What is Aggression by Scott Chambers
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Managing canine aggression is a responsibility for every owner to understand and to control. This will depend on the objective of the owner. Canine aggression is observed not only in Law Enforcement but by the general public every day. We need to read and understand the body language that the canine is telling us during a contact. It is important to be able to control or train the aggression that is desired.

In order to manage the aggression of a canine we must have a basic understanding of certain terms. Terms such as Instinct, Learned behaviour, Drive, Stress, Social aggression, Controlled aggression, social fear and existential fear are important to understand.  These definitions have been found in the book Dog Language: An Encyclopedia of Canine Behaviour by Abrantes and the writings by Chris Aycock M.A., M.S., and Senior Master Instructor with the American Society of Canine Trainers.

 Instinct - is defined as a behaviour that is not taught or learned during growth. You will observe canine instinct when they are dealing with things such as basic needs food, water and reproduction.

Learned behaviour or learned pattern – Learned pattern is described as not involving instinct. This is a behaviour that the canine has not seen or is unfamiliar with. Things such as learning to walk are a learned behaviour for the canine.

Drive – a drive is a behaviour or instinct that an animal or human display in order to meet the needs or desired goal.

Stress – A physiological reaction to an external fear.

Controlled aggression – Controlled aggression is commonly seen during imprinting of young puppies. They are exposed to the aggression by the father when they are corrected for an unwanted behaviour. They are exposed to aggression showing they can be controlled but not injured during a correction.

Social aggression – They display of aggression towards each other that is not intended to harm or cause injury during an altercation. This form of aggression is used to tell other canines that they should back off or move away.

Social fear – The display by a pack member stating they will leave the aggressor alone if that individual does not harm them.

Existential fear – The fear that no other options exist except to fight or be killed.

Canine Altruism – This is seen when a human is showing emotion. For example, a human is crying or feeling sad and the canine observes the emotion. The canine will approach and begin to lick, push or touch the individual with the nose. The canine is not looking for a reward but appears to be concerned about the individual.

Motor programs – In neuroscience, a motor program is called a motor pathway. This is the part of the brain that controls motor response and is called the motor cortex. The motor cortex is sending a signal to the nerves and causing muscles to react. This involves the movement of the head, eyes, ears, stance lips, teeth and tail.

Now that we have the definitions to refer to, we can discuss canine body language and how to manage the aggression. The canine will give many signs of either stress or aggression when interacting with a human. Things to watch include the position of the body, position of the ears, lips, mouth, forehead and muzzle. The canine shows signs of aggression with the eyes (big or staring), ears are upright, mouth curled, lips raised and the muzzle wrinkled. Along with these signs you can have the body positioned towards the subject and the tail held high or straight out.

For example:

#1- You arrive at a friend’s residence and exit your vehicle as the canine observes you. The canine stands up and you observe his ears are totally flattened, eyes blinking and his body is turned away as he is watching. This is an example that the canine is showing signs of fear.    

#2- You are walking past a neighbor’s house and observe their canine sitting on the front porch. The canine noticed you walking past and begins walking towards you. The eyes are big, ears upright and his mouth curled. The closer he approaches his lips begin to raise and his muzzle wrinkles. This is a sign of aggression.

#3 – When working with the canine on a leash they begin to pull and chew on the leash. As you look down at the canine you notice his ears are up and his eyes are big. He continues chewing on the leash as you stand in place. This is the first stages of frustration turning into aggression depending on how you handle the situation.

With these examples given above we see fear, aggression and the frustration with the first signs of aggression. We now need to look at how to handle these situations. In the first example we see the signs of fear given by the body language. As we continue to move towards the house you may see signs change from fear to aggression. Depending on the learned behaviors that the canine has experienced as a puppy the displayed behaviour may change. The individual should stop and speak to the canine showing him that you are not a threat to his safety. Watching his body language for changes in either direction will determine if you should continue towards the door.

The second example is a display of aggression by a canine without a handler or being on lead. When dealing with an aggressive canine you should slowly continue moving while watching. If you stop and confront the canine you could cause the canine to act more aggressively. It is important to watch the canine as you move so he or she will not surprise you from behind. Knowing that the canine is in front of his residence it is more likely that he is showing protection for his property. In this situation you can usually move past without further aggression.

The final example was signs of frustration displayed by the canine while on lead. Seeing that the canine is frustrated and there is a need to correct the behaviour we look at timing. Timing is the key to all corrections in training. This is corrected immediately verbally or with a correction on the lead. When the correction is given you should be prepared for further aggression towards the handler. Knowing this, the correction with the lead should be straight up with the arm pushed out. This type of behaviour should be looked at to determine why the frustration occurred in the first place.

When looking at the cause for any behaviour the trainer needs to start at the time of occurrence and work backwards. Once you determine the cause of any behaviour there needs to be a training plan put in place. Looking at example number 3 we can change the environments, drives and the amount of stress placed onto the canine. A high drive canine began chewing on a leash showing frustration after performing bite work. This was very close to having handler aggression after every exercise. Immediate corrections were given and it was determined they were not always effective. The handler chose to use a secondary reward. The canine was given a tug toy after the scenario and was walked to the car. At this time the canine no longer shows the signs of handler aggression after protection exercises.  

Reading the body language of unknown canines is vital to your personal safety during an encounter. The eyes, ears, mouth, lips, head and tail will help to determine how aggressive a canine is at the time. This is also vital when training your personal canine. When the signs of aggression are observed it’s important to correct the behaviour. Timing is everything in corrections as well as the type of correction. As trainers it is important to always have a training plan in place. Not only does it give you a step by step way to stay on track but you evaluate the canine before training. This evaluation prepares the trainer for corrections as well as prepare for changes in training that will reduce the need for corrections. “Train hard and reward often!”   










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