Dog Aggression – Is it predictable? How do humans’ contribute to dog aggression? Are we responsible? Part One


Joyce Kesling CDBC

Published 2009

Dog Aggression – Is it predictable?  How do humans’ contribute to dog aggression?  Are we responsible? Part One 

Fighting between dogs is common and often normal dog behavior; however, we should be concerned how successfully we socialize our dogs, as well as consider the contextual environment and quality of where and how social interactions take place.  I previously discussed, if using dominance as a construct was useful in intraspecific (dog-dog) and interspecific (dog-human) relationships see Dominance – is it appropriate to explain social relationships between dogs and humans? 

The focus was how dogs learn to communicate with each other, the importance of contextual cues available to them in the environment, the physiological and mental states of each individual participant and their earlier social experience.  These elements set the tone for each individual dog’s future communicative abilities, their confidence, and adaptability in changing environments and social situations.

Applying this same associative learning principle to developing dog-human relationships, this paper discusses how owners contribute to their dog’s behavior and how predictable an individual dogs’ future behavior develops based on our decisions and behavior.


“It is every behaviorist’s hope to see a dog that they would like to own or have as a neighbor – a dog that can socialize with other dogs, cope with the stresses of modern living, behave in a way that is acceptable to the wider community – and an owner that is fully informed about responsible dog ownership” (Judson 1995).

The preceding quote underscores the importance for being an educated responsible dog owner.  Dog owners’ benefit by having a satisfying dog-human relationship and bond, when they fail, in most instances, the dog pays the greatest price!  This is no laughing matter, “behavior problems are one of the major reasons behind dog abandonment, disposal, and euthanasia” (Arkow & Dow, 1984; Scarlett et al., 2002; Landsberg, 1991; Overall, 1997).

It begins first with breed selection

Breed choice made by owners in many instances determines success or failure.  Some breeds need more skill and handling for an average dog owner, do not set yourself and dog up to fail because you have selected a dog above your training ability.  Guarding dogs and large breeds in general can be more difficult to handle than small dogs, however, all dogs need training.  The differences between large and small dogs is size, weight, genetics, breed function, and your ability to give enough training to manage large dogs, otherwise large dogs present more risks and liability issues when unexpected things go wrong.

The first thing owners should consider is their experience with dogs.  Second is one’s familiarity with specific breeds and or size dogs.  Third how much time do you have for training, what is your skill level and how much do you know about dog behavior.  The fourth consideration is picking a dog that fits your lifestyle not a choice based on magazine pictures, TV shows, movies, last winning dog at Westminster, and immediately available at local pet shops that you should be steering clear of in the first place!

Mismatched owners and dogs!

According to research, “mismatched” owners cause serious problems for dogs.  So serious they suggest owners’ inability to respond appropriately to dogs, the quality and timing delivering cues and how well their dog understands what’s being communicated not only affects training new behaviors but also maintaining trained behavior!

The researchers (Yamamoto et al., 2009) speculated three factors decreased future performance, 1.)  delayed reward/punishment  2.) delayed presentation of commandsdelivery quality, and poor attention 3.)  leaves the dog confused.  The authors suggest a “negative psychological effect” of feeling awkward, already demonstrated in humans, and possible that dog’s experience this same “negative psychological effect” leading to the confused state.  An animal can’t sufficiently learn and support trained behaviors in a state of confusion.  This emphasizes clear, consistent communication from both ends of the leash, this means respecting what your dog is communicating to you!

Professional dog trainers already know how important delivery of commands affects performance and training.  We recognize dogs’ attention is important when delivering cues, verbal and visual, and how timing of reinforcement and/or punishment effects successful training.

The purpose for this research was to look at how owner responses and delayed timing affected their dogs overall performance.  Their results suggest an overall importance of timing when training new behaviors as well as maintaining already trained behaviors in everyday life.

The consequences of your choice and “mismatch” and ignoring these factors causes “stress, frustration, and anxiety in dogs” emphasizing the importance that owners need to understand how their action’s influence their dog’s behavior (Yamamoto et al., 2009).

Owner knowledge and ability

An owner’s relationship and ability to manage and train their dog is critical to dogs succeeding in adapting to differing human environments.  According to a study (Kass 1998), there are differences between people who relinquish pets to shelters and those who do not.  There were occasions when loss of job, change in income, and/or changes in family was given as a reason; however, the majority was young, poor, and less educated.  Many had a poor understanding what it means to own pets, vaccination schedules, neutering, basic training, and knowledge of animal behavior.

Dog-owner bond, it’s important to avoid creating conflicts

Because a dog’s behavior affects its relationship and attachment with its owners, its later behavior has profound effects on their perception of the dog.  This is why behavior problems and/or preventive measure need addressed during the socialization and juvenile period.  This means training and socialization begins the day owners bring the new puppy home and throughout the rest of their lives!  Developmental phases vary according to breed, individual dog and generally, toy breeds mature faster.

It’s recommended owners understand normal canine behavior, their developmental periods, what is expected behaviorally, how to effectively use reinforcement and/or appropriate punishment, and recognize how to change problem behavior before it gets worse.  Seek professional help early and not later if necessary, behavior problems have a better chance for successful resolution when owners are proactive.

According to Pageat (1999), what puppies learn during the socialization period will affect their behavior for the rest of their life.  He suggests behaviors necessary for successful adaptation should include learning self-control, intra and interspecific communication (dog and human), rules and social hierarchies, detachment, confidence in exploring their environment and socialization skills with humans.

Success means, you need the right help

Professional dog trainers help you; we develop the skill and art through education and hands-on-learning.  Like any skill, it takes time to learn, we don’t expect owners to have this skill.  However, owners benefit when they choose good trainers.  We help you prevent behavior problems preserving quality of life for your dog.  Trainers with a background in dog behavior would be one’s wisest choice.

Certified members of  International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants need to meet 5 Core Areas of Expertise.  They require completion of 36 CEU’s (continuing education units) every two years.  You should qualify dog trainers and dog behaviorists.  Ask to see their resume, where they obtained their certifications and credentials.

Your purpose is deciding between dog trainers educated in modern scientifically sound training practices from those that do not.  Your choice should be dog trainers and/or behavior consultants that use positive reinforcement, understand dog communication and use correction only if necessary using the least amount of force, sometimes called LIMA least intrusive minimally aversive

According to research (Gazzano et al., 2008) it is common belief that information provided by skilled professionals has a positive effect on the bond between dogs and humans, how dogs interact with others, and how well they adapt to living with us.  The authors suggest aside from medical problems, owners contribute to behavior problems in three ways 1.)  lack of knowledge about a dogs biological and socio-psychological needs, 2.)  incorrect expectations either projected on dogs from owners at the species’ level and/or at the individual level, 3.)  and improper interactive behavior with one’s pet!

For more information on research mentioned in the preceding paragraph see “The prevention of undesirable behaviors in dogs: effectiveness of veterinary behaviorists’ advice given to puppy owners” Journal Veterinary Behavior (2008), Vol. 3, No. 3 May/June.

If you have a serious behavior problem you may want to consult with a board certified veterinary behaviorist (ACVB or AVSAB) or certified applied behaviorist (ABS).  However, there are limited numbers of these professionals.  The purpose of IAABC  provides access to professionally trained dog behavior specialists.  Many members not only train dogs, but also give preventative behavioral advice, puppy selection help, referrals to qualified breeders, qualified shelters/rescues, and specialized classes for specific problems e.g. “feisty fido.”

Understanding punishment and its effect on training and future behavior

“The aggressor always had a purpose behind his attack; he wanted something to be done, some object to be surrendered by the defender.”  ~ Mahatma Gandhi

First, let us define aggression so we understand how inappropriate harsh punishment and forceful training sets dogs up as victims often using aggression to protect themselves, leaving us wondering what happened; given the myth dogs love us unconditionally.  In current veterinary literature, many definitions as well as categories for aggression are proposed.  According to Reisner (1998), “aggression is a harmful stimulus directed toward a subject, with evidence of intent and arousal, and toward which the target responds aversively.”  Others conclude dogs are predators, thus it is necessary to include agonistic behavior in their entire repertoire.  According to scientists, canine aggression is a normal behavior and according to Beaver (1999), “…represents a normal expression of distance-increasing vocal and postural communication.”  E.O. Wilson says (1975, 2000), aggression is a “physical act or threat of action by one individual that reduces the freedom or genetic fitness of another.” 

I’fully agree with Beaver’s definition, when we define aggression and accept it as normal canine behavior, our responsibility should be to understand, appreciate and respect dogs and what they are communicating to us.  Wilson’s definition suggests aggression can affect the genetic fitness of another individual, one could use captive wolves as an example.  See Dominance – is it appropriate to explain social relationships between dogs and humans?

Reisner’s definition, states, “…aggression is a harmful stimulus,” the “target” of aggression can be expected to respond “aversively.”  Dogs are predators, according to leading canine researchers and veterinarians, agonistic (aggression) behavior is acceptable as part of their signaling repertoire and considered normal.  Humans are technically classified as predators, both species have recognized aggressive behavior, as well as appeasement (submissive) therefore, when humans forcefully interact with dogs, we can and should not be surprised when they retaliate using aggressive responses.  We set our dogs up to fail when we choose aversive methods of training and correcting unwanted canine behavior.   

Influence or indifference of television trainers!

The influence coming from television related training has created a paradox for dog professionals.  One popular dog training program promotes a person who admittedly has no education in professional dog training and definitely, no formal education in normal dog behavior described in scientific literature and taught at universities.  On the other hand, this “dog whisperer” has brought to the public’s attention dog behavior problems are resolvable, but that is as far as credit goes.

What is often observed on the “dog whisperer” could and is described as manhandling and often includes physical punishment and provoking the dog.  According to Lindsay (2005), canine dominance aggression (CDA) is handled as a “damage-limiting option” and not a “routine aspect of the behavior-therapy process.”  He further emphasizes working with already established aggressors that punishment should be limited but ONLY after “basic control” is established using reward-based training!  This is in direct conflict with what can be observed on the National Geographic program. 

Manhandling dogs was commonly recommended for controlling aggression, but this was over 50 years ago, we’ve come a long way culturally and professionally and this type of dog training is highly questionable and poses many risks.  Even someone like the “dog whisperer” who often manhandles dogs successfully e.g. lifting them off their front feet, forcing them to the ground, choking them to the point of submission, does not generalize the dog’s behavior toward others.  Rather it will cause risky situations for family members, especially children, visitors, and strangers that encounter that dog.

The types of punishment often viewed and condemned is at best only suppressing threat displays with no change in emotional response to the conflicts occurring between owner and dog.  The dog often subjected to these methods is often the dog described as biting without warning and supposed provocation!

According to Lindsay (2005), manhandling causes the following dangerous situations.

  1. Inexperienced owners are at significant and unnecessary risk of being bitten
  2. Manhandling does little to change the causes of domestic aggression and it may actually increase the dog’s aggression
  3. Manhandling may suppress early warning signs of aggression thus making it less predictable and more dangerous

Professional dog trainers are expected as part of their professional obligation to help owners with aggressive dogs; however, this help should be carried out using appropriate restraint while avoiding provoking circumstances that necessitate methods of intimidation for self-defense.  Unavoidable mistakes may occur, professional dog trainers should be prepared to handle these kinds of situations using a variety of restraint methods; however, these emergency procedures should never be confused with training!

With all the educational programs given the professional dog training industry, there is no excuse for mistreatment and manhandling dogs, especially when used as examples of training!  Instead, dog trainers and owners should look to “more thoughtful, creative, experimental, playful, friendly” ways to train ultimately forming a trusting bond essential for the control and avoidance of canine domestic aggression (Lindsay, 2005).

Dogs are individuals

The problems between owners and dogs often begin when dogs aren’t recognized as individuals with individual needs.  This is one reason it is problematic to buy and/or adopt siblings.  It would be unfair and incorrect to assume that both dogs in spite of being siblings, growing up in the same environment convey they both have the same needs.  Each dog needs individual attention, training, and socialization.  This is time intensive for an average dog owner who only wants a companion dog.  In addition, raising siblings is ill-advised because often one puppy succeeds while the other fails to achieve its full potential.  San Rafael, a Guide Dog organization identified two key problems, raising siblings in the same home was one but did not occur when two puppies from different litters were raised together (Lindsay 2000). One could suggest raising two siblings together raises quality of life issues for one of the dogs! 

Socialization and aggression

Another problem occurs when dogs do not stay with the mother long enough to receive enough discipline.  Dogs lacking this experience were found over-aggressive with some becoming aggressive when over-socialized with other dogs.  Dogs learn easily from other dogs, this includes bad behavior.

Milani (2009) suggests we should not assume because we want to take part in an activity our dogs would naturally enjoy the same activity.  For some dogs’ long walks, dog daycare, dog parks, canine sports, and canine competition might be unwelcome, causing anxiety and stress more than enjoyment.  Additionally, too much exercise can actually make dog behavior worse.  Forcing your dog to take part in activities they do not enjoy causes stress and the activity is associated with the owner.  One could suggest unless you recognize your dog enjoys any/all activities you choose to engage, you are jeopardizing your relationship, trust, and the bond between you and your dog.  No one likes being forced to do something they do not like or want to do.

These are a few examples of developmentally related problems and failure to recognize individualism, but nonetheless three examples leading to unwanted behavior; one is related to early developmental considerations, the second highlights mistakes owners make not recognizing dogs as individuals and the third is not recognizing your dog’s temperament and developing personality.

This underscores understanding dog behavior academically is important, dog trainers not sufficiently educated to recognize these kinds of problems are unable to counsel clients sufficiently.  Instead, they focus on fixing the dog sometimes using aversive training methods, they are ill-equipped to educate the owner, concerning the dog’s motivation for the problem behavior.  Owners need to recognize developmentally related problems as well as treat them.  It is a welfare and quality of life issue.

Dominance overused and incorrect labeling leads to aggression!

Dominance widely used in academic and popular literature is used to describe dog behavior and certain types of aggression labeled “dominance aggression.”  Dominance used correctly describes relationships between individuals and “erroneously used to describe a supposed trait of individual dogs,” with little evidence, this trait exists (Bradshaw, et al. 2009).

The use of dominance to explain a dog’s undesirable behavior and used in dog training is still being used today in spite of research scientists suggesting this is incorrect.  Today, most “zoologists agree the wolf pack should be regarded as an extended family” consisting of a breeding pair and offspring.  The original confusion came from differences between scientists studying natural wolf packs and their behavior from those studying captive wolves and their behavior.  The difference between captive wolf behavior and natural wolf behavior discussed in more detail in Dominance – is it appropriate to explain social relationships between dogs and humans?

Researchers (Mech, 1999, Packard, 2003, Gadbois, 2002) suggested natural wolf packs more closely model a human family, with parents being dominant to offspring.  The breeding pair uses both agonistic and affiliative behavior that serves to promote a cooperative family unit.  Natural wolf packs form when two young unrelated male and female wolves form a relationship, breed, and produce offspring.  The older wolves “share the leadership role” and have the greatest rights in decision-making.  The roles of the adults may change depending on the goals of the family, such as; the female wolf may exercise a leading role in parental care, while males take up the role of foraging and protecting territory perimeters.

Packard (2003) argued strongly against the linear hierarchal structure advanced before, suggesting the hierarchy was more flexible, and inter-individual relationships included both agonistic and affiliative behavior that serve to support a peaceful social structure.  In addition, Packard (2003) says, dominant behavior toward offspring could be viewed as parental aggression when exercising control over offspring, and exploratory behavior from youngsters viewed as testing the limits of parental indulgence (Miklosi, 2007).

According to Miklosi, (2007), the “family concept does not exclude hierarchical/dominant relationships” older adults simply outrank offspring by physical strength and experience, and by default are leaders.  Depending on the size of the pack, lower ranking wolves may provide leadership roles however, this only occurs shortly before their dispersal.

Our spin on canine dominance aggression

The spin on canine aggression is most often viewed from our perspective, which only makes sense, given we humans have a difficult time imagining other animals have different perspectives and behaviors that enable them to adapt to their environment based on their own physiology and mental capacities.  We have a bad habit of viewing humans as being superior to other animals, credit most often attributed to language, humans being the only species have what we’ve defined as language, but this doesn’t mean other species lack communicative ability or quality of life issues equal to ours.

Lindsay (2007) suggests there may be a different spin, another hypothesis explaining why dogs bite humans and most often their owners!  He says, “…the social dominance hypothesis does not seem to have much value for understanding and treating most intrafamilial and extrafamilial aggression problems.”  According to Lindsay, canine dominance aggression conflicts with this hypothesis because these dogs generally lack competence suggesting it is equal to “tossing a pig in the air and claiming pigs can fly.”

When “dominance aggression” is used to describe and/or label a dog’s behavior, we rarely if ever suggest any responsibility on the owner’s part in creating the conflict.  Instead, we “demonize” the aggressive dog, assuming only their guilt to justify in some instances using aversive training methods to resolve the dog’s aggressive problem!  Most dog owners do not realize confident animals do not waste time and energy; instead, dogs commonly labeled as dominant aggressive appear socially incompetent, insecure, and over-reactive around people.


Gazzano et al.  (2008).  The prevention of undesirable behaviors in dogs: effectiveness of veterinary behaviorists’advice given puppy owners.  J. Vet. Behav.  3, 125-133.

Lindsay, Steven R.  (2000).  Handbook of applied dog behavior and training.  3 Vols. Iowa:  Blackwell.

Lindsay, Steven R.  (2005).  Handbook of applied dog behavior and training.  3 Vols.  Iowa:  Blackwell.

Miklosi, Adam.  (2007).  Dog Behaviour, Evolution, and Cognition.  Oxford University Press.  Oxford, NY

Milani, Myrna.  (2009).  Companion Animal Ethology: Practical insights into behavior, physiology, and the human-animal bond for animal-care professionals.

Yamamoto et al. (2009).  Influence of delayed timing of owners’ actions on the behaviors of their dogs, Canis familiaris. J. Vet. Behav.  4, 11-18.

Dog Aggression – Is it predictable?  How do humans’ contribute to dog aggression?  Are we responsible? Part Two

Responsible Dog and Cat

Training and Behavior Solutions, LLC

Combining Art and Science for Training Animals

Joyce D. Kesling, CDBC

Sarasota, Florida


Copyright Joyce Kesling 2009 – infinity

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