Help! My dog is “aggressive”…

Apparently everyone and their mother has an aggressive dog.  No, I mean it, given how often people say “dealing with an aggressive….” or “my dog is aggressive to me” or worse yet, “help my puppy is aggressive!!!” I have no other choice than to believe most dogs are aggressive scary monsters.  Or not.  Of all the “aggressive” dogs I’ve read complaints about, there are maybe a handful that actually have aggression issues.  It just seems I’m encountering dogs who have been called “aggressive” all the time, yet very few are legitimately aggressive.

There is a very big difference between a reactive dog and an aggressive dog, between an overly aroused dog and an aggressive dog, between a mouthy dog and an aggressive dog.  Aggressive dogs do not “try” to bite.  They bite.  A dog has precision control over its mouth and is lightning quick–if he wants to bite, he will.  The bites are not reserved or respectful of the social rules of bite inhibition–these bites often cause deep tissue damage, bleeding, and swelling (even from small dogs).  An aggressive dog will let you know, in no uncertain terms, that you have crossed a line.  They are quite often the dog who isn’t putting on a big display but the dog who speaks in actions.

Okay, if they aren’t aggressive what are they?  Well, most frequently I find that “aggressive” dogs are reactive, overly aroused, mouthy, and/or poorly mannered.

A reactive dog often looks like an “aggressive” dog, they may be barking, growling, lunging, snarling, and have raised hackles.  They are putting on Oscar worthy performances to scare away the stimulus (whatever is causing the reaction) or they are putting on this display out of frustration (think fence rushing or leash reactivity with friendly dogs).

An overly aroused dog is a dog who may be growling and biting at sleeves when playing.  Who may be jumping up and nipping at human appendages when being leashed up.  Who may be barking at the human, snapping at the human or even jumping up and snapping at the face of a human during exciting moments (for example coming home from work).  Many of these dogs are under stimulated and have excess energy to burn and one way they burn the extra energy is through these inappropriate (to humans) behaviors.

A mouthy dog is a dog who puts teeth on skin (gently if they have good bite inhibition) in many situations: during stress, during excitement, when happy, when frustrated.  With many of these dogs it’s less like a bite and more like grabbing and holding but could easily be escalated into a very scary game if people turn their arms into toys.

Poorly mannered dogs are simply that–they are dogs who have not been taught the rules of human culture.   Much of dog play/communication has growling, grunting, mouthing, muzzle bumping, muzzle biting, and other behavior that human culture could easily read as aggressive.

I recently read an online forum post bemoaning about an “aggressive” puppy (9 months old).  The aggressive puppy was “gently biting,” jumping up and nipping arms, grabbing clothing, being generally out of control.  This happened when leashing up at the dog park to go home, when family arrived home, and when playing.  She was insisting this was aggression and was brushing off any suggestion otherwise.  Of course all of my thoughts are based on evaluation of her words and language but she made it very clear several times that he’s gentle and clearly not trying to hurt her–yet she insisted this was aggression.  Her frustrations were made clear when she “threatened” that if it wasn’t fixed soon, she would drop the dog off at a shelter–yes, you heard that right.  This ultimatum leads directly to my point (sorry it took 1/2 a post to get to the point)–I have become increasingly frustrated and concerned with the overuse and misuse of the word “aggressive” (in all of its forms).

The outbreak of the word “aggressive” has been, I believe, extremely detrimental and dangerous for dogs.  Unfortunately (and fortunately) shelters, landlords, rescues, neighbors and police take the word “aggressive” very seriously.  If this woman dumped the dog at a shelter and told them the reason was that he was acting “aggressively,” it would be really dangerous for the dog.  If he’s lucky, he would just be fighting an uphill battle at the shelter to be seen as safe to adopt out.  Shelter workers may be slightly more biased and cautious about his exuberance during a temperament test–but at least they’d have given him a chance.  If he’s unlucky, he could be put down almost immediately after surrender.  All simply because the improper use of a single word.

Now, I do understand why people misuse the word.  Many times it’s scary when your loving dog decides to start jumping and mouthing or snapping at your face.  To those not fluent in canine communication and body language, it could easily be seen as aggression (and it is inappropriate for human culture).  What I request of people is to not label the dog but describe the behavior.  Instead of saying your dog is aggressive… maybe explain, “when playing with a toy, my dog bites at my sleeves and growls at me.”  There can be (and have been) many misunderstandings between folk when the word “aggressive” is used inappropriately–and unfortunately it’s most often the dog who suffers.  Depending on who you talk to about your “aggressive dog” there can be big ramifications.

I’m not saying there aren’t aggressive dogs, there certainly are, but we need to be more careful about the words we use to describe dogs because there can be deadly implications and it’s mainly the dogs who suffer.


About Success Just Clicks

I'm a dog trainer and enthusiast who moonlights as a blogger and custom tug-toy maker.
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6 Responses to Help! My dog is “aggressive”…

  1. elizabeth says:

    Great point about the dog’s suffering. I have had students pretty much isolate their dogs because someone has labeled them “aggressive.” It really is a term that needs to be used judiciously. Thanks for the post –

  2. Jess Davis says:

    I remember seeing the forum post you refer to, and this thought struck me too. Too often people mislabel reactive behaviour as aggression and as a result begin trying to solve it in often completely inappropriate ways. Understanding the root cause is vitally important when addressing undesirable behaviour like this.

  3. tom says:

    It really is a shame that dogs can be labeled “aggressive” so easily. To hear stories about dogs being put down when they are only nipping or aren’t seriously biting is heart-breaking.

  4. Anna says:

    Well written and brings up a lot of good points. I would have to agree that far too many of our clients throw that word around without fully understanding the meaning. If only people were required to take a dog body language/behavior course before getting a dog we would all be a lot better off (4 leggers included). Seems like the whole lack of being able to read dog behavior/language is being passed on to the dogs too, which is part of the reason I gave up going to the dog park. People and dogs just didn’t get it, and I was tired of dealing with their ill behaved unbalanced dogs. Another term that is thrown around a lot is “dominant” people don’t really understand when a dog is actually being dominant or not. But that’s another subject for another day. Thanks for posting this, brings to light consequences of people’s actions.

  5. I recently left a forum due to a similar circumstance. A poster, very inexperienced with dogs, had been asking for advice over the past six months on her dog being pushy. The poster was given plenty of good advice, including to go to a behaviorist and simple stuff, like not allowing the dog to sleep on the bed. The advice was ignored, the dog ended up biting, and the poster came back on to announce the dog was being destroyed. It was heartbreaking. The dog was less than 1 1/2 years old. The whole thing sickened me, and it could have been avoided.

  6. Black Lab says:

    I’d venture to guess that a good percentage of dogs that are euthanized each year are done so for being falsely labelled as agressive.

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