Skip to Content

The Only Way to Calm an Aggressive Dog

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.

Important notice: There is something I want to show you that will change the way you interact with your dog. Check it out here.

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.

Chihuahua showing teeth and snarling

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.

Pin This:

About Danielle
I am the founder of PawLeaks where I share weekly tips on dog training and behavior. Sharing a passion for dogs and helping owners to solve problems through understanding canine behavior and modification is my number one goal.

Victoria Goldstein

Friday 3rd of September 2021

I have a 4 year old Great Dane. He is sweet and gentle with myself and my mom. My fiancé just moved in and some days he is fine with him and won’t growl when he is around and then other times he will growl and even jump up and go right at him in his face barking close to biting him. I don’t know what to do or why he is doing it since it doesn’t happen all the time it just happens out of nowhere. I’m hoping you can help me

Danielle

Monday 6th of September 2021

Hi Victoria,

maybe your Great Dane is growling due to one of these reasons. Sometimes, dogs growl for attention or as a sign of play. However, it could also be serious. Try to find the cause and whether or not it's serious and if it is, I'd suggest you consult a professional behaviorist.

Cheers, Danielle

Ashley

Thursday 26th of August 2021

Hi,

We have a very large Akbash dog (120lb) who we got from a rescue 1 year ago when he was 1 year old. He is very sweet with us and almost all people.

When we adopted him we were told he was not good with the other dogs inside the house with the prior owner (and had fought with two of the other dogs previously) but was good with other dogs outdoors. They felt he would do well in a one-dog household (which we are). He was very well behaved with us the first year we had him, but over the past few months slowly became more leash reactive (still ok in dog parks etc.).

However in the last few weeks he has become highly reactive even to cars driving by. Earlier today we hiked and some young (maybe 5 and 7 year old) boys were hiking near us. We passed them and everything was fine, but as they came up behind us again he whipped his head around and growled/barked ferociously at the older child. We had him off leash but I was thankfully in between them and able to grab him before any issue.

To clarify, he has never bitten another dog or person with us (or shown aggression to a human before this) but the incident seemingly came out of no-where and was very alarming. He has happily interacted with our neighbor’s kids and other children before this.

Danielle

Monday 6th of September 2021

Hi Ashley,

the most common triggers for dogs are people suddenly approaching or cars coming by so it might just be that this behavior was established over time. The only thing you can do here is to desensitize to these triggers and calmly ignore any negative response, reward a positive one.

Has he been properly desensitized to cars before? When the kids came up it could be that he was just startled. Nevertheless, paired with the fact that he's getting more reactive in general is definitely alarming.

Since there are a lot of things happening at once (cars, kids, leash-reactivity), I'd suggest you consult a professional behaviorist in your area. Trust me, it's money well spent on a good trainer especially with such a large dog.

All the best to you and your dog, Danielle

Jennifer Cook

Wednesday 11th of August 2021

I have a 2 year old terrier/dachshund mix rescue dog. We have had her since she was about 3 months old. She has slowly gotten more aggressive as she's gotten older. Certain words can trigger her and she will lunge and snap. We can be sitting on the couch and if we try to move her she will immediately attack. Once she is in the attack mode even when she stops she will lay in her bed and stare or stalk me around the house just waiting for me to say something and then she will go into attack mode again. She doesn't get aggressive over food or things but she guards people/rooms. I just started giving her anxiety medication but I know that is a short term option. I do what the vet said and don't engage, turn away and then walk away. But that is when the stalking begins. I would like to see a behaviorist but they are very costly. Just not sure where to go from here. Any ideas or suggestion would be appreciated.

Danielle

Saturday 28th of August 2021

Hi Jennifer,

it sounds like certain words have been conditioned as triggers that cause her to attack. Can you saying something already elicit that attack response or does it only happen after you've moved her from the couch and then the stalking/waiting begins? It's unusual behavior for sure, as is the fact that it gets worse over time if you're not doing anything to encourage that aggression (although 3 months is quite young and real aggression issues often form later in life so not that unusual after all).

Personally, I would recommend seeing a behaviorist since this problem sounds more complex. Yeah, they're costly but a good trainer will figure something and tell you upfront about the cost or how long he or she thinks it might take to solve the issue. A first consultation would be a good step, just research them before to make sure you're not wasting money.

It might seem like a costly investment but if you're thinking long-term, the peace you'll gain is much more important, isn't it?

Danielle

Jayne Powell

Sunday 8th of August 2021

Hi, I found your article very informative. I am fostering a dog that has been in a pound and 2 homes before coming to me, she is very quick to bite, and goes from sitting beside you to pure vicious, I remain calm and turn sideways. She is fine once you have her lead, but very unpredictable once i drop the lead. Lead is attached to harness, so that i can get her out for walks which she loves. Is there anymore I can be doing to help her?

Danielle

Wednesday 11th of August 2021

Hi Jayne,

kudos to you for fostering a dog, especially with a history. What you can do to solve the aggression issue really depends on the cause. While it may seem that a dog suddenly acts vicious, there's almost always a trigger as well as foreboding body language. It's hard to say what you can do to address that issue unless you'd provide more information.

In the meantime, giving her the space she needs, not getting agitated or frustrated and avoiding potentially dangerous situations is the best you can do. Other than that, starting training with a behaviorist/trainer might be your best call.

If you’re interested in more information, I have a membership with a couple of eBooks as well as access to a member-only contact form where I’ll try to dive deeper into your specific issue.

Cheers, Danielle

Laurie Lee

Thursday 17th of June 2021

My 2 year old ChiWeenie only likes my youngest daughter and myself. We were basically the only people he was around the first year of his life. He is possessive of both of us. If either one of his older brothers gets close to us he gets aggressive. When we pet him and try to pet one of his brothers he gets aggressive. He snarls, lunges, and bares his teeth and snaps to bite. Since we are always sitting between him and his brothers, we often get scratched or bit in the process. One of his brothers, Rattle is a Teacup Chihuahua and is 16 and blind and deaf. He cannot defend himself from Ren. My 4 year old 65 lb mutt, Wyatt has always been Ren's best friend and protector. If Ren gets in trouble or something scares him, he hides behind Wyatt. Wyatt has always ignored when Ren is aggressive toward him, but the last 2 months he has gotten tired of Ren's aggression and now snarls, lunges, snaps and growls back. I have several scars on my legs and arms now from being in between these battles. Ren has also been potty trained since a couple of weeks after we rescued him as a puppy. But he pees and poops in the house several times a week. They have a doggie door so this should not happen. I have tried everything to stop these behaviors in Ren and have no idea how to proceed.

Danielle

Saturday 3rd of July 2021

Hi Laurie, since your ChiWeenie is displaying serious aggression where skin is pierced and a much larger dog fights back, it's definitely time to hire a trainer/behaviorist who specializes in aggression to figure this out.

The fact that he starts peeing randomly is another sign of his fear and uncertainty, there may be several issues you'll have to work on. When people say they've tried "everything", we often just try what immediately comes to mind but clearly, the problem is not solved but every dog can be rehabilitated (except for very few genetically rooted aggression cases). Stick with it and solve it asap cause something might go seriously wrong in the near future, especially with a medium-sized dog against a Chiweenie in the house.