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What is Aggressive Behavior in Dogs?

Anthony De Marinis, CBDC, ADT, LFDM, FFCP, CBATI, VSA-DT

So I thought it was finally time to write a blog on “What is aggressive behavior?”. After all, it is what I specialize in working with. So, after enough procrastination, here is a simple guide laying out what aggressive behavior in dogs is. This blog could go on and on forever (and anyone who knows me, knows that I go on and on!). BUT, I wanted to just give a brief explanation of aggressive behavior without going over the top. 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 & what causes it to occur?

Aggressive behavior represents a spectrum of behaviors, ranging from minor posturing to serious and dangerous attacks. Aggressive behaviors typically occur when a dog is:

  • feeling threatened
  • fearful
  • stressed
  • anxious
  • protective (resource guarding or territorial based)
  • conflicted/concerned
  • has impulse control related issues
  • overstimulated or sensory overload
  • frustrated or if they have a low frustration tolerance
  • angry
  • has health and/or medical related issues
  • and when 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 by the ears is painful. Remember, it only needs to take one bad or painful experience for a dog to learn what they like or in this case, don’t like.)

We 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 considered to technically be 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 very much result in what we would experience as aggression, even though the source of the behavior is different. The reason I have included predation on this list is because I have personally worked with many dogs who have quietly stalked other dogs and even children and adult humans, and made an attempt to proceed 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 if predation is not considered to be true aggression, the reality is that the individual being predated on the receiving end of it will find it to be aggressive. Furthermore, living with a dog who displays predation can be dangerous depending on what the dog is predating and the intensity level of it.
  • 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 and/or cause behavior issues and/or abnormal behavior issues/responses. I generally look at this as a wiring issue in the brain.
  • in dogs who have or begin to have neurological issues such as seizures.
  • and genetic predisposition, meaning that some of or all of the behavior responses are characteristics that could have been passed down from one of or both parents.

Why does a dog display aggressive behavior?

Aggressive behavior serves many different functions and it depends on why a dog may use aggressive behavior. Dogs typically display aggressive behavior to:

  • warn
  • intimidate
  • defend/protect
  • and/or to cause harm.

In effect, aggressive behaviors serve the function of increasing distance from (to move the threat further away) or causing harm to a perceived threat or danger.

A good example of this might be that your dog may chase a person off the property. This is your dog’s way of increasing distance between themselves and what they perceive to be a threat. They were able to make that person run away or move further off the property, so they made that “threat” move further away from them, which may make the dog feel safer or might make the dog feel reinforced as she just did “her job”.

Remember, the behavior is based on what the dog as an individual perceives, NOT what you as the human perceives. This is important because many dog owners feel insulted and embarrassed if their dog displays aggressive behavior towards 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. This is why I make it a point to say, it is based on what your dog perceives, not what you as the human perceives.

Lastly, some breeds of dogs were bred with the intention to display various levels of aggressive behavior. For example, let’s look at guardian breeds such as Mastiff’s or Livestock Guardian Dogs. These breeds of dog were bred with the intention of being 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. So this is just something important to keep in mind as breed traits can sometimes have an impact on behaviors and responses.

What do aggressive behaviors look like?

Aggressive behaviors range from warning signals to overt behaviors which 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- bumping or punching with their snout with a closed mouth (this is known as a closed mouth bite)
  • air snapping- biting the air. This is usually where people say “my dog tried to bite but she missed because I pulled away fast enough.”  However, the reality is in most cases, the dog strategically and intentionally missed. If a dog wanted to truly bite, we are generally not fast enough to move away in time. (This is generally a final warning before choosing to bite.)
  • biting without causing injury (a controlled bite or inhibited bite)
  • and biting while causing injury (to various degrees)
  • attacking- I have this as a separate bullet point simply to point out that when a dog is attacking, they continue to proceed in biting, usually causing severe harm or death.

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! (Good for you, if this crossed your mind!)

I always recommend to my clients that they learn Canine Body Language & Communication Signals. It is REALLY, REALLY important because once you can learn what your dog is saying and communicating with their body language, you will be able to better understand them and help them, especially if you are trying to modify their behavior. Here are some great resources you can check out.

Credible Canine Body Language Links:

Video’s on Canine Body Language and Communication Signals:

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 certified professional so that you can get proper help and advice. You can do so by reaching out to me for an in-person or virtual consultation or by searching for a Certified Behavior Consultant on the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants website, iaabc.org.

Do you own a dog who displays aggressive behavior?

If so, then click here to check out my tips on how to manage a dog who displays aggressive behavior.

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About Anthony De Marinis

Anthony holding Quest

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 seven 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, Certified Behavior Adjustment Trainer, 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.

Anthony

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 seven 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, Certified Behavior Adjustment Trainer, 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.

May 10, 2022