The Only Way to Calm an Aggressive Dog

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Aggressive behavior in dogs should always be taken seriously. This ranges from your dog being aggressive-reactive towards other people or dogs on a leash or protective over his food.

Leash reactivity and aggression remain among the most common dog problems that are presented to qualified dog trainers.

In this article, you’ll learn how to calm down an aggressive dog and how to handle situations in which a dog seems vicious.

Depending on the severity of the aggression and if your dog has a biting history, training might take a couple of months and won’t resolve on its own.

To form an appropriate reaction towards an aggressive dog, you will first have to be able to understand canine body language and the type of aggression your dog might be showing.

Aggressive Dog Body Language

An aggressive dog will show dominant and agonistic signals.

Signals can be more subtle or obvious depending on how much your dog feels threatened. The behaviors below all build up to an aggressive approach. Your dog might only show a few or all of these signals:

  • Increase in body size
  • Loud vocalization
  • Displacement
  • Growling
  • Snarling (bared teeth, retracted lips)
  • Erect body posture
  • Aggressive gape
  • Stalking
  • Head, neck, and ears are elevated
  • Stiff, raised tail

These behaviors display the initial phase of aggression.

When the threat becomes more intense the dog may show a lowered body posture similar to submissive body language to protect the throat during an attack. The hackles may be raised. Hair raised only on the shoulders and rump indicate fear instead of dominance.

The graphic below shows the typical signs of an agonistic aggressive dog:

Graphic explaining aggressive dog posture
Source: Modern Dog Magazine

Compared to a dog that is showing fear-aggression:

Graphic explaining fear-aggressive dog posture
Source: Leadchanges

Aggression due to fear and dominant aggression are both equally dangerous. Some dogs will also show a mixture of these two so it’s extremely important to educate yourself about subtle warnings.

Finding the Triggers

Now that you know what aggression looks like, you will need to find the triggers for your dog’s behavior.

Write down every situation in which your dog shows any aggressive signs. Note the surroundings, people involved, sounds, and smells.

This will also give you an insight into the type of aggression your dog is having which will be important to prevent future confrontations with these triggers.

Medical Reasons

Before your dog can be diagnosed with aggression, you should get him properly examined by the vet to exclude any medical issues that might cause aggression.

A dog that is in pain will growl at anyone trying to touch him. While this could include surface wounds, other medical issues or joint diseases will often cause much more pain and aggression.

Dog on Dog Aggression

For some dogs, the mere sight of another canine might trigger inter-dog aggression.

He might be lunging, growling and snapping at other dogs paired with a submissive or dominant body posture.

Dog on dog aggression is a result of a lack of socialization or trauma that might have occurred in his past.

A false reaction of the owner in certain situations might also trigger aggression.

The training goal will be to counter-condition your dog to another behavior that he should be showing toward other dogs.

Instead of lunging or growing, he should lay down or sit quietly. This conditioning will take time and a gradual approach where you avoid sudden confrontations with the trigger.

Fear Induced Aggression

Fear induced aggression can be directed towards humans as well as other animals. A fearful dog shows a tucked tail, ears laid back and a crouched position.

  • Fear and anxiety can occur earlier in a dog’s life with early signs by the age of 8 weeks
  • Dominance aggression manifests after reaching social maturity (12-18 months old)

Fear is commonly triggered by a stranger approaching a leashed dog or a person suddenly reaching for the dog.

Owners that have been living with this type of aggression usually tighten up and project stress and anxiety onto the dog.

Desensitization and building up your dog’s confidence will eventually resolve the aggression. If you want to learn more about this type of aggression continue on reading and check out this guide for more information.

Territorial Aggression

A dog that is very territorial will show plenty of agonistic, defensive and offensive signals when strangers or animals approach the property. Territorial dogs don’t have to be aggressive but rather alert and wary toward strangers.

Uncontrollable aggression will result in injury if a person enters the property or fenced area. You might see the aggressive dog jumping on windows, doors or in a fenced yard trying to scare off the intruder.

Restrainment with a leash, for example, might lead to displacement or redirected behavior towards objects, animals or people, including the owner. The longer the person remains within the territory, the more aggressive the dog becomes.

Conditioning your dog to associate the arrival of guests with something positive will eventually stop the aggression. Positive reinforcement training will be your best bet.

Possessive Aggression and Resource Guarding

Dogs can get possessive over objects, food and sometimes even people. Owners are startled when the dog suddenly growls at them when trying to put away a toy or walking by a filled bowl.

This type of aggression emerges from the early survival instinct of guarding resources and often results in food aggression.

Refer to my blog post on how to stop food aggression for the different training steps.

Calming an Aggressive Dog

Calming your aggressive dog starts with noticing the warning signs we have talked about above. By always paying close attention to your dog’s body posture, you can’t get surprised by sudden aggressive outbursts.

If your dog gets uncomfortable and walks away from you or another person, give him space and don’t make him feel cornered.

Avoid showing threatening behavior to an aggressive dog and follow these instructions:

  • Don’t lean over the dog
  • Avoid direct eye contact
  • Turn your body to the side
  • Don’t corner the dog

You also cannot act like prey so running away or slouching into a ball will only make it worse. If possible, slowly move away from the situation and maybe restrain your dog in a closed room until it’s safe.

The most important thing to remember is to always remain calm.

Startling a lunging dog with a loud scold may result in an attack. A calm demeanor testifies to strength and confidence, traits that will be respected by your dog.

Conquering aggression with aggression never works so you have to establish yourself as the ruling pack leader that communicates calm and nonthreatening behavior without backing down at the same time.

If your dog shows any signs of aggression on a leash, gently remove him from the trigger to build up the distance until your dog has calmed down.

Ignore your dog’s bad behavior and do not pet a dominant aggressive dog. I know you may think it’s comforting, but you’re actually rewarding his behavior.

If your dog is very fearful, massaging his pressure points will release stress and anxiety.

What to Do With an Aggressive Dog That Bites?

Severe cases of aggression with biting history should always be monitored by a dog trainer or veterinary behaviorist. A trainer will be able to provide you with a training plan and tips on how to correctly handle aggressive behavior.

Treatment for fear-induced aggressive dogs involves minimizing those situations that are most apt to induce fear. Desensitization paired with positive reinforcement work great on fearful dogs.

The trainer will be able to layout any stressors and classify your dog’s aggression into the following categories:

0 = growl/snap/stare, but no contact

  1. Snap touches skin/clothing but no injury to the victim
  2. Snap/bite leaving a red mark/bruise/torn clothing
  3. Single bite with puncture/large bruise/slash
  4. Multiple bites on the same occasion with punctures/bruising/slashes
  5. Disfiguring bite that removed a chunk of flesh or multiple severe bites on the same occasion
  6. Bite resulting in the death of the victim

Biting & Aggression Prevention

Prevention is the best way to stop any aggressive behavior that may result in a bite. If your dog has bitten before, putting a muzzle on him during the training phase will be mandatory.

Prevention starts early with the right socialization. Successfully desensitizing your dog to people, animals, places, sounds, and smells will prevent many behavior problems later on.

You can read my guide on early socialization and while the socialization period happens between 3-12 weeks of age, desensitizing an adult dog is definitely possible and advised.

Avoid any known triggers that your dog has like walking by a loud construction site. Keep distance to other dogs and people and always walk your dog on a short leash preferably with a muzzle on.

What Not to Do

If your aggressive dog has a dominance issue the following things should be avoided and prevented:

  • Never physically punish the dog, rather ignore or redirect the behavior
  • Do not give attention if solicited, play will only be engaged by you
  • Do not feed your dog from the table
  • Do not allow the dog on furniture if he is showing signs of possessiveness
  • Play should be calm, leave the room if it gets too rough
  • Do not suddenly reach for the dog but recall him instead
  • Do not disturb a sleeping dog
  • Do not lean over your dog or corner him
  • Do not turn your back or run away

It’s also extremely important to not punish growling or other warning signs.

Your dog will only learn that the warning is an issue and the next time he will bite first. Early signs are extremely important for communication and should not be punished.

Depending on the causes, neutering can help with aggression but neutering is never the sole solution to this problem.

Let me know in the comment if you were able to calm down an aggressive dog or what you struggled with.

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About Danielle

In love with dogs, their behavior and psychology. I am writing on this blog since February 2019 to provide you with valuable information on everything dogs. When I am not working on my blog, I study research articles and enjoy the time with my beloved Rottweiler Amalia.

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11 thoughts on “The Only Way to Calm an Aggressive Dog”

  1. I know plenty about pressure points in a human, but never even considered them in a dog, except maybe the paws. How silly of me. It’s cool, though, because I used to massage my cat’s neck exactly where this video shows when she was stressed out and she seemed to love it. I love a good neck massage too, so I figured it just felt good. Thanks for your great post! Very informative and worthwhile. Peace!

    Reply
    • Thank you for the nice comment, Jeanne! I was also very surprised about the massage points, I am not using them on my dog from time to time just for relaxation.

      Reply
  2. My female spayed 6yr old dog Zodiac attacks my male neutered 5 yr Roswell anytime visitors come over like my kids or grandkids or friends and show him any kind of attention like pet him or talk to him, even if she is getting attention as well. He is very calm natured and she is high strung, loves to play but anxiety prone. In fact she will not go out to the backyard and stay for awhile unless I am out there. Gets antsy when the neighbors are enjoying there backyard or loud noises. When I am out playing in the yard with them she will not let him play. I use an anxiety sweater on her and occasionally give her Benadryl after she has freaked out to help calm her down. What else can I do besides lock her up when we have company? Avoid all socialization with people? Play with them seperately ? I’m desperate for help?

    Reply
    • Hello Tracey,

      it’s great that you’re seeking advice and I’m glad to give my two cents.

      First of all, the anxiety sweater (I’m assuming it’s a Thundershirt?) can be a good start but meds will never take care of the problem’s root. Stronger meds are only for absolute emergencies or cases where they can help with chemical imbalances (which should be proven by a skilled vet beforehand). Locking her up when people come over and especially avoiding socialization will make the problem even worse.

      What you should do is work on socialization instead. Invite friends over and make that day about her training. You can start by doing this separately because this way, your female dog Zodiac will associate the visitors with something positive. Once that’s out of the way, you need to work on getting your female dog to accept that Roswell is pet by others and also wants to play.

      The best way to solve this jealousy issue is with desensitization and counter-conditioning. You get your dog used to seeing Roswell being pet by other people and treat her when she behaves positively. Start very very small with distance and spacial restriction.

      Your female dog is not allowed to intervene with his petting/play because otherwise, it’ll reinforce her negative behavior. Do not pet her if she shows aggressive signs either. Yipping, barking, pulling is not to be encouraged. However, if you’re treating her for good behavior and distract her with her own toys, she most likely won’t notice.

      The goal here is to slowly get Zodiac used to seeing Roswell play and accept it. It takes baby steps and time to achieve that but stay persistent.

      Desensitizing to sounds works the same way. Expose her to loud sounds and create positive associations with them. Start small and in a calm environment again.

      Lastly, it’s important to figure out why and since when your female dog acts that way. Is she a resuce or did this develop recently while she was with you? Is the male dog a new addition to your home or vice versa?

      Playing with them separately can work for some time but it won’t take care of the problem’s root and you want both your dogs to live in harmony, right? They don’t need to love each other 24/7 but they need to tolerate each other and locking her up will solve just as little as letting her bully your male dog. I’m sure you can figure this out, it’s really just a matter of using positive reinforcement as long as no serious attack happened.

      Check out my socialization article and separation anxiety guide for more.

      Cheers,
      Danielle

      Reply
  3. Thank you for this blog, my 2.5yr old Lab Barnaby has started to become aggressive to other dogs. When he wasn’t even a year old he was attacked by two large dogs and before that we socialised him so much. There are plenty of dogs around us to socialise with but I feel like after these two attacks he has become worse. He has attacked a pug and a spaniel. I can’t work out why he does it but I feel like it’s fear aggression. I wanted to know if taking a holistic approach with calming drops would be beneficial to him? He has far more dog friends than bad ones and is such a kind and caring dog but I can’t workout why he wants to attack another sometimes. It’s embarrassing and causing me anxiety as well. Any help would be great!

    Reply
    • Hi Emma,

      sorry you have to experience this! It’s totally normal to be stressed out when your otherwise lovely dog suddenly displays this kind of behavior.

      When you say that he got worse after the dogs attacked him that must’ve been over 1.5 years ago now, right? Have you been socializing him since then or not? After negative experiences, it’s even more crucial to expose your dog to other dogs (and much more). Check out my socialization post for more on that, it’s a never-ending process. My Rottweiler is 2y old now and she still gets to see and play with other dogs every week in order for her to apply the learned behavior.

      Taking the approach I lined out above can definitely help but it’s very important to closely watch your dog during interactions. I’d suggest you consult a good dog behaviorist, s(he) should be able to identify the problem pretty quickly. If you want to work on socialization, introduce your dog to the muzzle and use it for safety. Only in calm environments and with carefully selected calm dogs. You want your dog to connect others with positive experiences (especially important if it’s fear aggression).

      However, your dog just hit maturity (giant breeds develop until 3 years of age in some cases) and what you perceive as aggression may just be him disliking other dogs. Many owners think a dog has to love every other animal and human on this planet but sometimes they’re just dog tolerant or even selective. This wouldn’t apply if he really hurt another dog as you said (depends if the “attack” was defending from a perceived threat or whatnot).

      That’s why a professional can really help to determine the source. Avoid tricky situations but please don’t keep your dog isolated from others or clam up every time you see another dog. I had a pretty overexcited puppy and although it was never dangerous, negative energy and uncertainty will often transfer to your dog.

      I’m sure you’ll both make it!
      Danielle

      Reply
  4. I have had my dog for almost a year. I dont think she was quiet 6 weeks when we got her. But in the last few month she has become aggressive with people especially kids. Im trying to fix this problems before I have to get rid of her. I have 2 small children who are loud and hyper and aggravate her when she will allow them too. Im fearful that she is going to attack one of them. I have tried melatonin for dogs, as well as reducing contact with my children and keeping her in a cart wheb there is alot of people over or alot is going on. I can’t keep her outside on her runner alone cause I’m scared she will get off of it and attack someone. What should I do?

    Reply
    • Hi Elizabeth,

      it’s very important to desensitize and counter-condition your dog to children if you think there’s a problem. Locking her up won’t solve anything and the fact that she came to you too early could have something to do with this (due to bad breeding practices) but the root lies far deeper.

      Your children shouldn’t get your dog all riled up but you shouldn’t keep them away either. How to treat the problem depends heavily on your dog’s body language – is she already growling, snapping, isolating, or whatnot? Depending on the degree, a professional behaviorist might be necessary to evaluate the body language and situations.

      Don’t give up on your dog, she counts on you to show her how to behave around kids and if you manage to get her to associate children with something positive, the situation you’re seeing now can turn into something quite positive if done right.

      Cheers,
      Danielle

      Reply
  5. Hi
    My daughter has recently moved back home with her almost 2 year old great dane cross foster care rescue dog.
    She had come to her at about 6/7 months with no apparent social training (foster mum had another big male dog/ we noticed it showed dominant behavior with her) and was very anxious around other dogs, strangers and new environments. This anxiousness became pronounced and developed into a more aggressive, dominant prey driven (we think) behavior towards other dogs. (Leashed out walking, also when seeing other dogs through the window in the car (lunging/howling/frothing etc), out walking on a lead, ( if she saw a dog in the distance she would start lunging, whinging/growling/barking/pulling excessively trying to escape to run towards the dog. She has attacked dogs twice when we thought we were alone in an isolated area and these dogs have suddenly appeared off leash. In both incidents, she rushed the dogs, pinned them down by the neck, shaking /biting them.
    My daughter has her on anxiety meds, is training her with positive reinforcement, always has a halti on her and sometimes a muzzle (still new to her). It’s very rare if we let her off leash (we risk assess area/ usually take her on night walks, off peak times, enclosed dog parks when there are no dogs around. She shows no aggressive behavior towards us , people she knows well ( she is very “sooky”/affectionate, playful/couch potato at home, responds very well to food based rewards/praise etc…
    However, her recall once her anxiety rises, or she has seen another animal etc still isn’t good.
    We are really concerned one day our greatest fear will be her actually attacking another dog resulting in killing it … 🙁 This dog is like daughter’s therapy dog for own anxiety..and is considered another family member..
    The question is.. can we train her /socialize her? We are hoping with a combination of meds, time, training and desentising her it we can eventually have a semi normal/positive future???

    Reply
    • Hey Lisa,

      keep in mind that although meds can help, they’re definitely not a long-term solution and training is key to at least get her to a level where she tolerates other dogs. First of all, I’d recommend using the properly fitting muzzle. This is essential if you let her off-leash but even if you don’t, it can really help in situations where others dogs without a proper recall are roaming.

      Positive reinforcement is great and most commonly used by dog trainers but it’s very important to distinguish between pure positive reinforcement and other training methods that involve corrections (which never ever include hitting the dog or anything but proper counter-conditioning instead).

      The key is to stay calm if your dog is lunging/barking/growling and to make sure that what you do doesn’t reinforce this negative behavior – even though things like petting the dog may seem calming to us, it’s very reinforcing for the dog.

      Re-socialising may require lots 1-on-1 situations with other dogs that are very calm and good partners for her (not challenging or “dominant”, but the right kind of energy). It might be best to consult a professional dog behaviorist, especially if there are worries about transferring anxiety to the dog – a dog behaviorist will not only help training the dog but also show you/your daughter how to handle these situations. Negative experiences in the past may have led to this point and if you say “prey-driven”, there might a pattern with her attacking smaller dogs, male dogs resembling the one she lived with, etc. etc. (just a couple of examples). It can be a lot of trouble finding a great one in your area but if you want to commit the time, energy, and money to make sure your dog will be a great canine citizen, this might be the best solution.

      A Great Dane mix can be very powerful and large dogs are stigmatised as is already (I should know, I’ve got a totally peaceful Rottweiler), but don’t be deterred by any stupid comments or anything if you’re already in training and working on these issues. If she’s already attacked other dogs and inflicted wounds, it’s even more important to take the right precautions because biting is inherently reinforcing behavior in many cases as it releases hormones in the dog’s brain. A muzzle and spotting any tense body language will prevent such incidents from happening in the future.

      Don’t lose hope, it can definitely turn for the better! Time, training, and desensitisation are definitely key factors and as you say, a semi-normal future is definitely possible. Your dog may never be friendly to every other dog but she can learn to tolerate them and canine friends that just fit her character are surely possible too. It just takes the proper training and guidance. It’s a good start that your dog likes people

      Cheers,
      Danielle

      Reply