Is My Dog Aggressive?

Nope. Probably not.

By Heather Vo

Dog behavior can be complex and without training or experience, it can be difficult to understand your dog’s language. I often hear the term “aggressive” used to label many dog behaviors, and more often than not, the “aggressive” dog is just misunderstood. Likely, your dog is trying to tell you something and you aren't receiving the message. Let’s dissect two common cases where owners misclassify aggression.

I feel trapped...

You’re walking your dog and he starts barking. Next thing you know, he’s lunging and growling toward the person and dog on the other side of the street. You try to get out of there as quickly as possible but still hear the other person call your dog aggressive as you are walking the other way. Now you’re thinking, “This can’t be happening. My dog is aggressive!” But is he?

To answer this question, we have to dig a little deeper and understand where your dog is coming from - how he’s feeling.

We’ve all watched a show or movie that has given us all the same nightmare: You’re walking down the street and notice someone following you out of the corner of your eye. You quickly duck into a dark alley to try to get away and... BAM! There’s a dead end. You’re trapped. The person following you rounds the corner and you’re stuck. You think to yourself, is he here to take your wallet? To let you know you have toilet paper stuck on your shoe? You don’t want to find out and start yelling that you’ve called the police and they’re on their way. If the person gets any closer, you’re ready to fight.

This is the scenario your dog goes through when they’re scared coming across another dog on a walk. A strange dog rounds the corner and... BAM! They are trapped by the leash. Your dog makes a decision to bark to try to get the other dog and person to go away. If they don’t, your dog might make the decision to fight. Does this make your dog aggressive or does it make him scared and fueled by the instinctual fight-or-flight response?

Aggression or possession?

There might be some of you thinking, “My dog is fine on a leash around other people and dogs. But when I try to take something away from him, he turns into Cujo! Is he aggressive?” Good question! Let’s think about it from our dog’s point of view and see how he might be feeling.

Think back to when you were a kid, shopping with your mom in a store. Your mom told you the infamous, “Don’t touch anything.” You’re a kid so what do you do? Touch and pick up everything. What does your mom do? If she was anything like mine, she would continuously snatch whatever you picked up and put it back on the shelf. After a while, you start playing a game of “keepaway” because you want to look at what you found just a little bit longer. Soon it turns into frustration and anger. You say to yourself, “I’m not breaking it, stop taking everything away from me!”

Is this all starting to sound familiar? This is the same scenario your dog experiences while taking away toys or food! So does this make your dog aggressive or does this make him frustrated and angry that you keep taking things from him without giving him anything in return?

If it's not aggression, what can we do?

By now you are probably feeling relieved and thinking, “Whew! Maybe my dog isn’t aggressive. Maybe he’s just scared or frustrated. But what do I do?” Your best bet is to contact a qualified dog behavior consultant. You can find a reputable one in your area by searching the IAABC Behavior Consultant Locator.

Why a behavior consultant? Certified Dog Behavior Consultants have gone through a rigorous application process and need to have a solid understanding of the science of behavior, learning theory, and how to apply their knowledge to help owners change their dog’s behavior. A behavior consultant will be able to help you understand your dog’s body language, which will tell you how your dog is feeling. They will be able to help you work with your veterinarian or refer you to a veterinary behaviorist to make sure any medical reasons for your dog’s behavior are addressed. They will be able to provide a behavior modification plan to help change your dog’s feelings and teach your dog coping skills and alternative behaviors. They will use methods backed by the latest science in the field to make sure your dog is getting the best plan possible, all tailored to your dog's needs.

Want to learn more about behavior consultants? Animal Behavior Consulting 101 Part 1: What is an Animal Behavior Consultant?

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