Preventing Aggressive Behavior in Your Dog Starts With You

Although genetics can be a factor, aggressive behavior in a dog is often better managed, decreased or even avoided with proper training. Here’s how.

Photo of a really cute puppy with a tennis ball in their mouth
Aggressive behavior in a dog comes in many forms. It’s best to work on this during puppyhood. Photo: Shaun_F

Imagine bringing home a fantastic new dog. You’ve watched and waited for just the right dog to bring home and finally found a rescue pup to add to your family.

You evaluated the dog with your kids at the shelter and found he was sweet and patient with them.

Now it’s dinner time at home, and you’ve just put down his food bowl. He is eating, and you walk over to give him more water. A low rumble and an intense stare meet you as you approach him. Startled, you freeze. This dog was so sweet at the shelter — what’s going on?

Aggressive behavior in a dog comes in many forms. A dog can display a single expression of aggression or may have multiple expressions of aggression.

5 most common types of aggressive behavior in a dog:

  1. Dog-to-dog aggression
  2. Human-directed aggression
  3. Resource guarding
  4. Social aggression
  5. Fear aggression

We’ll discuss how to prevent each of these expressions of aggression below. First, though, let’s talk about what actually causes aggressive behavior in dogs.

Photo of a German Shepherd-type dog on a leash baring teeth
There are various expressions of aggression, including fear-based aggressive behavior in a dog. Photo: skeeze

Where Does Aggression Come From?

Aggression is generally either learned or inherited.

All dogs inherit a certain level of aggression necessary for survival. Some dogs have chemical imbalances, instincts or personalities that contribute to a higher level of aggressive tendencies.

Certain breeds are known to have more aggressive tendencies — but there are always exceptions within each breed, and parentage and direct bloodlines play a significant role there.

The very characteristics that could lead to higher bite rates can also help some dogs perform the jobs they were bred for, if the aggression is balanced and proper training is in place. Many military and police dogs need to have a certain level of inherent protectiveness and a good defense drive, for instance.

While some cases of aggression are genetic-based, training is just as necessary for those dogs. A dog might be prone exhibit certain aggressive tendencies, but training can often decrease, better manage or counteract some of those tendencies.

On the other hand, a dog may not have inherently aggressive traits that predispose them to more aggressive tendencies, but they may still struggle with aggression if training or socialization is absent, or if trauma takes place.

No matter where the aggression stems from or what your dog’s genetic odds are, there’s a lot you can do to prevent aggressive behavior in a dog.

Photo of 2 dogs baring their teeth at each other, but possibly just playing
Preventing aggressive behavior in your dog starts with you. Photo: Counselling

1. How to Prevent a Dog’s Aggressive Behavior Toward Other Dogs

Dog-to-dog aggression is a fairly common complaint among pet parents. It can take a lot of time and effort to address later in a dog’s life, so for many dogs, this type of aggression is most easily prevented during puppyhood.

There are some great ways to set your pup up for success with other dogs later in life:

  • Puppy class
  • Manage greetings
  • Seek help early

Puppy Class

Joining a high-quality puppy training class, one that has time for moderated, off-leash puppy play, is a fantastic way to prevent aggression issues later in life.

Puppies learn so much from playing with other puppies. They learn bite inhibition, how to adjust their play to accommodate another puppy’s needs, how to read and communicate proper social cues, how to gain confidence around other dogs, and when to take breaks and calm down.

So many of the skills learned during play are the same things that prevent dog-to-dog issues later. Puppies play differently than adult dogs do, so playing with other puppies as opposed to adult dogs is important.

Manage Greetings

A lot of adult dog-to-dog issues can be attributed to traumatic experiences where puppies were attacked or intimidated by adult dogs.

While a puppy is young, they are developing their perception of the world around them. A lack of exposure or unpleasant experiences can teach them the wrong things about the world, leading to fear and aggression later.

  • When you’re introducing your puppy to older dogs, be picky about whom they meet. Allow your puppy to interact only with good doggy role models. Most healthy adult dogs will set boundaries with puppies and give mild warnings, but the right adult dog will be extremely patient and tolerant as well.
  • Don’t avoid all adult dogs, though. Puppies can develop a fear of the unknown, so be intentional about finding older dogs who are kind, patient examples to your puppy. Always supervise interactions and keep things calm between the dogs to keep the older one from becoming overwhelmed, too.

Seek Help Early

Despite your best efforts at early socialization and managing greetings with older dogs, sometimes things go wrong, or your pup is particularly timid around other dogs because of a genetic component. Don’t wait to seek professional help when something seems off.

Puppies have key developmental periods while young, and it’s in those times that they best learn things like how to interact with other dogs. The sooner you can address an issue, the better their odds are for overcoming fearful or aggressive tendencies.

Training is important when seeking to curb your dog’s aggressive behavior. Photo: Ty Konzak

2. How to Prevent Your Dog’s Aggressive Behavior Toward People

Probably the most concerning type of aggressive behavior in a dog — and one of the most common — is human-directed aggression.

This aggression can be toward all people; toward strangers; or toward one particular age group, sex, race or even personality type. Sometimes this aggression manifests in specific environments or situations.

Human aggression is best prevented while the dog is young. There are some proactive things you can do to decrease or avoid this type of aggression later in a dog’s life:

  • Ongoing socialization
  • Handling exercises
  • Managing encounters

Ongoing Socialization

A puppy class, which we discussed earlier as a way to prevent dog-to-dog aggression, can also prevent human-directed aggression by exposing the dog to other people who love puppies — and who happen to be armed with lots of treats and praise.

High-quality puppy classes require all participants to be current on vaccinations. They should clean the class area with a cleaner that kills parvovirus and distemper right before class, and they should keep all non-class participants out of the space once the floor has been cleaned.

A good rule of thumb is for your puppy to meet at least 100 different people before they reach 16 weeks of age.

Bring treats or your puppy’s food with you in a treat pouch or zippered baggie and take your pup to friends’ houses, the farmers market, parks, ball games, pet stores and any other safe location with people.

Allow folks to feed your puppy treats while they gently touch the dog and speak in a calm, quiet voice. If you start early enough and instruct people to be gentle, most puppies naturally love these interactions.

If your puppy has not yet been fully vaccinated, you can decrease the risk that they’ll contract a disease such as parvo or distemper by carrying them with you places and setting them down on the ground only in areas where other dogs have not been. You can also postpone any interactions with other dogs who are not up-to-date on vaccines.

Handling Exercises

Have you ever met a dog who hated to be touched?

Dog bites often happen when a dog is touched in a place on their body that they are not comfortable with. Getting your dog used to being handled as a puppy can go a long way toward preventing dog bites later.

Using the puppy’s meal kibble, practice gently touching them all over their bodies while you softly praise them and feed treats. Include areas such as their ears, paws, neck and collar area, tail, chest, back and mouth.

Most puppies are mouthy while young. Don’t let that deter you, but do be gentle and focus extra time on areas your pup is most reactive to until they can happily tolerate those areas. It’s safest to begin this exercise while they are still young. Continue the handling excercises at least occasionally through adulthood to maintain your pup’s love and tolerance of touch.

Once the puppy is used to you handling them, recruit family members, friends and even gentle strangers to practice with your puppy using treats. This is especially important if you have children, because kids inevitably tend to touch dogs in unexpected locations — which can lead to a fear bite for many pets.

Managing Encounters

Because puppies are forming their view of the world while young, it is important to keep experiences fun and pleasant, without avoiding the things they will need to cope with later in life.

Be aware of how people are interacting with your dog. Children should always be supervised and taught to be gentle and respectful. Puppies can be taught simple commands and games, which kids can learn to do with the dogs.

Kids can also play structured games like fetch with a puppy. A bit of structure in their relationship helps facilitate calmness and fun for the kids while still exposing the puppy to lots of children.

Be careful to avoid traumatic things like neighbors teasing a puppy, a boisterous friend roughhousing with and cornering your puppy, or simply not bringing the dog around a variety of people in general.

Preventing Aggressive Behavior in Your Dog
When your dog is young, teach them to drop their toy and let you take it from them. Photo: skeeze

3. How to Prevent Resource Guarding by Your Dog

The most common resource that a dog will guard is their food, but a dog can guard anything: toys, bones, furniture, objects, people, other pets and more. When a dog guards something, they believe that item or person belongs to them, and they are trying to control who else can interact with it.

Preventing resource guarding in a dog is best done early. The following can help:

  • Trading treats for toys
  • Making meals fun
  • Teaching boundaries
  • Not creating fear

Trading Treats for Toys

While your dog is young, begin teaching the “Drop it” command and use that command when you need to take a toy or object from them.

  1. Tell your pup, “Drop it,” and hold a treat against their nose. Wait until they release the toy. As soon as they release the toy, praise them and give the treat.
  2. As they improve, gradually phase out the treat in your hand by pretending to hold a treat. Command “Drop it,” and when they release the toy, reward with a treat from behind your back.
  3. When they can consistently drop an item without sniffing a treat first, keep both hands hidden behind your back, command “Drop it,” and wait for them to drop the item. When they do, reward with a treat from behind your back.
  4. Practice this command often so your dog will know it well when you need it in everyday life.

Making Meals Fun

Many dogs feel stressed while eating and become afraid that you will take their food whenever you approach. This fear can lead to aggressive guarding behavior at mealtime.

A great way to prevent stress around food is to associate your approach with good things. If you have kids, practice the training with them, too, while the puppy is young.

  1. Place a fifth of your puppy’s meal kibble in their bowl and let them start eating it.
  2. While they are eating, walk up to them and drop a tasty treat into or next to their food bowl where they will see it.
  3. After they finish the first food portion, remove their bowl, add more food to it, then place it back down and let them continue eating.
  4. Toss more treats while they eat their food again.
  5. Repeat the treat tosses and adding more food to their bowl until they have eaten their entire meal that way.
  6. Have kids practice tossing treats to them while they eat — as long as there have been no signs of food aggression and the dog is still a puppy. If your dog is older, safety measures, such as a back-tie leash, will need to be in place while doing this.

Teaching Boundaries

It’s easy to allow an adorable puppy to do something you wouldn’t want a large adult dog doing.

People often allow behaviors like bed sharing, jumping, demanding attention, begging for food, getting on the couch and chewing human objects while their puppy is young. But once the dog is older, that same behavior is often no longer cute or acceptable.

Keep the future in mind while your pup is young. If you don’t want them doing something as an adult, don’t allow it as a puppy.

Teaching consistent boundaries from a young age can build a healthy respect for people in pups. And a healthy level of respect and clear boundaries can help prevent resource guarding later.

Not Creating Fear

Finally, there are a few things you can avoid doing to decrease the odds of resource guarding becoming an issue later.

  • Don’t take your puppy’s food away and bother them while they are eating without exchanging it for something fun and making the experience pleasant for them. Taking food away or reaching into their bowl without rewarding them for their tolerance can create stress and distrust around mealtimes, which may cause food aggression later.
  • Do not practice taking a toy or bone away from your dog over and over without trading it for another toy, treat or fun activity. Doing so can cause your dog to feel defensive when you approach them while they have something beloved.
  • Do not allow your dog to stand on you, demand your attention, demand toys or food, or claim certain areas of the house. Such behavior, while cute in a puppy or small dog, can lead to aggression issues.
  • Do not tease or intentionally scare your dog — especially in the presence of someone they feel the need to protect, such as another dog, child or family member.
Photo of a dog covering their eyes, seeming shy or unmotivated
Your dog naturally needs to eat, get exercise, receive affection and play games. Have them work for these life rewards. Photo: rezendeluan

4. How to Prevent Your Dog’s Social Aggression

Social aggression is the type of aggression most often associated with social order and interaction. Dominance and submission are aspects of social order.

Problems can surface when the dog is asked to do something they find unacceptable — especially when the person asking is someone the dog does not respect or trust.

In dog training, respect can have a very negative connotation. It is often associated with things like alpha rolls and intimidation, but respect is a vital part of dog training, and some of the most effective methods are also very gentle.

A healthy level of respect in your relationship with your dog can decrease your dog’s anxiety, make life more fun and peaceful for both of you, and prevent serious behavior issues that can result in the dog being euthanized or rehomed.

Think about the people in your life that you most respect. Most likely these are people of integrity, patience and wisdom. They did not earn your respect by instilling fear. Instead, they are dependable, consistent and back up their words with actions. We often gain our dogs’ respect with a similar level of consistency, calmness and follow-through.

There are several ways to increase your dog’s respect for you, starting while they are still young. You can practice.

  • Working for life rewards
  • Consistency and follow-through
  • Obedience practice

Working for Life Rewards

A common question asked in dog training is, “When should I stop using treats?”

In dog training, treats and toys can and should be used to motivate a dog. At a certain point, though, these rewards should be things in your dog’s everyday life that they already receive and want, such as meal kibble, affection, playing, taking a walk or being allowed to do something specific.

Your dog naturally needs to eat, get exercise, receive affection and play games. Have them work for these life rewards.

  • Before placing their food down, train your dog to wait so that they are calmly waiting for your permission before diving into the food.
  • Before allowing them to go outside for a walk, require them to sit calmly at the door without simply bolting through.
  • Instead of petting them every time they nudge your hand, instruct them to be more polite using “Down” or “Place” first.
  • Instead of letting them pull you over to that nearby tree they want to sniff, make them earn those steps forward by heeling by your side there.
  • Before throwing the ball for them to fetch, have them do a “Down-Stay” and wait until they are told “OK!” before they run after it. Why not add “Come” and “Drop it” as part of the game, too?

Incorporating commands into everyday life and having your pup work for what they love not only increases respect, but can also stimulate them mentally and provide a greater sense of purpose for your dog.

Consistency and Follow-Through

Being consistent is something that is often talked about or implied in dog training and life, but it can be hard to notice where you are consistent and where you are not. It can be even harder to actually become consistent.

Know that becoming consistent often takes intentionality, but the reward is well worth the effort.

After all, a dog who trusts and respects you, who knows that you follow through, and who is able to learn commands more quickly because they are less confused is easier and more fun to live with.

Consistency and follow-through can look like the following:

  • When you give your dog a command, be persistent until your dog obeys.
  • When you make a rule, enforce the rule all the time, not just when you feel like it.
  • Communicate and compromise with all members of your household to come to agreement on the rules, commands and routines you will use with your dog.

Obedience Practice

Many dogs have a lot of energy. While physical activity is vital for your dog’s well-being, spending time challenging them mentally can also help manage their energy.

Start with basic obedience commands. Once you have mastered those, you can move on to intermediate obedience, advanced obedience, tricks, canine sports or specialized tasks.

Things that involve getting the dog to work with you, learning new or slightly challenging things, and working for rewards can all be great ways to establish a relationship of trust and respect between you both.

How to Prevent Fear-Based Aggressive Behavior in Your Dog
From an early age, your dog should be taken with you to places and exposed to different situations, people and other dogs. Photo: Mylene2401

5. How to Prevent Fear-Based Aggressive Behavior in Your Dog

A lot of aggression in dogs stems from fear and suspiciousness. Besides exposing your pup to other people and dogs in fun ways, there are additional things you can do to prevent fearfulness that could lead to aggression.

  • Make new things fun
  • Seek help early

Make New Things Fun

What types of things will your puppy have to be around as an adult?

Will they need to tolerate balloons at birthday parties, obstacles found on a hike, people in wheelchairs, odd holiday decorations, loud kitchen appliances or water at the beach?

So often, we are surprised when our dog starts growling at the person in the wheelchair, or hides behind us when we walk past the blow-up Santa in the neighbors’ yard. At some point in your life, you probably encountered those things before, though. We consider those things normal, but your dog needs to encounter them while young for them to see them as normal.

  • Spend time taking your dog places with you and exposing them to things in the world. Bring treats and try to act happy and confident about the new experiences so that your pup will feel the same way.
  • Avoid pitying your puppy and reassuring them. Instead, show them how excited you are about the new experience, give them time and space to explore it on their own, and reward them when they choose to be courageous or calm.
  • If something scares them, like another dog or a bicycle whizzing by, make a party of it to help them remember the party and not the scary event. Do a little dance, tell your puppy how brave they were, and toss some treats on the sidewalk for them to enjoy. 

Seek Help Early

When your dog is showing signs of aggression or fear that can’t be easily overcome with your own training efforts, please don’t wait to seek professional help.

Whether socialization began too late, genetics are at play, something traumatic happened or the dog came to live with you later and you don’t know what’s going on, the best time to address aggression and behavior issues is while the dog is young. The sooner the behavior can be worked through, the better the chances are that they will overcome it.

Here’s a quick video from Dr. Lindsay Butzer, DVM, with a little more advice on what to do if your puppy is aggressive:

YouTube player

Final Thoughts on Preventing Aggressive Behavior in a Dog

Each dog is different, and your dog’s personality will be unique to them.

  • You may have a pup who loves everyone and takes life in stride.
  • You may have a dog who is shy and likes to observe before acting.
  • You may have a very driven dog who prefers to make and keep their own rules.

Early training and socialization can make a massive difference in preventing aggression. Aggression is often better managed, decreased or even avoided with proper training — even when genetics are a factor.

Even if your dog is a love bug, training and socialization can ensure they maintain that as they grow. Dogs who have consistent training and great temperaments often get to go to more places, are more secure and happier in life, and can be more involved in their families’ lives.