Peeved Pups: Can Dogs Be Angry?

Despite lots of reasons to do so, dogs rarely display true anger.
By Karen B. London PhD, September 2017
Photo by Lisa5201

Photo by Lisa5201

Photo by Cindy Prins

Photo by Cindy Prins

Last week, a client described his dog by saying, “He’s just wonderful! The kids can do anything to him!” When I hear such comments— which I do, often—my first thought is I need to know what the kids are doing to that poor dog.

Frequently, “anything” includes climbing on him, pulling his ears or poking him in the eyes, dragging him by the tail, tossing him off the couch, chewing on the other end of his rawhide, or any number of things we could reasonably expect to bother even the most patient dog.

The average human facing analogous situations would likely lose their temper and, quite possibly, lash out, and I’ve sometimes wondered why dogs don’t do so more often. In my experience, anger is quite rare among dogs, and since aggressive dogs are my business, that’s saying something.

The idea that a dog is capable of becoming angry troubles many people, which makes grappling with the concept difficult. There’s a tendency to ascribe only positive emotions to our dogs. We’re quite comfortable with the idea that dogs are happy or feel love, but have a harder time getting our minds around the idea that dogs might also feel hate or anger.

There is evidence that this may be especially true of people who have spent a lot of time with dogs. A 2013 study by Bloom and Friedman about classifying dogs’ facial expression from photographs found that people who were inexperienced with dogs were better at identifying canine anger than those who were experienced. The authors suggest that perhaps experienced people were more likely to give dogs the benefit of the doubt and perceive them to be friendly rather than aggressive.

While it does not surprise me that many people have a hard time believing that dogs can get angry, studies on dogs’ (and other animals’) emotions suggest that they have a fuller emotional life than we once thought. If they can experience fear, love, joy, sadness and grief, why not anger?

Why should we worry about whether dogs do or do not experience anger? Part of the answer is that to know dogs, we have to understand the full range of their emotions. Another issue is that when pushed beyond the limits of their control, dogs may express their anger in a very problematic way: with a bite.

Though aggression is common in my line of work, I am often amazed at how relatively rarely dogs bite. Janis Bradley, in the Animals and Society Institute’s policy paper, Dog Bites: Problems and Solutions (rev. 2014), noted that—according to CDC statistics, which are gleaned from hospital ERs—the average is 11 bites per 10,000 people. More than one-third of U.S. households include at least one dog, which means that, at a minimum, roughly 113 million people are in daily contact with dogs. Of all those interactions, only a very small percentage results in a bite. More exactly, Bradley wrote, dog bites account for 0.1 percent of all emergency room visits, and 99 percent of those are rated as “level 1 injuries,” or the least severe of six categories.

Don’t get me wrong. Dog bites are still too common, and I’m certainly in favor of all efforts to decrease their frequency. I’m also well aware that far too many people have been scared, injured or traumatized by an experience with canine aggression. Yet, when you consider how often dogs have an opportunity to bite but don’t, it’s pretty remarkable.

Dogs and Anger

There is compelling biological evidence to support the idea that dogs do indeed experience anger. Jaak Panksepp, who wrote the amazing book Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions, considered anger to be one of the core mammalian emotions. Also, anger is quite primitive, which makes it hard to argue that only humans feel it. Biologically speaking, we have many things in common with our dogs, including the anatomy of our brains (particularly the amygdala, which plays important roles in both fear and anger) and the chemistry of our neurological systems (dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, for example). Additionally, we share many facial expressions that relate to emotion, as Charles Darwin wrote about extensively in his 1872 book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

Mild forms of anger are called irritation or frustration, and the most extreme forms are referred to as rage, but they are all versions of the same emotion. Anger prepares the body—including the brain—for action, especially fighting, and has long been necessary for survival in many species. And because anger affects us physically, it is difficult to calm down once we become angry, and requires considerable emotional control to override the desire to act upon it. (That explains why it can be hard to resist kicking something when we are really, intensely angry.)

I have observed dogs whose behavior is easier to understand in the context of being angry. For example, I’ve seen a few dogs display what looked to me like temper tantrums. An angry dog losing his temper and having a tantrum sounds ridiculously anthropomorphic until you see a dog in such a state. I recall an American Water Spaniel named Jonas doing just that—frothing at the mouth, jerking at the leash and stamping his feet because he couldn’t reach a toy that had gone under a dense bush, then redirecting a bite to an innocent bystander. For Jonas, these behaviors were routine, not actions that only occasionally surfaced when he was having a bad day.

Another client came to me with her female Pomeranian/Shih Tzu cross, who was wearing an Elizabethan collar and was mad about it. Her emotional response and behavior reflected her feelings. She glared, was disagreeable about responding to cues and donkey kicked at the doors and furniture.

Still, in the 20 years I’ve worked with aggressive dogs, I’ve only seen dogs who seemed to be truly angry a few dozen times. That means that, even among dogs with serious behavioral issues, it presents itself a couple of times a year. (On the other hand, I see the mild version of this emotion in the form of irritation or annoyance quite frequently—at least weekly.)

Aggression Is Not Anger

While some think dogs can’t get angry, others have the impression that all dogs who act aggressively are angry. Although they can occur simultaneously, anger and aggression are not synonymous. Anger is an emotion, aggression is an action. They may go together, but they are not the same thing. Certainly, aggression can be a result of anger, but it’s rare. I thank my lucky stars that I seldom encounter dogs who are aggressive in anger, because those dogs are very hard to help. Similar to humans with bad tempers, they may learn to better control their behavior, but few are able to keep it under wraps permanently and completely.

When a dog behaves aggressively, there’s always a lot of speculation about the reasons. It’s my experience that some factors are assumed to be common even when—like anger—they are quite rare. Fear is by far the most common cause; roughly 80 percent of the aggressive dogs I see exhibit fear-based aggression. It may not be the only factor, but it is typically the main issue. This is actually good news, because if we can help them overcome their fears, these dogs can significantly improve their behavior. Generally, fear as the cause of aggression is a positive indicator that behavior modification is likely to be successful.

Aggression most commonly develops gradually in young or adolescent dogs, and it’s typical to see the warning signs of impending trouble over weeks, months or even years. Among the signals: a tense dog will freeze, his mouth will close and his jaw will tighten; if something in the situation does not change, an aggressive response, including a bite, may follow. This is not as obvious as snapping, barking, growling, lunging or showing teeth, but it’s a warning nevertheless, and easy to spot if you know to look for it and understand what it means. Other, more subtle warning signs include canine behaviors like putting a paw or body between a toy and anyone approaching; a lack of normal friendliness; a wrinkled brow; and signs of fear or stress, including tongue flicks, yawning, whimpering, sweaty paws or tail-tucking.

Aggression exhibited by a fully mature dog with no warning is often provoked by pain. I remember two cases in which dogs really did bite out of the blue. One was a dog with a serious injury to his tooth and the other involved a dog who suddenly began to attack the household’s other dog, with whom he had happily lived and played for years; it turned out that he had an undiagnosed back injury. In both cases, the dogs acted aggressively to prevent themselves from being touched in ways that would cause them to experience more pain.

Another uncommon scenario is the dog who “misses” when he tries to bite. Yes, people can sometimes react fast enough to move as a dog is lunging at them. The thing is, though, dogs’ reaction times are many times faster than humans’. When dogs choose to bite, bite they do. I’m sure there are examples of dogs who do actually flat-out miss, but it is far less common than many people suppose. So, chances are that if it looks like a dog tried to bite you and missed, it wasn’t because you were fast enough to avoid his teeth. It was probably just a warning. If he wanted to bite you, you would have been bitten.

The rare is always fascinating— the white bison, the person who can do rapid and complex mental computations, a snowstorm in July. In canine behavior, knowing what is rare—like anger—and what is common allows us to better understand dogs’ behavior, and dogs themselves, which helps our already magical friendship grow even stronger.

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.

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