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Do You Have An Aggressive Dog Or A Reactive Dog? Understanding The Difference Is Important For Your Relationship And Training.

Understanding the difference between aggressive and reactive behaviour is key to choosing the right dog training and changing your dog’s behaviour.

Is Your Dog Aggressive Or Is He Reacting To Being On Leash?

When your dog behaves poorly it can feel like a reflection on you as an owner. It’s pretty normal to feel embarrassed or judged when your dog barks and carries on while you are out on a walk. When they do this you may assume that your dog is aggressive — all that barking and pulling sure looks aggressive, doesn’t it? You may even avoid walking at certain times or in certain places so you don’t have to deal with the behaviour. But, in my experience, what you think is aggressive behaviour often isn’t. Read on to learn the difference between an aggressive and a reactive dog. Understanding this difference is key to choosing the right dog training and changing your dog’s behaviour.

Small breed dog looking confused sideways into the camera.
Understanding the difference between an aggressive and a reactive dog will be a deciding factor in how you train to change unwanted behaviours.

Do You Have An Aggressive Dog?

The American Kennel Club defines aggression as follows: 

“Aggression is hostile, injurious, or destructive behaviour toward an individual, whether human or another animal.”

When your dog is barking and pulling and generally being a jerk on your daily walk it is easy to assume he is being aggressive. But, that is often not the case. Aggression is about more than just making noise and being pushy. Being aggressive is a mindset. An aggressive dog isn’t simply reacting to a circumstance or trigger, he or she intends to cause harm — and it can be serious if you don’t work with your dog to address and change it. That being said, it is important to note that not all aggression is the same. 

Why Are Some Dogs Aggressive?

It is commonly assumed that some dogs are aggressive by nature — that it’s because of their breed. Sure, some dogs have a genetic history of being bred to fight or guard but that is not enough on its own to make an aggressive dog. If a dog is aggressive, there is a reason. Dogs can be aggressive because they are: 

  • guarding their territory, resources or a family member
  • fearful of a person, animal or situation
  • prey driven, or
  • in pain due to illness or injury

If your dog is aggressive, it is important to figure out what is causing the behaviour and address it properly.

What Does Aggression Look Like?

To recognize what your dog is feeling you will need to learn to read your dog’s body language. Even the most vocal dogs rely on looks, postures, movement and behaviours to show you how they are feeling and what they need. 

Knowing what aggression looks like — and doesn’t look like — is your first step towards determining if you have an aggressive dog or not. So, what does aggression look like?

An aggressive dog might: 

  • Be still and stiff
  • Stare at the other person or animal
  • Lower his or her head
  • Exhibit stalking behaviour
  • Expose his or her teeth, snap and bite
  • Shake its head while biting
  • Refuse to let go while biting

If these behaviours are what you are seeing when you take your dog for a walk (hopefully without ever escalating to biting) and approach other people or animals, you may truly be dealing with an aggressive dog. In this case, it’s time to call in a trainer and behaviour specialist. But, if the jumping, barking and rowdy behaviour of your dog doesn’t seem to fit this description chances are you are dealing with something else entirely. 

Large black dog lunging forward and bearing his teeth in an aggressive way.
Learning to read a dog’s body language will help you determine if his or her behaviour is aggressive or reactive.

If My Dog Isn’t Aggressive, Then What’s Going On?

People come to me all of the time confused and frustrated. At home, their dog is well-behaved but as soon as they clip on the leash something changes and pooch becomes “aggressive.” Why does this happen? 

In most cases, what you are seeing is one of two things: barrier frustration or leash reactivity.  

In the case of barrier frustration, your dog may be acting out because the leash is getting in the way of their good time. They are excited to meet a dog or get pets from a neighbour and they become frustrated when they aren’t able to do it the way they want. This dog pulls, lunges, and barks. This isn’t aggressive behaviour but it is a sign that dog training is needed to establish boundaries and make your expectations for his or her behaviour much more clear. 

In the case of leash reactivity, your dog may be acting out of fear. Barking and lunging are your dog’s way of trying to discourage a person or another dog from getting closer — they are making sure they know they are not welcome. Figuring out what is triggering this reaction can take time and some very careful observation. Does your dog behave like this around children, small dogs, men with beards? It could be anything so pay attention. Once you have an idea of what is setting your dog off, you can begin to help them “get over it” while also making changes in your routine to help minimize their stress. 

In either scenario, your dog’s behaviour isn’t aggressive it is reactive and that distinction is going to change the way you approach training. 

In Most Cases What You Think Is Aggression Is A Reaction And Can Be Changed With Training. 

Learning to observe and interpret your dog’s body language will dramatically improve your relationship. You will have a whole new way to communicate and communication is the foundation of trust and training. With a truly aggressive dog, you will very likely need the help of a trainer. However, if your dog’s bad behaviour is specifically tied to being on leash chances are it is reactive and not aggressive which takes some of the pressure off. In either case, your dog’s behaviour is telling you they need something from you. Make an extra effort to step up as pack leader and show them that they are safe and cared for. You can start by setting boundaries and offering your dog the physical and mental exercise they need to be satisfied and engaged. If you are local to Peterborough and not sure whether your dog is aggressive or reactive, don’t hesitate to contact Turner & Pooch Dog Training. We can work together to identify and address your dog’s specific issues and get you back on track.

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