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Aggression To People

Dogs that are aggressive to people can be frightening, dangerous, and embarrassing. Fortunately, with knowledge, understanding and the right approach, many aggressive dogs can find a more peaceful way to behave.



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Early warning

Aggression can be defined as any hostile act that a dog (or person) makes towards another. For dogs, this can include growling, snarling, snapping in the air, and biting. 


Before a dog becomes aggressive, changes in the dog’s body language and postures are usually seen (for more information, go to ‘Fear and Anxiety’). Before snarling or bites occur, dogs will often growl. Growls should be seen as an early warning of increased aggression if your actions continue (for more information, go to ‘Growling’).

Snapping or biting?

Dogs are usually very accurate when using their mouths, just as we are with our hands, so if a dog snaps in the air, he probably meant to miss. Dogs are quick, and if they want to bite you, it’s unlikely that you will be able to move out of the way in time. Until they have been pushed into using real bites to keep people away, dogs will often snap in the air next to the person as a warning, not wishing to actually cause harm. This is particularly likely with family members who they do not wish to hurt. Occasionally, people are injured as they try to move out of the way of an air-snap, putting themselves accidentally in the path of the dog’s teeth, even though he never meant to bite them.

Bites get harder

If a dog is repeatedly put into a situation where it feels the need to use aggression, it will gradually learn bite to earlier when provoked and will also learn to bite harder. The usual progression is from snapping in the air to biting briefly with little pressure (wounds are mostly skin deep with no bruising), to harder bites (with bruising), to multiple bites around the same site. Dogs that bite hard with multiple bites are not ‘bad’ but have often suffered abuse by humans in the past.

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Why does it happen?

Dogs do not become aggressive just for the sake of it or at random (unless something has gone wrong inside their brains, e.g. a brain tumour, but this is very rare). There is always a reason why they feel the need to be aggressive, even if it is hard for humans to figure out what that reason might be.

Should I punish?

Using punishment to stop aggression is not the way to solve the problem. If you are tempted to shout, scold, alpha roll your dog, shake, or shock, don’t! The intelligent, thoughtful approach is always best in the long run and will solve the problem for the dog as well as you.  Punishment and force usually make aggression problems much worse as the dog tries harder to feel better.  In some cases, severe punishment may intimidate a dog into stopping aggressive behaviour but it doesn’t solve the underlying issue, which is just waiting to resurface, sometimes with increased ferocity when the circumstances are right.

Finding an intelligent solution

 If your dog is aggressive and you want a solution, it is important to find out the motivation behind the aggression.  Once you know why your dog is being aggressive, you can solve the problem for your dog and teach it to behave in a more acceptable way.  Dogs may be aggressive for more than one reason, but each motivation is distinct and separate. 


What follows is a list of reasons why a dog may be aggressive (see below for further explanations and what to do):


  • fear

             - fear of owners or strangers

             - fear of being handled

             - territorial aggression

             - protection

             - fear of being left

  • possessive aggression and guarding
  • chase aggression
  • frustration
  • re-directed aggression
  • play-biting
  • aggression on being moved
  • physical reasons
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This is the most common cause for dogs to be aggressive. 


Fear of owners or strangers – this is the most common reason for dogs to become aggressive to people.  Dogs can learn to be proactive about using aggression to keep themselves safe so sometimes it is hard to appreciate that the root cause of hostile behaviour is fear.  However, dogs often live in a busy, chaotic world without truly understanding the humans they share their lives with and they often have a lack of trust that people will act kindly towards them.  Dogs cannot tell you when they are afraid or worried with words, so if you ignore their body language, their only choice (in their minds), if they think they are in sufficient danger is to become aggressive.  For more information about fearful aggressive dogs, go to ‘Fear and Anxiety’


Fear of being handled – some dogs find it difficult to cope with being handled by humans either though limited experience or from a frightening/painful experience in the past.  Dogs need to be taught to trust that we won’t hurt them and humans need to learn how to handle dogs in a way that does not upset them.  For further information, go to ‘Problems When Being Handled’


Territorial aggression – dogs that try to keep people away from their property or cars usually do so because they are worried about what strangers may do to them or their family.  Territorial dogs often have a mistrust of strangers that can remain hidden until certain circumstances occurs, such as them finding themselves close to a gate when a stranger tries to enter, or the door is left open as the postman delivers letters.  For further information, go to ‘Territorial Behaviour’


Protection – some dogs will sense the vulnerability of owners and try to protect them from strangers.  This can result in dogs guarding young children or vulnerable people in the family.  In order for them to be protective, they must see strangers as a threat and so the treatment involves helping them to have a more positive view of strangers.  Alternatively, many dogs that are aggressive when strangers come close are only protecting themselves, but feel more able to do so when supported by their owners.  For more information about protective dogs, go to ‘Fear and Anxiety’


Fear of being left – occasionally, dogs can resort to aggression in a desperate attempt to stop their owners from leaving them alone.  These dogs become very fearful or distressed when alone and have learned to use aggression to delay their owner’s departure.  For further information, go to ‘Separation Problems’


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Possessive aggression and guarding

Dogs may be aggressive to keep food or items they value. Things they value can range from a tissue stolen from a handbag, to a toy, to food in a dish, to a dead animal found on a walk.  Possessive aggression is made worse if there is or has been a shortage of a valued item.  For further information, please go to ‘Aggression Over Food And Possessions’

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Chasing aggression

Most dogs just enjoy the thrill of the chase and go back to their owners once it has come to an end.  However, some dogs that chase joggers or people on bikes or skateboards may nip them to try to stop them, or in excitement once they stop, or in self-defence if someone has been aggressive to them when they have chased in the past.  For further information, go to ‘Chasing’.


Some dogs become aggressive when they cannot get their own way.  They may threaten or nip or bite to remove restraining hands or leads.  For further information, go to ‘Frustration And Re-directed Aggression’.

Re-directed aggression

Dogs may become aggressive to those around them if they are restrained or held back from something they want to be aggressive to, such as another dog they want to fight. For further information, go to Frustration And Re-directed Aggression’.

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Most dogs have learned to play with toys by the time they reach adulthood.  However, some may have been kept isolated or encourage to jump up and use people as a toy.  Hard bites and bruising can be the result, especially to the arms and legs, even though the dog is only playing.  Play-biters are most likely to bite their owners during moments of high excitement.  For further information, go to ‘Play Biting In Adult Dogs’.

Aggression on being moved

Some dogs resent being moved from where they are resting or sleeping and may use aggression in order to be left alone.  For further information, go to ‘Aggression On Being Moved’.

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Physical reasons

Dogs may become aggressive if they are not feeling well or if being touched or handled has become painful.  They may also become aggressive if there are changes in their brains caused by disease or tumours.  Usually, aggression due to disease, illness or pain is sudden in onset, with the dog being non-aggressive up to a certain point.  All dogs that are showing signs of sudden-onset aggression should be checked out by a veterinary surgeon immediately, and also before attempting any behavioural modification.  Please make an appointment for your dog to see a veterinary surgeon.

Already aggressive?

If your dog is already aggressive, especially if it is biting and likely to injure people, please have your dog checked out by a veterinary surgeon (to check for disease, illness or pain) and then seek the help of a professional pet behaviour counselor, such as a member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors

Need more?

If you need further help, please ask your veterinary surgeon to refer you to a behaviourist that he/she recommends, or contact the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors to find an experienced pet behaviourist in your area 


Further reading:

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  • Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors