Aggression is something of a dirty word when it comes to dogs, and aggressive behaviours are something that many dog owners don’t know how to handle. Compounding the problem, the idea of admitting that one’s own dog might be aggressive to another person is something that can be very daunting, even if that other person is a professional who might be able to help resolve the problem.
Whilst aggression can of course be a big problem, the vision of a snarling, slobbering attack dog that many people conjure up when thinking about an aggressive dog is usually a long way from the everyday reality.
Unless your dog has never growled, patrolled your fence line barking, or snarled at another dog who was going to far in the dog park, your dog has displayed aggression – and appropriate, moderated aggression is a normal emotion and response to certain situations that is natural, and that evolved to help dogs to survive and thrive.
Aggression comes in a wide range of different types and forms too, depending on the situation and the dog’s reaction to it. Being able to pinpoint what type of aggression your dog displays and what triggers it is the key to determining whether it is appropriate and acceptable, or the sign of a worsening problem.
In this article we will look at some of the main forms of aggression that dogs might exhibit. Read on to learn more.
Defensive aggression is perhaps the most common type of aggression dogs display, and this is aggression exhibited in response to a perceived threat. A dog that is unsettled or feels threatened will generally try to escape from the situation by backing off, but if they are unable to do this, they may display defensive aggression as part of the dog’s innate fight or flight response.
Defensive aggression can usually be defused quickly by removing the source of the perceived threat, or removing the dog themselves from the threat.
Fear aggression has a lot in common with defensive aggression, but it tends to provoke a more acute response. As is the case with defensive aggression, a frightened dog will usually try to flee if possible, only resorting to aggression if they feel unable to do this.
A dog that becomes aggressive when afraid can be quite daunting, and won’t have as much control over their reactions as one that is displaying defensive aggression.
Most dogs are somewhat territorial, but some are much more so than others. Territorial aggression may manifest if your dog perceives a threat to what they consider to be their home or territory. This is usually restricted to the parameters of the dog’s own home and garden, although this is not always the case.
Territorial aggression is designed to deter people or other dogs from trespassing (even if they are invited guests)! And is unlikely to escalate as long as the threat retreats or the dog’s owner commands them to stand down.
Resource guarding is a type of aggression that dogs might display over their toys, food, or even family members. This is the dog’s way of securing and keeping the things that they value, and ensuring that they don’t lose them.
It is wise to train your dog to accept having their toys taken from them, and not to become pushy or snappy over food and other resources, and to learn to recognise signs of resource guarding in their early stages so that they can be addressed.
Barrier frustration-aggression is a type of aggression that can occur if your dog is restricted or prevented from doing something or going somewhere to the point that they become wound up and frustrated, and lash out. You might witness this if your dog is on the lead or otherwise confined and they spot something that they want to chase after.
Redirected aggression can result from barrier frustration-aggression, but it can also occur within other situations too. Redirected aggression occurs when a dog cannot reach the target that has generated an aggressive response, and they instead lash out at whoever or whatever is closest to them. This might occur if you are trying to drag your dog away from a fight with another dog, or if your dog is contained and very wound up and you try to intervene.
Protective aggression is one of the most innate, primitive drives displayed by a nursing dam around her litter – and if threatened, she might literally fight to the death to defend her young. This type of protective aggression is sometimes called maternal aggression, and is usually the most acute type of protective aggression you will witness.
However, dogs may also display protective aggression around their human family too, particularly children that they have formed strong bonds with.
Prey drive isn’t strictly a form of aggression so much as it is a natural reaction that dogs evolved to enable them to get food, but the end result for the prey in question is the same regardless.
Prey drive and prey aggression are what your dog might display if they spot a cat and aren’t trained not to react to cats, or if you own a sighthound like a greyhound, it is also the incentive that drives them to pursue rabbits and other small prey animals.
Ritualised aggression might be displayed in a wide range of different situations, including many of those we have already outlined above. Ritualised aggression is a type of threat display that a dog uses to deter a potential threat or to influence another dog or person to moderate their behaviour and back off. It is the dog’s way of warning the other party that they might get hurt if they carry on – but a dog displaying ritualised aggression won’t escalate the situation unless they have to.
Medically induced aggression may be caused by a health condition, hormone imbalance, injury, accident, or as the side effect of certain medications. This type of aggression requires no outwards trigger or situation to develop, and may occur at random or seemingly at random.
Rage syndrome in dogs (most commonly cocker spaniels, although it is still incredibly rare even within this breed) is an example of medically induced aggression. Medically induced aggression can be very dangerous as without an external cause, it cannot be prevented or diffused.
However, tackling the health condition, medication issue or medical problem that is causing this type of aggression (where possible) should resolve the issue.
Any type of aggression can potentially escalate to become uncontrolled in certain situations, to the point that the dog launches a full out defence or attack with no moderation or inhibition, or the ability to show any level of control over their actions and responses. This type of aggression is highly uncommon and rarely happens without warning, other than in unusual cases such as presentations of medical rage syndrome in dogs.
Trying to intervene with a dog who is exhibiting uncontrolled aggression is highly likely to result in an injury to yourself, and potentially, a very serious one. A dog that has displayed uncontrolled aggression once, regardless of the situation, must have the issue addressed, through either assessment and correction of the root cause in the case of a health condition, or intensive training and behaviour modification (which often requires working with a professional canine behaviourist).
It is not always possible to fully rehabilitate a dog that has exhibited uncontrolled aggression, and such aggression should always be treated with the appropriate gravitas and concern, as it can be very dangerous.