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What Is Aggression? Reactivity vs. Aggression

Aggressive dogs - one of the problems most often brought to the attention of professional dog trainers, but also a number one reason why dogs are surrendered to shelters worldwide. When we get a dog we have this idea of things going smoothly and of the dog adapting to our family right away, but things don’t always go as we plan, and a dog might start showing aggressive behaviors due to lack of training, bad experiences or inexperienced owners.

Dog calming treats sure do a lot of help but are times when we really need to inspect closer on their behavior. This can be scary if you are unsure of how to deal with it, so we are going to have a look at what aggression in dogs is, how it presents itself and what you can do if your dog shows signs of being aggressive.


dog play fight

Defining Dog Aggression

What most people associate with dog aggression is a full-blown attack, where a dog physically overpowers or bites a human, another dog or animal, but aggression can be much more than that. You may have even seen subtle signs without realizing, and as a dog owner, it is important to recognize signs of aggression and to understand what aggression is in order to properly deal with it. For a dog to act aggressively is always an issue, as aggression towards other humans and/or animals is not acceptable behavior or even a natural behavior for a dog.

When we talk about aggression, we are referring to constant or reoccurring aggressive behavior, like a perfectly balanced and healthy dog can act aggressively at a certain point in time when being spooked or overwhelmed. This would be considered normal, provided that it does not happen often or always when the dog faces a certain situation. When you have a dog, it is absolutely essential to make sure that dog cannot harm anyone - animal or human - and to take precautions if the dog exhibits aggressive behaviors.

Difference Between Aggression and Reactivity

When learning about aggression, it is also important to know what can mimic aggression, while actually being reactivity. A reactive dog is not the same as an aggressive dog, and even though the signs are somewhat similar - the underlying reason for the behavior is different. Reactive dogs are - simply put - dogs that are prone to overreacting. It could be that they have an irrational fear of vacuum cleaners and bark obsessively every time they see one, or that they freak out and snarl and growl each time a strange man comes to the house.

These types of behaviors are common in rescue dogs and tend to have their root in fear caused by traumatic experiences, but it could also occur in family dogs that - to their human family members’ knowledge - have never had a bad experience. These dogs may act aggressive, when, in fact, they are being reactive. Identifying the cause of the behavior will be the first step towards solving it.


3 dog play fight
Different Types of Aggression

Aggression can have many causes. Just like with reactivity, fear is a common cause of aggression, and dogs that are uncomfortable in a situation may develop an aggressive response to situations they feel out of control in. Other common forms of aggression are resource guarding, where the dog gets aggressive when someone (animal or human) approaches an item or individual that they feel belongs to them, or that they want to “protect.”

There is also aggression caused by territorial behaviors, lack of socialization, hormone-driven aggression (such as when a female dog somewhere near is in heat), predatory aggression where dogs may act aggressively towards cats or smaller animals, frustration related aggression and aggression caused by stress or pain. Same as with reactive behaviors, you need to try to identify the cause of your dog’s aggression, and why he or she acts the way that he/she is.

Signs of Aggression

All dogs express aggression differently, but common signs are for the dog to show the whites of its eyes, baring teeth, growling, staring directly at you or even a stiff posture while looking at you out of the corner of its eye. There is a tension there before a bite which is easy to see with experience, but that might come as a complete surprise to someone with less dog experience, or who hasn’t been in the situation before. Pay attention to your dog’s body language, give him or her space and always ask first before approaching someone else’s dog.

When to Get Professional Help

You should always consult a professional dog trainer if your dog is acting aggressively towards you or others, as you want to nip it in the bud as early on as possible. Aggression in small dogs should also be taken seriously, despite their small size, as they too can cause significant harm. Being aggressive is also very stressful for the dog, so make sure you seek help if you notice aggressive behaviors in your dog.

KarmaPets produces dog calming treats that are very effective on this dog behavior issues. It is also recommendable to start out by contacting a veterinarian, especially if the behaviors have appeared or escalated suddenly, as it could be a sign of illness or pain.