Dog Aggression: Quick Overview of 5 Common Causes

Is your dog showing aggressive behavior? Dealing with dog aggression can be scary but there’s hope!

Aggression is not a personality trait, it’s a response to specific stimuli. You’re able to change this response through training.

I’ll start by breaking down what are some common warning signs of aggression in dogs. After knowing what signs you should look out for, you’ll need to identify its cause. Only then can we work towards helping your dog overcome these aggressive reactions.

What Is Dog Aggression?

Most of the time, when people talk about “aggressive behavior” they’re talking about biting. But, aggressive behavior starts long before that.

It’s very rare that a dog doesn’t show any signs before jumping into an attack. We just need to train ourselves to identify these warning signs. So the first step to help your dog is to pick up when he shows these subtle signs of aggressive behavior. Next, it’s very important to follow this up by understanding the cause of this reaction.

So let’s jump into what are some common signs of aggressive behavior in dogs.


Signs of Aggression in Dogs

As mentioned earlier, dogs rarely jump into biting without any warning. Make sure you keep an eye out for the following behaviors:

  • Stiff body posture
  • Raised hair along the spine
  • Tail wagging vertically and very fast
  • Showing teeth
  • Growling
  • Snarling (a combination of growling and showing teeth)
  • Guttural barking

Additionally, be aware of what happens around your dog (or to him) that triggers any of these reactions. That way, you’ll be able to understand the reason behind your dog’s aggressive behavior.

5 Common Causes of Dog Aggression

Start by asking questions like these:

  • What is your dog trying to gain with his aggressive behavior? 
  • Is he being aggressive so nobody picks up his toy?
  • Or so that you don’t touch his paws or ears? 
  • Is it to keep someone away from your house? 

This will help you link your dog’s behavior with, at least, one of the following common reasons.

1. Medical Condition

If your dog suddenly displays signs of aggression, this can be due to a health problem. For example, if he was never aggressive and suddenly starts growling when you try to touch one of his paws. This can mean that there is a problem with that paw.

Illness and injury can cause discomfort or pain to your dog. This leads him to show some aggression towards anybody or anything that comes near him. He does this to avoid risking more discomfort and pain.

This can be caused by health issues such as arthritis, bone fractures, or tumors. Neurological conditions can also be a cause for this behavior.

2. Fear

Dogs that display this type of aggression are afraid of something (or someone). If they’re unable to get away from it, they turn to aggression to make it go away.

This type of aggression is closely related to the fight-or-flight response. This response is an animal’s reaction to a perceived threat to its survival.

Dogs usually choose to get away from the threat (the “flight” mode) as this will cause less amount of damage to them. But, if running away is not an option (because there’s no way out or they’re on a leash), dogs turn to aggression.

This type of aggression is very common in rescue dogs. They’ve likely been through severe trauma like being abused or neglected. It’s also common to see this type of aggression in dogs that weren’t properly socialized as a puppy.

3. Possessiveness

This type of aggression is also known as resource guarding. 

When a dog tries to protect a valuable item from being taken from him, he’s showing this type of aggression. A valuable item can be anything from food, a favorite toy, his house or sleeping area (territory), or even his owner.

Possessiveness is shown when a dog growls if someone approaches his “valuable item”.

4. Dominance

I want to start saying that, like aggression, dominance is a behavior, not a personality trait. Your dog may have a tendency towards being dominant or submissive. But, this is ultimately determined by the current circumstances.

Dominant dogs always feel like they need to protect their pack (e.g. you and other family members). This protection can be from any threats, even if this means they will end up getting hurt in the process. If your dog has a tendency to be dominant, he’ll also be aggressive if he feels his dominance is being threatened.

This type of aggression is more common towards other dogs but can also happen towards humans. It’s especially more common between intact male dogs.

A subtle (and often disregarded) sign of dominance is placing parts of their body (e.g. his head) over other dogs.

5. Frustration

This type of aggression is also called Redirected Aggression. 

Dogs get frustrated for not being able to get to something (a toy, a human or another dog). It’s possible that your dog can take out his frustration in another way such as aggression.

This is very common in dogs that spend a lot of time tied up or restrained in any way (by a leash, fence, or crate). Another common (are rarely considered) reason is lack of exercise. Your dog may need more exercise (physical and mental) to use its energy and not have it bottled up, ready to explode.


Breeds and Dog Aggression

A lot of people think that there is a relationship between breed and aggressive behavior. But, that has been proven to be incorrect. Data shows it’s wrong to assess a dog’s risk of becoming aggressive on characteristics such as breed.  It also says that the most important factor is the past life experience of a dog.

Of course, bigger dogs will inflict bigger damages. That’s why aggressive behavior from smaller dogs is usually ignored. And, aggressive behavior from bigger dogs gets addressed.  But there’s no correlation between dog aggression and their breed.

Tips to Stop Dog Aggression

  • The first step should be to check with your vet to rule out any possible medical condition.
  • If you live in an apartment, there’s a possibility that your dog is not having enough exercise. Start taking longer walks with him. Do this over the course of at least 1 month so you’re able to see if there are any changes in his behavior.
  • After ruling out any medical conditions and lack of exercise, do not try to fix this problem on your own. Talk to a professional dog trainer or you may make it worse by applying the wrong techniques. You can ask your vet for references.
  •  The dog trainer you choose should have previous experience in treating dog aggression. He should also use positive reinforcement instead of punishment. Punishing an aggressive dog will make it worse
  • The dog trainer has to be available to work where your dog usually shows aggressive behavior
  • You need to be comfortable with the training process and techniques. You’ll need to follow any and all the indications that the trainer gives you. You are the person that spends the most amount of time with your dog.

This is not a problem that you’ll solve in one day. Together with the trainer, you’ll need to create a plan to fix this issue. You’ll need to dedicate time and patience to help your dog overcome this.

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2 Replies to “Dog Aggression: Quick Overview of 5 Common Causes”

  1. Very nice blog post, Beatriz!

    I have a little question for you:

    Is there a relation between dog aggression and Race?

    The reason why I ask you this is because I saw an “accident” a few years ago where somebody was working out (running) with his dog (a pitbull) without chain and the dog attacked somebody working out with apparently, no significant signal.

    I hope you can help me understand that weird moment.

    thanks in advance 🙂

    1. Hi! I’m glad you enjoyed the post! 😄

      As stated in the post, studies show that there is no relationship between dog aggression and breed. The major factor for dog aggression is associated with the dog’s past experience.

      In the case you mentioned, if the dog really didn’t show any signs before, the only explanation would be predatory aggression.

      With predatory aggression, dogs don’t show any signs (or else they would spook the prey). This would be the case if the dog have had been living on the street and had been forced to hunt in order to survive. Otherwise, it’s very rare that dogs display this type of behavior since, because humans have been feeding them since they’ve been domesticated, evolution made it so that they don’t need predatory instincts anymore.

      Hope I was able to clear it up. 😊


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