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Dog aggression to people

This article introduces the preventative and training measures that can be taken to stop your dog or puppy developing aggressive tendencies towards humans. Owners of dogs that have already developed dangerous behaviour towards humans should seek immediate professional help. With the help of an experienced pet behaviourist, most of these problems can be overcome with patience and care. If you are unable to find a behaviourist in your area, the APBC (Association of Pet Behaviour Councillors) run a directory of behaviourists within Great Britain.

Rarely is a dog aggressive to humans for no reason. In the vast majority of cases, dog aggression is simply a response to a stressful situation. The main reasons for aggressive behaviour are as follows:

Fear Aggression:

Lack of socialisation can result in dogs being fearful of strangers or types of people (old, young, men, women, etc.) which they have not encountered before. This can be stressful for them and if placed in a situation from which they cannot escape, they may resort to violence. If dogs discover through experience that aggression resolves a stressful situation it further reinforces the success of this strategy. Suggestions to deter this type of aggression include:

  • Taking time to socialise your dog with as many different types of people as possible.
  • When introducing your dog to new people, allow them off the lead so that they can investigate in their own time. Treat and praise your dog during these experiences.
  • Avoid situations where your dog can feel cornered with no way out.
  • Supervise introductions and play sessions with young children. Ensure children do not tease or torment your dog.

Territorial Aggression:

As the descendants of wolves that they are, dogs often retain a significant amount of instinct to defend a territory they consider their own. Territorial aggression often manifests itself as aggression towards humans since we are the most likely beings to enter what a dog thinks of as its own territory. They will only show aggressive tendencies if they perceive the ‘trespasser’ as a threat; when this happens their primary objective is to chase away the threat.

As with fear aggression, the main preventive measure for this sort of aggression is to fully socialise your dog and condition it to see visitors to their territory as a positive and pleasurable experience. There are many useful techniques you can use to prevent this type of aggression. These can be found in our article” why does my dog hate the postman?.

Dominance aggression:

In the wild, wolves operate in a strict hierarchical order where all members of the pack have a rank and status. A higher rank brings improved benefits in terms of food and eating priority, sleeping locations and mating opportunities. This social order generally ensures harmony within the pack until, that is, one member believes they should be of a rank higher to another member.

Our domestic dogs retain much of this natural instinct and most aggressive behavioural problems in the home can often be attributed to instability in the hierarchical order. Remember that your dog sees itself as a member of the same pack as the rest of your family members. If they perceive that another member is weaker than themselves they will display aggressive behaviour as a means to take control and improve their ranking. It is essential that your dog learns to be content as the lowest ranking member of the pack. There are many tips on how you can achieve this in a positive way. Please read our article: ” How to become the pack leader

Food Aggression:

Food aggression occurs when a dog feels it needs to be aggressive in order to protect a vital resource. If a dog or puppy has been deprived of food at some time in their lives, or perhaps had to fight over communal food bowls, it may be prone to food aggression. Here are a few tips to help avoid this happening:

  • Feed dogs individually such that they cannot eat each other’s food.
  • Teach your dog that humans being near its food is a good thing. Try approaching your dog’s food when they are eating and leaving some exciting treats next to their bowl. Do the same with bones and chews; tempt your dog away from them with even more tasty treats then allow them to return to their bowl or bone. Your dog will soon learn that you are not there to take its food but to give it even more pleasurable things to eat.
  • Never respond to food aggression with aggression yourself. This teaches your dog that they have to be even more aggressive to get their message through.

Pain induced Aggression:

When a dog is in pain we may inadvertently cause further pain when moving them or trying to help. It is not unusual for dogs to bite in these circumstances so we should take extra care when handling dogs with illnesses or injuries.

This article should only be considered a basic introduction to what is a highly complex area. Thankfully this is an area that is far better understood today than it was about 20 or 30 years ago. There is now an number of authors who have produced very good books and DVDs on this subject.


On a note of caution, dog aggression towards humans is very serious both in terms of injury to people and because of the high risk of legal prosecution which can have serious consequences for you and your dog. If your dog is showing dangerous aggression or has caused injury, self learning or purchasing a book is no substitute for immediate professional help.