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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.

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
Photo by Piotr Wawrzyniuk on Shutterstock

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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Disclaimer: This blog post does not substitute veterinary attention and does not intend to do so. I am not a veterinarian or pet nutritionist. If your dog shows any sign of illness, call your vet.

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.

MARSHA

Wednesday 26th of October 2022

My girl Lorelei is a 2 year old German Shepherd. Whenever we are getting ready to leave the house she becomes aggressive. To the point where she has bitten me on more occasions than I care to mention. I have never punished her for this behavior because I understand she's only behaving as a dog behaves. But it gets discouraging because it's traumatic for both she and I. Ordinarily Lorelei is a sweet and loving dog. It's like a switch is flipped and she becomes another dog that I don't know. As bad as the biting can get it doesn't exceed how heartbroken and discouraged I feel. I dread the time in the morning when I have to get her into the car to go to work. Once she's in the car all is well and I give her a treat to emphasize the positive aspect of going through this ritual. I don't know what to do to stop this behavior, and the fact that she goes to work with me isn't going to change anytime soon. I love Lorelei dearly, but the thought of having to do this for years leaves me saddened. It was suggested to me that I have her spayed when she turns 3 years old (in order to try to prevent cancer and bone issues), but that's an eternity away. Besides, that's no guarantee that her aggressive behavior will cease. I'm going to try the pointers that were given to avoid eye contact, etc. to see if it helps.

Danielle

Friday 28th of October 2022

Hi Marsha,

what you can do depends on why your dog is reacting aggressive in the first place. Is it overexcitement? Biting is not "behaving like a dog" and it's completely unacceptable. Of course, it also depends on the severity of the bites. Is your dog properly socialized or experiencing any other behavioral issues?

If you seriously want to get to the bottom of this, I'd suggest consulting a professional dog behaviorist before anything serious happens.

You're right, spaying will most likely not solve this problem unless there's a medical indication that this causes her behavior to be off which would need to be determined by your vet. Waiting until bone growth has finished is a sensible choice but I'm not sure why your vet said at exactly 3 years? Surely you can ask your vet. Spaying is a serious choice that comes with advantages as well as a couple of risks so it's essential to read up about any major procedure.

Courtney

Monday 19th of September 2022

I have a 7 year old rescue and a 1.5 year old rescue. The older one had never had an issue with another dog until meeting my college roommates dog when she was 4. They would fight a lot. After this, she is reactive in dog parks (I do not take her anymore) and on walks (I have to hold her back when another dog is around. But, there are a lot of dogs in my family with whom she has had no issues with. Since I am older now, I was able to afford to send the younger one to a board and train for 2 weeks as soon as she had her shots. My two girls got along until the younger turned about 11 months. We sent the younger one back to training for 6 weeks and she came back awesome. The trainer said that most resource guarding dogs end up back at his training facility in less than 6 months. About 3 months after her second training, the girls got in a huge fight and one of them ended up with 3 staples on her side (both got checked out at the vet and were put on antibiotics). They have been separated by a baby gate in the house since this incident. The younger one will make aggressive stances from her side of the gate sometimes (no growling, just very stiff). I do not know if this is something I should correct or what to do. I feel so stressed and lost. They are both a part of the family, but I want harmony back.

Danielle

Tuesday 27th of September 2022

Hi Courtney, so there's a lot going on, lots of missing info on their interaction, circumstances but maybe my opinion helps, would recommend to consult a professional behaviorist though.

Not sure how they were able to fight a lot back then as you put it, after one fight it should be prevented and the issue should be worked on. However, board and train might be good (or bad, depending on the trainers) but you still need to put the work in with your two dogs. Sending the younger one away and getting her back won't fix anything. If the trainer determined there's a resource guarding issue, perhaps it'll help but your older dog might've also picked up bad habits, triggers the younger one, etc. etc.

You can't correct an aggressive stance without knowing why it happens. Find the cause and work from there.

Also, check out this article on dogs fighting inside the house as well as a younger dog attacking the older dog or vice versa.

All these resources might be able to help but ultimately, get a professional to look at it in person. This is not dog training advice, as I just don't know the full picture, just for educational purposes and as a starting point for you.

Cheers, Danielle

Leo Gonzalez

Sunday 14th of August 2022

I have 5 year old German Shepard he is very aggressive and dominant I don’t know what to do please help me.

Danielle

Monday 15th of August 2022

Hey Leo,

it's hard to tell the exact cause of your German Shepherd's aggression without knowing more. In what situations does he get aggressive - other dogs, small animals, people, kids, bikers? Or is he aggressive towards you when stuff is involved such as sleeping spots, toys, food? All that and how he express the perceived aggression are crucial to know.

If you're unsure about your dog's behavior I definitely recommend consulting a dog trainer. They should be able to help you.

Maureen

Tuesday 26th of July 2022

My sister has adopted my 12 year old dog. On the 3rd day into her coming to live there my sisters 14 year old dog attacked my dog while she was resting in her dog bed. The other dog had been stalking my dog for days. This happen 8 years ago when I had visited. I thought it was a one time thing but now it happened again. The first time it was her neck and this time it was the top of her head. My dog was injured in this attack.I feel my dog is in danger. What is your advice? Is it unsafe to keep these dogs together in the same house?My dog has never had a problem with any other dog just this dog. Also my sisters dog had lived with other female dogs up until recently when they both pasted away. Any advice would help.

Danielle

Saturday 30th of July 2022

Hey Maureen, from what you're describing it sounds like the first incident happened after your dog was introduced to their household 8 years ago and now it happened around the time the other dogs in the household passed away? If so, these changes could contribute to why the attacks happened.

If the dog was seriously injured, I'd definitely suggest consulting a trainer and keeping them separate up until then if left unsupervised. They're both old so re-homing will be extremely hard and that includes the transition for them and finding a place at all. You might want to look into bringing her home to you if that's possible for her remaining years. Other than that, separation and perhaps muzzling until you've pinned down the reason for the attacks (toys, food, attention, invasion of personal space, etc.).

Keep in mind that older dogs are often in pain so having them checked by a vet can be helpful.

Cheers, Danielle

Lori

Sunday 29th of May 2022

My problem is that my 6 mo puppy gets aggressive on walks. She jumps up to grab my clothing and really tries to bite me! How do you calm a dog out in public when walking in a public place. Today I ended up with her puncturing my arm in one spot. It doesn't happen all the time and Franky I'm a little scared of her. She never gets aggressive in the house.

Danielle

Thursday 2nd of June 2022

Hi Lori, it's not entirely clear whether or not that's really aggression or just overexcitement. No matter what it is, puncturing your arm is definitely not good. When does it happen? When she sees other dogs, smells something interesting, gets startled by bikers, hears loud noises, etc.?

That and her body language as well as where she's coming from (i.e. properly socialized pup vs rescue dog with potentially negative experiences) are the key to determining how to get rid of the issue.

If you're unsure, I'd suggest consulting a dog behaviorist before the issue gets really serious. They'll also help you learn how to communicate with your dog to make sure you're not scared but can help her instead.