Recognizing Aggression In Dogs

As with people, stress can build up in dogs and cause aggression. Recognizing signs of stress can help you avoid aggression in dogs.

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When a dog has "whale eye," which shows the whites of his eyes, he is stressed and his next move could be to bite or nip. Camerson Whitman/iStock/Thinkstock
Janet Velenovsky

You were very excited to host the family gathering this year. Having moved into your new dream home just a month ago, this was perfect timing. You’d been planning it for months, and felt everything was ready. There were extended family members staying in the house all week, and scores of cousins and aunts came for the weekend party. You never imagined your dog, Pepper, would provide the surprise element of the weekend.

Pepper growled and snapped at several family members and, eventually, bit one of the kids. You were horrified! Pepper has been a member of the family for four years and, except for being kind of a shy dog, has been a wonderful part of your household. A constant companion to you, walking partner for your spouse, and regular announcer of guests, delivery personnel and anyone else arriving near your home. You had always joked that no one could sneak up on you with Pepper around. You had always seen that as a good thing. Now you are wondering what went wrong.

Stress Where You Least Expect It
We humans sometimes forget that dogs feel the stress of new situations and extra activities, too. And, because they are aware of their owners’ body language and, frankly, scents we emit when we are afraid, stressed or sick, they can be affected by the way we are feeling as well as their own experiences. On top of all of that, dogs typically have fewer choices about their activities and situations than humans do. And not having the choice to make decisions about what is going on is another type of stress. Perhaps you didn’t realize how much potential stress there is for your dog when you make decisions like moving to a new home, changing schedules and hosting a party!

If we were to play “Monday Morning Quarterback” to the scenario described above, we can pick out contributing factors that might have elicited the aggressive behavior at the party. Most aggressive behavior from dogs who are not typically aggressive has to do with the dog feeling insecure, worried or afraid in a situation. It is rare for a dog to growl, snap or bite “out of the blue” (without any warning or signs of stress), but many people do not recognize those warning signs when they do happen. When owners do not recognize the fear or stress, and/or try to punish away the behavior, aggression can become a coping mechanism for the dog. To avoid that happening with your dog, let’s imagine some of the stress in this situation.

Pinpointing What Can Go Wrong
The weeks before the gathering had been stressful for you, of course. Getting settled after the move was a huge job, but pairing it with the family reunion made for lots more work. You and your spouse had been too tired for the regular walks Pepper usually gets, and had to make do with a few sessions of throwing the ball in the backyard. To get more done without a dog underfoot, Pepper had been crated more than usual and spent more time alone in the backyard. All the arrivals of houseguests and other activities had thrown off the dog’s schedules for eating, walking and snuggle time. You figured you’d make it up to Pepper later.

In this story, Pepper has no understanding of the “big event” being planned, and he doesn’t have the same excitement about planning for it. And, if some of the work you are having to get done stresses you out, Pepper may detect that. Because of the recent move, Pepper may already be “out of sorts” in the new home. And, without the physical outlets of long walks that Pepper is accustomed to, lots of stress could build up for your canine friend.

I often explain to my clients that stress can “build up” in a stack. Whether we are talking dogs or humans, everyone has a “breaking point” — where there is enough stress that we lose our normal composure and show a flash of anger or sadness, or lash out in some way. Many dogs (and people) have a very high threshold for stress before they hit that point. Some dogs reach that level faster. The important thing is to notice — or even anticipate — the signs of building stress and find ways to intervene before something unpleasant happens.

Signs Of Higher Stress Levels
What might Pepper look like when that stress level rises? There are many, many possible signs: inattentiveness to cues (not coming when called, not sitting on cue), excessive barking, restlessness or attention-seeking behavior (becoming clingy, pawing or licking owners), and changes in normal physiological activities (not taking treats, not eating, urinating or defecating more or in the wrong places, diarrhea, etc.).

Watching Pepper closely, you might notice lip licking, wide eyes (called “whale eye”), head turning away, raised front paw, avoidance, or panting (this is especially important if the atmosphere is not hot and the dog hasn’t been exercising). As Pepper’s stress rises, you might see piloerection (the fur or “hackles” raised on the back of the neck), or an effort to get away and/or hide.

One of the most important dog behaviors for people to recognize is “the freeze.” The freeze is a moment when the dog is very still, taking in the situation and deciding what to do next. The dog is really hoping that uncomfortable (or scary, or intimidating) thing that is happening will stop happening. If you see this freeze, stop what you are doing. Speak softly and avert your eyes, slowly turn away and move away from the dog.

People who do not recognize the freeze often say a dog bites “out of nowhere” or “without any reason.” They do not realize that continuing to interact with a dog during that still moment tells the dog you are not listening to what he is trying to say. And the dog believes he must work harder to get you to stop. Using force or intimidation at this point is counter-productive and can cause a normally peaceful dog to respond with aggression.

Pay Attention To What Your Dog Is Trying To Communicate
If the people around Pepper do not give Pepper more space, or stop whatever activity they are doing (this might be approaching Pepper, or petting or trying to hug), the stress level may make Pepper resort to growling or snapping to increase distance from the humans. This is a very critical point in a dog’s existence.

If the humans — who are possibly very surprised and/or embarrassed at the growling — scold or punish Pepper, what happens? Pepper becomes bewildered — and more stressed! Pepper has tried repeatedly to communicate the distress all this is causing. In Pepper’s mind, having tried to show discomfort and/or tried to get away should have been enough to get people to back off. But, it didn’t. So Pepper has to “escalate” the communication to a growl. Now, he is being scolded for trying to communicate how he feels. He tried to communicate clearly that he didn’t want to be involved in that activity. What choice does Pepper have at this point?

Pepper can escalate to a snap or a bite.

And, thus, you have created an aggressive event from a dog who, until recently, was a trusted member of the household. This is a clear “failure to communicate.” And who do you think will suffer the greatest consequences? Probably Pepper.

Take a few minutes to learn more about dog body language so you can be a better dog translator for those who may interact with your dog. Advocate for your dog!

Article Categories:
Behavior and Training · Dogs