Five Steps To Treating Dog Aggression

The safest and most effective way to treat an aggression problem is to implement behaviour modification under the guidance of a qualified professional. With the current financial climate being so hard on many, this article should get you started. 

Does your dog bark intensely, growl, snap, or bite? 

Aggression is one of the most common reasons dog owners seek the help of a behaviourist (or trainer but more about this late). It is not just large dogs and so-called “dangerous breeds” that are prone to aggression; any breed is capable of becoming aggressive. Although aggression cannot be fixed overnight, you can take steps to curb aggressive behaviour and help your dog remain calm.

6 Reasons Dogs Behave Aggressively?

Aggressive behaviour in a dog refers to any behaviour connected with becoming still and rigid, growling, snarling, baring teeth, lunging, and nipping or biting. The purpose and motivation behind these behaviours are to increase distance. 

You cannot design a plan to modify your dog’s behaviour until you understand its motivation. The most common types of dog aggression include:

1) Fear Aggression

  • The dog takes an offensive posture to increase the distance from the trigger (e.g., human or dog). In short, the dog takes an attack-is-the-best-defence approach.
  • This aggression can also be directed at inanimate objects (e.g., vacuum cleaners, skateboards, scooters, bicycles and cars in motion.
  • Fear aggression can simultaneously present with avoidance behaviours (i.e., the dog tries to escape from the trigger) and aggressive behaviours.

2) Territorial Aggression

  • Aggression directed toward humans or other dogs in the dog’s perceived “territory”.
  • Dogs presenting with this type of aggression can sometimes show few signs of aggression outside of their “territory”.
  • The intensity of the aggression can be significant.
  • The dog’s “territory” is typically the inside of their home but frequently extends to the area surrounding their home.

3) Idiopathic Aggression

  • An unpredictable type of aggression because the triggers are not known or understood. The word “idiopathic” means “relating to or denoting any disease or condition that arises spontaneously or for unknown cause”.
  • This type of aggression can be very dangerous, including sudden and severe outbursts with little to no warning. Owners describe seeing their dog’s eyes as being glazed.
  • It often has a neurological origin.

4) Prey Aggression

  • The behaviours associated with this type of aggression are associated with the pursuit of prey animals.
  • Prey aggression toward humans is extremely rare.

5) Resource Guarding Aggression

  • Dogs use aggressive behaviours to keep other dogs and humans away from their food, treats, toys, space, owners and other dogs.
  • It is arguable that the dog is fearful of losing a valued resource, thus making it fear-based.
  • This type of aggression is particularly susceptible to escalation and often has an underlying pain issue motivating it.

6) Redirected Aggression

  • The dog might become aggressive toward a person who attempts to break up a dog fight. 
  • It may also happen when the dog cannot reach the trigger, like another dog across the street.


7 Signs That Your Dog May Become Aggressive

Any dog can become aggressive, and it is essential to observe a pattern of warning signs, like:

  1. Growling and snapping
  2. A rigid body and quickly wagging tail
  3. Lip licking or yawning
  4. Averting gaze
  5. Raised fur
  6. Cowering and tail tucking
  7. Seeing whites of the eyes

These warning signs indicate anxiety or fear.

Five Steps to Treating Aggression

Make a note of when your dog shows these behaviours and the circumstances surrounding the behaviour. It is essential to deal with the underlying cause of the aggression. The behaviour is just a symptom of an underlying problem. There are several ways you can manage the behaviours and help your dog remain calm. It will take time, consistency, and possibly the help of a professional.

1. See Your Veterinarian

Dogs that are not ordinarily aggressive but suddenly develop aggressive behaviours might have an underlying medical problem. Talk to your veterinarian to determine whether this is the case with your dog. Pain treatment or medication may make significant improvements in your dog’s behaviour. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they know your dog’s health history and can make the best recommendations for your pet.

2. Create a Plan

You will often use counterconditioning to teach your dog that the thing they fear is a good thing. For example, if your dog is mildly aggressive toward strangers, start by standing far away from someone your dog does not know. It would be best if you were far enough away that your dog does not need to growl or lunge. Then, reward with lots of treats and praise as you gradually decrease the distance between your dog and the stranger, continuing to observe your dog so you do not rush the process. This image shows a great technique called Engage and Disengage. Ideally, your dog will begin to learn that strangers equal treats, and you will see a reduction in its aggression. This exact procedure can work for getting your dog used to various situations.

3. Avoid Punishment

Punishing your dog for aggressive behaviour can escalate aggression. If you respond to a growling dog by hitting, yelling, or using another aversive method, the dog may feel the need to defend itself by biting you.

Punishment may also lead to your dog biting someone else without warning. For example, a dog that growls at children lets you know he is uncomfortable around them. If you punish a dog for growling, he may not warn you the next time he gets uncomfortable but may bite. Successfully punishing the growl is like taking a battery out of a smoke alarm; you will not get any warning, and the bite will be much more severe. 

4. Handle Unavoidable Situations

Finally, it would be best to consider whether your lifestyle allows you to stick with a plan. For instance, if you have a dog that acts aggressively toward children and you have kids, it is nearly impossible to avoid the situation that brings out the aggression. Stair gates, x-pens, and other barriers will be essential for safety. 

5. Call in a Professional

Aggression can be a severe problem, and if the behaviour is getting worse or not improving, you should not attempt to fix it on your own. A professional can help you determine what is causing your dog’s aggression and create a plan to manage it. If your vet has ruled out a medical problem, you have tried counter conditioning but still have problems; then it is time to call in a professional animal behaviourist.

To find a professional behaviourist, ask your veterinarian for a referral, or we cover the whole of the UK with our consultations. It would be best to find someone you connect with, so we recommend you search on the APBCCCAB or IAABC websites for reputable behaviourists under the Animal and Behaviour Training Council.


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Eryn Martyn-Godfrey

"I believe in Magic AND Science, so I make state-of-the-art Training Techniques SUPER accessible, to help pet guardians Hocus-Pocus their Crazy Dogs into Calm Canines." Eryn has been a Dog Behaviourist & Training Instructor since 2007, she is based in South East London UK.


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