Aggressive behaviour in dogs

Your dog has a personality completely unique to them – and like all dogs, they have different moods ranging from joyful to scared. However, if your dog is aggressive, you should address it as soon as possible.
Huskies play fighting
Huskies play fighting
Huskies play fighting

Of course you want the best for your pet, and it probably isn’t your fault that your dog is aggressive – there could be many causes. First of all, consult your veterinary surgeon about your aggressive dog. Your vet will conduct a full examination to see if there is a medical reason for your dog’s aggression, such as pain or a neurological disorder.

If no physical explanation or treatment can be found, the vet may refer you to a professional behaviourist for help. Take a look at your pet insurance policy - some will cover these fees for your added peace of mind.

Why is dog aggression a bad thing?

Although taking your dog to see the vet or behaviourist might seem worrying, you should never attempt to treat your dog’s aggression yourself, or ignore it and hope it will go away.

If your dog’s aggression is not tackled quickly and appropriately, the problem can escalate rapidly and may result in serious injury to yourself and your family, other people or other animals, and even legal issues - of course, you want to get help for your dog before it gets this far!

Why is my dog aggressive?

Dogs are always aggressive for a reason, and a properly qualified behaviourist will get to the heart of why your dog is acting in this way. Aggression in dogs often involves fear, and it is a strategy that helps dogs to defend themselves from what they see as threats to themselves or their resources.

This could be due to inadequate early socialisation, past experiences, or the perception that valuable resources, such as food, bed, and toys are under threat of being taken away by you, someone else, or another dog. Since fear is the most common cause of aggressive behaviour, you should never punish your dog for growling or any other display of aggression.

Shouting at a dog for growling at something he is fearful of will simply compound his fear and his aggressive response will worsen next time.

Two dogs playing outside

What should I do if my dog is aggressive?

Is your dog growling? Growling is their way of communicating their disquiet, and it’s a warning that they will attack if the situation does not change. If your dog feels punished for growling, they may stop doing so in the future, but move straight to the next level which is attack.

Your dog’s natural growling response is useful if you learn to listen to them. You can act immediately on this warning to ensure the safety of others by diffusing the situation. First, remove the source of your dog’s irritation. If he is growling because he doesn’t like someone approaching him when he is eating, for example, then make sure he is fed in a room on his own until you can seek professional advice.

If he growls when approached by a child, immediately remove the child and avoid encounters with children while you are seeking a referral to a behaviourist. Never take chances with anyone’s safety, especially not with children or elderly people – it’s better safe than sorry!

What treatment is there if my dog is aggressive?

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The good news is that if you seek the right help early, there is often lots that can be done to tackle dog aggression and make your dog calmer, more relaxed, and safer around other people and dogs. The best way to treat your dog is to seek help at the first sign of any problems.

Professional behaviourists can get to work on these problems and the chance of a successful outcome is greatly increased if the behaviour is addressed early and treated.

How can I manage an aggressive dog?

The first part of managing your dog’s behaviour is to think about the safety of yourself and others. If your dog is aggressive to people when outside, or to other dogs on walks, keep them on a lead and muzzled outdoors.

If you cannot control your dog on a lead you should not take them out in public. This might increase your dog’s frustration, but safety comes first: instead, exercise and play with your dog in a secure garden. They can work energy off, and you’ll continue bonding in safety until a behaviourist can help you.

Aggression can also occur inside the home. If your dog is aggressive to visitors, make sure you secure your dog in the garden, a kennel, or a secure room before you open the door or greet guests in. If there is aggression between dogs in your home, keep them in separate rooms and walk and feed them individually until you get some professional help.

Not all dogs are destined to be the best of friends - your dog might show aggression towards other dogs, no matter if they’re related or not. If a fight does break out between two dogs, NEVER attempt to separate them with your hands - in the confusion, you could be seriously bitten. Your own safety should come first, so keep a good distance away, as it is possible for your dog to redirect their aggression towards you.

Dog fights often sound and look worse than they are, and the dogs will ultimately separate of their own accord. But if the fight is showing no sign of stopping and you can intervene with no risk to yourself, then try to distract them, perhaps by ringing the door bell, throwing water at them, or making an unexpected loud noise such as clanging a metal pan with a wooden spoon. That brief second of startled surprise could give one of the dogs the chance to run away. If they are locked in battle, and, again, it is safe for you to do so, use a broom handle to prise them apart gently or at least to direct their bites onto the broom.

One of the most difficult cases of canine aggression to treat is fighting between female dogs in the house. Although most female dogs happily co-exist in the same home, sometimes they never see eye to eye and will squabble and then fight very seriously over just about anything - food, attention, sleeping arrangements and more.

This is why it is preferable, if you want two dogs, to have a male and a female, ideally of two entirely different breeds/types, and with a gap of at least a year between them. Two dogs of the same sex from the same litter can spell trouble for the future, as they will value the same things and have similar temperaments; this may make feisty competition inevitable for some.

For example, two Terriers are likely to both want the same squeaky toy and will have the same tenacious temperament when it comes to getting what they want!

Lastly, as you know, the most important consideration is safety: yours and others’. Seek professional advice at the first sign of any type of dog aggression, and, in the meantime, don’t take any risks with your canine companion. With a little professional work and understanding, they can be a part of normal life again.

The information contained in this article is not a substitute for individual veterinary or behavioural advice and is for information purposes only. You should always consult a veterinary surgeon if you have any concerns about your pet’s health. He or she will be able to take a complete medical history and physically examine your pet, to then recommend appropriate individual advice or treatment options. For detailed behavioural advice tailored specifically for your pet, we recommend that you contact a qualified pet behaviourist. For further details of local canine and feline behaviourists practising in your area and how they offer help for with problem pets, please contact The COAPE Association of Pet Behaviourists and Trainers. Do bear in mind that pet behaviourists will always require a referral from your veterinary surgeon.

Dogs playing in snow
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If you’d like more information on your dog's behaviour or have any other queries, contact our PETCARE EXPERT TEAM.