Dog Aggression: Triggers, Ownership, and Training

A new study suggests that aggressive dogs end up in the homes of owners who share some of the dog’s traits.
Photo by skeeze via Pixabay

Aggressive dogs can certainly be a reflection of their owners, but there are often many other issues that can factor into whether a dog is abnormally aggressive. According to researchers from Michigan State University, dogs with aggressive or anxious temperaments often have owners with negative personality traits. And on the flip side, the same 2019 study found outgoing and active people tend to have dogs with energetic and gregarious personalities to match.

Meanwhile, a 2017 study by researchers at the University of Vienna found dogs often mirror their owners’ emotional states. When people were calm and happy, their dogs often absorbed and reflected those states, and when people were stressed and irritable—their dogs were, too.

These studies have no doubt prompted some dog owners to take a look in the mirror. (And perhaps even invest in therapy.) But what do they mean for people and their best friends, especially in instances of problem dog behaviors?

Rehabilitating or Curing Aggressive Dogs

Improvements towards rehabilitation or “a cure” are possible in dogs with aggressive traits but never guaranteed.

An interesting (and heartening) finding in the MSU study, is that dogs change throughout their lives just as people do. So, if your dog has aggressive traits, they won’t necessarily remain as intense throughout his life.

Note: Chronic aggression in any dog is a serious problem; consult your veterinarian or a professional dog behaviorist if you have a chronically aggressive dog.

Also, dogs who have shown severe or chronic aggressive behaviors at any point require close attention for the rest of their lives, even after years of docile behavior. Dogs who have bitten before are more likely to bite in the future1. And it’s always possible your dog will encounter circumstances, people, or animals that trigger regression.

Another important takeaway: Don’t judge a person by their Corgi. The connection between the personalities of dogs and their people won’t hold true in every case. It also doesn’t take into consideration the unique experiences of rescue dogs—who have usually lived in more than one household.

Note: Health issues and pain can also be contributing factors in dog aggression2. If your dog becomes uncharacteristically aggressive, take him to the veterinarian and have him checked for underlying ailments.

How to Train and Socialize Aggressive Dogs

Start by pondering how you react to the challenges that are part and parcel of modern life. Do you bark at drivers who cut you off on your commute to work? Are you snappish with your family when you’re tired? Do you fret excessively over big decisions?

Everyone gets touchy and angry, but if you are honest and find you’re chronically negative, consider addressing these issues—in a way that works best for you, whether it’s with the help of a professional, reading self-help books, or practicing mindfulness meditation.

As highlighted in the above studies, your dog will take his cues from you during training. If you lose your cool every time he barks at another dog or growls when you come near his food bowl, you’re unlikely to see noticeable improvements in his behavior.

Do you need a professional trainer for your aggressive dog? Most likely. If your dog’s aggression is severe, or you think you’re unable to remain calm throughout the training, enlist the help of a professional trainer with expertise in aggressive dogs. Even with a trainer, however, success depends on you and every member of your household participating in the process—patiently and consistently.

The Essentials of Training an Aggressive Dog

The ideal training program for your dog will depend on the severity of his aggression and the circumstances that tend to provoke his problem behavior. But some essential techniques and tools are necessary, no matter the particulars.

Learn to Spot Aggression In Your Dog

There are often warning signs you can pick up before your dog begins snarling, snapping, or barking. It’ll vary depending on whether your dog’s aggression is related to fear, dominance, or protection of food, dog toys, or people.

Here are some signs of possible aggressive behavior in dogs1:

  • Rigid stance
  • Lunging
  • Teeth baring
  • Head held high
  • Tail held high
  • Staring
  • Head lowered, defensively
  • Tail between legs
  • Shrinking body language

Unfortunately, some dogs exhibit no warning signs before becoming aggressive.


The goal is to desensitize your dog to the typical scenarios, places, people, and other animals that trigger his aggression.

The first step is understanding what sets him off. Does he stay calm when dogs are far away but become snappish within a certain distance? Is he placid around people he knows, even acquaintances, but wildly protective around strangers? Does he growl menacingly at other dogs during playtime?

These are the areas where you’ll focus your desensitization efforts. Usually, this involves starting within his comfort zone and slowly moving closer to his triggers. One example is playing with your dog near a dog park and incrementally getting closer to it, while giving treats and praise whenever he focuses on playtime rather than the other dogs. When he starts snarling at the other dogs, calmly and abruptly end the play session for the day. Over time, he’ll associate positive outcomes with paying attention to you, and negative ones with turning his attention to the other dogs.

This is a painstaking, months-long process with any dog, but particularly so with aggressive dogs. Be patient. Ask a dog behaviorist for help and support.

Reward Good Behavior

Abundant praise. Dog treats. Ear scratches. These are the foundation of any dog obedience training program. Catch your dog being good. When he walks past another dog without flipping out, goes calmly to his crate when guests arrive, or lets you touch his bowl without growling—reward him with praise.

Avoid Harsh Punishments

Finally, never yell at your dog or hit him when he becomes aggressive. Speak firmly, control him with a dog harness, contain him. But meeting aggression with aggression will only exacerbate the problem.

Some dog behaviors—chronic jumping or whining—can go unchecked. Aggression isn’t one of them. You don’t want anyone to get hurt, within your family or elsewhere, and dog owners are ultimately responsible for the behavior of their dogs.

Calming an Aggressive Dog

If you encounter an aggressive dog or your dog shows its first signs of aggression, there are a few things you can do to help calm her down and improve the immediate situation. Our first reaction may be to be fearful, ourselves, yell, or overreact, but if you have a moment to try and identify why the dog may be particularly aggressive, that can help you truly remedy the situation. Have you encroached on the dog’s food or do you have a food item on you? The dog may be reacting to that. Is the dog reacting to your dog? You’ll want to get your dog away from the aggressive dog before you try to calm the aggressive dog. Have you cornered the aggressive dog and put them in a fearful situation? You’ll need to give them space. Move away from the dog and address all possible triggers before attempting to calm the dog. 

Once you have an understanding of the situation, you can attempt to calm the aggressive dog. But even if it’s your own dog, proceed with caution. To calm the aggressive dog, approach slowly from a safe distance of 30+ feet. Speak softly and calmly to the dog. Do not move closer until the dog shows signs of calming. 

If your dog is canine non grata in the neighborhood, barks ferociously at strange dogs and people, or snarls protectively over his dog bowl—you’ve got a serious issue that requires intervention. Talk with your veterinarian, a professional dog behaviorist, and manage your own anger. Any improvements in your behavior and your dog’s will bring greater peace to your home and daily life with your best friend.



11 thoughts on “Dog Aggression: Triggers, Ownership, and Training”

    1. Countless studies? Really, you highlight two. As with most things in life moderation is the best approach. You should always try to train your dogs with as much compassion as possible. The reward is generally a better behaved dog. But there are instances where alpha-dominance theory is definitely applicable. It seems this article is talking about more extreme aggressive behavior. In those cases professional help is more than likely needed. But we also need to find the things that trigger aggressive responses from our dogs. I worked with a rescued dog. He was from a very abusive home. We worked a long time with him and after quite a while we figured out one of his triggers. In the abusive household, he was kept in a relatively dark basement. Every time the owner was coming down to abuse/beat the dog, he switched the light on. So, when we would come into a training area in a building and switched a light on, he went ballistic. He was about 6 years old and after over 6 months of working with him, we could never fix this issue. The decision was made to have him euthanized because he could not be adopted out with his other issues and the light switch being one (of the many) triggers for his aggressive behavior. But I digress, I have been training dogs for over 25 years now. There are times/places for alpha-dominance training. Another HIGHLY counter productive behavior we as humans do, is calling our pets, “our children” or “fur babies”. They are not human beings, and no I don’t care who you are, you pets are NOT just as important as other people’s kids or family members. They also don’t “want” a Vegan lifestyle… stop putting human traits on your animals. When people think it is cute when their little puppy or dog barks and snarls when someone sits next to them, they are only promoting bad behavior. Proper training and socialization from a young age is the only way to ensure a puppy will grow up to be a well rounded and well behaved dog. Leave the rehabilitation of abused dogs to actual professionals. Just because someone reads the latest and greatest article in dog training does not make them a professional trainer. As soon as any trainer, even a professional trainer thinks they know everything about dogs, they need to quite training. Just like people, every dog and situation is different.

      1. Hi Gary! I have a 3+ month old Beagle puppy who is extremely aggressive towards its owners. We have been trying to reward his good behaviour, avoid him during his dramatic aggression but he would still bark and suddenly jump on us to bite. Whenever left open to interact with the owners he would come and just bite as if it’s the only way he knows to interact. He would not let us pet him except when he’s a little sleepy or needs stomach rubs. He has already bit all of us and keeps biting while normally playing. However, he’s very friendly towards strangers, loves meeting people and never bites them unless he gets too comfortable. He barks at dogs and it’s difficult to socialize him with other dogs and he doesn’t go for long walks. He would sit midway or will keep pulling/lashing out if forced to continue the walk. Can you please share how can we tackle this situation? Any guidance is appreciated.

  1. It’s really a nice and useful piece of info. I’m satisfied that you shared this useful info with us.
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  2. Anyone saying the owners make them that way have never had the experience of adopting a small puppy who appeared calm and sweet with normal puppy teething behavior. Only to end up with a 6 month old 58 lbs dog who has bit a puppy and a human both requiring sutures within one month. I’m 42 and have been raised around dogs my entire life. I also have over 11 years experience working with abused children. Sometimes aggression is inherited from epigentics. Our dog has not been abused. We love him very much. He is spoiled and goes on walks daily, daily rides into town, tons of toys and puzzle games to keep his mind stimulated. This is the most devastating experience we have ever had with an animal. Shame on you for trying to shame dog owners who really love their animals and don’t understand where this aggressive behavior comes from. It’s not always environmental sometimes it’s genetics as is the case with humans as well.

    1. I’m experiencing this exact situation. How do you tackle such a dog and make him more calm and friendly? It’s so devastating to keep on trying and giving all this love only to suddenly recieve aggression and bites for no reason at all. Really need help to handle him, the whole family is literally devastated with his behaviour.

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