Aggression in Dogs: Types and Causes

Mar 3, 2023 | Dog Behaviour

A dramatic landscape scene depicting a group of dogs with aggressive stances and expressions. There should be a diverse range of dog breeds showing te

What is Aggression in Dogs?

Aggression in dogs is a common and often misunderstood behaviour. While dogs are generally loving and loyal companions, they are also capable of displaying different types of aggression that can be harmful to both humans and other animals. Understanding the different types of aggression in dogs and their underlying causes is crucial for dog owners and trainers to prevent and manage aggressive behaviour effectively. In this article, we will explore the various types of aggression in dogs, their triggers, and how to recognise and address them to ensure a safe and harmonious relationship with our dogs.


Key Takeaways: Understanding Dog AggressionDescription
Owner-Directed AggressionThis type of aggression can manifest in various forms, including growling, snarling, snapping, or biting. It often occurs in specific situations where the dog feels threatened, anxious, or compelled to defend its resources or space.
Reinforcement LoopRepeated successful aggressive acts can increase the likelihood of future aggression, creating a challenging cycle to break.
Preventive MeasuresEarly socialisation and training reduce the risk of aggression. Consistent training and environment management are crucial. Professional consultation is advised if the aggression’s cause is unclear.
Fear AggressionResults from inadequate socialisation or traumatic experiences. Fearful dogs may resort to aggression when flight is not an option. The fight/flight response is a natural reaction to fear, driven by the sympathetic nervous system.
Possessive Aggression (Resource Guarding)Dogs may instinctively protect possessions, food, or resting areas. They may display defensive aggression to prevent others from taking their valued items or invading their space.
Redirected AggressionOccurs when a dog redirects its aggression from the original target to an intervening individual or animal.

Owner-Directed Aggression in Dogs

Human-directed aggression in dogs refers to a range of aggressive behaviours exhibited by canines towards people, often characterised by growling, snarling, snapping, or biting. This type of aggression can stem from various causes and may manifest under different circumstances.

Understanding these causes is crucial for dog owners, trainers, and professionals in order to effectively manage and prevent such behaviours.

As a dog that repeatedly engages in human-directed aggression and achieves the desired outcome, the likelihood of the aggressive behaviour recurring in the future increases. This reinforcement loop can make it more challenging to mitigate the aggression over time.

When a dog reacts confronted with a situation that triggers this type of aggression, the dog may exhibit various aggressive behaviours, such as growling, snapping, or biting, in response to a person’s actions or requests.

Understanding and Addressing Owner-Directed Aggression in Dogs

  • Aggressive behaviour can be displayed by dogs towards people they are familiar with, particularly their owners, and can manifest in a variety of situations.
  • Human-directed aggression arises when a dog perceives a threat or challenge from a human.
  • It is essential to encourage a healthy and safe relationship between the pet and human with lots of positive interactions.
  • Reinforcement loop: As a dog repeatedly engages in owner-directed aggression and achieves the desired outcome, the likelihood of the aggressive behaviour recurring in the future increases.
  • Early socialisation and proper training can help reduce the likelihood of this type of aggression.
  • Minimise the likelihood of aggressive incidents by managing your dog’s environment.
  • Be consistent with your training and management strategies. Consistency helps establish trust and predictability.
  • If you are unsure about the cause of the aggression or how to handle it, consult with a veterinarian, certified dog behaviourist, or professional dog trainer. They can help identify the root of the problem and provide guidance on the appropriate steps to take.

If you find this article interesting, you might want check out our blog and podcast section, specifically these articles:

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Fear Aggression in Dogs

Fear aggression in dogs is a learned behaviour that can stem from various causes and is often characterised by an over aggressive reaction to perceived threats. One common contributing factor is insufficient socialization during the puppy stage, which can hinder the development of proper social skills and the ability to cope with unfamiliar situations. Additionally, a traumatic event, such as being attacked or experiencing a frightening incident, can lead to the development of fear aggression in dogs.

A dog exhibiting fear aggression may become anxious or reactive at the sight of another dog, particularly other unfamiliar dogs, if they have previously encountered a similar situation that caused them harm. When a fearful dog feels cornered or trapped, they can escalate into aggressive behaviour as a means of self-preservation. This is because animals, including dogs, generally prefer to distance themselves from any perceived threats, engaging in what is known as the flight response.

However, when escaping is not a feasible option, most animals, including dogs, will switch to a fight response as a means of self-defence. This is a natural reaction to fear and a result of the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers the release of neurotransmitters responsible for the fight-or-flight response. Consequently, a dog experiencing fear aggression may react defensively to protect itself from perceived dangers.

Understanding and Addressing Fear-based Aggression

  • Fear aggression is a learned behaviour that can stem from various causes and is often characterised by an aggressive response to perceived threats.
  • One common contributing factor is insufficient socialization during the puppy stage, which can hinder the development of proper social skills and the ability to cope with unfamiliar situations.
  • A traumatic event, such as being attacked or experiencing a frightening incident, can lead to the development of fear aggression in dogs.
  • A dog exhibiting fear aggression may become anxious or reactive at the sight of another dog, particularly if they have previously encountered a similar situation that caused them harm.
  • A fearful dog’s anxiety can escalate into aggressive behaviour as a means of self-preservation when they feel cornered or trapped.
  • Animals, including dogs, generally prefer to distance themselves from any perceived threats, engaging in what is known as the flight response.
  • When escaping is not a feasible option, most animals, including dogs, will switch to a fight response as a means of self-defence.
  • This is a natural reaction to fear and a result of the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers the release of neurotransmitters responsible for the fight-or-flight response.
  • A dog experiencing fear aggression may react defensively to protect itself from perceived dangers.
2 aggressive dogs

Possessive Aggression and Resource Guarding

Possessive aggression, also referred to as resource guarding, is a common behaviour exhibited by many dogs as they instinctively protect their possessions from perceived threats. This behaviour of protective aggression can manifest even when there is no apparent need for the dog to guard their belongings. Dogs may exhibit possessive aggression in a variety of situations, each involving the protection of something they deem valuable.

Additionally, some dogs may exhibit possessive or territorial aggression when it comes to their preferred resting spots. This could include their crates, beds, or other designated areas where they feel comfortable and secure. In these situations, the dog may become defensive and react aggressively if they perceive their territory as being threatened or invaded.

For instance, some dogs may become aggressive when a person or another animal approaches them while they are eating or comes close to their food bowl. In such cases, the dog may display aggressive behaviours, such as growling, snarling, or snapping, to ward off the perceived threat to their resources. Similarly, other dogs may guard their chew bones, toys, or items they have stolen, reacting aggressively if someone attempts to take these objects away from them.

Understanding and Addressing Resource Guarding

  • Dogs may exhibit possessive aggression in a variety of situations, each involving the protection of something they deem valuable.
  • Possessive aggression, also known as resource guarding, is a common behaviour exhibited by many dogs as they instinctively protect their possessions from perceived threats.
  • Some dogs may become aggressive when a person or another animal approaches them while they are eating or comes close to their food bowl.
  • In such cases, the dog may display aggressive behaviours, such as growling, snarling, or snapping, to ward off the perceived threat to their resources.
  • Similarly, other dogs may guard their chew bones, toys, or items they have stolen, reacting aggressively if someone attempts to take these objects away from them.
  • Additionally, some dogs may exhibit possessive aggression when it comes to their preferred resting spots, including their crates, beds, or other designated areas where they feel comfortable and secure.
  • In these situations, the dog may become defensive and react aggressively if they perceive their territory as being threatened or invaded.
Image depicting a dog displaying resource guarding behaviour, suitable for an educational blog.

Redirected Aggression

Redirected aggression is a type of aggression that occurs when a dog shows aggression but is unable to direct its aggressive response towards the original object or person that triggered it. This type of aggression arises when a dog is aroused by or exhibits aggressive behaviour toward an individual or another animal, and an interference occurs, causing the dog to shift its focus and aggression to the person or animal that intervened.

A common scenario in which redirected aggression occurs is during attempts to break up dog fights. When a person intervenes by grabbing or pushing a fighting dog, the dog may suddenly redirect its aggression from the original opponent to the person trying to separate them. This redirection can result in the dog biting the person, even though they were not the initial target of the dog’s aggression.

Understanding redirected aggression is vital for dog owners to ensure their safety and the safety of others when dealing with aggressive situations involving their pets. To prevent redirected aggression, it is crucial to approach such situations with caution and avoid direct physical intervention, particularly when the dog is in a heightened state of arousal.

Understanding and Addressing Redirected Aggression

  • Redirected aggression occurs when a dog is unable to direct its aggressive response towards the original object or person that triggered it.
  • This type of aggression arises when a dog is aroused by or exhibits aggressive behaviour toward an individual or another animal, and an interference occurs, causing the dog to shift its focus and aggression to the person or animal that intervened.
  • A common scenario in which redirected aggression occurs is during attempts to break up dog fights.
  • When a person intervenes by grabbing or pushing a fighting dog, the dog may suddenly redirect its aggression from the original opponent to the person trying to separate them.
  • This redirection can result in the dog biting the person, even though they were not the initial target of the dog’s aggression.
  • Understanding redirected aggression is vital for dog owners to ensure their safety and the safety of others when dealing with aggressive situations involving their pets.
  • To prevent redirected aggression, it is crucial to approach such situations with caution and avoid direct physical intervention, particularly when the dog is in a heightened state of arousal.

Frustration-Elicited Aggression

Frustration-elicited aggression is a type of canine behaviour that occurs when a dog becomes excited or aroused by a stimulus but is prevented from approaching or interacting with it. This restraint can cause the dog to display aggressive behaviour, particularly towards the person or object responsible for holding them back. For example, a frustrated dog may react by biting at its leash, the hand holding the leash, or the collar that restricts its movement.

Over time, a dog experiencing repeated instances of frustration-elicited aggression may begin to associate restraint with feelings of frustration, even in situations where there is no apparent cause for excitement. This learned association can result in otherwise friendly dogs exhibiting aggressive behaviour when put behind a gate, placed in a cage or crate, confined in a car, or restrained by a leash.

It is essential for dog owners to recognize the warning signs of frustration-elicited aggression and take appropriate steps to address and manage this behaviour. Understanding the triggers that cause frustration in a dog and implementing strategies to reduce these triggers can help prevent aggressive outbursts.

Understanding and Addressing Frustration-Elicited Aggression

  • Frustration-elicited aggression is a type of canine behaviour that occurs when a dog becomes excited or aroused by a stimulus but is prevented from approaching or interacting with it.
  • This restraint can cause the dog to display aggressive behaviour, particularly towards the person or object responsible for holding them back.
  • For example, a frustrated dog may react by biting at its leash, the hand holding the leash, or the collar that restricts its movement.
  • Over time, a dog experiencing repeated instances of frustration-elicited aggression may begin to associate restraint with feelings of frustration, even in situations where there is no apparent cause for excitement.
  • This learned association can result in otherwise friendly dogs exhibiting aggressive behaviour when put behind a gate, placed in a cage or crate, confined in a car, or restrained by a leash.
  • It is essential for dog owners to recognize the signs of frustration-elicited aggression and take appropriate steps to address and manage this behaviour.
  • Understanding the triggers that cause frustration in a dog and implementing strategies to reduce these triggers can help prevent aggressive outbursts.

Pain-Induced Aggression

Even the most gentle and friendly dogs can exhibit aggressive behaviour when experiencing pain. This is why it is crucial to exercise caution when handling an injured or unwell dog, regardless of whether it is your own pet or not. A dog suffering from a painful orthopaedic condition, an infection, or any other ailment may react aggressively with minimal warning, even when the intention is to provide care or treatment.

The improper use of certain training equipment, such as pinch (or prong) collars and shock collars, can cause pain in a dog and trigger a pain-induced aggressive response towards the owner or handler. It is essential for dog owners to be aware of the potential for pain-induced aggression and choose training methods and equipment that prioritise the dog’s comfort and well-being.

To manage and prevent pain-induced aggression, dog owners should be vigilant about their pet’s health, behaviour and dog body language. Regular veterinary check-ups can help identify and address health issues that may cause pain and discomfort. If a dog exhibits signs of pain or aggressive behaviour, it is important to consult a veterinarian for a thorough examination and appropriate treatment.

Additionally, when handling a dog in pain, it is important to approach the situation with patience, care, and sensitivity to minimise the risk of an aggressive response.

Understanding and Addressing Pain-Induced Aggression

  • Even gentle and friendly dogs can exhibit aggressive behaviour when experiencing pain.
  • It is crucial to exercise caution when handling an injured or unwell dog, regardless of whether it is your own pet or not.
  • A dog suffering from a painful orthopaedic condition, an infection, or any other ailment may react aggressively with minimal warning, even when the intention is to provide care or treatment.
  • Improper use of certain training equipment, such as pinch (or prong) collars and shock collars, can cause pain in a dog and trigger a pain-induced aggressive response towards the owner or handler.
  • Dog owners should be aware of the potential for pain-induced aggression and choose training methods and equipment that prioritise the dog’s comfort and well-being.
  • To manage and prevent pain-induced aggression, dog owners should be vigilant about their pet’s health and behaviour, and regularly consult with a veterinarian for check-ups.
  • If a dog exhibits signs of pain or aggressive behaviour, it is important to consult a veterinarian for a thorough examination and appropriate treatment.
  • When handling a dog in pain, it is important to approach the situation with patience, care, and sensitivity to minimise the risk of an aggressive response.
Understanding Fear Aggression in Dogs

Predatory Aggression in Dogs

Predatory aggression in dogs is a natural behaviour rooted in their instinctual hunting drive. Unlike other forms of aggression, predatory aggression is typically silent and swift, often mistaken for playful chasing behaviour. This type of aggression is generally directed towards smaller animals and, in some cases, moving objects. It’s crucial for dog owners to recognize and manage predatory aggression to ensure the safety of other pets and wildlife.

Understanding and managing predatory aggression is critical for preventing potentially dangerous situations and ensuring the safety of both the dog and potential prey animals. Environmental control might involve leash-walking in areas with potential prey and secure fencing to prevent chasing.

The predatory motor sequence in dogs encompasses a series of instinctual behaviours:

  • Eye: Focusing attention on the prey.
  • Orientate: Positioning the body towards the prey.
  • Stalk: Engaging in slow, stealthy movements towards the prey.
  • Chase: Actively pursuing the prey.
  • Catch: Capturing the prey.
  • Kill: Subduing the prey.
  • Dissect: Tearing apart the prey for consumption.

Understanding and Addressing Predatory Aggression

  • Predatory aggression is rooted in the natural hunting instinct of dogs.
  • It often manifests as silent and swift behavior, usually directed towards smaller animals or moving objects.
  • Triggered by the movement of small animals or fast-moving objects like joggers, bicycles, or cars.
  • Recognizing and managing this behavior is crucial for the safety of other animals and the surrounding environment.
  • Training methods include strong recall commands and impulse control exercises.
  • Environmental control involves leash-walking in high-prey areas and secure fencing.
  • Key to preventing dangerous situations and ensuring the safety of both dogs and potential prey.

Products That Can Help With Dog Aggression

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Basket Muzzle: Ensuring Secure and Comfortable Control

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Additional Resources

If you found this blog interesting, you may want to checkout our podcast with Jim Crosby, an expert on dog aggression and forensics. Jim runs an amazing course via IAABC called The Forensics of Aggression: Working With and Evaluating Canine Aggression. Jim boasts a wealth of canine behavioural training and expertise, and is a globally renowned authority and court-approved expert on dog attacks and canine aggression. Jim specialises in the investigation of dog bite-related fatalities, with a focus on the evidentiary and behavioural factors involved in these cases.

Safety and Professional Advice

If you notice that your dog is displaying aggressive behaviour, it is essential that you seek the help of a qualified and experienced professional.

Aggression in dogs can have various underlying causes, and it is crucial to identify the root cause to develop a successful treatment plan. Attempting to handle the situation on your own or ignoring it can lead to further escalation of the behaviour and potentially dangerous situations.

Therefore, it is important to seek the guidance of a professional, such as a veterinarian or a certified dog behaviourist, who can assess your dog’s behaviour and provide you with effective and appropriate advice. Remember, safety of family members should always be a top priority when dealing with aggressive behaviour in dogs.

Recognizing the Need for Professional Help

  • Importance of Early Intervention: Emphasising the significance of addressing aggressive behaviour as soon as it is noticed.
  • Expert Assessment and Diagnosis: Discussing the value of having a professional assess and identify the specific type of aggression and its causes.

Understanding the Complexity of Canine Aggression

  • Diverse Causes of Aggression: Exploring the various reasons behind aggressive behaviour in dogs, including medical issues, fear, territoriality, and past trauma.
  • Risk of Escalation: Highlighting how improper handling of aggression can lead to worsening behaviour and increased risks.

Seeking Qualified Professionals

  • Role of Veterinarians and Behaviourists: Detailing how veterinarians can rule out medical causes and how behaviourists can develop behaviour modification plans.
  • Importance of Accreditation and Experience: Advising on the importance of seeking help from accredited, experienced professionals in the field of canine behaviour.

Implementing a Treatment Plan

  • Tailored Behaviour Modification: Discussing how professionals develop individualised plans based on the dog’s specific needs and triggers.
  • Involvement and Consistency: Emphasizing the owner’s role in consistently implementing the prescribed behaviour modification techniques.

Prioritizing Safety

  • Ensuring Family and Community Safety: Offering guidance on how to manage aggressive dogs to protect family members and the community.
  • Emergency Measures: Discussing immediate steps to take in case of an aggressive outburst to ensure safety.

Long-Term Management and Monitoring

  • Importance of Follow-up: Stating the need for regular consultations with the professional to monitor progress and make necessary adjustments.
  • Education and Awareness: Encouraging owners to educate themselves about canine behaviour and aggression to better understand and manage their pets.

Decisions on Neutering Anxious, Fearful or Aggressive Dogs

When addressing aggression in dogs, particularly those displaying anxiety or fear-related behaviours, the decision to neuter, especially through chemical means, requires careful consideration.

Chemical castration, as a reversible alternative to surgical neutering, can offer insights into how hormonal changes might influence a dog’s behavior. However, it’s important to understand that while it may aid in managing certain types of aggression, it could also potentially affect anxiety levels.

To explore this complex relationship further and evaluate the suitability of this method for your dog, refer to our in-depth discussion on Chemical Castration in Dogs. This resource offers a comprehensive view on the nuances of chemical castration, ensuring you make a well-informed decision that prioritizes your dog’s wellbeing and behavioural health.

Aggression in Dogs Summary

Aggression in dogs is a multifaceted behavior that can be harmful to humans and animals. This article provides an in-depth analysis of various types of aggression in dogs, their triggers, and strategies for management and prevention.

1. Owner-Directed Aggression: This aggression manifests as growling, snarling, snapping, or biting, often triggered by threats, anxiety, or resource defense. A reinforcement loop can exacerbate this, where successful aggressive acts increase future aggression likelihood.

2. Fear Aggression: This results from inadequate socialization or traumatic experiences, leading to aggression when a flight response is not possible. This is driven by the sympathetic nervous system, triggering a fight/flight response.

3. Possessive Aggression (Resource Guarding): Dogs instinctively protect possessions, food, or resting areas, displaying defensive aggression to prevent others from accessing these resources.

4. Redirected Aggression: Occurs when a dog’s aggression towards a target is interrupted and redirected to another individual or animal, often observed in dog fight interventions.

5. Frustration-Elicited Aggression: This arises when a dog, excited or aroused by a stimulus, is prevented from interacting with it, leading to aggressive responses towards restraining elements like leashes or collars.

6. Pain-Induced Aggression: Even gentle dogs can exhibit aggression when in pain. Handling injured or unwell dogs requires caution, as they may react aggressively with minimal warning.

Effective management and prevention strategies include:

  • Early Socialisation and Training: Crucial for reducing aggression risk.
  • Consistent Training and Environment Management: Helps establish trust and predictability.
  • Professional Consultation: Recommended for unclear aggression causes.
  • Managing Dog’s Environment: Minimizes aggressive incidents.
  • Understanding Fear and Pain Responses: Key to addressing fear and pain-induced aggression.
  • Caution in Handling Aggressive Dogs: Especially in situations of redirected or frustration-elicited aggression.

FAQ on Aggression in Dogs

What causes aggression in Romanian rescue dogs?

Aggression in Romanian rescue dogs can often stem from past traumas or insufficient early socialisation. Each dog is unique, and understanding their background is essential to address this issue properly.

What is the ladder of aggression in dogs?

The ladder of aggression in dogs represents a series of escalating behaviours that a dog might show, starting from subtle signs and leading up to overt aggression. Recognizing early steps can help prevent aggressive incidents.

How can I stop food aggression in dogs?

Food aggression in dogs can be mitigated by using positive reinforcement techniques, ensuring the dog feels safe during feeding times, and gradually desensitizing them to the presence of humans and other pets while eating.

What is redirected aggression in dogs?

Redirected aggression occurs when a dog, unable to act on its primary source of frustration, turns its aggression towards another target. For example, if two dogs are separated by a fence and can’t reach each other, one might turn and snap at its owner instead.

Are there aggressive dog trainers near me?

If you’re looking for aggressive dog trainers or behaviorists, consider checking local directories or asking for recommendations at your vet clinic. Many trainers specialize in dealing with aggressive behaviors.

I came across an aggressive dog crossword clue; what could it be?

A common 3-letter crossword clue for an aggressive dog might be “cur.”

Where can I find aggressive dog rescue organizations?

Aggressive dog rescue organizations specialise in rehabilitating and rehoming dogs with behavioural challenges. Searching online or asking at local shelters can provide information on such organizations near you.

What are the best dog muzzles for aggressive dogs?

The best dog muzzle for aggressive dogs is one that fits comfortably, allows the dog to breathe and drink, but prevents biting. Brands vary, so it’s essential to find one that’s suited to your dog’s size and shape. Basket muzzles are a favourite!

My French Bulldog shows aggression towards other dogs. Is this common?

While French Bulldogs are known for their friendly nature, individual dogs can show aggression, especially if they haven’t been socialized properly or have had negative experiences with other dogs.

How can I report an aggressive dog in the UK?

In the UK, if you need to report an aggressive dog, you can contact your local council’s dog warden service. They will take the necessary steps to investigate the matter.

Will vets euthanise an aggressive dog?

A vet may consider euthanising an aggressive dog as a last resort, especially if the dog is aggressive, poses a significant threat and all behavioural interventions have failed. However, many vets will recommend seeking a professional behaviourist’s help before making such a decision.

How can I prevent dog aggression towards cats?

Introducing dogs and cats slowly, under controlled conditions, and using positive reinforcement can help reduce inter-species aggression. It’s also essential to ensure both pets have safe spaces where they can retreat.

Learn more on this topic

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“Understanding Canine Behavior: A Guide for Dog Owners” is an essential resource for dog owners who wish to develop a deeper comprehension of their furry companion’s behaviour. As a dog guardian, it is natural to want your pet to be healthy, happy, and well-behaved. However, canine behaviour can often be puzzling or even problematic. It is easy to forget that we share our homes with a predator species and that our dogs must adapt to our world more than we must adapt to theirs.

This guide offers valuable insights and strategies to help dog owners improve their understanding of their pets’ behaviour, ultimately leading to a more fulfilling and enjoyable relationship between dog and owner. This guide provides a comprehensive overview of dog behaviour, including how they communicate and learn, and the role of instincts. With this knowledge, dog owners can better understand why their pet behaves in certain ways and take steps to modify behaviour as needed.