Brown dog who growls
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How to deal with an aggressive dog?

By Nick Whittle Author

Updated on the

Aggressive behaviour is a normal way of communication for dogs, although all animals will try to avoid using it as much as possible.

Finding the reasons why a dog is aggressive and learning how to handle an aggressive dog is an essential part of dog ownership. If your dog becomes uncontrollable in a public place you will be prosecuted and your dog may be put down. And those outcomes are not even reliant on the dog's biting; the UK Government guidance on Dog law states: ‘A dog can be regarded as being dangerously out of control on any occasion where it causes fear or apprehension to a person.’

Which dogs are aggressive?

Any dog has the potential to be aggressive. However, some dogs have historically been bred to fight, kill or protect. This breeding has allowed the primal carnivore to come through the soft and cuddly temperament and sometimes bubble over.

Oddly enough, some of the smaller terrier dogs such as the Jack Russell are said to possess the most aggressive natures. But it is the aggressive tendencies of the larger breeds (German Shepherd, Pitbull, Rottweiler) that cause people most concern, not necessarily due to their nature but because of the damage that such a large dog can do to another dog or a human.

Some believe that aggression is determined by ‘nurture’. That is to say, a puppy that is born in the human environment will at once be susceptible to our treatment of it. The way it is brought up then begins to shape its temperament. If the puppy is brought up in a harsh way (e.g. subjected to cruelty) or is encouraged to hurt other animals then it will develop into a dangerous dog.

On the other hand, if the puppy is brought up in a caring way, if it is taught to socialise, is trained with positive reinforcement methods, is berated with negative praise rather than a slap, and learns the social restrictions of humanness, then its primal desires fade, to be replaced by an acceptance of its place in society. Thus, it is seen that how the puppy (and the juvenile dog) is treated by man is the firm determinant of its final temperament.

In reality, any type of behaviour is the result of a mix of early experience, current circumstances, and the genetic makeup of that specific individual.

How to deal with an aggressive dog

There are several reasons why your dog may display aggressive behaviour. Here are the types of aggression and with them how best you should deal with the aggression. A vitally important part of dog ownership is to ensure that you or a member of your family plays the top dog and that your dog does not see herself in this top spot.

Defensive aggression

It is useful to know that when a dog has been ‘naughty’ and she hides herself away or slinks down to the floor she is being submissive. This is a behavioural trait of dogs and wolves that live in packs and is a vital way to maintain order and dominance, thus ensuring the continuation of the pack.

You must not berate any dog physically but if you do so verbally and your dog hides or makes herself smaller then you must leave her alone. If you do not, and you reach for her, she will feel threatened and assume that you are about to hurt her and her mechanism of self-defence is to bite. In the case of defensive aggression, the ignorance of dog owners plays a large part in the trouble that ensues.

Territorial aggression

Your dog enjoys patrolling her territory. A dog’s primal instinct to patrol and protect her pack is strong but for most well-adjusted dogs the shows of territorial dominance are kept to an acceptable minimum. Weeing in the house is one such way of reasserting territory. Jumping up on a visitor and barking are also ways that your dog is warning you of an encroachment. As top dog you will be able to control this type of aggression with some stern words.

Pain-related aggression

If you own a dog and also have young children you must teach them about the tendency of sick or older dogs to want to be alone. A sick dog feels vulnerable, and vulnerability is one of the biggest triggers of a dog's aggression. Older dogs that are either short of sight or hearing feel similarly vulnerable and need to be cared for in a special way.

If your adult dog suddenly starts to behave aggressively, visit a vet to find out whether there is a possible medical cause. If your dog is old and showing pain-related aggression, her quality of life should be carefully assessed.  Pain-related aggression can strike at any time (we don’t always know when a dog feels unwell) but you can deal with this by being extra vigilant of her behaviour, and treating her with the right medication.

If you are the victim of an aggressive dog that you do not own then there are a few things you must remember of your own behaviour. Remain calm and don't run away; instead walk away slowly without turning your back. Avoid eye contact and do not smile at the dog; instead use a soft and soothing voice as you walk away. If the dog makes a dash for you try to put something between you and the dog. Hitting the dog will only make things worse.

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