“Aggressive Dog”: Reframing Owner Mindset

One of the keywords on my website is “aggressive dog” . . . what do you really mean when you say that you have an “aggressive dog”? Are you saying that you truly have an aggressive dog or that you have a dog who is using aggressive behaviors in certain situations?

Aggression is “an act that is performed with intent to cause harm” (depending on which resource your consult). I would argue that the vast majority of people will never see an aggressive dog in their lifetime. However, I regularly encounter dogs who are performing aggressive behaviors in order to change their circumstances . . . and in almost every case, the dog is trying to ask for space.

Growling, snapping and snarling are efforts to avoid a conflict, not start one.

~ Dick Russell
How not to behave around working livestock guardian dogs.

Are the dogs in this video performing aggressive behaviors? Yes!!
Are they aggressive dogs? No!!

This video actually depicts ritualized aggression being performed by two Great Pyrenees dogs, a type of livestock guardian dog (LGD). LGD’s have been selectively bred for thousands of years (dating back to the early Romans) to guard territory and to guard their “flock”. Their Genetics have been heavily influenced by humans selecting for dogs who will guard their flock from predators by instinctively reacting to any unfamiliar beings who enter their territory.

Ritualized aggression is selected for over actual aggression in nature. If a wolf is injured in a fight, there is no emergency vet clinic that he can go to for aid. In many cases, that wolf will die. In nature, if a coyote needs to defend his dinner from another animal, he will start with subtle body signals – whale eye, freezing, showing of teeth. If the challenger moves away, then the coyote simply goes back to his meal – no harm, no foul. If this fails to work, he will advance to growling, snarling, air snapping and even charging. If even that fails to work, the coyote will make a decision to either flee the situation or to stay and fight for his dinner. He will only make the decision to fight if he thinks he will be successful, if his avenues of escape are blocked or if he is really really hungry and his need for food outweighs the risk of injury.

In the case of the LGDs in the video, they started barking when the cyclist moved into the flock and started to scatter them. They advanced when he cyclist ignored the barks and continued doing what he was doing. When the cyclist back away, the dogs begin to retreat, but when the cyclist decides to hold his ground, notice that one dog remains with the flock while the second dog continues his attempts to warn off the intruder. The dog is not advancing or attacking – just barking in an effort to get the man to move away. Even the person behind the camera suggests that the man simply back off. Unfortunately, the cyclist does not recognize that he is creating the standoff by refusing to back away from the dog. Note that the dog is not closing the gap and is continually looking back to see where his flock is at.

How to interact with working livestock guardian dogs.

This is an excellent video explaining the behavior of livestock guardian dogs and what to do when encountering a working dog and his flock.

“WE MAY NOT LIKE CERTAIN BEHAVIORS, BUT WE CAREFULLY CULTIVATED CERTAIN BEHAVIORS IN DOG BREEDS OVER HUNDREDS OR THOUSANDS OF YEARS … SO WE NEED TO ACCEPT THEM, EXPECT THEM AND FIND WAYS TO WORK AROUND THEM.”

~ Kerrie Hoar

What happens when we take a dog that has had hundreds of years of reinforcement history for guarding his flock and we plop him into the middle of suburbia? You guessed it – he will guard his home and his people flock from “intruders”. The “intruder” in his eyes may look like the UPS or FedEx delivery person, the cable repairman or a visiting friend or relative. Again, these dogs are not aggressive individuals, they are simply dogs who are doing what we specifically bred them to do. We may not like it, but we cultivated such behaviors in dog breeds so we need to accept it, expect it and find ways to work around it. Once we understand this, it is easier to approach the situation to come up with a plan. Most of these dogs will be described as the perfect dog at the vet, at daycare and when visiting others – with the unwanted behaviors happening only in the home. We are never going to train these dogs to welcome intruders with open arms, but we can work to reduce his triggers and manage his world to prevent situations from occurring. Creating a greeting ritual with your LGD puppy and practicing this over and over will help set your puppy up for success later on. We can also manage his world with techniques like putting the dog in another room with a wonderful chew toy when visitors are expected … setting up a lock box at the end of your driveway for package delivery … conditioning a muzzle … install a second fence so that you have a buffer zone of fence, space, fence, “world” … keep doors locked to prevent an open door policy that puts “intruders” in danger. It is a whole lot easier to simply change a few of our daily habits rather than expecting that our dog will simply change his instinctual behaviors.


TRIGGER WARNING!!! This video shows a dog bite at 0:10.

Trigger Warning: Dog Bite

Is the dog in this video performing aggressive behaviors? Yes!!
Is he an aggressive dog? No!!

The dog in this video has been trapped and forced to escalate to biting. No one is listening to the abundance of signals telling the humans that he is not comfortable. Is it okay that the dog is biting a child – obviously not. However, it is not malicious. But, given the number of signals that the dog is displaying in a desperate attempt to communicate his stress, the bite is not unexpected either.

This dog is actively Learning that nothing short of a bite is going to convince his owners to stop. His Environment is impacted by the fact that his small size (Genetics) allows for him to be easily wrapped in a towel and held in place on a person’s lap for forced petting. His internal environment (Self) is being overwhelmed by stress hormones as his fear increases.

What if we simply asked the dog if he would like to interact and then accept his answer.

Eileen Anderson explains a Pet Consent Test

One of the quickest ways to get your dog not to trust you is to keep overriding your dog telling you he does not feel safe. 

~ Suzanne Clothier

As a Licensed Family Dog Mediator®, when I see clients whose dogs are performing aggressive behaviors, our first step is to discuss the dog’s L.E.G.S.®. In other words, how have the dog’s Learning experiences, Environment, Genetics and Self (the dog’s internal environment) played into the current situation. Next, we look the circumstances under which the dog is performing the behaviors, as well as warning signals. Finally, we develop a plan for the family that involves: safety and management protocols; realistic goals; and/or reward-based training techniques aimed at addressing the root cause rather than simply suppressing or masking the behavior.

While I have yet to encounter a dog that I would label a truly aggressive dog, I have seen dogs that are not safe. These dogs may, therefore, be candidates for behavioral euthanasia due to an inability to provide balance between the dog’s L.E.G.S®.

Beneath every behavior there is a feeling. And beneath each feeling is a need. And when we meet that need rather than focus on the behavior, we begin to deal with the cause, not the symptoM.

~ Ashleigh Warner

What’s in a label?

Labels can be damaging when they affect how we view the individual to which we have affixed that label. When we use the label, “aggressive dog”, we tend to focus on his negative behaviors. We tell ourselves that the dog is doing this on purpose . . . to spite us . . . that he can stop any time . . . that he knows better . . . We are more easily frustrated or angered by our dog’s outbursts..

“YOUR DOG IS NOT GIVING YOU A HARD TIME, YOUR DOG IS HAVING A HARD TIME.”

Instead, let’s remember that the dog is simply performing aggressive behaviors in response to some other factor; such as, fear, stress, pain or frustration. This helps us feel empathy towards our dog , . . understand why he is acting this way . . have more patience . . . to listen when he is speaking through subtle signals. We begin to understand that “our dog is not giving us a hard time – he is having a hard time“. We are more likely to take a gentler, kinder approach . . and to advocate for our dog when the need arises.

When working with a dog who is reactive to certain triggers, we must understand that:

  • Aggressive behavior is just behavior – it doesn’t define you or your dog.
  • Behavior happens – so have a plan in place so you know what to do.
  • Your goal is not perfection – rather strive for less negative, more neutral.
  • Set your dog up for success by not continuing into situations you know he can’t deal with.

If you and your dog are struggling, locate a professional dog trainer or behavior consultant who will help you work through things using humane training techniques and is grounded in positive reinforcement and Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive philosophy. Aversive tools such as e-collars and prong collars suppress behavior and may look like they have “fixed” the problem, but those feelings are still there and they will come out through some form of fallout.

Kerrie Hoar, M.S., CCPDT-KA, IAABC-ADT, LFDM, FFCP
Kerrie Hoar, M.S., CCPDT-KA, IAABC-ADT, LFDM, FFCP

Kerrie Hoar has a master’s degree in Biology and is a certified professional dog trainer and family dog mediator. She owns Crimson Hound, LLC dog training in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Trigger Stacking

I am afraid of snakes (ophidiophobia).  The biologist in me finds snakes fascinating; however, when I encounter one, my emotions take over. I live close to a nice trail system looping through a marsh that is home to tons of wildlife – including a variety of snakes. Fortunately for me, I don’t see snakes very often, but ….

Imagine if you will . . .

One sunny afternoon, my husband and I decide to take the dogs for a long relaxing walk through the marsh.  Just as we start up the trail, I see a snake.  I jump and give a small shout . . . but, I haven’t seen a snake in the marsh in such a long time, so let’s soldier on and not let it ruin the walk.  

Just a few hundred yards farther down the trail, I think I see another snake. No! However, as we get closer, I realize that it’s just a stick. Phew! We continue walking, but I find myself spending more and more time scanning for snakes and less and less time enjoying the scenery.  

A little way beyond the halfway point of our loop, there is a rocky area that looks like a perfect spot for a snake to sun itself.  I approach with my eyes riveted to the rocks and, sure enough, there is a snake – a little snake, but still a snake.  Ugh!  Now I am really feeling the stress.  Not only do I have to walk past that snake, but I am sure there are others hiding amongst the rocks.  

What now? While I could turn around, it will take longer to go back than it will to just keep going.  So here I am – feeling panicky and stuck.  Why didn’t I just turn around when I saw that first snake?!  

With no other optional this point, I continue on, but what started as a nice relaxing walk has turned into a forced march. I am no longer enjoying myself. Instead, I am agitated and on high alert, scanning all around me and imagining the worst.  As a consequence, I find myself walking faster and faster to just out of the marsh as quickly as possible.

When my husband innocently asks me to slow down a bit, I lose it.  I mean, I really lose it. To everyone’s surprise, including my own, I have turned into a raving maniac, yelling at him for even suggesting that we take the walk in the first place. The tears are close to surfacing . . . there is still a couple hundred feet of trail and there are sure to be more snakes.

YIKES!! Where did the rational adult go?  You know, the one who KNOWS that a little garter snake is not going to kill her . . . the one who finds snake anatomy absolutely fascinating . . . the one who has never even had a bad encounter with a snake to create such an irrational fear . . . the one who keeps saying that she just needs to get over this fear of snakes . . .  

Reason and common sense clearly lost the battle to fear and panic . . . and the fight or flight response took over. Fear and anxiety function in a very similar fashion in the canine brain.  So, if you will, take a moment to insert a dog afraid of other dogs into this story and I think you can imagine how what started out as a relaxing walk could quickly turn into a nightmare for your dog.

While you most surely understand this type of phobia, you may be wondering something … why was it the innocent comment that sent me over the edge – and NOT the sight of the first or the second snake?  

The answer is TRIGGER STACKING.


What is trigger stacking?  

Trigger stacking is a phenomenon where a combination of multiple stressors, some might be quiet minor, occur over a short period of time and culminate in an extreme reaction. 

Every individual has a threshold beyond which they will have a reaction. Each time an individual encounters a stressor, a certain amount of cortisol (a stress hormone) is released. Different stressors will create different amounts of cortisol in different individuals. If an individual event creates enough cortisol to cross the reactivity threshold, the individual will react. Stressors can also have an additive effect. It takes 5 to 8 hours for cortisol to dissipate from the blood stream. If an additional stressor occurs within that 5-8 hour window, the cortisol that is released from the second event is added to the cortisol still in the system from the first event . . . bringing the total level closer to threshold. So, if we encounter multiple stressors within a short period of time, they will have an additive effect and can cause the individual to go over threshold and have a reaction.


How does trigger stacking affect fearful or reactive dogs?

We often talk about threshold when working with dogs who are overly sensitive and vigilant about their environment . . . specifically we talk about the importance of keeping them under threshold. Why? Because when these dogs go over threshold, they respond with explosive actions and lose all sense of reason, along with the ability to think. They cannot learn when they are in this kind of mindset.

Trigger stacking can be a major concern with these dogs. Let’s look at an example that will demonstrate how multiple stressors can affect a sensitive dog.

Scruffy and his owner are out for a walk and come upon a woman pushing a baby stroller – something that is completely new to Scruffy.  As the stroller passes by, Scruffy’s owner notices that Scruffy is yawning and ducking his head away from the stroller.  He can’t possibly be tired ….

A few blocks later, a loose dog runs out of his yard and starts barking at Scruffy. Scruffy cowers, moves behind his owner and starts licking his lips. The loose dog’s owner calls him away. Since Scruffy didn’t growl or bark at the loose dog, his owner assumes that it wasn’t a big deal, so they continue on their walk.  

While Scruffy’s owner is at work, a pollster stops by the house, rings the bell and leaves a flyer on the door. Later, a delivery person rings the bell a couple of times and then leaves a package on the front step. Scruffy barks and growls each time the doorbell rings.

After work, the owner decides to take Scruffy out for another walk since he has been cooped in the house up all day.   As they walk past the next door neighbor’s house, their dog walks up to the fence.  Suddenly, Scruffy explodes – barking and lunging at the dog.  The owner is very upset and yells at Scruffy as he drags him away. “What the heck is wrong with you?! You see that dog every day! You never act like that!”  


Trigger Stacking and the Ladder of Aggression

The graphic below shows the way that canine body language advances from very subtle gestures to overly overt actions as a dog becomes more and more stressed and uncomfortable . . . often culminating in a bite if the stressor is not removed.

In addition to influencing how your dog reacts to stressors that he may encounter on a walk, trigger stacking is all too often the impetus behind a dog bite.  Dogs do not bite “out of the blue”.  Though the people involved may not recognize it, there is always a reason behind a bite.  Dog bites are very often the result of someone not recognizing the body language that is indicative of the dog’s level of distress . . . until the dog advances to the level of using very overt signals such as barking, growing, snarling, snapping and biting.

Let’s take a look at another example. Jane called a dog trainer, clearly in distress. Her Chihuahua, Joey had just bitten her. According to Jane, she was simply trying to wipe off Joey’s paw when he growled and snapped at her. The bite caught her forearm and left a red mark. Jane could not understand why this happened since she wipes off Joey’s paws all the time. The bite just came “out of the blue”. During their first session, the trainer asked Jane to tell her everything she could remember about what Joey’s day looked like leading up to the bite. See if you can you recognize some of the signals that indicate that Joey was experiencing trigger stacking.

  • Joey had a veterinary appointment first thing in the morning. He doesn’t really like riding in the car, but since he is a little dog, Jane just lifts him up and pops him into the car.  He sat still and pouted all the way to the vet – never giving Jane any eye contact.
  • At the veterinarian’s office, Joey was faced with all of the sites and strong medicinal scents of the receiving area and crouched down in a corner. When they got to the exam room, Joey hid under a chair. He had his ears back and wouldn’t look at Jane.
  • Joey’s vet was booked, so he saw a new vet and vet tech.  He wouldn’t come out from under the chair, so Jane had to reach in and grab him. Since Joey wouldn’t sit still, the vet tech had to restrain him.
  • After a physical exam during which his teeth, ears and eyes were checked and his temperature was taken, Joey got a couple of vaccinations.  
  • While they were in the office, it had started to rain. As Jane and Joey ran across the parking lot to their car, a big dog in another car barked and surprised them both. 
  • Jane scooped Joey up and quickly popped him into the car before they both got soaked.
  • On the way home, Jane stopped off at a store. She had to leave Joey in the car – something he hates. But the weather was nice and cool and she just needed a couple of items, so he would be fine.
  • Joey started barking when Jane got out of the car and she could still hear him as she entered the store. When she came out, she could hear Joey barking as she approached the car. He was SO excited to see her. Silly boy, she was only gone for a few minutes.
  • On the way home, a car pulled out in front of Jane, she had to slam on the brakes. Joey slid off the seat, and then decided to just stay curled up on the floor.
  • When Jane and Joey arrived home, Joey walked through a couple of puddles on the way into the house. When they got inside, Jane set her bags down and grabbed a towel. She leaned over and took Joey’s leash off.
  • When she picked up his front paws to dry them off, Joey gave a bit of a growl and lifted his lip, but he does that sometimes so she kept going. When she grabbed his back leg to start drying his paw, Joey growled, spun around and nipped her arm.

Can you see all of these little triggers slowly adding up and how Joey was giving subtle signals throughout the morning in an attempt to tell Jane that he was feeling uncomfortable and stressed? This is a perfect example of how we humans miss the subtle communications that tell us when our dog is becoming increasingly stressed . . . and, how these stressors can have an additive effect on the dog. None of these stressors in and of itself was enough to cause a bite, but as they continued to stack, they moved Joey up the ladder of aggression. Unfortunately, we too often see only the end result and view it as a gross overreaction to a tiny incident.


What can we do to help our dogs?

  •  When Scruffy yawned as they passed the baby stroller and licked his lips when facing the loose dog, he was trying to tell his owner that he was uncomfortable with the situation.  Be sure that you know how to recognize even the very subtle signs of stress in your dog. My blog, Dog Body Language:  How to Speak Dog, is a great place to start.  If you would like to take a deeper dive, check out my Canine Body Language for Pet Parents webinar.  Norwegian dog trainer, Turid Rugaas, wrote a fantastic book on the subtleties of canine body language – On Talking Terms with Dogs:  Calming Signals , Lili Chin has a very informative little book called Doggie Language that is filled with graphics and Tricia Hollingshead’s Listen to Me is filled with color photos and fantastic information . . .
  • Mediate the intensity of the situation by controlling duration and distance with respect to your dog’s triggers. If you think that your dog might be getting trigger stacked, you can prevent outbursts by maximizing distance from triggers on your walk, go to a quiet place for a sniffari or even skip the walk and do some trick training, nosework or even a scatter feed in the yard instead.
  • Keep a journal of events that may be triggering to your dog and mediate the intensity of your dog’s encounters with his triggers in order to prevent over-threshold reactions and trigger stacking.

    Possible triggering events to be aware of:
    • Children
    • People ringing the doorbell
    • Grooming, nail clipping or other types of husbandry
    • A trip to the vet
    • A new object – a stroller, wheelchair, holiday decoration, etc.
    • A new location 
    • A familiar location that has changed – an empty park may be full of people, a change in season or weather has changed a familiar landscape
    • A car ride
    • Other dogs or people when out on a walk
    • A new pet in the home
    • Visitors in the home
    • Losing a member of the household – moves/is out of town; a pet/person passed away
    • A pet sitter or boarding
    • Any change to his normal routine
    • Pain or illness
    • Time of day – light and shadows can effect visibility
    • Loud noises – construction; thunder; fireworks; car backfiring
  • Don’t push your dog’s boundaries until he is ready.  If he is stressed by an event, take extra care with other possible triggers.   Decrease intensity and duration as much as possible and increase distance as much as possible.  There will be better days for reactivity training.  Right now, your priority is self-care for your dog’s mental health.
  • If you and/or your dog are struggling, contact a certified professional dog trainer whose training philosophy is grounded in positive reinforcement to help.
Kerrie Hoar, M.S., CCPDT-KA, IAABC-ADT, FDM, FFCP
Kerrie Hoar, M.S., CCPDT-KA, IAABC-ADT, FDM, FFCP

Kerrie Hoar has a master’s degree in Biology and is a certified professional dog trainer and family dog mediator. She owns Crimson Hound, LLC dog training in La Crosse, Wisconsin.