Monday, April 21, 2014

Dog talk with Uncle Matty: Knowing aggression

I got another one of those phone calls the other day. I pick up, and the guy on the other end tells me he has a 2-year-old dog who is “sometimes” aggressive.

I tell him he has a “sometimes” problem.

But the problem with a sometimes problem is that it’s easy to forget you have a real problem — or to pretend you don’t. And you do.

Aggression — sometimes or all the time — is a real problem.

The guy on the phone wasn’t done.

He tells me he started bringing his dog to the office every day, hoping to use his employees to socialize his pooch.

Instead of a socialized dog, he ended up with a territorial dog. Territorial and aggressive.

Within the United States Department of Labor lies a division called OSHA. Created in 1970 with the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration exists “to assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.”

“Safe conditions” includes not treating your employees like caged bait for the purpose of curing your dog’s aggression. There is a very real potential for liability here.

While dog aggression is a serious problem, dealing with it nevertheless boils down to the two steps involved in finding solutions to any problem: 1) Recognize it; 2) do something about it.

But dog aggression is often complicated by our resistance as dog owners to step 1.

A woman called me recently saying her dog attacked another dog. I told her she has an aggressive dog. She said, “No, he’s my baby. He just didn’t like that other dog.”


If we can’t get to step 1, we’ll never get to step 2.

Having an aggressive dog isn’t the end of the world. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It doesn’t mean you have a bad dog. It just means you have to pay attention, you have to be honest, and you have to take precautions when it comes to your dog.

In order to recognize your dog’s behavior as aggressive, it might help to understand the different types of aggression:

• human aggression
• dog (or other animals) aggression
• fear-based aggression
• dominance-based aggression
• food and resource aggression (the guarding of food, food bowls, toys, bones, treats, etc.)
• territorial aggression (the guarding of territory, which could be your home, your car, your office, a doghouse, a dog bed, a couch, a bed, a hotel room or even you if your dog somehow got the idea that he owns you).

It also helps to know what aggressive behavior looks like:

• growling
• curled lip, bared teeth
• snapping
• snarling
• biting.

These are clear warning signs that a dog is miffed or freaked out and might bite or attack.

Subtler signs exist, as well: a stiff tail, an unblinking stare, a frozen stance, raised hackles, a wagging tail that isn’t relaxed, even the licking of the lips. These behaviors could indicate an impending act of aggression, or they could be triggered by something else. The subtlety of canine messages is a good reason to bring in a professional if your dog’s behavior involves any of the bullet points above.

An aggressive dog is a problem. But there are many possible solutions. So much depends on the specific behaviors and the specific circumstances. So don’t bury your head in the sand. And don’t get rid of the dog. Get help to get rid of the problem.


Dog trainer Matthew “Uncle Matty” Margolis is co-author of 18 books about dogs, a behaviorist, a popular radio and television guest, and 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 or by mail to Uncle Matty at P.O. Box 3300, Diamond Springs, CA 95619.

Matthew Margolis


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