A Positive Outlook on Canine Aggression

Photo (c) CanStock Photo
Reactivity indicates a dog is not comfortable in a given situation. Photo (c) CanStock Photo

It usually starts when I receive a call from a distressed client who informs me that their dog is, or has, suddenly turned ‘aggressive.’ They tell me their dog has ‘challenged’ them in some way: baring teeth, snarling, growling or may have even bitten (with various degrees of severity). Then, when I first meet with that client, they are usually in quite a state because they think their whole mutual loving and trusting relationship with their dog has been shattered, their dog has flipped personality. Some even feel scared of their canine friend.

Think Reactivity Not Aggression

One of the very first steps I take with clients is to replace the word ‘aggression’ with reactivity. Aggression is a big scary word with lots of negative associations. There are multiple forms of aggression and the very mention of it conjures numerous abhorrent mental images and essentially brands the dog.  Reactivity says ‘okay, my dog is uncomfortable in a specific situation, let’s do something about that’ – there are less pessimistic associations concerning that word.

What Does ‘Reactivity’ Mean?

Often, a dog does not want to show any sign of reactivity at all – this is a last resort, a response to an uncomfortable situation or event.  If at all possible, the dog will avoid both of these.  Reactivity is absolutely not about being ‘dominant’ or trying to ‘control’ you or a situation; it is merely a response to a given context.

Think Communication Not Punishment

Many of the owners I see have reacted upon impulse when they see their dog reacting.  Maybe he’s been snarling, growling, showing his teeth or even bitten.  Their response has been to shout, smack, pin the dog down or to use similar forms of physical punishment.  It is difficult for them to resist ‘dominating’ the dog or ‘letting him get away with it’.  In these cases, the issue is gentle education.  We have to think back.  Rather than immediately act upon impulse and literally strike out, stop and think – those multiple symptoms of reactivity (snarling, growling, showing teeth etc.) are actually a form of communication.  Think, what was I doing in that given situation that actually made my dog react in that way and what was he signalling to me?

Signalling is Good!

Yes (in this context) those symptoms of reactivity are good. But only if you react to them in the right way.

There is a subtle progression of reactive symptoms which Kendal Shepherd (2004) depicted as a Ladder of Aggression. If appeasement behaviour is misunderstood and ignored, reactivity can be created.

How a dog is treated for early exhibitions of reactivity is also crucial. Should a dog be punished for exhibitions of reactivity on lower rungs of the ladder (snarling, growling for example), he may progress quickly to biting – resulting in an owner reporting the dog for exhibiting unpredictable aggression.  It’s not ‘unpredictable aggression’, it’s just that unfortunately the owner has missed all those opportunities to remove the dog from the uncomfortable situation and subtle canine communication cues – ‘get me out of here/stop this please’ prior to right now when the dog is left with no choice but to halt the interaction  with physical contact.

For these reasons, ‘red flag’ signals (especially those very early subtle, first rungs on the ladder ones) should be taken as a positive since they are a clear communication of your dog not being comfortable with a situation.


So…What to Do?

Let’s say maybe your dog begins to display signs of reactivity, what should you do?  Well the first thing is not to panic!   Following this, make contact with a fully qualified, accredited and force-free behaviour consultant.  It is also wise, if your behaviour  consultant does not initially direct you, to make an appointment with your vet.

Signs of reactivity, especially if they are sudden, may be related to (not exhaustive):

  • Pain (acute or chronic, especially in older pets)
  • Sensory impairments (again especially in older pets)
  • Cognitive decline in older pets
  • Neurological issues
  • Endocrine disorders
  • Skin irritation
  • Parasites

Health and medical issues can exert much influence upon behaviour, so your first step is to rule this contributory factor in or out.

My Dog Has a Clean Bill of Health – Now What?

Great news!  Now the focus is upon changing your dog’s emotional response to what upsets him.  A qualified behaviourist will work to alter how your dog feels in uncomfortable situations.

  • First steps are to remove any form of punishment
  • Next we work to identify all triggers of reactivity and antecedents of that reactivity, however insignificant they may be
  • Progression then moves to a precise examination of every reactive incident, the what, where, how, if, when etc. in order to determine patterns, cause, predictability etc.
  • Likely behavioural techniques will include desensitization, counter-conditioning and response substitution

Find the Motivation

Of course, this is a very short resume of a treatment plan for reactivity because it is important to understand that every dog will require a totally different approach.  Two dogs may present with a dislike of being touched around the head and bite their owner when a  collar is put on but ‘Dog A’ may have been struck and have conditioned fear of the approach and ‘Dog B’ may have had chronic otitis and learned that the approach is painful – motivation is different. Treatment plans therefore will vary according to the individual even though presentation may look similar.

The Outlook is Good!

As can be seen, reactivity is not a simplistic matter and is very individualistic.  But..great news is that with the aid of a qualified force free professional, the vast majority of cases can be aided and go on to live a full and happy life.


About Anna Francesca Bradley

Anna Francesca Bradley MSc BSc (Hons) is a UK based Provisional Clinical, Certified IAABC Animal Behaviourist and Animal Behaviour and Training Council, Accredited Animal Behaviourist. Anna owns Perfect Pawz! Training and Behaviour Practice www.perfectpawz.co.uk in Hexham, Northumberland UK, where the aim is always to create and restore happy relationships between dog and owner in a relaxed way and using methods based upon sound scientific principles which are always force free and fun.


  1. Hi I have a 2yr old spayed female labradoodle X goldendoodle. The most loving and gentle dog with humans. Her issues are with dogs. From what I can see it’s fear reactivity. Barks uncontrollable from afar, and if the other dog approaches she’s jumping into my arms. Mind you she’s quite large. She lives with her 12 lb older sister a yorkipoo and is fine. Also my neighbor has an old gentle slow greyhound and she will not bark at her at first but will go slowly towards smell and then bark.
    Help us please

  2. Hi I have a staffy we bought her when she was 10 months old she was brilliant with dogs until I took her to dog training classes a few of the dogs were barking Missy was worried and kept barking herself we tried numerous things but I stopped going as I was put on the stage behind the curtain for most of the classes.

    Since that Missy tries to launch at other dogs on our walk off lead and playing ball she is fine .
    Please advise she is not an aggressive dog otherwise and I do feel it is nerves but don’t no how to help her as with people and my grandchildren she is amazing .

    Kind regards Angela

    1. Hi Angela. Thanks for reading the blog and taking the trouble to reply. Positive experiences at training classes are so important, especially for young dogs and it is so sad that you didn’t have this with Missy. Unfortunately, incorrectly managed, training classes can be an aversive experience for some dogs and not rewarding, positive and social. It is not possible without assessing Missy in person for me to say exactly why she behaves as she does, but anxiety and fear are certainly possible causes. If you were near me I would absolutely love to assist you both, but obtaining assistance from a qualified and reputable force free professional who specialises in behavioural techniques is your next step – good luck!

  3. Excellent article. I have done this for years on not using the word “aggression” and teaching clients to use the word Reactivity. Sometimes if the person does not seem to get it I call it — ” bite now ask questions later because I do not know what else to do. ”

    One additional item I would add is change. I did not see it in your write up. A new client recently called frantic– her younger dog who they have had for 4 years has on several occasions over the last 1.5 yrs attacked their older dog. She had an appointment with our local shelter to turn her back in. I had her get the older dog to another home and gave her a couple suggestions till we could meet. We met on Sunday – aussie mix – The dog was totally on guard to make sure everything is where it needs to be. The dog and I almost immediately were ok with each other. After a little testing and talking I asked her — what changed about 2 yrs ago. Something did– all of a sudden she looked- her husband changed jobs from being home basically every day to gone week at a time. Her husband and the dog are close. Then it all made sense– dog thinks she cannot handle things when he is gone, that intense aussie kicked in, and Mom would give her mixed signals. As I told her- if you are willing to work at it I am willing to work with you to get this right.

    Again- thanks for the great article.

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