By Jennie K. Willis, PHD

What is the function of aggressive behavior in dogs? It scares us and galvanizes us into action, often without a lot of thought. Most of the time we react by yelling at them to stop, pulling hard on the leash or swatting at them. Sometimes it includes removing them from the situation. I want to help you understand what the “goal” of an aggressive response is for your dog when it happens.

Aggressive behavior is a response to something happening in the environment. The function of aggressive behavior is to get the threat to stop or get farther away. Aggression is motivated by fear not malice.

Example 1: A person comes into view on a walking trail behind the yard. The dog barks. The person disappears down the trail. In the dog’s brain, the barking kept him safe. What is the dog afraid of? Strangers or things changing.

Example 2: A person reaches for a dog’s collar. The dog growls. The person lets go. The growling helped the dog stay in control of his body.

Example 3: A person is petting a dog. The dog bites the person’s hand. The person stops petting. The bite helped the touch stop.

Aggression is a communication at the level it works to stop the threat. Aggression is a range of behaviors. From freezing and staring, to growling and barking, to lunging and snapping and finally biting… all of these behaviors are on the continuum of aggression. Lower level behaviors are often ignored by the dog’s human caregiver, or even sometimes punished. If we know they are expressing a fear, punishing them or ignoring them just means they have to communicate more clearly as the stakes get higher. It doesn’t mean their fear goes away.

A dog freezes as they are being examined. The exam continues. The dog growls. The dog is punished for growling and the growling stops. The exam continues. With no growl this time, the dog turns and snaps at the person. The communication continues to escalate because the message is not being received.

Aggression doesn’t work in every situation. Aggression works as a strategy when there is a single target or the targets are close together. Aggression doesn’t make sense when the dog is surrounded by threatening targets. You may have heard the saying, “you can’t fight a war on all fronts.” When targets are all around, a different fear behavior makes more sense. Often these dogs check out or shut down. They may stop listening or start sniffing. Sometimes, cooperation might even be a safer strategy. It doesn’t mean they feel differently. If the number of threats decreases to only one, the aggressive strategy may reappear. This is often confusing for owners since their dog appears “fine” in some situations and not others.

Aggression can get worse with more exposure. When a dog goes on a walk and sees the first dog on the walk, they may tense up but not growl. This may occur with the second and third dog observed as well. The fourth dog observed on the walk gets a growl. The fifth and sixth dogs observed get a lunging and barking response at the end of the leash. What was different about these dogs? Often the humans focus on what was different about the dogs- yellow lab, young, male etc. However, many times it is the number of threats in a short period of time that lead the response to each new threat to get more pronounced.

Why do some dogs not warn with lower level communications first? Learning history is very important here. If a dog is afraid of getting its nails trimmed, and has been historically ignored if they simply struggled. If instead they growled, the nail trimming would stop. After a couple of times, the physical struggle would stop and the only behavior displayed as the owner tried to trim nails would be the growl. If the growl is ignored, it may escalate to a bite. If a dog has a learning history where only biting worked, lower levels of communication may not be offered. If lower levels of communication are punished, the dog keeps it together to avoid punishment as long as they can, then breaks through and bites when its emotions take over.

So let’s look again at our typical responses to aggressive behavior. If aggression is a fear response to being threatened, and our response is to startle them or cause them pain… do they get less afraid? Or more afraid? This is where punishment backfires and costs us their progress in treatment and also our relationship. If we punish them for being afraid, they get worse. If we become another thing they are afraid of, we can’t have the relationship we want with them. We constantly put them in a “rock and a hard place” situation by reacting that way.

There is help for aggression. Let’s face it, aggression is scary. But having an aggressive dog and not knowing how to help them or what to do is scarier. You can help them feel less afraid and ease the stress for both of you. Almost all dogs respond successfully to a scientific, humane and effective approach. Don’t wait to seek professional help.