The Keys To An Aggressive Dog

An aggressive dog has a reason for the behavior, find the trigger and you just might unlock your dog. Sure friendly dogs are fun and easy dogs. But what if you have a dog who’s not so friendly? What if your dog is aggressive? Is your dog an angry dog

Let’s look at this a bit deeper at these questions. 

an aggressive dog looks up in preparation to howling

*Update: June 7, 2024

Budget Tip: 

Yes, it is frustrating when you have an aggressive dog. But it can also be a huge liability for you if your dog should attack anyone else or another dog or animal. That's why you need to address the issue. It will make your relationship with your dog better. Your dog will feel better as well. It will probably mean a trip to the vet, dog trainer, or even animal behaviorist, but the outcome will be well worth it. Who wouldn't want to feel calm instead of on edge? Addressing your dog's aggression issue is being a good dog parent and it's definitely money spent wisely.

Signs of an aggressive dog

First, let’s look at the signs of an aggressive dog.

Body language signs of an aggressive dog are:

  • Stiff body
  • Pinned ears
  • Hair on the back erect
  • Stiff tail
  • Growling and showing teeth
  • Barking
  • Trying (or successfully) snipping or full-on biting

In this article, learn what your dog’s bark means. 

Scientists take on dog anger

I will be honest, there is some debate among scientists and the dog world about the capabilities of dogs and their emotions.

There are many scientists that believe dogs have the emotional abilities of a 2.5-year-old human. These emotions include joy, fear, anger, disgust, and, yes and love.

However, other scientists do not believe dogs can feel anger. They exert that behaviors exhibited such as growling, snapping, and barking are manifestations of other emotions like fear, frustration, disappointment, and annoyance.

Recently the question, “Does a growling dog feel anger?” was answered by the psychologist, Lisa Feldman-Barrett in her book on emotions. She addressed this question by stating, “The answer is almost certainly no. Dogs do not have the human emotion concepts necessary to construct an instance of anger.”

Why is a dog aggressive? Is an aggressive dog angry?

1. Territorial

Your dog can show aggression in defending his property. For example, he can see an intruder and immediately want that intruder to leave. Is territorial aggression anger? 

2. Possessive and Protective

If your dog is possessive or protective he may be aggressive over food, humans, toys, or pups. If your dog is aggressive over food or toys, you may want to look at what started this behavior, if you can. Was he denied or had to fight for food, toys, or human affection? If your dog is possessive or protective aggressive is he really angry? 

3. Fear

Your dog may have fear and show signs of aggression over being left behind scary noises, or even a scary person. Is fear aggression anger? 

4. Anxious

I know many dogs that don’t like going to the vet or being separated from a buddy or human and act aggressively in the “moment”. Is being anxious aggressive really anger?

5. Pain

a terrier dog barks in pain and appears to be an aggressive dog

Dogs are notorious for not handling the pain well. They can become very aggressive if they are in pain. Is pain aggression anger?

In this article, I talk about how to find the best veterinarian for you and your dog.

6. Frustration

Your dog may throw a fit of frustration if he doesn’t get what he wants.  For example, your dog might see a rabbit he wants to chase, but he can’t because he’s locked in the house. Since he doesn’t know what to do, he throws a fit, which appears as aggression.

Moreover, your dog may show aggression and frustration when he is being made to do something he does not like to do, such as walk on a leash. Some dogs will show aggression when on a leash and no other time.

Similarly, think of a toddler (especially in the “terrible twos”) who desperately does not want to go to bed. She’s being forced to do something she does not want to do. What happens? A fit of frustration. No, the child isn’t angry (really), but simply doesn’t know what else to do to express herself. As a result, her frustration is displayed as a tantrum.

Thus, back to the dog examples, is a dog that displays aggression frustration really angry? 

While you won’t always be able to know the answers to these questions, it’s a good practice to think about them. Even if it’s after an incident.

Science Factor For An Aggressive Dog

Finally, there is one last thing to consider with dog aggression. This is an interesting angle. While we typically think aggression is a learned or environmentally triggered behavior, science has been digging into the cells of it. 

Early Study on Aggressive Dogs

Several studies link the hormones testosterone and serotonin in aggressive dogs. This research has led to the current thought that by neutering male dogs levels of testosterone are better managed. 

Additionally, this research revealed that by managing the levels of serotonin,  aggression is reduced. As a result, some vets now prescribe selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These are the most common types of antidepressants.

Recent Study on Aggressive Dogs

A more recent study comes out of the University of Arizona, by Evan MacLean, an assistant professor of anthropology and director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center in the UA School of Anthropology. MacLean’s research shows that the dogs in the study who reacted aggressively all had a higher level of the hormone vasopressin. 

Furthermore, MacLean showed that oxytocin, the “love” hormone was higher in assistance (or service) dogs. These types of dogs need to be friendly and not show any aggression. This certainly does make sense. 

Dog Trainers and behaviorists take on dog anger

However, dog trainers and animal behaviorists will tell you something very different.

1. Other Emotions

Certified dog trainer and associate certified dog behavior consultant Nannette Morgan, says that the behaviors of an angry dog, including growling, snapping, and barking, are generally experienced only at the moment. However, she agrees with scientific analysis that these behaviors can also be indicative of a dog who is frustrated, fearful, annoyed, or disappointed.

2. Pain

Additionally, Morgan states that a dog who appears to be angry may instead be in pain. Dogs often have a difficult time expressing pain and it appears as anger. A painful strained muscle could cause your dog to growl, snap, or bark. He may need medical attention.

3. Change In Environment

Furthermore, some dog trainers, like Linda Case, dog trainer author of The Science Dog, suggest that a change to your dog’s environment may trigger an appearance of anger. This means what may seem like anger with barking, growling, or snapping, is actually fear, frustration, annoyance, or disappointment emotion. For example, there may be a new noise in your house that is causing your dog to be fearful.

Dog Aggression and Your Role 

Let’s explore one more possibility. Is your dog reacting to you?

There have been many studies that show dogs can detect their human emotions. In fact, one interesting study out by Brigham Young University by psychology professor, Ross Flom, showed that dogs do not trust owners that are visibly angry. This makes sense. Who wants to trust someone who’s angry?

Ways To Decrease Dog Aggression

In conclusion, MacLean said the takeaway from this study is that if you have an aggressive dog you can decrease his vasopressin (aggression level) and increase his oxytocin (friendliness level) simply by doing friendly dog-human interactions. These activities are good for you too.

In this post, I talk about how to bond with your dog, which will increase both you and your dog’s oxytocin levels.

Meanwhile, MacLean stated that he expects new pharmaceuticals will be available in the future to help manage both the vasopressin and oxytocin levels.

What if my dog is aggressive?

If you have an aggressive dog, check your local ordinances, codes, and laws. This is critical!

Specifically, the reason why this is critical information is that in many parts of this country, if your dog is being aggressive (or appears to be aggressive) and encounters police, it could end horribly. While lethal options are generally a last resort, you should know that at some point the police may have the legal right to shoot and kill your dog if they perceive it as aggressive. 

Liability Issue For Aggressive Dog Owners:

Aggressive dogs can be a liability if action is not taken. Not only is it a liability for the aggressive dog owner, but also for everyone and everything he encounters. If you have an aggressive dog, try to discover what is making him aggressive. To be honest, if the aggressive behavior has been ongoing for a while, you will need to seek help from a professional certified animal behaviorist.  

Lastly, if you cannot control your aggressive dog, and you are unwilling to seek help, please consider surrendering him to a no-kill shelter.

What if I encounter an aggressive dog?

a German shepherd lunges at a by-passer and appears to be an aggressive dog

You may be out on a walk or perhaps at the park and suddenly an aggressive dog jumps out growling and lunging. This is what you should do:

1. Remain calm

I know it’s not easy to be calm when a growling dog is lunging at you. However, dogs feed off your energy. Therefore, if you’re calm, it will be to your benefit. 

2. Avoid eye contact

Making eye contact is a sign of engagement with an aggressive dog. Do your best to avoid it. 

3. Try to keep yourself in a sideways position

Being sideways has a couple of benefits. First, it lessens the amount of area the dog has to grab (or bite). Secondly, it tells the aggressive dog you do not want to engage. 

4. Protect

Above all protect your face, chest, and throat. 

5. Distract

Give the dog something to distract or grab, like a purse, an empty sleeve of a sweatshirt, or a water bottle. Anything that’s not flesh is great!

6. Resist

IF you are bitten, resist the natural tendency to pull away. It will make the injury much worse. A bite to the thigh can be fatal! 

Specifically, while the dog is biting you, use your hands or feet to punch or kick the dog. Several dog trainers even recommends trying to lift the aggressive dog’s back end off the ground while the dog is locked in a bite.   

7. Walk away

 If you don’t engage, sometimes the dog will give up and you can walk away slowly. 

 8. Call

 Once you’ve gotten away from the dog wrap your wounds and call for help.

For this reason, if you run, jog, hike, or are exposed to areas where you think you may encounter an aggressive dog, I also highly recommend pepper spray. However, make sure it’s permitted in your area. Moreover, make sure you know how to use it and always spray it at your intended target. While pepper spray will disable the dog long enough to allow you to get away safely, it won’t permanently hurt it. 

Be prepared in case you should encounter an aggressive dog – a personal experience

You can encounter an aggressive dog anywhere at any time. You should be prepared. 

I have a few experiences with aggressive dogs. Perhaps the most fitting one for this article is from a couple of years ago.

Specifically, I was at an on-leash park with my pup. As we were going around a corner suddenly a large dog bolted out of nowhere barking, growling, hair raised, and lunging for my little 14+ lb dog, Henry.

However, in the blink of an eye, I grabbed Henry like Spiderman by his harness, velcroed him to my chest, pulled my arms in as tight as possible, and turned my back to the growling dog. I kept turning at an angle with every lunge the dog made. Thus, he couldn’t reach any part of me or Henry.  Although it felt like an eternity, in reality, it was only about 30 seconds.  While this doesn’t seem long, it is when you’re in the heat of such a situation. Finally, the dog’s owner came leisurely strolling along the path and said, “Oh that’s where he went.” 

Review of my action to this dog attack:

In this case, I was calm and just reacted out of instinct. Later, I researched what I should’ve done and I did fairly well. 

Analysis: Was the aggressive dog angry?

Although, in looking back, I’ve thought was that aggressive dog angry? Probably not. If I were to guess I would say he was not well socially trained and his response to any place he went was that it was his. He was acting out of possessive aggression. However, that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a dangerous situation. It was very dangerous! It could’ve ended badly. I’m grateful it didn’t. 

End result of the dog attack:

As a result, I now carry pepper spray, even at the park. It’s allowed in my area.

a white husky mix dog barks in a protective manner and appears to be an aggressive dog

Related articles:

Summary is your dog aggressive or angry?

What is an aggressive dog? The signs of an aggressive dog include a stiff body, pinned ears, hair raised on the back, stiff tail, growling, barking, and trying to bite. 

Some of the triggers for an aggressive dog can be related to issues such as territory, possessions, fear, anxiousness, pain, and frustration. 

However, a more interesting aspect of what is an aggressive dog is the scientific look. Research has shown that the hormones testosterone, serotonin, vasopressin, and oxytocin all are linked in aggressive dogs. Managing all these hormones is important in helping an aggressive dog. This can include improving the human-dog relationship, which increases oxytocin. 

It’s important to know that aggressive dogs can be a liability. If the aggression has been ongoing, then seeking a professional certified animal behaviorist for help is highly recommended.  

Remember to always be prepared if you should encounter an aggressive dog. Don’t forget it’s important to remain calm and not engage the dog. I now carry pepper spray and recommend it, if it’s allowed in your area. 

an aggressive dog takes a defensive posture and barks at what seems scary

Do you have an aggressive dog? Do you know why? Share your experiences. 

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About Terri Rodefer

Terri Rodefer is the founder of Tail Wag Wisdom, a blog focused on affordable pet care. She likes to say helping pet parents afford and love their animals even more, makes her tail wag. As a lifelong lover of all animals with a background in economics, biology, and marketing, allows Terri to bring a unique spin to pet care. 

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