September 06, 2023


Delving into the complex subject of all forms of canine aggression, such as owner-directed aggression, food aggression, sibling rivalry, idiopathic aggression and red-zone dogs, opens a veritable Pandora’s box of ideas, beliefs and theories. Factors that affect aggression include pain, injury, genetics, gender, hormonal influences, early and ongoing socialisation, owner interactions and owner perceptions when owners anthropomorphise their dogs.

One of the most common forms of aggression is owner-directed aggression, formerly known as dominance aggression. This manifests as exaggerated behaviours directed towards people when dogs react negatively under certain circumstances. Some of these provocative situations include disturbing a sleeping dog, correcting behaviour by pulling on a dog’s leash, reaching over a dog’s head, grooming a dog, staring at a dog, hugging a dog, handling a dog’s face or muzzle, restraining a dog and punishing a dog.

Circumstances and prior experience may explain the outcome of an encounter in social animals; subsequently, the consequences of the first encounter between two individuals will profoundly impact future responses. Two adult animals meeting for the first time will have no expectations of the other’s behaviour, and both will be wary and watchful of each other.

For example, a large black dog and a small white dog that have never met will draw on previously learnt information from similar encounters. If, in the past, a small white dog reacted aggressively towards the large black dog, or the small white dog had a fearful confrontation with a large black dog, based on the consequences of their previous experiences, the risk of an aggressive reaction, in this case, is high. The encounter would have been cordial if the two dogs had met without any previous negative experiences. This simple example illustrates the complexities of social interactions. Often based on fear, it has nothing to do with dominance and is a relationship between pairs of individuals rather than aiming to achieve status.

Owners can have a similar effect on their dogs. When an owner intimidates his dog with specific actions such as aversive punishment, the pattern of interactions and prior experiences between the dog and owner determine the resulting response. Defensive behaviour based on fear will often transform into offensive behaviour.

A dog may react aggressively to avoid some perceived aversive outcome when, through association, it has learnt that it can prevent unpleasant experiences by growling. Chances are the dog is just confused and anxious when owners, through sheer ignorance, miss submissive signals from their dogs, which may develop into an aggressive response, becoming a learnt behaviour over time.

Ordinarily, owner-directed aggression manifests mainly in dogs that have not been taught how to function successfully in a domestic environment and are unsure of their social roles. Subsequently, they use aggressive behaviour to gauge what we expect of them. These dogs often display needy behaviours and respond well to SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), including well-known medications such as Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Luvox and various antidepressants. Experts also recommend implementing a behaviour modification programme, including desensitisation and counterconditioning.

This is a simplistic introduction to canine aggression, which I will revisit in future posts. In the meantime, you can read about the subject in more detail in my book FROM WOLF TO SUPERMUTT AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN.