Dogs that are aggressive toward other dogs, irrespective of sex, size, or breed, tend to be motivated by a sense of fear. Specific aggression toward dogs of the same gender usually tends to be of the dominant type and can be stimulated by competition coupled with a strong inherited drive to be in charge. Either type can be caused or fueled by lack of early socialization with other canines, which helps to moderate competitive drives.
Alternatively, fear aggression can be caused by a traumatic experience when young. It may even be inherited – certain breeds are more predisposed to inherit a sensitive temperament, and so need much more frequent socialization when very young. Fearfulness in dogs is quite variable too: some dogs are afraid of certain other dogs but not all, and some are apprehensive of certain places; others may have a combination of these traits. Some dogs are more aggressive when in a restricted area, on a leash, or in a car.
When your dog starts growling at or attacking dogs that it perceives as a threat and the other dogs back off, your dog interprets this as a success and the aggressive behavior is reinforced. Most fear-aggressive dogs are worse in restricted spaces and on leashes, especially short ones. This is because your dog senses a lack of space for escape and consequently feels more threatened. Conversely, some dogs are more aggressive because they are on a leash knowing they cannot reach the other dog.
If you suddenly detach a fearful dog from its leash while it’s being antagonistic, it will look at you in surprise and its aggression will subside. Of course it’s difficult for the average owner to know why their dog is being aggressive, so we don’t advise anyone to follow this example. Safety is always paramount, so use a muzzle on your dog if it’s aggressive. It is also sensible to seek expert advice before progressing further, as it may be difficult to identify precisely the underlying cause of aggression.
Some fear-driven biters can learn to appear to behave like dominant dogs, and often people have difficulty deciding whether the aggression is fear-triggered or not. These dogs, in fact, have learned through experience how to remove the threat by attacking first. They seem dominant by their physical posture but the underlying problem is still fear-generated. These are often the aggressive bullies of the dog world. A good dog trainer or behavior practitioner can identify the subtleties of behavior in these dogs.
When To Act
Sometimes people instinctively know what they have to do but they hesitate to do it because they lack confidence, knowledge, or determination, unlike their dog. Often many people are worn out by their dog’s antics, or just give up. Giving up can also mean eventually giving up the dog and passing on its problem to others. A quick consultation with a behavior practitioner can sometimes help bolster their confidence so the problem begins to be dealt with effectively.
We think the hardest step to take in dealing with an aggression problem is to admit its existence and ask for help. We really do respect do respect such dog owners. It takes courage; by accepting the problem, you take on the responsibility of trying to correct it by carrying out advice which, though essential, might cause emotional stress in the short term to all involved.
If you don’t follow this advice, it may indicate to a dominant or adolescent dog that you are not in control. This may encourage it to assert its dominance further, and eventually it will consider its position in the pack to be higher than yours. The result may be that your dog will stop listening to you and will no longer care about your displeasure.