to display various levels of aggressive behavior. For example, let’s look at guardian breeds such as mastiffs or Livestock Guardian Dogs. These dogs were bred to serve as the protector of their family, their home and property, and/or their livestock. Now, this DOES NOT mean your dog is a “bad dog.” BUT, it does mean that your dog could be displaying normal behavior based on her genetics. This is something important to keep in mind, as breed traits can sometimes have an impact on behaviors.
What do aggressive behaviors look like?
Aggressive behaviors range from warning signals to overt behaviors. These include (but are not limited to):
- Lifting the lip (warning signal).
- Growling (warning signal).
- Baring teeth (warning signal).
- Snarling (increased warning signal).
- Lunging (increased warning signal).
- Muzzle punching, i.e., bumping or punching with the snout with a closed mouth (this is also known as a closed-mouth bite).
- Air snapping, i.e., biting the air. Usually when this happens, people say, “My dog tried to bite, but she missed because I pulled away fast enough.” However, the reality in most cases is that the dog strategically and intentionally missed. If a dog wanted to make contact, humans are generally not fast enough to move away in time. (An air snap is often a final warning before the dog chooses to bite.)
- Biting without causing injury (a controlled bite or inhibited bite).
- Biting while causing injury (to various degrees).
- Attacking. I have this as a separate bullet point simply to point out that when dogs are attacking, they continue to bite, usually causing severe harm or death.
“How can I help my aggressive dog?”
I’m always asked the question: How can I help my aggressive dog? This isn’t an easy question to answer because, as I mentioned above, there are many reasons a dog might use aggressive behavior.
We need to first learn more about your dog’s aggression: What aggressive behaviors is the dog displaying? In what circumstances are the behaviors occurring? What purpose do the behaviors seem to be serving? How severe is the behavior?
You may need to hire a qualified dog trainer or aggression specialist in order to help you answer these questions. Once they are answered, your dog trainer, dog behavior specialist or aggression specialist can provide you with a behavior modification plan, training plan and safety and management plan.
Now, you might be wondering, “Anthony, how else can I learn to identify aggressive behavior without getting my dog to growl, snap or bite?” THIS IS A GREAT QUESTION! (If this crossed your mind, good for you!)
I always recommend my clients learn canine body language and communication signals. It is REALLY, REALLY important, because once you can learn what your dog is saying with her body language, you will be able to better understand and help her, especially if you are trying to modify her behavior. Here are some great resources you can check out.
Credible Canine Body Language Links:
- ASPCA Canine Body Language Webinar
- Understanding Canine Body Language- Positively.com
- How to Speak Dog- i-speak dog
Video’s on Canine Body Language and Communication Signals:
- Understanding Canine Body Language Part 1- Modern Canine
- Understanding Canine Body Language Part 2- Modern Canine
- Dog Body Language 101- Fear Free Happy Homes
- Dog Body Language- The Family Dog
I hope you found this blog helpful. Owning a dog who displays aggressive behavior can be challenging. Luckily you are not alone! Your first step is trying to understand it, by reading this blog. (Good for you!) Your second step should be contacting a qualified dog trainer or dog behavior specialist so that you can get proper help and advice. You may decide to hire a dog aggression specialist, as they may be better equipped to help modify your dog’s behavior.
If you are seeking help and looking for a dog trainer and dog behavior specialist, and you live near me on Long Island, please visit my aggressive dog behavior page. If you are out of my area, I also provide online virtual consultations for behavior modification.
You can also search for a qualified professional by searching for a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant on the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants website, iaabc.org.
Do you own a dog who displays aggressive behavior?
If so, take a look at my blog on how to manage aggressive dog behavior. If you don’t have a qualified professional near you and you are out of my service area, check out this blog on how online virtual consultations can help you and your dog.
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About Anthony De Marinis
Anthony De Marinis specializes in working with dogs with severe behavior issues, specifically with aggressive behavior. He provides comprehensive in-home and virtual behavior consultations, as well as dog training services across Long Island, NY. (Online Virtual Consultations for aggression and behavior modification are also available for clients who are local and out of state.) Anthony has several professional certifications which include: Certified Dog Behavior Consultant from the International Association for Animal Behavior Consultants, Accredited Dog Trainer by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, Licensed Family Dog Mediator (LFDM), Fear Free Certified Training Professional (FFCP), Certified Graduate of distinction from the Victoria Stilwell Academy for Dog Training & Behavior, and The Third Way Certified Trainer. Anthony currently has an interest in training and behavior modification in Working & Sport bred dogs. He is also learning about and currently competing in agility and sheep herding. Anthony has two Australian Kelpies, Journey and Quest, both of which are training in agility and sheep herding.