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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.

Before you read any further, choose one of these audiobooks for FREE to expand your knowledge!

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.

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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.

Mark

Monday 29th of March 2021

Hello Danielle,

First of all, thank you for your very helpful website!

My wife and I own an almost 2 years old Corgi who, in the last year, became more and more protective of us against other people coming to our house or approaching us while we are walking him outside. He growls and barks and, in some cases, gives small bites to the ankles (it seems that it’s quite common with corgies). We believe that his aggressiveness might be fear-driven. Almost one year ago, our vet gave him a temporary chemical castration that was supposed to last 6 months but, for some reason, is still active, so his level of testosterone is still very low. We read that this might the cause of a drop in the dog's confidence, so we are hoping that, once the chemical castration's effect will disappear, maybe his behaviour will improve because he will have more self-confidence and therefore he will be less afraid?

We would like to understand what causes this fear of strangers and what we can do to reduce this. We recently got our first baby, so in the near future more and more people will come into our house, so we need a good technique to avoid future issues with aggression to our guests.

Thanks a lot for your help!!!

Danielle

Tuesday 30th of March 2021

Hey Mark, I've written an article on spaying/neutering in general and the damage it can do, especially if performed too early. Usually, dog owners go for this medical procedure to fix issues, but in nearly all cases, playing around with the hormones is not a universal fix, quite the opposite can happen.

If I may ask, why did you get the procedure done in the first place if not for behavioral issues?

For now, I'm assuming you had absolutely no issue with this behavior before the procedure was done and once he got the temporary chemical castration, he started to develop this behavior (as you said, it's going on for over a year now)? If that's the case and the timeline adds up, I'd definitely consider it as part of the cause.

To get rid of this, you'd simply desensitize him to the strangers and counter-condition him.

Where you have to start with desensitization depends on how your dog behaves with strangers in general. Start small and take baby steps. Make sure your dog connects the guests at his house with something positive. Inviting guests shouldn't be stressful for him because that fear can definitely cause aggression.

However, since biting the ankles is a definitive no-go, I wouldn't set him up for failure in the near future. Don't put your Corgi into a situation where you'll know he will fail just to punish him but don't encourage this behavior should it occur in a lighter form during training.

I agree with you that the ankle-biting is common with Corgi's but it's not because it's an aggressive breed but rather because the specific breeding line was either poor and/or it's small dog owners not really putting effort into their dog's training because it's a smaller breed. The ankle just happens to be their height.

Provide your dog with the confidence and security he needs and patiently train with people you know, but start slowly and make it positive while discouraging negative behavior. Your dog deserves to feel included and be a part of your family (congrats on the baby)! :)

Cheers, Danielle

Jennifer

Sunday 27th of December 2020

Hello, We have a one and a half year old Chiweenie (Doxie, Chihuahua mix) that we got from a rescue at five months old. The past couple of months he has become aggressive toward us for what seem to be odd reasons, such as standing up from the couch and or walking across the room. He will launch himself across the room barking and jumping and nipping without warning. He is also guarding things that are not food. You can take away his food or bone, but he will become quite aggressive if a paper towel or tissue is dropped and someone tries to take it. He also guards things like our shoes and the occasional dead spider that he has killed. We have to lure him into another room and then pick up the item. If we go near it he becomes aggressive. He does not growl or stare, he just goes into attack mode. We love him and do not want to re-home him, but we are overwhelmed and need help. Any advice you can give us would be appreciated.

Danielle

Sunday 27th of December 2020

Hey Jennifer, your struggle with this situation is absolutely understandable. It's normal for rescues to start with behavior patterns even when they're 3 weeks or 3 months into being in their new home. However, if you rescued him with 5m and he's 18m now, that's probably too big of a delay for behavioral issues.

Since it's unusual that behavior turns 180 from one day to another (unless medical issues or drastic environmental changes are the cause), this was perhaps quietly happening months before you really perceived it? If there have been environmental changes, what were they? Introducing a new person in the house, moving, another pet, changed the diet, negative experiences outside, etc. etc.

Ask yourself if it could've been a quiet change. How was your dog before this all started? Were there absolutely no such issues and you had a clear communication/bond established? If not, you may have dismissed early signs of resource guarding or warning signs. Dogs usually do not just attack, there has to be some clue. It may not be growling but hackles, certain way of sniffing, raised tail, etc.

I'm just asking because a clear way of communication is key before you start any training on resource guarding or whatnot. It's hard though because you need a balanced approach to solve these kinds of things. Some trainers like to work with positive reinforcement only, others throw the dog into situations that they can't possibly handle yet which requires a lot of intuition when training. Your dog needs to understand that you're the chief, not him. Placing him into another room and then picking things up may be a temporary solution but it's certainly not for the long-term. Personally, I'd remove any items that might cause issues and when issues to arrive, let him know that you do not like that behavior and what you want him to do instead (obedience like a "place" etc. if you've already established a set of commands). Avoiding conflict (and prevention in general) and showing your dog how to live with you in harmony is the best way instead of forcing him through situations. If they do arise, you need to stay patient, no harsh punishment but also not giving in.

That's how I'd personally handle that situation and there are hundreds of different approaches. If you feel like you need help, consulting a certified behavioral consultant (not just any dog trainer teaching tricks) will be your best bet. Requires the commitment to training though (which includes the financials). Your dog probably just hasn't learned how to properly behave. He's not trying to get you off the couch, but instead barks, jumps and nips when someone gets up which is quite the odd behavior. It's not always full-blown aggression that dog owners are dealing with, especially if the dog "just" nips.

Let me know if you have any questions, trying my best to answer them. You can do it and I commend you for trying to work through these issues instead of just re-homing your family member! Danielle

Nanami

Tuesday 24th of November 2020

I bought my little Australian Kelpie just over 3 months ago and every time I walk outside, she jumps up and starts repeatedly biting me. It doesn't cause me to bleed, but I have multiple scratches and bite marks on my arms and I'm worried that it is not normal. I am wondering whether I should have her go to puppy school or get her checked out. She is currently being trained at home and she knows many basic tricks. She is extremely smart but I cannot get her to stop biting.

Danielle

Wednesday 25th of November 2020

Hey Nanami,

if you've bought her a little over 3 months ago, is she around 5m old now (assuming you've brought her home as a puppy with 8 weeks old)? If so, then she's still a puppy but the biting part definitely isn't desirable behavior. It can happen that puppies redirect frustration and bite the leash or whatnot but outright biting you isn't okay, check out the puppy biting guide for more information on that.

Going to puppy school isn't necessary in terms of teaching her specific commands/tricks. You can (and should) do that at home. Besides, lots of trainers out there seem to only be able to train tricks or other simple basics. Don't get me wrong, teaching commands like a proper recall is extremely important as is basic obedience. However, simple tricks are not important and can be trained at the end, not the start.

That being said, what your puppy would learn in puppy school is socialisation which is among the most important aspects. Not only will your dog learn bite inhibition with other dogs, she'll also have an outlet for her energy and learn social behavior in general with the right guidance.

In regards to the vet: Having her checked out is always a good idea, even though in most cases it's just a puppy training issue and not a physical or mental issue. Make sure your dog's healthy before prioritising training.

Cheers, Danielle

Glenn Hurst

Friday 6th of November 2020

We have a 7 month old boxer bitch and 3 year old bulldog who have loved each other since the second they met - the puppy has twice attacked the bulldog this week , it seems like a dominance ‘takeover’ bid for top dog, as she is definitely the more confident of the 2. She is so soft and gentle with humans and a lovely natured dog till this happened

Any advice you can offer? It’s been awful to see - both times it’s been without apparent warning - we removed the boxer puppy , and ignored her for a period and when she reentered the room she’s been quite submissive licking the bulldog and lying next to her but we feel like we waiting for it to happen now ? A trainer I spoke to today told me I’d have to have her put down! Thank you

Danielle

Saturday 7th of November 2020

Hey Glenn,

first of all: I do not care who that trainer is but s/he should not be allowed to practice in any job related to dogs, let alone dog training. Unfortunately, many dog trainers are shutting down entirely when "aggression" is at play. Some don't even accept large and supposedly dangerous breeds in puppy class. The thought of suggesting something remotely similar to putting the dog down is ridiculous.

That being said, no matter how much I love to help and give advice, it sounds like your situation needs in-person training. Most of the time, the hardest thing is really the dog's body language. You mentioned there was no apparent warning but most of the time, dogs express this in very subtle ways through their body language (lips, eyes, ears, hackles, etc.)

A 7m old puppy attacking a 3y old dog with which she recently played is really uncommon and although first signs of dominance can definitely occur, it's rare to see this end in a full-on attack. The majority of cases where dogs are labeled as "aggressive" by laymen, they're not really aggressive. Even among the really aggressive dogs (rare in puppies), the majority of these can be trained and does not need to be put down.

You can turn the situation and steer this pup's life in the right direction. Note the body language (it shouldn't happen again, of course, so supervision is necessary) as well as the degree of injury and take her background into account (where did you get her from - reputable breeder with 8 weeks or rescue with history).

Take this information to a dog behaviorist. A real one. Not just CPDT-KA certified or whatnot (good start though), but somebody with a real track record. Dog trainers like Tom Davis (you can check his channel on Youtube) specialize in working with aggression.

Your situation is quite serious and should be resolved asap to avoid any injuries in the future. I have more articles on puppy aggression, dog on dog attacks in the same house and more but that should just be a starting point.

Hope everything will end well for your little family, Danielle

Gemma

Wednesday 21st of October 2020

Hi I have recently rescued a 2 year old pug. All is good until I give him a gentle touch to his collar to redirect him ie get him away from eating content of food bin, get him down off the bed to go to bed and stop him from eating his bed. He has bitten me and my partner. What can I do?

Danielle

Thursday 22nd of October 2020

Hey Gemma,

sorry for your current situation but with rescues, you never know their history and he probably never learned the right behavior and is just trying to defend what he thinks should be his. Of course, it's important not to reinforce this behavior (not immediately backing down either, otherwise he'll learn that this tactic works). Punishments should always be measured and appropriate though and if redirecting doesn't help, you can try to act more with your voice. You could try to anticipate situations like this and avoid them.

In general, counter-conditioning will help to get him accustomed to being touched. Reinforce the positive behavior (accepting the touch) with treats, toys, etc. and praise. It may take time but eventually for rescues to get used to new situations and patience is key.

Cheers, Danielle