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Threatening and Aggressive Behavior Towards People Outside the Family

Before assuming this is a behavior problem, have your dog examined by your veterinarian. Anything that is making your dog uncomfortable or irritable, such as an abscessed tooth or ear infection, can lower his threshold for threats and aggression. So can certain medications and other medical problems.

The most common reason dogs are threatening and aggressive to people they don’t know is because they are afraid. This is particularly true for children your dog doesn’t know well. Often, dogs are afraid or anxious when children reach out to pet them, and they snap or growl to make the child go away.

Some dogs may appear quite threatening at the door or from behind a fence, but are quite friendly once visitors actually enter your home. This is likely a manifestation of territorial threatening behavior.

Do not believe the popular media and television trainers that your dog’s behavior is all about “dominance”. It’s nothing of the sort and if you try to change your dog’s behavior based on that starting point you will not be successful and will likely end up with a worse problem.

Most dogs (there are notable exceptions) don’t want to injure people, but want to warn them to go away or stop what they are doing. Aggression – biting and other behaviors that harm – is different from threatening behaviors – growling, lunging, snapping without injury, etc.

Some dogs who snap, growl, and show other threatening behaviors never bite. Others do. You should assume your dog will, and seek help before this happens.

Your immediate goal is to keep people, especially children, safe from your dog. Until you get help, avoid situations in which your dog is likely to bite. Don’t rationalize this problem as your dog having a bad day, or perhaps he was startled, or the person looked or smelled odd.

Your dog is more dangerous if he is inconsistent in his behavior. In other words, sometimes he may allow visitors or strangers to pet him and sometimes he won’t. Just because he is “OK” one time, do NOT allow this to lull you into a false sense of security that he’s “over” his problem. He is not. If he’s growled or snapped even once, unless you take steps to change his behavior, he will do it again.

We do not recommend confrontational techniques such as leash and collar corrections, alpha rolls and scruff shakes. Your dog will not learn to be friendly to people with these procedures, and they put you at great risk of being bitten.

Threats and aggression are serious problems. You will likely need to seek additional professional help in addition to what you find here at Helping Fido. Be sure and read our guidelines for choosing a behavior consultant. Private “obedience” lessons will not help this problem. Your dog may sit, lie down and come when called quite readily and still growl at people or try to bite them.


First, it will help you if you understand canine aggressive behavior from a scientific viewpoint. Start by reading our Collection of Articles on Canine Aggression. This CD contains over 30 articles we’ve written about many aspects of aggressive behavior. The more you know about aggression, the better equipped you are to implement behavior modification techniques to change it.

If your dog has snapped or even injured someone, you are in a precarious legal situation. You can be sued if your dog hurts someone, especially if your dog has an “aggressive” history. Attorneys for the injured party may try to prove that you knew about your dog’s tendencies and did not take the necessary steps to protect people from injury.

To understand more about social relationships between dogs and people and why your Fido’s threatening or aggressive behavior is unlikely to be due to “dominance”, listen to Dr. Hetts’ interview with Dr. John Wright on “Roles, Rules, and Relationships”. Dr. Wright’s dissertation research was on social roles in dogs and he is a well respected researcher and educator in the field of applied animal behavior.

The context for many aggression problems to visitors is at the door. Our “Managing Chaos at the Door” audio CD gives you over 10 strategies to acquire better control over your dog when people are at your door.

To effectively work with and manage your dog’s threatening and aggressive behavior, you must be well versed in canine communication signals. There is no better way to learn how to ‘read’ your dog and be better able to recognize aroused and anxious behavior signs that precede a bite or snap than our Canine Body Postures DVD. Used in many professional training programs.

If you know the specific situations in which your dog is likely to growl or snap, you should try a Calming Cap™. Essentially a comfortable hood that filters your dog’s vision, it will help your Fido be less reactive to those situations in which he responds aggressively, and will make it much easier for you to manage his behavior as well as have a better “starting point” for behavior modification. The Calming Cap™ can be worn under a muzzle.

Your biggest responsibility is to prevent your dog from hurting someone. If necessary, muzzle your Fido if he must be in a situation where he might bite. We recommend wire basket muzzles from NEVER leave a dog alone while muzzled.

If you are an animal control officer or home service worker who comes into contact with unfamiliar dogs, in addition to the resources above, we have several additional educational programs on our website that will help you.

See Dog Bite Prevention Training Progam

Animal Behavior Associates - Helping Fido
4994 S. Independence Way
Littleton, CO 80123

Phone: 303-932-9095
Fax: 303-932-2298