No label sticks to a dog like the word aggression. Once your dog has been branded with it, you will end up the outcast in your community, the villain in the dog park, and the uninvited guest at dog friendly events. The “A-word” really is the scarlet letter of the dog owner’s world. Some dogs get called aggressive for the wrong reasons and some people even put that heavy stigma on their very own dogs incorrectly.

That’s the problem with the term aggression in dogs – it’s a word so freely used but so rarely understood. I’ve gotten many calls over the years to help out with “aggressive” dogs, only to meet the dog and find it wasn’t aggression at all. Everyone seems to have a different definition of aggression, with many variations on the same symptoms. Typically, they include some or all of the following: growling, snarling, showing of teeth, hair standing up, lunging, barking, snapping, and biting.

Although most of the time the cases I’ve seen are not what I would consider true aggression, it doesn’t make the behavior any less concerning and should be treated as soon as the behavior presents itself. Remember, the longer a behavior goes on the longer and harder it is to correct.

In my opinion, if the dog is biting and letting go, that’s a great sign. That pretty much means that the dog doesn’t really want to bite, he just feels he needs to, usually due to a feeling of anxiety, insecurity or fear. Ian Dunbar, the world famous dog trainer, tells a great story of how he was at a shelter looking at a dog that he was considering adopting. After getting bit by the dog three times, Ian turned to the shelter staff and said, “I’ll take him.” Why would he adopt a dog that just put his teeth on him multiple times? Because he bit and let go – he showed he has bite inhibition. That, Ian explained, you can work with.

In my job as a dog trainer I’ve been the victim of a number of these kinds of bites and although they do still hurt, they are good signs the dog doesn’t really want to bite. It’s the dog’s current state of mind that is making him feel that he has to bite in that situation. You are always more likely to get bit by an anxious or fearful dog than a truly aggressive one.

The thing about aggression is that it never comes out of nowhere. Dogs are telling us exactly how they feel every single second; we just may not be reading the signs correctly. It’s up to us to recognize the potential symptoms of aggression early on and do something about it right away. If your dog is starting to growl when you approach his food, help him change his behavior before he gets to the point that he resorts to a bite. Too many people let these things go on for too long and then when they finally make the call for help, it will be a long, slow rehab process. One in which many people won’t or can’t go through, forcing them to give up on the dog.

Next week I’ll talk about aggression toward people and dogs, followed by resource guarding and food aggression.

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