Canine Aggression/Reactivity

When it comes to aggression and reactivity in Canines, it is important to distinguish what form we are dealing with. These behaviors come in several forms, and range in intensity. With any behavior modification, however, the handler/owner must be dedicated to the solution. Consistency and motivation will be key in correcting and/or managing these behaviors. Without consistency, there will be no success.

Some examples of forms of reactivity and aggression that are most likely to improve include, food and toy aggression/possessiveness, fear reactivity/aggression, lifestyle reactivity/envronmental, leash reactivity, protective behaviors, pain related aggression, and under socialization. All of that said, a dedicated owner, and a knowledgeable trainer are an important part of this equation, as well as patience.

The main form of aggression that is not easily improved, and sometimes impossible to improve, is genetically driven aggression. Some dogs are wired to be more aggressive toward small animals, dogs, or humans. This comes from how they have been bred, fro what purpose they were bred. With breeds prone to genetic aggressiveness, it is best to work with them on training techniques to curb this behavior from day one, as puppies. With proper training, many cases of genetic aggression can be MANAGED, but this should not be mistaken with these behaviors being trained away. These dogs are still inherently dangerous, based on their genetic make up.

These behaviors are difficult to correct, but in most cases not impossible. Patience, dedication, and a knowledge of the form of aggressive/reactive behavior being displayed are key to the success of both handler and dog. If you are expecting a quick fix, you will not be successful, and the dog is being set up to fail from the beginning.

One reason aggressive and/or reactive behavior is harder to train and manage, is because every dog has a different trigger for their behavior. It is also difficult, because aggression/reactivity give the dog a self reward system, and built in safety net (Think Fight or Flight Scenario). This motivation can be used to the owner/handler’s advantage when working with dogs with these behaviors, however.

In the majority of “aggression” cases, the dog is actually fearful. Due to a lack of human animal bonding, and the general public’s misunderstanding of canine body language this is often overlooked as aggression, rather than reactivity, due to fear. One huge mistakes many owners make is to be more dominant toward the dog, thus asserting who is in charge. This, in most cases, causes a bigger issue, and does more harm than good. Take, for an example, a dog who is fearful of men in hats. This dog may growl and cower when they see men in hats, or they may even bark. Let us then add to this, by having a man in a hate asserting a dominant behavior onto the dog to correct this fear reactivity. This will further build fear in the dog, and may cause the dog to begin to lunge at or bite men in hats, rather than just growl. It is also important to keep in mind that a dog will not bite when a growl will do, so never over correct a growl. We will save that for another Blog, though.

Now to further discuss how reactive/aggressive dogs create their own reward system. When a fearful dog, for example growls at someone, and they react by backing away or disengaging with said dog, this creates a reward to the dog. This goes back to how dogs learn. Just like in clicker training, when the dog sit, the owner/handler clicked and the dog was given a treat. Well, in this circumstance, removal of uncomfortable stimulus is the reward for the dog. This said in the majority of cases, approaching the dog anyway is not going to fix the problem, so we have to take a different, safer approach.

Most reactive and/or aggressive dogs will require assessment by a professional dog trainer, and/or behavior specialist. If a behavioral problem is outside of the realm of a dog trainer, they may refer you to a licenced/certified canine behaviorist for further evaluation and retraining/management.

Some important things to keep in mind to keep yourself safe, and others, while also seeking out a trainer and/or behaviorist (dependent on individual case), are watching for warning signs of aggressive or reactive behavior. Some of these include:

  • Growling
  • Snarling
  • Raised Hackles
  • Wide Eyes/Whites Showing
  • Ears Back
  • Cowering/backing up
  • Stiffened Body Posture/Erect Tail
  • Avoiding Eye Contact
  • Fixated (keeping direct unwavering eye contact on something specific while in a stiffened posture)

While alone these signals may not necessarily mean aggression the more that are paired togetehr the more likely chance of aggressive behavior such as biting, lunging, or attacking you or another animal. If the dog is showing warning signs of being uncomfortable and possibly reactive, or signs they are about to be aggressive, respect the dogs boundaries, and if possible deescalate the situation by removing the dog fro the environment causing the reaction.

If you are dealing with an unpredictable dog that shows little to know warning signs (or rather they are subtle and you do not notice them), it may be best to muzzle the dog for safety reasons, and keep the dog on a long line (a long training leash), even in the house. The best muzzles for extended wear are basket type muzzles that allow breathing normally.

Another thing to be aware of is the possibility that your dog is in pain. If the dog has only recently become reactive or aggressive, and you have not seen a veterinarian to rule out a possible health reason for his/her actions, it may be time to make an appointment to get Fido checked out. Dogs are very stoic and in many cases do not show pains, especially in traditional human forms. So, if your dog is in pain, he/she may be “grumpy” to say the least.

Some dogs are simply high energy, and without proper exercise and enrichment, they will display signs of reactivity, and even possibly aggression. Make sure the dog is getting plenty of exercise, especially if you do not have a back yard fro them to play in. Take them for regular walks, and engage them in play. Playing with your dog is very important to his/her mental health.

Dogs, like children also crave learning, and structure. So, if your dog does not have any formal obedience training, he may be acting out. This could appear as aggression, but merely be boredom and reactivity. Give your dog a job, and teach him how to be a good citizen. This may not fix the problem, if it is true aggression, or another form of reactivity, but it will strengthen the human animal bond you and your dog have. It is also a form of enrichment, and, as such, is mentally stimulating for him/her.

Lastly, some dogs have never been properly socialized with other dogs, other animals, other humans, etcetera. In these cases remedial Socialization may be needed. Remedial socialization involves socializing a dog, with little socialization as a puppy. Play with other dogs, when appropriate can be part of remedial socialization, however it must be in a very controlled environment and done carefully. You would use dogs that would help build the under socialized dog’s confidence and create positive experiences, only. The other dogs would need to be highly socialized, happy dogs, and carefully evaluated and chosen. If using play sessions, it is important to start short, as not to overwhelm the under socialized dog, as well.

There are many different factors, some not even discussed, that can lead to a reactive and or aggressive dog. As stated above, the important thing, is pin pointing these triggers, and reasons for the dogs behavior, and working to modify this behavior. This is best achieved using a professional dog trainer, and in extreme cases a specialized behaviorist. In order to discuss every aspect of both reactivity, and aggression, we would be here all day (probably all week), but this should give those reading a basic overview of reactivity/aggression, and how to move forward if you have a dog in one of these situations

Thanks for reading and Happy Trails


Written by:

Nickie Leonard CVT, CDT

Contact us today if you need help with your reactive/aggresisve dog. We will set up a consult and evaluate your dogs behavior and decide on a plan of action, or if needed refer you to a licensed/certified Canine Behavior Specialist


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