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Is My Dog Aggressive?

Dog aggression is a topic many owners never want to face. Perhaps your dog growls when they have a favorite toy or chew, maybe they are protective of their space or food bowl - in a worst case scenario they have reacted towards another person or dog. This is a reality that no owner ever wants to come to terms with, a question that no owner wants to ask themselves. If you believe your dog to be aggressive, the next question you usually have to ask yourself is why? If nurture vs. nature is to be adhered to, did you do something wrong? Have you failed your furbaby as a pet parent? Believe it or not, most trainers - at least most that truly understand dog psychology and canine behaviors - will jump to tell you that you likely did nothing wrong. Let’s break down aggression and find the root of the problem, answering your question of is your dog really aggressive? Or are they just being misheard?

How Do We Decide If A Dog Is Aggressive?

When dealing with a dog someone has categorized as “aggressive” it is important to note that, for trainers, this is an extremely broad spectrum term. The first thing any trainer will do is typically look at a few key points when deciding whether to label your dog as aggressive. We do not use that term lightly, and in the vast majority of cases, a dog labeled as aggressive is in reality - reactive. While those may seem like fully interchangeable words to you, in the training world those mean two very different things and while our approach to handling it may seem similar, knowing where a dog’s threshold comes from is

A dog showing its teeth

important when deciding how best to guide you as an owner.

The majority of dogs that trainers handle when addressing any form of aggression and behavior modification are what we categorize as fear reactive - meaning they are simply responding exponentially to a fear based trigger. What that trigger is will vary from dog-to-dog and can usually be pinpointed based on factors such as age, breed, and general demeanor. Likewise, certain events can cause trigger points - those events can be big or small, everything is about perspective!

Fear reactivity is usually the result of a dog that either hasn’t been exposed or hasn’t learned a coping mechanism for outside stressors. When that is the case, it is up to us as trainers and you as a dog parent to teach them appropriate responses and show them why their initial response of reacting is out-of-line. A reactive dog is NOT an aggressive dog! A reactive dog is a dog that is generally spiking into their fight or flight response and choosing to fight for a plethora of reasons. This does not mean that they are not a safety risk, it just means that teaching them to cope and respond and communicate appropriately is going to be the key in addressing whatever their trigger may be.

But What About Actual Aggression?

If a trainer, behaviorist, or vet have ruled out fear reactivity in a dog, it is then considered aggressive. However, that is still a fairly broad term for many reasons. Aggression is typically not generalized as one word and can actually be broken down into several different categories - a dog could have one or all of the types with varying degrees. Aggression is not black and white, it is a spectrum and within each category is a sliding scale of levels within them. A dog could be moderately Dog Aggressive, but mildly Same-Sex Aggressive - the scale moves depending on the situation and can be more likely in certain breeds than others. This does not mean a dog is unstable or unsafe, as long as you know what you are handling - you can understand how best to manage your situation and give your dog the best quality of life possible. Let’s take a look at the types and what they mean. 

A golden retriever showing it's teeth

Dog Aggression

Let’s get the elephant out of the room. Dog aggression is by definition, a dog who is aggressive towards other dogs. This does NOT mean that a dog will go out of its way to attack and harm another dog. A dog-aggressive dog is a dog that is simply intolerant of its space (personal, territorial, etc.) being invaded by another dog, especially one not correctly introduced to them. How broad that space is will depend on the individual dog and how much tolerance training you have put in. They are typically the type to hold their own when a perceived threat occurs with another dog. Some people will micro-categorize it as dog-selective as well, but both are considered forms of dog aggression. This does NOT make them bad dogs or poorly bred! Not every dog breed is a Golden Retriever or Chocolate Labrador who loves every other dog to approach them and can make friends with anyone, some are genetically prone to aggression because in their breed it is required. Many Livestock Guardian breeds or guard breeds such as the Great Pyrenees or American Akita are more prone to having some degree of dog aggression, because it is required to keep their herd safe or their homestead danger-free. 

Same-Sex Aggression

Within the same scope of canine-based aggression, we have same-sex aggression. The animal world is filled with competition - that competition will almost always come primarily from that of the same gender. Sharing territory, resources, or potential mates with another of the same gender will often provoke aggressive tendencies as two animals will fight to claim their space. To mate and pass on genetics one must eliminate the competition, they must ensure that they have the food and shelter to raise their offspring and get rid of anything that may harm them. With dogs, that mindset is no different - even if we aren’t in the wild. You as an owner count as a resource, and a very precious one. Many dogs do not want to share that, especially with another of the same gender. While almost every dog has same-sex aggression to some degree, being mindful that breeds with strong community traits and territorial boundaries such as a German Shepherd, Rottweiler, or Boxer are more prone to this disposition.

Animal Aggression

Often simplified as “prey drive” , animal aggression deals more with canine’s who like to chase or hunt wildlife. While seeming less severe or difficult than generalized dog aggression or same-sex aggression, it can be just as difficult to handle. Dogs do not tend to distinguish the difference between small prey, a rabbit and a housecat are the same in their book. While there are plenty of exceptions, and dogs who

A Jack Russell Terrier guarding its territory

hunt can and do live peacefully alongside cats and other small animals - this is not to be considered the general rule. Most, if not all, hunting breeds have some form of animal aggression alongside any sort of sighthound; breeding groups like Coonhounds, Terriers, and Greyhounds may do well with other dogs, but in the presence of a small, fast-moving animal, they become some of the biggest risks in a household. 

Human Aggression

A phrase no one typically wants to hear, and oftentimes a dealbreaker for any dog. Human aggression, much like dog aggression, does NOT mean dogs are setting out to go after other people. A dog with categorized human aggression is most often a dog with a degree of aloofness, often what people consider “one-person/family” types. These types of dogs like their people and tolerate others from a distance. They have clear boundaries and will typically give plenty of warning before acting on their aggression. It is extremely important that if you have a dog with human aggression, you advocate for your dog. It is not OK for a stranger to suddenly enter their space or try to pet them without your express permission - and it is not OK for you to set your dog up to fail and be labeled as dangerous. Much like the other categories - certain breeds are more prone to this. This is not a defect in the breed or in the lines being bred, because it also suits a function; breeds like the Doberman, Tibetan Mastiff, Chow Chow who are meant to protect their families at any cost from strangers are less likely to be that “loves everyone” type of dog who welcomes all of your friends into your home.

What Can I Do About Aggression?

If you still suspect your dog has aggression - and not fear-reactivity - the first thing you should do is contact your vet. It is good to rule out any neurological problems first before looking beyond. Ruling out idiopathic aggression (sometimes called rage syndrome, known in certain breeds like Springer Spaniels and Red Golden Retrievers), is a very important step in confronting your dog’s aggression. Idiopathic aggression can only be helped and alleviated by medical professionals, and only diagnosed by such as well.

After ruling out anything neurological, seeking a trainer, especially one who specializes in behavior modification, will be your next goal. You want a trainer who will understand what you are going through and understand why your dog isn’t behaving idealistically. Please understand, while trainers make excellent strides and can help with a lot of fear-reactive cases - true aggression (and even many fear cases) are managed, not cured. When you are fighting against trauma or genetics, creating safe routines and advocating for your dog are going to be your best friends. Finding a trainer who can give you those things will best set you up for success down the road and create a safe and healthy environment for you to still fully enjoy your dog, without living in constant fear. At Final Call Dog Training we strive to help you understand where your dog's reactions are coming from and work alongside you to help resolve and relieve you of the stress of living with a dog who may be categorized as “aggressive.” We believe aggression is not a bad word, and an aggressive dog is not a bad dog; creating a way forward for you and your dog in this world so that you both can live happy and healthy lives together.  

A doberman in a muzzle

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