At ABC we receive numerous requests for information on how to address aggression in dogs. We typically avoid this issue because of the risks involved. That being said, we think some information on this is important for all dog owners. Please note: You should not approach and attempt to work with an aggressive dog unless you are working with a skilled dog trainer or behavioral specialist.
Understanding Aggressive Dog Behavior
An estimated 4.7 million dog bites occur in the U.S. each year; and of these, nearly 800,000 dog bites require medical care, according to the American Humane Association. Dogs become aggressive for many reasons, including fear, dominance, territoriality, learned behavior, pain, genetics and hunger. Fortunately, dogs are also social creatures and very good communicators. For most dogs, biting is a behavior of last resort; they usually go out of their way to communicate their intentions and feelings long before they attempt to bite.
How Dogs Communicate
Of course, dogs don’t speak English, so those wishing to avoid being bitten need to learn some rudimentary canine language. Dogs primarily communicate through body language. For example: a dog is making direct eye contact; her ears are standing up (if possible), her chest is out and stance rigid. The tail may be stiffly wagging or simply held high and away from her body. The dog might or might not be making any sounds. Vocalization is typically a low growl but loud assertive barking can also accompany this posture.
This dog is telling you to not challenge her. Doing so could escalate the behavior and result in her biting you. Avoid eye contact but keep the dog in sight. Slowly back away; do not run. Do not scream at or challenge her. Sometimes a dog will follow you as you retreat. Remain calm and keep backing away. In most cases, the dog will lose interest and let you go.
Common Misconceptions About Wagging Tails
“The dog’s tail was wagging so I thought she was friendly.”While tail-wagging can be a sign of friendliness, the type of tail-wagging is the key. Dogs communicate a great deal by the way they hold their tails. Friendly nonthreatening tail-wagging is usually indicated by a tail that is floppy. This is also accompanied by other friendly body postures, such as relaxed ears (not held up rigidly or pulled back); open or slightly squinty eyes ( not directly staring at you)’ and a more relaxed body (less stiff).
Friendly vocalizations include a high-pitched “puppy” bark. Some dogs just bark excitedly. Play bowing is also a sign of a friendly dog. Many people mistake a dog who is running around, swishing his tail and play bowing while barking excessively as being aggressive.
Misreading The Warnings
Misreading or not understanding when a dog is communicating fear can also lead to aggressive incidents. Say you’re walking down the street and you see a dog leashed next to fence. As a dog lover, you’re concerned about his welfare so you approach. The dog has his tail tucked under his body. His eyes are squinted and he avoids looking at you directly. His body is held low to the ground. As you get closer, he tries to escape but can’t because he is leashed. Instead, he starts to bark and growl at you. Your response is to speak in a calm tone, make direct eye contact in an attempt to get his attention to let him know everything is OK. You reach out to him in what you mean as a peaceful, friendly gesture and he bites you. Why? Because you didn’t heed the warnings he was giving and he had no way to escape.