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Dogs showing aggressive behaviour towards humans, known and unknown

Dogs showing aggressive behaviour towards humans is a common and serious behaviour issue. It poses a significant risk to those interacting with the dog, and the general public, as well as being an indicator of a dog who is not coping in its environment.

Dogs showing aggressive behaviour towards humans is a common and serious behaviour issue. It poses a significant risk to those interacting with the dog, and the general public, as well as being an indicator of a dog who is not coping in its environment.

Aggression is simply behaviour which is used to try and repel a perceived threat. That can vary from intense staring and lowering the head, to bites. It is extremely unusual for a dog to bite to repel a person without first having tried other methods such as staring, posturing, or growling. However, what they learn from an interaction with one person can influence how they interact with the next. For example, if someone repeatedly ignored a dog that was growling and kept stroking them, the next person who went to stroke the dog may be snapped at, because the dog learnt previously that growling wasn’t an effective way to stop people stroking them.

Aggression is a normal part of animal behaviour, and it happens for a reason. There must be a reason for an animal to feel the need to repel someone who is close to them, approaching them, or they anticipate will do so. What emotions lead to that motivation to repel people is a key part of knowing how best to understand and modify the behaviour. The most common emotions which lead dogs to bite people are fear and frustration.

In terms of modifying aggressive behaviour, we need to understand what triggers the response, and what emotions drive it. Then we can look at how to create more positive, or neutral feelings about those triggers, as well as helping the dog to have safer, more appropriate ways to express themselves. It is also vital that the people interacting with the dog can analyse their own behaviour and understand how that influences the issue. Ultimately it is not just the dog who needs to modify their behaviour, but also the people.

The way that people react to aggression from a dog is extremely important. Their reactions directly influence their own safety, the safety of future people who interact with the dog, and the dogs own welfare. Aggression is communication. A dog displaying aggression towards a person is telling them to stop what they are doing and move away. And that is exactly what you should do. Failure to do so will likely lead to increasing levels of aggression as the dog tries hard to get rid of you. During an aggressive episode is not the time to be trying to change the dog’s behaviour. Instead, we should focus on defusing the situation.

Behaviour Infographic showing the stages of aggression in dogs

If a dog starts to show any signs of aggression (stiffening, staring, lip curling, growling) avoid direct eye contact and slowly and calmly move away. If possible, try to get to the other side of a door, or into another room. If they are blocking the way, try to toss food or a toy to distract them. Do not try to confront the dog or punish them. Screaming, shouting or panicked behaviour as also likely to make the situation worse. Seek professional advice as soon as possible. A check up with your vet is also a must as ill health can greatly increase the tendency to use aggressive behaviours. 

By behaviourist, Sophie White

About the Author

Sophie White, BVetMed MSc MRCVS, is a veterinary surgeon with over a decade of experience. She is also a Dog Behaviourist, specialising in human directed aggression, handling issues & cases with complex medical histories.

More articles from Sophie White

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