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Aggression or Reactivity Toward People or Other Dogs

By Michele Welton, Dog Trainer, Breed Selection Consultant, Author of 15 Dog Books


german shepherd dog baring teeth

It can be frightening when a dog curls his lip, bares his teeth, growls, snarls, or bites.

Aggression is a complex behavioral issue with subtypes. For example:

  • territorial/possessive aggression – "This yard (toy, food, sofa, lap) is mine! Don't come near it!" I talk more about resource guarding  in other articles.
  • dominance-based aggression – "I'm  in charge! Don't you dare cross me." This type of aggression, directed toward people (could be toward strangers or family members), is less common than you might think. However, dominance-based aggression directed toward other dogs  is quite common.
  • predatory/pursuit-based aggression – occurs when a dog has powerful instincts to chase and grab things that move (cats, small dogs, sheep, birds, bicycles). Typically the ancestry of these dogs includes fighting breeds, herding breeds, or hunting breeds. Dogs with a strong prey instinct don't have any malice toward the things they pursue or kill. (But of course, we can't allow them to do this, whether instinctively or not!)
  • reactive aggression. A reactive  dog isn't truly territorial, possessive, dominant, or predatory. Instead he lives with a heightened sense of arousal where he overreacts to things in his environment that he misperceives as a threat. Reactive dogs are typically insecure, with a defensive mentality of "I'll get you  before you can get me."

Now, those subtypes sound well-delineated, but when dealing with living creatures, things are seldom so clearcut. Subtypes are somewhat fluid and dogs may be affected by any combination of them.

For example, I worked with a very difficult Australian Cattle Dog named Buck, who displayed dominant aggression toward other dogs, predatory aggression toward cats, territorial aggression toward strangers, and resource-based aggression (guarding food) from his own family.

Fortunately, most aggressive dogs aren't hard cases like Buck. In fact, most of the aggression issues I see are reactive. Is your dog reactive? Let's more closely at what that might look like.

Living with a reactive dog

Suppose you're out for a walk and your pup spots another dog or person.

He charges to the end of the leash, lunging and growling and barking fiercely. He looks pretty aggressive, doesn't he?

But if he suddenly found himself off-leash (I'm NOT suggesting you do that!), would he run over and bite the other dog or person?

Surprisingly, most dogs would not. This is one of the signs of a reactive dog – he puts up a great front, but is too insecure to follow through. Even if he did charge the other dog or person, he usually retreats if his target stands its ground.

two dogs staring at each other

Whereas a truly dominant dog who is serious about his aggression is supremely confident and will readily attack other dogs or other people.

Reactive dogs are typically anxious or frustrated, and they try to vent their anxiety or frustration with bursts of ferocity that are (mostly) bluff and bluster.

However, reactive dogs can bite if they feel pushed too far. But often they don't seem to realize they've done it until after the bite, and then they appear confused about what just happened.

Owners don't help these dogs by holding them on a tight leash, which only makes a dog feel more anxious and frustrated.

You always want your pup on a loose leash. When you need to use the leash to correct your pup, do it rapidly – pop  the leash – then loosen it again. We talked all about this when we covered leash training. If your pup is not responding to a normal buckle collar, switch to an alternative collar that does work.

jack russell terrier on a loose leash, very attentive to owner

I know it's stressful to go for a walk with a pup who acts aggressively toward other people or other dogs. You tense up whenever you see someone walking toward you.

The problem is, your dog can sense your anxiety and he thinks you're worried about that approaching person,  which makes him even more likely to bellow threats.

So it's important to work on controlling your own anxiety. Slow your breathing and relax your muscles.

Even more important, you need to put in place the proper leader-follower relationship at home. That means filling your puppy's daily life with structure and routines, requiring calmness indoors, consistently rewarding good behavior and correcting bad behavior, and controlling valued resources such as food, toys, and sleeping spots. See my training book

Proper leadership by itself can turn many reactive dogs around by relieving the dog's insecurity. Once he trusts his leader to handle and control everything in his life, a pup is more relaxed and less reactive.

What if a dog is aggressive toward his OWNER?

Terrier pupThis usually doesn't appear until maturity (1 to 3 years old), when a dog's hormones blossom.

But the seeds of that aggression were actually planted in the dog's formative months. You probably weren't aware of that at the time, but it was happening.

Dogs most likely to bite their owners are those who, as youngsters, were allowed to guard their food or toys, demand petting, sleep on beds and furniture, jump on people, pull you around on the leash, resist grooming, rush through doors and gates ahead of you, and other disrespectful behaviors.

As the months go by, this pup grows up with very little respect for you. You haven't earned it. So when he's bigger and older and you try to get him to do something he doesn't want to do, he resists, growls, or bites. And he fully believes that he is within his rights to do so. After all, who are you to tell him what to do? You haven't earned his respect.

Dealing with aggression or reactivity issues

Everything suggested here is covered more comprehensively in my training book.

  • Keep the dog's leash on indoors. Dogs behaving poorly have not earned the privilege of freedom in your house. Either let the leash drag (when you're monitoring) or attach it to your waist so the pup must follow you around. Both physically and psychologically, this helps establish you as the leader and him as the follower.
  • Insist upon calmness indoors no barking, jumping, chasing, rough play, vigorous games, or racing around, indoors.
  • Several times a day, practice a quick (1-minute) program of words your pup knows. Again, this is good for building a proper leader-follower dynamic.
  • At least once a day, go for a short structured walk. You might need an alternative collar.
  • At least once a day, require your pup to stay quietly on a comfy dog bed (this is the Place  command) for an hour or two. Reactive dogs must learn how to relax and do absolutely nothing.
  • Follow a consistent leadership-based routine for mealtimes. Have him Sit before the food goes down. Don't allow him in the room where family members are eating. And not a single morsel of food from the table.
  • Limit toys. They should be a privilege, not a right.
  • Keep the pup out of your bedroom. Not just off the bed – out of the bedroom entirely. He should sleep in a crate in another room. And no getting up on the furniture unless you invite him up and send him down..
  • StaffordshireRandomly have the pup go into his crate and stay there for a short time until you let him out. Reactive dogs need to learn calmness and relaxation.
  • Require him to Sit  before you give a treat. Make sure he takes the food gently from your hand. No grabbing.
  • Don't allow him to demand petting. You decide when to pet him, and not before having him do something (Sit  or Down  or Place).
  • Don't allow him to run through doors or gates – he must Wait  until you tell him he can go through.

And if you think this is safe to do without being bitten....

  • Teach the pup to accept handling all over his body.

Finally, learn the warning signs that a bite may be imminent.

People who have witnessed a biting incident often say, "It came out of nowhere!" But virtually all dogs do give warning. You just need to know what to look for.

Boston Great DaneOften these warning signs come over a period of time (could be minutes, days, or weeks), during which the dog becomes increasingly stressed by, for example, strangers petting him, or the excited mannerisms of a child. During these times, watch for these subtle signs that your pup is feeling stressed:

  • Yawning
  • Licking his lips
  • The base of the ears pulled backwards
  • Flicking his eyes back and forth between you and the person/thing that's worrying him
  • A worried or unhappy or wary expression on the dog's face
  • Closing his mouth and holding it closed and tense, whereas it had previously been open and relaxed
  • Panting (when he's not hot! or tired!)
  • Freezing in place, his body rigidly still
  • Turning his head away from the thing that's stressing him (as though hoping that if he can't see it, it will go away)

On the other hand, dogs who are possessive of their food bowl or a toy typically show different signs that a bite might be coming.

They might hover their head low over the object, their front legs splayed out on either side of it, claiming and protecting it. The rest of their body is tense and rigid. These are strong signs that a bite is coming within a few seconds unless you back off.

DO NOT work with an aggressive dog yourself if you have any concerns. Be realistic – is your aggressive pup only 6 months old, or 16 months old? Is he a Mini Poodle, or a Rottweiler? Is he just growling, or has he actually punctured someone's skin? If you're worried, get professional help from a local trainer.

If you do want to try yourself, my book covertraining program is for puppies 2 to 18 months old. It explains, step by step:

  • How to establish good patterns and routines that govern everything your pup does.
  • How to teach your pup to be calm and to look to you for guidance, direction, and permission.
  • How to make yourself important  – the most important thing – in your puppy's life. How to show your pup the clear, black-and-white rules and routines he is to follow. And how to make sure he does.

Michele Welton with BuffyAbout the author: Michele Welton has over 40 years of experience as a Dog Trainer, Dog Breed Consultant, and founder of three Dog Training Centers. An expert researcher and author of 15 books about dogs, she loves helping people choose, train, and care for their dogs.


To help you train and care for your dog

dog training videos Dog training videos. Sometimes it's easier to train your puppy (or adult dog) when you can see the correct training techniques in action.

The problem is that most dog training videos on the internet are worthless, because they use the wrong training method. I recommend these dog training videos that are based on respect and leadership.

book coverRespect Training For Puppies: 30 seconds to a calm, polite, well-behaved puppy. For puppies 2 to 18 months old. Your puppy will learn the 21 skills that all family dogs need to know.
If your dog is over 18 months, you'll want book coverRespect Training For Adult Dogs: 30 seconds to a calm, polite, well-behaved dog. Again your dog will learn the 21 skills that all family dogs need to know.
book coverTeach Your Dog 100 English Words is a unique Vocabulary and Respect Training Program that will teach your adult dog to listen to you and do what you say.
book cover11 Things You Must Do Right To Keep Your Dog Healthy and Happy helps your dog live a longer, healthier life.
book coverDog Quest: Find The Dog Of Your Dreams will help you find a good-tempered, healthy family companion.