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Archive for Aggression

In Home Dog Training: Aggression


The Good

The good news is that the three most common forms of aggression in pet dogs are also the three easiest types of aggression to resolve! They are: 1) on-leash reactivity, 2) resource guarding, and 3) handling issues.

If you think about these three issues, they actually make a lot of sense and are things that people do as well – which means it’s a normal, survival behavior. Let’s take them one at a time and see if we can normalize them a bit.

On-leash reactivity. Actually, this is the one behavior we don’t see a lot in humans, but maybe that’s because we are rarely confined in the ways that dogs are. On-leash reactivity is when your dog reacts to other dogs, or sometimes people (we’re just going to refer to dogs, but everything applies equally to people), when they are on leash. The reactivity comes from the fight or flight response—when a dog is on leash, he only has one option, and that’s fight. If he were off leash and unsure about the approaching dog, he would normally move away and avoid any possible problems. But when he’s on leash, this option is not available to him, so he opts for the “best defense is a good offense” tactic.

Another type of on-leash reactivity is about simple excitement. The dog is excited about seeing dogs, but isn’t able to greet them in a normal fashion, so a combination of excitement and lack of impulse control results in obnoxious leash behavior.

Regardless of the origin of the behavior (fear or excitement), a knowledgeable dog trainer (with in home dog training experience) can help you get the behavior under control.

Resource guarding. Now this is absolutely a behavior humans engage in. Parents are very familiar with the constant refrain to their small children, “you have to share.” They are teaching their kids that they can’t hoard and never share their toys. It is perfectly normal to protect your stuff—we wouldn’t survive if we didn’t. Dogs are no different; they protect their food, their toys, their beds, their owners, and on and on. Again, normal behavior—but it can be problematic.

Handling. Another common behavior in all species. None of us like people grabbing, touching, and physically manipulating us without our permission. In fact, in our human society, it can be criminal behavior—even if no harm comes from it. Our body is our most precious and valuable property, and having others manhandle us is not pleasant. We don’t really even like it when we do give permission—think of some of the indignities we suffer at the hands of doctors, personal trainers, and beauticians. Eek!

So, it’s normal behavior in dogs, as well. Most dogs do not like having their mouth, feet, tail, or genital areas handled. If a dog has been well-socialized, they tolerate it, but that doesn’t mean they like it. For dogs with less socialization, it can be intolerable and they may act aggressively when touched in what they consider an inappropriate manner.

Another thing to keep in mind is that resource guarding and handling issues often go hand-in-hand. If your dog is a resource guarder, it’s not at all unusual for him to also have problems with handling—and vice versa.

The Bad

On-leash reactivity. Unfortunately, when a dog reacts aggressively on leash, owners often think they have “an aggressive” dog–and they never let their dog interact with other dogs. This couldn’t be further from the truth—most dogs that react on leash are not aggressive and simply need to learn an alternative way to behave. Unfortunately, these dogs never get to meet and play with other dogs, and their behavior tends to get worse. So, proper in home dog training requires that the dog spend time out of the home as well.

Resource guarding. Some households can manage this behavior. If you are a single adult, you know the triggers, and can set up the environment to work around the behavior, everything’s good. But, if you have kids or elderly parents in the house, it can be much more dangerous. Other animals will usually learn to adjust, but I have known of serious altercations and even death resulting from guarding behavior.

Handling. As with resource guarding, if the owner is aware of the problem and able to work around it, there’s no problem. But again, children and the elderly are at risk. Additionally, strangers (including family friends and relatives that don’t live with the dog) and other animal professionals such as vets and groomers are at risk with this behavior. Of course, vets and groomers see this behavior all the time, but they usually handle it by restraining the dog, which makes the dog all the more convinced that he doesn’t like being handled!

The Ugly

On-leash reactivity. As with most undesired behaviors, if it isn’t addressed, it gets worse! And on-leash reactivity is no different. If the behavior is aggression (rather than excitement), this means the aggression becomes worse and this can sometimes result in injury to the owner. The frustration from the aggression and unfulfilled needs can result in what dog trainers call “redirected aggression.” Redirected aggression is when the dog, in his frenzy, attacks the nearest moving object—that can be you, the other family dog, the cat, or even a stranger walking by. This is when things really do become a problem. You now have a dog that has bitten, and that can never be reversed.

Resource guarding. As with any behavior, if allowed to happen, it will get worse. Most dogs have specific things they guard, but some dogs will generalize their guarding behavior and begin guarding more and more items. This leads to unpredictability and dangerous situations. I’ve known of people who let their dogs sleep on their bed, get up during the night, then can’t get back in their bed because the dog is guarding it. I’ve known of couples that can’t show affection because the dog is guarding one of them. And it just goes on.

Handling. Again, this is very similar to resource guarding. If the behavior is allowed to happen, it will get worse. These types of problems don’t resolve themselves. As long as people who interact with the dog are aware, it can be managed, but it’s rare for a dog to never encounter an unaware stranger. And all too often, that stranger assumes that dogs love to be petted.


In summation, these are normal behaviors, survival behaviors, and shouldn’t be considered aberrations. But, the good news is that all of these behaviors can be successfully worked with, so if you have a dog with one or more of these problems, consult a professional who does comprehensive in home dog training!

Susan Smith, CPDT-KA, is a dog trainer in San Tan Valley, AZ, specializing in pet dog training—from obedience behaviors to serious problems such as aggression. She can be contacted at sue@raisingcanine.com.