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Aggressive Displays

When your dog behaves in a way that you think might be aggressive, it's time to seek help.  When an animal of mine behaves this way, the first thing I think about (and ensure) is safety for everyone in the house.  There are many kinds of aggression, and there are many kinds of displays. First, we'll look at the types of aggression, then we'll look at display levels to determine how to approach teaching.

In order to figure out how to deal with or manage aggressive behavior, you have to figure out what aggression really is... what constitutes aggression?  Everyone seems to have their own idea of what defines aggression... I think that aggression is any behavior that tells you that there is a readiness to confront or attack another, but it also depends on whether or not you KNOW the animal.  A growl can be ALOT scarier coming from an unknown stray, than coming from your 5-year-old that you've had since puppyhood.


I was taught that there are three kinds of canine aggression:


  1. Dog - human (this is self-explanatory… if the dog bites an upright being with 2 legs, this is most likely the category).

  2. Dog - dog (this usually refers to 2 dogs of the same household or size, unless the size disparity is pretty significant.  If a St. Bernard bites a Pomeranian, I’d term it predation… if a Pomeranian bites a St. Bernard, I’d term it dog-dog aggression).

  3. Dog - other animal (predation)  Dogs have inherent drives that make them act like dogs… in all honesty, it doesn’t matter if the dog was raised with the bunny (or duck, or rat, or whatever).  If the dog has access to the smaller being, you have to be aware that predation can occur (predation is the killing by one living organism of another for food).)  Even if the killing animal has just eaten, these drives can overcome for just that instant necessary to do enough damage that this damage can be life threatening.  It doesn’t matter if the dog eats the other animal, or not… predation includes that whole range of behaviors up to and including eating the carcass.


Growling: without any other menacing behaviors (showing teeth, staring, snapping) I would call this a warning (the human equivalent would be yelling “stop that!  It really bugs me!!”  Tory will growl at the cats to let them know when they’re near to crossing the line… I redirect the cats, and reward Tory.  Rewarding her does 2 things: 1) Rewarding defuses the situation, redirecting Tory; and 2) it helps to ensure that this behavior will be offered again.  Why do I want a growl offered again?  Because there’s nothing scarier than a dog that will bite without that warning growl.


Note: there are lots of breeds that are considered to be more vocal than others, and there are also some that are considered to be LESS vocal (so they’re less likely to give a warning growl).  Your job, as your dog’s owner/guardian, is to learn where your dog lies on that axis… if you have a Rottie, or a Siberian Husky, you need to know that these dogs ‘talk’… you’ll have to really understand your dog’s body language to know if s/he’s warning you, or just complaining in general about her lot in life, or if that cat really has used his 8th life up.  Don’t just train away the growl… that’s your dog’s only way of telling/warning you.  Learn to understand what those noises mean, and give your dog another way of communicating with you.  I reward an animal for complaining TO ME rather than handling things on their own.  If they growl where you can hear it, they're giving you the opportunity to handle matters.

Remember: when a dog growls, REWARD it.  Then, train for that situation, so that your dog understands what to do in that situation, should it occur again.  A dog that gets up and goes to his crate when the kids are bugging him is worth everything in the refrigerator... so, reward the HELL out of him.



For your own understanding of the situation, you need to know that there are “levels” of bites, when it comes to dog-human interaction.  Level 1 bites are just growls, but with the added menacing behavior that means that you’re closer to contact than you really want to be… showing teeth, staring, freezing or stiffening behaviors, with or without piloerection (the hair standing up on the nape and back).  Level 1 does NOT refer to that dog who growls with his head laying on his paws, sometimes not even opening his eyes.  Level 2 means that they’ve put their mouth on you, but left just spit.


Per Dr. Ian Dunbar:

Level 1: Growls, shows teeth, barks, stares, snaps, no contact (Human equivalent; argument or warning)

Level 2: Single bite, saliva, no puncture (Human equivalent; push/shove)

Level 3: Single bite,1 to 4 punctures, 1/2 as deep or less as dog's canine (Human equivalent; assault, punch)

Level 4: Single bite,1 to 4 punctures, greater than 1/2 as deep as dog's canine or shakes, there will be bruising evident within 2 days for very hard bites (Human equivalent; assault with bodily harm)

Level 5: Multiple bites, greater than 1/2 as deep as dog's canine or shakes. Mauling. (Human equivalent; same)

Level 6: Fatality (Human equivalent; same)


So, now you have to decide what you’re comfortable doing, so far as the dog and situation are concerned.  I understand where you’re at, here, because I’ve had to make these decisions myself.  If it was just ME living here, there would really be no decision.  I can do this, and I know I can.  I used to tell clients that ‘you don’t have to worry about me getting hurt… I’m a big fan of having arms and legs, and I like where God put them.  I won’t do anything that puts me or your dog at risk.’  But, I always have other animals here that need protection, and my husband lives here too… he really doesn’t have a clue what to do with aggression, so I have to consider him in my particular mix as well.  You likely have similar scenarios that you have to consider, too.  That’s your job; Do It.  No one can tell you what to do.  I can act as a sounding board if you need one.


Bites in Levels 1 & 2 show good bite inhibition, especially if they’ve never had any actual instruction in this (some breeds, like the retrievers, have an inherent bite inhibition – it’s what they’re bred for), and especially if this scenario has happened more than once.  These dogs are very salvageable, and I wouldn’t have any anxiety about working with an average owner with one of these, if the owner is committed to the tasks inherent.  There dogs are also very adoptable, because the average owner won't have to do much more than the average amount of training or teaching with these dogs.  Even with kids in the home, or other animals, there are management options available that will ensure the safety of everyone involved, if the owner is committed.  Read the articles on Management… they’ll help you understand what’s involved in providing safety for all concerned.

In those scenarios where a Level 3 or 4 bite was inflicted, things change.  I have to look at the bite history: over the dog’s lifetime, how many bites were inflicted?  Were they all involving the same person?  Were all bites at this same level, or did they start out as Level 1 or 2, and progress to this level?  Is the dog in a rescue situation, or are they already in their permanent home?  The answer to this question is important too... these dogs should only go to homes where there aren't any kids, and where the owner knows what's at stake, and has some knowledge of management and training, among other considerations. Note that when I say 'home' in this instance, I mean Permanent Home, not foster home.

Dogs aggress for the same reasons that humans aggress: Stress.  And, sadly, there is no situation more stressful than rescue for a dog.  Be careful.

Bites in Levels 5 & 6 are much more grievous in nature... involving another animal, and taking the bite history into consideration, it becomes a matter of whether or not you can manage things to the point where no one's safety is compromised... my Zoe fell into this category, when she bit Clarence, inflicting a Level 5 bite to Clarence's hip.  This was her only bite, but I knew what I was dealing with, and I managed The hell out of the remainder of her life.   I had her canine teeth capped at great expense, but of course that only served to ensure that she couldn't poke holes in him (or anyone else, though she'd never bitten anyone else).  She could still inflict a crush injury, and her size meant that a crush injury would be very bad... so, the management protocol was the strictest possible.  My home was cut in half with half-doors, and Zoe and Clarence were never again allowed to come face-to-face... we lived for 2 years like this; all the other animals could be with either dog.


My thoughts on aggressive behavior:


With the exception of predation, I think that animals aggress for the same reasons that humans do… I think that stress levels are the basis for most bites, just as stress causes humans to act out of character in most instances.  I actively teach conflict resolution, which is just a fancy way of saying that I try to give my animals another way of responding when they don’t like something (like going to the crate to get away from what's bugging them).  Some animals will reach that ‘breaking point’ quicker than others, for a lot of reasons, and sometimes the stressor is just something that can't be foreseen or mitigated with exercises.  My job is to make sure that they don’t reach the point where trust is sacrificed… so I actively teach them that I pay attention to what they tell me. 

Tory came into my home as a rescue at a time when I didn't have any other dogs in my home.  I had always taken my dogs to the nursing home where I work as a nurse, and allowed them to interact pretty much at will with the staff and residents there... they always seemed to enjoy themselves, and I was always vigilant in watching for any behavior that might signal otherwise.  Tory was different, though... I took her in the 'quiet side' of the building, where there isn't a lot of activity, and walked her through with lots of Really Good treats for just being there.  At one point, a nurse bent down to say hi to her, and she showed her teeth... as surprised as I was, I just responded "let's go", and rewarded her heavily as we left the building.  I never took her back into the building... she waits in the car for me if I have to stop by for some reason, but I feel that she showed me her limits, and I was thankful that those limits didn't involve stitches.

In discussing possible ways to teach Tory to 'be happy' in the situation above, it's important to talk about the Changed Emotional Response... in a situation like this, the CER can be used to teach an animal/being to be either neutral (meaning that they just tolerate or ignore the object of their emotional response), or these exercises can be used to teach said animal to be Incredibly Happy to be around this object of the emotional response... there are a lot of variables to consider, though, and one of the biggest is legal liability.  What happens if, during the exercises (which would take place in a facility full off potential sources of the emotional response) something truly frightens the animal (Tory).   At this point, trust is sacrificed, and the dog is put into a situation where they might have to defend themselves.

My personal feeling about the situation above is that teaching Tory to accept the situation above would put her and the residents and staff in danger... there are just too many variables that would have to be controlled in a situation like that for me to be comfortable exposing anyone (including Tory) to the stress involved.  If I can't control what stressors are introduced into a situation (and when, and how), then I can't control what Tory might learn... that's not a good learning environment.


In order to provide a desirable learning environment, you have to be able to control 

1. the dog;

2. any humans or other animals that might enter the environment, especially in the beginning or the exercises, when the teaching involves showing the dog how to perform a set of behaviors 'in this situation'.

3. Those humans' or animals' responses to the dog, and his to them;

4. The big goal is to teach the dog that he can rely on you to control what happens in this situation.

There is no way to control the environment or the beings IN the environment in a situation like the one above... this isn't a reasonable learning environment.

As another example, I can easily trim Achmed’s nails if my husband helps by feeding him tiny amounts of Squeeze Cheese.  Achmed stands on the breakfast bar, my husband mans the Squeeze Cheese.  It takes about 5 minutes to do the nails on all 4 feet.  I would be lucky to do 1 foot without the Squeeze Cheese, and I would likely be the one bleeding when it was done... I've never tested this.  He will ‘pretend’ to bite me when I feel lucky enough to try it on my own, giving me the chance to get Johnny involved, before he just walks away.


Jean Donaldson has some excellent books on how to handle/manage aggressive behaviors; she talks about the ‘layering effect’ that can happen when stressors are combined in the environment.  For example, maybe Jelly has no problem with a 3 yr old boy in her house, and maybe she’ll just go lay behind the couch when there’s a thunderstorm, and maybe she’ll just ‘get a little growly’ when you stick your hand in her food bowl…. But if that 3 yr old sticks his hand in her food bowl during a thunderstorm, suddenly the 3 stressors ‘layer’, and a bite occurs.  You’ll learn a lot from Ms. Donaldson’s books on aggressive behaviors, and how to use desensitization techniques.

Just because it was mentioned above, I'll make a quick note about predation: predatory aggression is a completely different can of worms.  Predation isn't emotional; it's not based in fear.  There's no fight-or-flight, no desensitization work that will 'fix' situations involving smaller animals (and in some cases, even children).  Animals have certain drives and instincts that can't be just 'trained away'... you can provide activities to mitigate certain portions of the predatory sequence, but not to the point where you can SAFELY let the dog sit the pet bunny.  Not gonna happen.


See me if you have questions about what to do about a certain set of behaviors… aggression isn’t a simple problem, with a simple answer.  Just like humans, animals will often resort to the behavior that Gets The Job Done, but without ‘trying other things’ first.  So, if your dog (or cat) has learned that a bite will make you quit messing with his feet, then that’s likely going to be his first line of defense when someone reaches for his foot.  There are ways that you might be able to learn to manage this behavior, but it’s not something that can be guaranteed, and this type of grooming problem might take more than 1 person to achieve (like me with my Hubby, working on Achmed’s nails).


Brenda Rushman, CCBC




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