Dog Aggression Training: How to Deal with Aggressive Dogs

Dog barking
John Walton
Written by John Walton

Aggressive behavior towards owners, other people and/or animals is a common problem in dogs of all breeds. Usually, acts of aggression occur in dominance context and may be provoked by simple, everyday events such as feeding (protecting food), playing (guarding toys or other objects), hygiene routines or responding to commands. Aggression in household dogs, and especially in dogs of large, strong breeds, can be potentially dangerous. In such cases proper and timely dog aggression training is of utmost importance for rehabilitating aggressive dogs.

Aggressive behavior in dogs has various manifestations and appears in young pups as well as in grown up dogs. It is commonly accepted that certain dog breeds are naturally more aggressive than other; on the other hand, large scale studies have shown that there is a clear connection between the owner-dog relationship and the type/frequency of misbehavior in dogs.

Although there is no solid data, studies have demonstrated that both female and male dogs can be aggressive, with varying incidence depending on the context; aggressive behavior occurs in pure breeds more often in comparison with mixed breeds; dogs of herding, terrier and non-sporting breeds are more likely to exhibit aggression compared to toy and sporting dogs.

Interested in reading about non-aggressive breeds? Check out our article on the least aggressive dog breeds you may want to consider for your home.

Training a dog

Regardless of breed and gender, aggression in household dogs usually stems from very basic training mistakes that dog owners make.  In the following lines we will look into the causes of aggressive behavior in dogs, what can be done to correct such unwanted behavior patterns through dog aggression training and what is the best way to approach dog aggression training if you need a guard dog.

The real causes of dog aggression

In order to learn how to rehabilitate an aggressive dog or how to train an aggressive dog, one should first understand the main causes of dog aggression. The majority of people and even a large number of dog owners mistakenly believe that certain dog breeds are genetically programmed to be more aggressive than other dog breeds. In fact, genetics have nothing to do with aggression – every dog, regardless of its breed, age and gender, may show aggression in certain situations.

Acts of aggression in dogs may be isolated incidents or may turn into a pattern of unwanted, and in some larger dog breeds — dangerous behavior. As with any other dog behavior issue, this problem can be successfully tackled once you get familiar with the causes of dog aggression.

Greeting dogs

If you’d like to learn more about certain signs to look for, here’s a great article on fear aggression in dogs and its various sources.

While different factors and situations can provoke acts of aggression dogs (learned behavior, social development periods, stress, fear, trauma, etc.) there are three core causes of aggression in dogs: health, frustration and lack of assertive leadership.

Medical problems

According to data from The University of Pennsylvania, approximately 50% of all aggressive dogs treated there had medical complications. Health issues that cause aggressive behavior in dogs include certain endocrine disorders, neurological problems or trauma. Additionally, acute or chronic sickness or/and pain (acute or chronic) tend to make dogs more aggressive than they actually were when feeling healthy.

The most common endocrine disorder that may influence dog behavior is hypothyroidism (low thyroid function) – sudden acts of violence and severe panic attacks that intensify aggression are typical symptoms of this condition. Congenital or acquired neurological problems may also be reason for unexpected aggressive behavior – hydrocephalus, bacterial or viral encephalitis, epilepsy, brain tumors.

Chronic illnesses (gastrointestinal disorders, joint problems such as arthritis or dysplasia, teeth problems) that cause discomfort and/or pain may also affect the general predisposition of a dog and make it short-tempered. Typical for health related aggression in dogs is that it occurs suddenly, and without any signs that the dog will behave aggressively. The best thing to do, if you notice unexplained acts of aggression in your pet, is to immediately seek medical advice.


Just like in humans, frustration in pets is merely an emotional response to opposition. Simply put, dogs become frustrated when they cannot fulfill their needs or desires – once prevented of doing something they need/ want or when forced to obey to something they don’t want. For instance, lack of sufficient exercise is a very common cause of frustration in dogs that may lead to aggressive behavior.

Assertive leadership

Dogs are pack animals and that is why every dog instinctively looks for a pack-leader. In the wild, this would be not only the strongest animal, but the most self-confident one. Your household pet will start looking for a leader from the moment you bring them home; if he or she cannot recognize you as such, they will naturally try to become the leaders of the pack. In other words, your dog will quickly develop dominant behavior and with time it will become increasingly harder for you to make him or her follow any rules, boundaries, and limitations.

Dominant dogs very often exhibit aggression behavior – territorial, protective, predatory and resource guarding types of aggression. While these types of aggression are instinctive for a dog pack-leader, they are totally unacceptable for household dogs, and especially for larger, stronger dog breeds. Violent acts of aggression intensify when frustration is added to the picture – very often, the inability of owners of dominant dogs make them try harsher training methods without addressing the real cause of lack of obedience in their pets, which causes frustration and more aggression.

Health problems put aside, it is very common that dog owners are responsible in some way for their pets’ misbehavior issues. For instance, there is connection between improper obedience training and competitive aggression, and between incorrect feeding schedules and territorial aggression. Furthermore, it is widespread that dogs of first –time dog owners develop dominance behavior problems more often. Owner’s initial reasons for adopting a dog also influence.

There are some important steps to take if your dog isn’t playing nice with others, and you can educate yourself on those steps by reading our article on what to do if your dog hates other dogs.

Tips on how to train an aggressive dog

Dominance and aggression in dogs go hand in hand, and usually do not develop overnight. Your lovely little puppy was not born dominant, or aggressive; however he or she will surely develop these behavior problems if you fail to establish yourself as the leader and if you do not provide proper care to your pet.

Aggression can stay “hidden” for many years as long as you let your dog do whatever they want. However, this will only amplify the problem until the day when your dog will act with violent aggression towards you, another family member, another person or animal – totally unexpected and seemingly unpredicted.

A dominant and aggressive small dog such as Shih Tzu, Toy Manchester Terrier, Japanese Chin is mostly annoying; however, a large and strong dog (German Shepherd Dog, Alaskan Husky, Doberman Pinscher, Tibetan Mastiff and so on) that has developed aggressive patterns in its behavior may be extremely dangerous. That is why the question “how to train an aggressive dog” is crucial.

Mad dog

There are various subtle signs that can give away a dog, developing dominant behavior and potentially becoming an aggressive pet – stubbornness, lack of subordination, persistence to walk in front when on a leash, overprotective of their food and bed, destructive behaviors when left alone and overexcited when owners return home, etc. These behaviors may start to surface in a growing puppy, or may appear in an adult pet that is generally well trained.

Just like in humans, aggression in dogs may be provoked by various factors and in different situations. Certain normal features of dogs’ character can be reasons for aggressive behavior in dogs which were not properly trained or which were selectively trained to be aggressive. All dogs are possessive, territorial and protective – these are all survival traits deeply embedded in dogs’ mind. These three most important character traits that make dogs sought-after pets and most adored companions, may also be the reasons for aggression outbursts in dogs:

  • Possessive behavior. If not corrected, most dogs will exhibit possessive aggression towards anyone who tries to get near their food, sleeping place or toys. This is natural, instinctive behavior typical for wild canine animals that need to compete in order to survive. Possessive behavior and even possessive aggression may develop in young puppies as well as later in dog’s life.
  • Territorial behavior. Dogs are naturally very territorial. Although to different extend, any dog is ready to protect the area he or she considers to be their own. Aggression will be displayed towards anyone or anything that threatens to breach the boundaries of this territory. Some dog breeds with very strong territorial instincts are Caucasian Shepherd, Kuvasz, Cane Corso, American Staffordshire Terrier and Pit Bull Terrier.
  • Protective behavior. Dogs are inherently protective towards their young as well as to other “pack” members. For instance, Mastiffs, German Shepherds and Rottweilers are among the best guard dogs because of the strong protective traits embedded in their character. However, if not well-trained, they can also make the list for most dangerous dog breeds.

How to rehabilitate an aggressive dog

Generally, there are several key things to consider when rehabilitating an aggressive dog in order to start teaching him or her to attack on command.

  • Establish the underlying cause of your dog’s aggression. As mentioned above, aggression is never an isolated problem. Understanding what triggers aggressive behavior in dogs is the first step to fixing the problem. Most often than not, aggression is a result of dominance and frustration pilling up in your four legged friend. The first step towards correcting unwanted behavior should be evaluating the cause of the problem.
    Several questions might help you do that: Is your dog a puppy or an adult? It this the first time he or she shows aggression? Is your dog’s aggression directed to you, to another person or to another pet? What were the circumstances that provoked the act of aggression in your pet – was it territorial, possessive, fear/pain-related, social, etc? The answers of these questions will direct you to the main reason why your lovely friend is acting inappropriately and will provide you with the key to solving the problem.
    Additionally, being aware of the key reason why your dog acts aggressively in certain situation will help you plan the exact method you should use when teaching you dog to be aggressive and attack on command.
  • Rule out any medical conditions that may have provoked aggressive behavior in your dog. Sudden acts of aggression in dogs with no history of being aggressive are always shocking. If your dog has never been aggressive before, it is highly recommended that you take it to a vet to rule out any underlying health problem that may be the reason for your pet’s aggressive behavior.
  • Establish/ reestablish yourself as the leader of the pack. It is possible that your dog never accepted you as their leader, or that you have lost his or hers respect over time. In any case, it is proven that lack of strong leadership in the owner often results in dominance behavioral problems in their dog. That’s why aggression correction training should start with reinforcing the pecking order in the pact. In order to do that, you should start controlling every aspect of your pet’s life, in a very calm, assertive manner.
    Be strict and consistent and try to employ only positive training methods. Essentially that means establishing tight control, setting strict rules for daily activities, appropriate/inappropriate behavior while rewarding your dog every time it does something right.
  • Seek professional help. Rehabilitating an aggressive dog as well as teaching a dog to attack is not an easy task mainly because of the complexity of physiological and physical aspects that need to be assessed. Wrong evaluation of these factors will most likely render aggression training useless and even dangerous when it comes to working with larger dog breeds.
    If your dog exhibits aggressive behavior, is highly recommended to seek the advice of a professional, preferable a dog trainer with experience in training aggressive dogs. They will not only help you overcome the specific problem, but will teach you how to teach a dog to attack on command and how to sustain the results.

How to train a dog to attack – DIY or professional training

When it comes to training a dog to attack, dog aggression is often perceived as beneficial. Furthermore, it is commonly accepted that dogs from certain breeds are aggressive by nature — Doberman Pinschers, Rottweilers, Pit Bulls, Boxers, Bullmastiff, etc., and thus it would be easier to train them to attack.

On the other hand, dog aggression is a serious behavior problem; if left uncontrolled, an aggressive dog may be extremely dangerous not only for other people and animals, but for their owners. So, if you want to have a dog to protect your property or for personal protection, how can you train it safely and efficiently?

First of all, a dog should have gone through proper obedience training before any other training begins. Normally, dogs mature around their second year; by this time you should have established yourself your dog’s master and be confident they will listen and obey your commands.

It is of equal importance to have your dog properly socialized prior to any aggression training – your pet should be able to differentiate between threatening situations, people or animals and normal, day-to-day events, should be used to most house and outside noises and should not show fear of loud, unusual noises. Once you have a balanced, well-behaved dog, you may think about training it how to attack.

Train a dog to attack

Training dogs to attack on command basically includes irritating them until they react with aggression towards the provoker. Afterwards, the dog is trained to to that same thing when given specific command. As you can see many things may go wrong during such training; moreover, even the slightest mistake during the training may lead to an uncontrollable dog that attacks whenever they decide. Since training a dog to attack may easily go out of hand, it is recommended to seek advice from professional dog trainer.

Aggression is a common behavior problem in dogs that usually results from incorrect training and improper handling. How to prevent aggression or how to successfully deal with it are two of the most controversial topics among dog owners and dog behavior experts alike – some believe that modern, positive training methods are more efficient in dog aggression training, while others prefer older, more vigorous training techniques.

Regardless of the specific dog behavior management system, preventing aggression and rehabilitating a dog that already is aggressive are difficult tasks that require constant efforts and serious commitment.

Controlled aggression

While uncontrolled aggression in dogs is highly unacceptable and can be dangerous, the ability of dogs to be trained to be aggressive on command or in certain situations is highly valued. Today, guard dogs and watch dogs are still a popular choice for personal and/or property protection.

Very often the same breeds which are generally accepted as “aggressive by nature” and “dangerous” make it to the list of “top breeds for family protection”. This only proves once again that it is primarily owners’ responsibility to help dogs develop healthy, positive behaviors. In case dog aggression training is required, it is recommended to seek the advice of dog behavior expert to ensure the best for the dog and for the owner.

About the author
John Walton
John Walton

John Walton lives in Somerville, MA, with his two dogs, two sons, and very understanding mate. He is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer, a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, a mentor trainer for the Animal Behavior College, an AKC Certified CGC Evaluator, and the Training Director for the New England Dog Training Club.