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Is My Dog Reactive or Aggressive?

Is My Dog Reactive or Aggressive?

Dogs make great pets. That doesn’t mean it’s all roses and rainbows, though. Some pet owners will be surprised to find that their adorable little puppy somehow turned out to be more than a handful. The jumping, pulling, lunging, and nonstop barking can be very frustrating. Not to mention the sweet dog that goes crazy at the sight of other dogs or people.

Behavior issues like these can become so problematic that some dog owners fear bringing their dogs outside or in the presence of guests. Constantly worrying if your dog will fight with another dog or bite a person can be nerve-wracking.

Can something be done about that?

Thankfully, the answer is YES. On that note, you may want to think about whether you have an aggressive or reactive dog.


Is My Dog Aggressive?

Brown and White Close Up of Dog About to Snarl

Aggression is defined as “hostile or violent behavior or attitudes toward another,” or the “readiness to attack or confront.” In dogs, this is typically manifested in the following behavior:

  • Snarling
  • Growling
  • Snapping
  • Biting
  • Barking
  • Lunging

However, just because a dog is exhibiting some or all of the above doesn’t automatically mean they are aggressive. One very important distinction people miss is that their dog may be reactive rather than aggressive.


Reactive versus Aggressive Dog

A reactive dog is in a state of over-reactivity. This means they have a heightened response to stimuli. This could be due to genetics, fear, frustration, or a lack of socialization. A dog that resorts to jumping and straining on their leash at the sight of another animal, for example, could want to meet and play with the other animal but does not know how to express this desire correctly.

However, the very same behavior from the very same dog could also be a response to a traumatic experience and thus signal an intent to bite. This makes it aggression rather than reactivity.

Reactivity can quickly transition to aggression if a dog is pushed too far. As a dog owner, it’s your responsibility to determine if your dog is reacting aggressively and deal with it appropriately.


Reasons Why Dogs Get Aggressive

What behaviors lead to aggression? Just like with reactivity, other behaviors are often confused with aggression:

Sad Black Pug

  1. Fear – This is also sometimes called the “Fight or Flight” response. Scared dogs usually run. But sometimes, they would feel cornered and trapped and will decide to fight for self-preservation.
  2. Nipping – Very common with puppies. Overstimulation can make the nips harder.
  3. Rough Play – “Mock fighting” between dogs is normal. Sometimes, though, they can get intense and loud, thus appearing to be more aggressive.
  4. Resource Guarding – Whether toys, food, territory, or people, dogs will guard what they believe holds value.
  5. Leash Reactivity – a leash-reactive dog will growl, bark, or lunge towards whatever makes them fearful and nervous. Common triggers include children, men, other dogs, and people wearing hats.
  6. Physical Discomfort – If a dog is sick or in pain, he could suddenly growl or snap.

Ignored or uncorrected, any of the above behaviors can eventually lead to aggression.

Body Language

Dogs cannot talk and tell their owners what they’re feeling. So humans must be especially observant about how their pets behave in certain situations.

A happy dog usually conveys their joy by wagging their tails or play bowing. They are generally relaxed in body and would allow themselves to be petted. Meanwhile, a dog suffering from anxiety would sniff, pant, lick their lips, or yawn even if they are not tired.

Dog Baring Teeth

An aroused or over-stimulated dog will show the following signs:

  • Ears forward
  • Mouth closed
  • Tense body
  • Tail high and wagging slowly
  • Hairs are raised

Finally, if you see the following signs, your dog might be gearing for a bite:

  • Intense eye contact
  • Showing whites of eyes
  • Showing teeth
  • Growling
  • Tense body


How to Stop Aggression in Dogs

If you have properly determined your dog to be aggressive, then it’s time to correct it.

Step 1: Identify what’s causing the aggression.

What is causing the aggressive behavior to begin with? The most common reasons are:

  • Territorial – defending their space from a perceived intruder
  • Protective – protecting an animal or person they think is part of their pack
  • Possessive – protecting property like toys or food
  • Fear – they are scared and will attack in defense
  • Defensive – similar to fear but without the “flight” response. A dog with defensive aggression will not retreat and would instead attack first.
  • Social – the dog was not socialized properly and did not know how to behave
  • Frustration – happens when a dog is stimulated but cannot act on the stimulus, for example, because they are leashed
  • Redirected – when a dog cannot reach the target of their hostility, they may redirect the anger towards someone or something else.
  • Pain-Elicited – the dog is in pain
  • Sex-Related – when vying for the attention of the opposite sex
  • Predatory – aggressive behavior without much warning, usually when chasing wildlife

Note when your dog becomes aggressive. Make sure you include the circumstances causing the behavior.

Dog Getting a Shot

Step 2: See your veterinarian.

It’s essential to check if underlying medical conditions are causing the aggression, especially if the behavior seemingly developed overnight. Health problems like hypothyroidism or neurological disorders can affect dogs’ behaviors.

Your vet may need to give your dog medication or treatment to improve the behavior.

Step 3: Call for professional help.

If no medical conditions are causing the aggressive behavior, then it’s time to seek the help of a professional dog trainer. He should help you create a plan to figure out the root cause of the problem and how to manage it.


How to Stop Reactive Behavior in Dogs

If your dog is reactive instead of aggressive, don’t fret. Reactive dogs are a different challenge than aggressive ones, but there are still ways to help you and your dog cope better.

Step 1: Identify the triggers.

Just like with aggression, you need to find out what’s triggering the reactive response before you can start correcting it.

Wide-Eyed Dog

Step 2: Remove access to the stimuli.

Preventing access to stimuli removes the trigger. For example, if your dog goes crazy at the sight of another animal. You can limit his visual access by using a head halter on public walks so you can quickly turn him away.

In many cases, simply removing the stimuli is enough to “fix” reactivity in dogs. But what if that doesn’t work? What else can you do?

The answer may lie in behavior modification, and one good way to get it done is through a remote training collar.


Can E-Collars Help with Aggressive and Reactive Dogs?

Dogtra x PetsTEK 200NCPT Remote Training Collar

Photo: Dogtra x PetsTEK 200NCPT

Many articles warn against using remote training collars (aka, dog shock collar or e collar) on aggressive dogs. We don’t recommend using e-collars on aggressive dogs UNLESS you know how to do it correctly.

Remote trainers work well to redirect a dog’s attention, making them a great addition to an aggressive dog’s rehabilitation program. But snapping an e-collar on a dog’s neck and zapping them at the first display of aggression is not the way to do it. The dog will likely see that as punishment and may even make the behavior worse.

Advantages of Using a Remote Training Collar for Reactive and Aggressive Dogs

Remote training collars are great communication tools. Because it’s a gadget, it doesn’t fall prey to the nuances of human emotion. It helps keep things neutral while training and thus avoid confusing your dog further.

It’s also beneficial that it works even at a distance. So even if your dog is yards away, a simple push of a button can convey the command.

How to Use E-Collars for Reactive and Aggressive Dogs

1. Lay a proper foundation of obedience training.

Obedience training gives a dog a “job.” By focusing on learning and following basic commands, they are distracted from what would typically evoke an aggressive or reactive response.

Introduce the remote training collar through basic exercises like learning to stay or coming when called.
Please make sure that training is done in a place where there are no triggers for the dog.

2. Slowly expose the dog to triggers.

Once your dog has basic obedience down, you can start exposing them to situations that usually trigger reactivity or aggression.

Again, you are not supposed to use the collar to punish the dog. Instead, use the collar together with the command to redirect your dog’s attention away from the trigger.
One good example is if your dog reacts to another animal by cowering and growling (reactive) or attempting to run and bite (aggressive). Using a “heel” command, you are teaching your dog to walk calmly near you, past the other animal.

S.G. Friedman once said, “The key question is not ‘How do I stop this problem behavior?’ Rather, the question is ‘What do I want the animal to do instead?’… Then, teach it!” This pretty much sums up e-collar training.

Of course, do not expect immediate change. Progress may be incremental, and you may need to adjust depending on how well or how badly your dog adapts to the training process. An e-collar is not a magic tool, and there are no absolutes. But with consistency and patience, success is possible.

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