Dog talk with Uncle Matty: Don’t dress your wolf in Grandma’s clothing

By From page A4 | August 30, 2013

There seems to be some general confusion about what constitutes aggression. What are the signs? What does dog aggression look like?

I spoke with a woman who said her dog is angry. How do you know he’s angry, I asked. “He growls and barks at other people and dogs,” she said.

“Sounds aggressive to me.”

“No,” she said. “He’s angry.”

What does aggression look like?

It looks like anger. It looks like Cujo. It looks like bared teeth and frothing at the mouth. But it also looks like tension — straight tail, ears up, wide eyes, a stiffening of the body and face, a gradual lifting of the snout in response to direct eye contact.

What does aggression sound like?

It sounds like growling — anything from a low rumble to a threatening, lip-curling snarl. Barking can be a sign of aggression, too, although dogs use their bark to communicate in ways that have nothing to do with aggression. However, barking in tandem with any of the above is safe to define as aggression.

The following letter from a reader demonstrates the signs and progression of aggression left unchecked:

“We have a serious issue with our sweet girl, ‘Suki.’ She shows severe fear aggression with certain people. It used to be a little low growl, which progressed to lunging with some backtracking. Now it is full-on, in-your-face snarling, barking and even jumping on or at certain people if we don’t grab her in time.

“Suki does very well on walks, walking right by people and dogs, often looking at them but quickly ignoring them. It’s only if they approach, stop and stare directly at her that she gets stressed out. She also frequently startles on walks and is often looking behind her even if no one is there.

“It is to the point that even my brother and father don’t want us to bring her because she does this to them whenever they stand up or walk around the house. She is fine with them if they are seated and will even approach them, lick them and let them pet and play with her. But the second they stand up, she is in their face snarling and growling and not letting them go anywhere. Please help!”

The most important thing I can say about dog aggression is don’t put a euphemism on it. Don’t call it anger. Don’t call it moodiness. Don’t call it unpredictability. Call it what it is, and get professional help. Dogs don’t grow out of aggression; they grow into it. Suki isn’t the exception; she’s the rule.

I believe there’s a solution to most problems, including dog aggression. My philosophy has always been: Don’t get rid of the dog; get rid of the problem. But don’t just dress up your big bad wolf in grandma’s clothing. In order to fix a problem, you have to admit it exists.


Dog trainer Matthew “Uncle Matty” Margolis is the co-author of 18 books about dogs, a behaviorist, a popular radio and television guest, and the host of the PBS series “WOOF! It’s a Dog’s Life!” Read all of Uncle Matty’s columns at, and visit him at Send your questions to [email protected] or by mail to Uncle Matty at P.O. Box 3300, Diamond Springs, CA 95619.

Matthew Margolis

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