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Dog Aggression Signs – A Wagging Tail Isn’t Always Friendly

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Dog attacks and dog aggression are one of the most common reasons why dog owners seek out the help of their friends, dog coaches/trainers and veterinarians. A dog that exhibits aggressive behavior towards either humans or other dogs can quickly devolve to create a nightmare situation for pet parents. They may become afraid of taking their dog out in public or even of having their dog hang out near their own children or other pets. Make no mistake about it, a dog that has shown aggressive behavior even once, if not closely watched and corrected, can become both a liability and a heartbreak.

What is Dog Aggression?

The first thing that needs to be understood is saying a dog is “aggressive” not helpful for the dog. There is more than one reason for a having behaved in an aggressive manner. There’s no such thing as a “bad dog” simply being inherently bad. Usually, there is a ‘lead up’ to the final vicious attack that spells doom for the dog if its owners are not knowledgeable about canine behavior. Many of these signs can be missed by owners who don’t understand their dog, its needs, its breed qualities and its psychological needs.

Understanding Dog Aggression

  • Fear Based Aggression
  • Protection Based Aggression

1.) Fear Based Aggression

When a dog is fearful, they respond with aggression if they are cornered and cannot run away. This fear based response can occur in even the most mild-mannered dogs. If a dog is hurt and feeling pain or a tender spot, they tend to become more aggressive and to lash out, even if they are normally a docile dog. If a dog does not understand what is going on, it can become fearful and attack the source of its fear.

2.) Protection Based Aggression

A dog that has recently had a litter of puppies will show dog aggression and will be protective over their little ones. This is normal and natural behavior and does not indicate any serious issues or underlying illness in the mother dog. A dog that sees a threat to its owner, property, itself or any other loved ones will also lash out aggressively in order to protect them. This again, is normal behavior, and the onus is on the dog’s owner to train and teach it to realize what actual threats are.

Many people are quick to judge dogs and blame dog aggression incidents based on particular breeds. Conversely, many believe that a dog’s breed has no bearing on its behavior. The reality is that it is often a mix of genetics and environment that can lead up to dogs being labelled as aggressive, but not in the way you would think: Rather than being inherently vicious, some dogs are simply genetically larger, stronger and more powerful than other breeds. These dogs can have devastating effects after aggressive attacks which lead to hospital visits, whereas smaller dogs that bite or attack may have little or no damage inflicted on their targets. Therefore these incidents are typically under-reported.

Fight or Flight

Some dogs are generally more prone to flight based responses, whereas some dogs, irrespective of their breed, will attack when confronted with what they deem to be threatening situations (this is similar to the fight or flight response seen in humans). This is more personality based – if you have an alpha dominant dog, it is more likely to stand its ground. If you have a submissive dog, it is more likely to run away with its tail between its legs.

Recognizing Warning Signs

The biggest problem is when people don’t recognize the warning signs of dogs who are likely to attack. Some parents allow children to harass, hug and bother their dogs without paying attention to the dog’s signals and efforts to disengage. Many human behaviors, like hugging a dog around its neck, are actually interpreted differently in the dog world – clutching a dog around its neck is seen as an attempt to dominate or immobilize it.

Dogs do not attack out of the blue. Many of them give plenty of cues and warning signals that are ignored, misinterpreted or unidentified before an incident of dog aggression occurs. These are ways in which the dog says “Please, back off. I am not comfortable.” If the undesirable interaction continues, the dog can eventually lash out with its teeth and bite or attack the person or other animal invading its personal space.

Look for any of these signs, and back off immediately if two or more are present at the same time:

Signs of imminent or potential dog aggression brewing:

  • Dog breaks off eye contact, turning its head away from whatever is bothering him, or closing its eyes

  • Dog yawns

  • Ears flattened against its head

  • Whale Eye or Half-Moon Eye – you can see the white portion of the dog’s eyes at the corner or the rim

  • Licks its own lips or touching its nose with its tongue

  • Lick’s person’s hand or face continually during the interaction (not in the same manner as an excited greeting towards its owner)

  • Barred teeth

  • Raised hackles

    • This is a section of fur on its back and neck that rises up, sometimes on the back as well, when the dog is warning it is ready to attack if threatened further. Usually accompanied by growling and/or barring of teeth.
  • Tail Tucked in between its legs or tail is stiff and  wagging.

    • Many people think a wagging tail always means that the dog is happy. This is untrue. If the tail is held high and only the tip is wagging, this means the dog is aroused and may not be friendly – they may need to be calmed down. If the tail is stiff and wagging, it may communicate tension or hostility (a loose wagging tail or a dog that wags its tail in wide sweeping motions with its whole butt moving is generally a happy wag).

A dog displaying full aggression and ready to attack:dog aggression signals

A dog displaying signs of Fear and Submission:

fear submission dog aggression

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