Most of the time that dogs behave aggressively, they are motivated by fear or another upsetting or distressing emotion. Barking, growling, and lunging are ways to say “you don’t want to mess with me,” which really isn’t that different from dogs who try to say “you don’t need to mess with me” by cowering and trying to look small.
So, when we think about how to handle aggression in our own dogs or those we meet out and about, it’s important to keep in mind that the dog is most likely scared or upset.
What does aggression look like?
The following chart, created by Lili Chin for Grisha Stewart, does a great job of showing the variation in behavior as a dog goes from relaxed to noticing something scary to acting aggressively.
How to handle aggression in dogs
In the moment
Get space: As soon as you realize that a dog is acting aggressively or looks like they are on their way to doing so, get them space from what’s bothering them. If it’s you, walk away. If it’s someone or something else, guide your dog away.
Never punish, scold, or confront: Do not yell at, hit, or otherwise confront an aggressive dog. There are many reasons this is a bad idea:
- You may push the dog into biting when they feel like the threat has increased.
- You’ll make the situation that much scarier and more stressful for the dog, increasing the odds of fear-based aggression the next time they are in a similar situation.
- You will remove their safe communication tools. As unpleasant as they are, barking, growling, and teeth baring are all safe ways for a dog to say that they need space. It’s much harder to predict and prevent biting without these clear warning signs.
Be calm and non-threatening: Even if you can’t get away immediately, turn your body to the side, soften your posture, don’t look directly at the dog, and speak softly and slowly. It may take a real effort to keep the tension out of your voice, but do your best.
Watch for warning signs
Many times when people say dogs acted aggressively “out of nowhere,” what really happened is that the people missed the early signs that the dog was feeling uncomfortable and wanted space. Ideally, you spot those early signs, and help the dog feel safe using the tips above before they feel the need to bark, lunge, or growl.
Avoid the situation
While we’re taught to believe that avoiding problems isn’t a good approach, it’s actually the right thing to do in this situation for two reasons. First, it helps reduce your and your dog’s stress in your daily life. Second, it’s a critical first step in training your dog to respond differently in the future. It’s very hard to teach them a new emotional and behavioral response to a situation if they keep practicing their old habit.
Training to change the way your dog feels
It is possible to help your dog feel better about situations that currently cause them enough fear or distress to act aggressively. Working with a certified trainer or veterinary behaviorist in your area is the best way to do that. Since fear and aggression are more complicated and risky issues, look for a trainer who has experience in those areas and who plans to use desensitization and counterconditioning. Avoid trainers who use e-collars or talk about respect or dominance.