What Makes a Dog Aggressive?

Q: My adult son is telling me that my dog is aggressive. He says I need to get rid of him! My dog, Maxie, growled at him when he tried to sit next to us to watch some TV. Maxie growled again when my son came into the bedroom. Maxie was just protecting me. My son lives in another state and Maxie never really knew him. I have to say that I like that Maxie growls at people he doesn't know. My dog couldn't be sweeter. Maxie is a Shar-pei mix. He's about 4 years old, fixed. Is my son right? Is Maxie aggressive?

A: I hate to say this about your great friend, but you should be worried. Since it's just you two in the home — meaning Maxie and you. I wonder if he is a dog who is treated more like a colleague than a dog. Training is the key to having a dog who is confident, who doesn't sweat the small stuff, who has learned impulse control, who can handle frustrations, and who doesn't think he owns the place. Is Maxie aggressive towards humans? Some say that aggression is an attack that is meant to do harm. By that definition, if Maxie has not done more than a simple growl at a human and has never attacked, then Maxie isn't aggressive.

However, and this is a big "however," you have to have a behavior-based trainer come and evaluate your dog. The behaviorist will take a full bite history, including Maxie's threat signature. The threat signature is the totality of the number and intensity of a dog's reactions to perceived threats. This growl, for example, could be accompanied with a hard stare, a puffed out mouth, slightly exposed upper lip, a growl that sounds more menacing if it goes on for another round, and so on. Your dog may always do this and more before he bites. This is a different response from a rumbling groan from a dog who just doesn't want to move over and soon goes back to sleep.

Boojie, my border collie, has gotten cranky in his old age. Luckily, he has a long threat signature. He starts with a head turned away, but with the whites of the eyes showing and directed at the threat. He then looks directly, lowers his neck, and freezes. Then the growl comes. He follows with exposed teeth on one side, then another, then in the front. If the teeth are exposed in the front, then Boojie is invested in this situation, and a snarly lunge could follow. He has what is called good bite inhibition, meaning that, if he should bite, there would be little to no damage. He may sound dangerous to you, but he's very safe because of this wonderfully elaborate and lengthy threat signature and good bite inhibition.

The dog I sometimes worry about is Squiggie. He seems to have the best temperament of any dog I've known well, but that is just it. His threat signature seems to be that he gets up and moves away. If he can't move away, he gets small (he's huge), lowers his head and waits. He has good bite inhibition, too, so it's not a big worry, but I would like to see more of a sequence.

Please see someone. In the worst case scenario, Maxie could have stranger aggression, territoriality aggression, proximity aggression, or he could be resource guarding your bed, your couch and you, as if you are a possession. Realize that your dog is fully mature with a strong jaw. Shar-peis can be great, but they were originally bred for fighting. That's why they have that loose skin: A Shar-pei can receive a holding-bite on that loose skin and still whirl around and bite back. And your dog is probably a 50-pounder plus since he is a couch potato. All dogs come fully armed at all times, but in these situations, size does matter, as does training, environment, genetics and owner commitment.

Kate S. Knight is owner/operator of Clear Signals Dog Training and is certified by the San Francisco SPCA Academy for Dog Trainers. Contact her at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or at 910 8833.


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