Karen B. London
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Do Dogs Turn on Their Guardians?
Is aggression predictable?

[Editor’s note: This post was inspired by a comment from a reader identified as Lou to a post about a seizure of dogs in dog-fighting bust. Read the original post and the comment here.]


Everyone who has experienced aggression from their own dog deserves lots of sympathy and the sympathy I personally have for them is deeply felt. It's horrific to be hurt by an animal you love and even more devastating to see that animal hurt somebody else in your family.  It’s even worse when people feel blindsided by the incident. As a professional behaviorist and trainer, I’m aware that we need to do a better job of educating people about the red flags of potential aggression. Red flags exist but are not always picked up on. In 10 years as an aggression specialist, I've yet to see an animal truly “turn on” someone without at least a hint that trouble was brewing. However, there's no doubt that is how it feels to many people who are involved when it’s their own dog who injures them.

Naturally dogs with a bite history towards dogs or people have given a warning, especially if it was an attack that was prolonged and hard to stop. Such relentless aggression is a serious red flag that the animal has trouble with inhibition. Other typical warning signs include growling, barking, lunging, tooth displaying (especially with an offensive pucker), a tendency to get frustrated, difficulty calming down after getting revved up, going stiff, tongue flicking, charging at anything of interest, hard stares directed at another individual, facial expressions indicating nervousness or discomfort, becoming mouthy when in an aroused state, excessive sniffing of the ground in social situations, guarding food or toys and being fearful of people, animals, or any other object.

Any of these signs, or even the general feeling that something is amiss warrant a consultation with a person trained to deal with serious behavioral problems in dogs. Such a person may be a certified applied animal behaviorist, a trainer, or a veterinarian who is board certified in behavior.

Stereotyping breeds to predict aggressive behavior is not useful or fair. The predictability of aggression based on a dog’s breed is highly overrated. The idea of breed bans or rejecting certain animals simply because their relatives (members of the same breed) have misbehaved bothers me. Certain breeds are getting more bad press than they deserve, and aggression is a stereotype that seems to stick, even if other generalities are fitting. For example, most people with a Pit Bull will laugh if I say that whenever I meet a lovely Pit Bull, I always want to warn people, “Pity the poor intruder who gets licked to death,” and it’s a common joke that Pits can’t hold their “licker.” And yet, most of what we hear about is Pit Bull aggression, not excessive licking. Rottweilers and Dobermans are also breeds that many people fear on sight without any actual data about the particular animal in question.

On the other hand, there’s no denying that certain lines of dogs that have been bred for aggression do exhibit it. Regrettably, aggression is easy to breed for if that is someone’s intent. However, it is critical to remember that not all members of breeds who have been bred for aggression are from lines with that sort of breeding history.

Over the years, the two most common breeds I have seen for aggression issues are Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers. Are these bad dogs? Aggressive breeds? Of course not. They are just common breeds so I see them a lot. I rarely hear of a breed of dog without being able to recall at least one client whose dog of that breed had an aggression issue. Yet, I have met far more dogs from all these breeds with lovely temperaments than I have met individuals with aggression issues.  Have I met aggressive Pit Bulls, Rottweilers, and Dobermans? Yes, I have, but I’ve also met aggressive Poodles, Bichons and Greyhounds, just to name a few breeds. In my experience, aggression is far more predictable based on a dog’s previous behavior than on the breed.

I look forward to hearing other people’s perspectives on the predictability of aggression. This topic truly fits the criteria for a can of worms, and I personally consider vigorous debate to be more fun than a barrel of monkeys.


Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

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Submitted by Anonymous | August 17 2009 |

When referring to dogs who are used for fighting, saying that they are "bred" for aggression is inaccurate, at best. Not even considering how complex "aggression" is, there is no "gene" for it.

This often gets lost in the varying, unending myths about pit bull type dogs, but it really is of huge importance.

Submitted by Monica | August 20 2009 |

Interesting Article Karen.Thanks!

Just ask vets and they will confirm that often smaller breeds tend to be much more aggressive then larger breed. In the past we had Dobermans that would not have been able to hurt a fly , but our neighbour's Chihuahua is not to be lifted or come near.

Aggressiveness comes often from all kind of sources: psychological trauma, physical trauma, change of environment; change of relationships within the family etc.

I believe even food has somehow influence.

This story comes from Hong Kong; but I think it applies globally.
We have a handful of rescue dogs; the Alpha dog died a while ago; putting a lot of strain on the new leader; who I think still does not know if he wants to be the leader.

Towards other dogs he is fine and I can leave him loose but within the house he acts up; training has not helped much. Besides that he also has developed recently arthritis and seems to suffer from it, which makes him bite when touched. Medicine, and supplements for his joints and pain help as well as homeopathy and acupuncture.

My point is: as long as the whole family understands the situation and is willing to invest time and be consequent; it will help and make your dog less aggressive. We implemented a baby door to seperate him from the rest when necessary, but trying to keep him also with the group if family is in the room so we can take action if something seems to be happening.

That dogs start warning or biting their guardians can be 2 fold: they no longer have respect for you, or there is another reason like pain, discomfort or stress. And I believe you have biters that do it more conciously and others that clearly surprise themselves and hide immediately;not because out of fear of the owner, but fear about themselves.

Respect you can earn back; not by hitting or so, but training them to fully trust you ( there are loads of good books about this issue)

When our dog starts growling at me, if it is a safe situation, I just ignore it, and it stops quite quickly.

Less red meat will appearently also have positive influence on your dog.

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