Karen B. London
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The Saddest Part of Having an Aggressive Dog
People don’t see the dog you love

There are so many drawbacks to living with and loving an aggressive dog. You have to manage or prevent any situations that cause your dog to behave aggressively. That may include feeding time, the arrival of visitors, or seeing other dogs. There’s the constant concern of an incident happening despite your best efforts at prevention. It may be impossible, or at least challenging, to join others for group walks, journeys to the park or to visit family over the holidays. But sometimes the worst part about having an aggressive dog is that other people don’t see the dog you love.

They only see the dog going crazy, barking at the delivery guy or lunging at every dog in the neighborhood. The creature they see is a snarling, growling, snapping dog who exhibits little behavior that makes getting to know him seem remotely appealing. They don’t see the sweet dog who cuddles with you at night and makes you smile when he tosses his toy in the air himself and tries to catch it with amusing, but largely unsuccessful, acrobatic moves. They don’t have the opportunity to see the dog who does a down stay all through dinner, who comes when called perfectly at home and performs any number of charming tricks on cue.

After years of working with them, I can assure you that most dogs with aggression issues are lovely to be around in most situations, however badly they may behave in others. Almost every client whose dog is aggressive makes some comment to me along the lines of “Other than when he’s biting (or lunging, barking, growling) he’s such an angel!” and I believe them. Many aggressive dogs are not at their best when out in public around strangers or other dogs, but are kind and lovable around the family, including small kids and even the cat. When you have a dog like that, it hurts when other people don’t see the good side of your dog, even though that’s what you see most of the time.

If you have an angel who is all too often an angel in disguise, what do you wish other people could see in your dog that you see every day?


Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

photo by LollypopFarm/Flickr

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Submitted by Sami Gray | December 5 2013 |

Oh, yes. I have one dog who is big and black and not especially beautiful, and missed out on the critical period for socialization due to multiple medical issues. She loved other dogs until about the morning of her first b'day, when she woke up and decided that other dogs- especially small ones- were The Problem. With people, she is forever a sweet, melt-on-your-shoes puppy. She howls when I leave the house, she is overcome with joy to see people she knows. But she would kill some dogs in a heartbeat, so she misses out on most opportunities to make new human friends. (And also continues to miss out on any possible corrective experiences with other dogs, because it's not worth the risk.)
My other dog is a rescue, a Heeler/Rott mix with the classic coloration of all progeny of the latter breed- and thus a magnet for negative projections from a lot of people. Unfortunately, he is also terrified of strangers, and given to lunging and nipping from behind (Heeler-style) if he thinks someone is a threat to him or his property. I am the only human he fully trusts; with other people he knows and likes, he will alternate crazily between wagging, belly-up, love-sponge behavior, and crazy paranoid looks, growling and barking.
As a group, we have an unfortunately very circumscribed social life. I've considered ordering three of a bandana I saw advertised by a rescue-oriented business: "I have issues."

Submitted by Renee Sottong | December 5 2013 |

Love this post. I adopted my lab/hound puppy with visions of the bandana-wearing life of the party in my head: the dog I would take everywhere and do everything with. By the time she was a year old, she was food-guarding in the house and actually bit a neighbor (she become dog-aggressive at two). With the help of our trainer, we realized that Lucy is fearful and reactive -- and it took a long time to accept the new parameters of her existence. Once I did, I realized that my main function is to help her avoid (or, minimize, at least!) those trigger events that cause the stress reactions. Even now, it's a frustrating process because not many people understand, even when they mean well: I hear a lot of, "Oh, they'll be fine, just let them work it out," or, "It's alright, dogs like me ..." I find that nose work helps her manage her stress levels -- but I have to make sure it's mainly a solitary activity! Even with the challenges, though, I will say that Lucy has taught me more about animal intelligence, emotions and language than any other dog I've ever known. I would not trade her for the world.

Submitted by Pamela | December 5 2013 |

After having a few aggressive dogs in the past who were charming at home and scary elsewhere, I now have a sweet and gentle golden retriever who is a total pacifist. But I'm sometimes frustrated that people think she's such a good girl because she's a golden retriever and not because we spent hours training together and continue to work every day.

Submitted by Rayne | December 5 2013 |

Thank you for posting this sympathetic take on aggressive dogs. We have a dog-aggressive dog, a 40lb English Bull Terrier, named Carmen. She is the sweetest dog at home and with our 17-year-old blind and deaf Jack Russell. We have tried every (EVERY!) possible thing to curb her behavior without erasing it. We are hyper-vigilent to protect her (and other dogs) from being part of an incident - thank goodness, nothing untoward has other happened other than scaring a few other people walking their dogs. We have seen an improvement with constant commitment and work. I'd just like to say to others in this situation, these dogs are deserving of love and respect and deserve a commitment to work on it for as long as it takes. We are confident that she will mellow with age; we can see it. But we will always have to think a few more steps ahead than most dog owners.

Submitted by Strider's Mom | December 5 2013 |

One of my dogs barks and behaves aggressively when people come to our house, so much so that we need to make sure he's on a leash before they arrive. People have commented that they think we should give him up because he is so unfriendly, but that's not even remotely the case. He gets over excited because it's rare for us to have visitors and doesn't know how to react to the invasion to his territory. He's gentle and friendly when I bring him to work, into dog-friendly stores, and at the park. People don't realize how difficult it is to train him for his bad home behavior when we can't continually work with him because none of our friends or relatives live nearby. Each time someone comes over, the first 15-20 minutes of the visit are spent with us calming him down and getting him used to the idea of others being in our space. He eventually calms down and relaxes, but the breaks are too far between visits to reinforce the training. Most people don't understand this, or choose not to.

Submitted by Robin Rosner | December 7 2013 |

Gees, I SO understand this! I wish we could form a support group or have a volunteer list of us who would be willing to play the role of visitors!

Submitted by Jo | January 9 2014 |

"I wish we could form a support group or have a volunteer list of us who would be willing to play the role of visitors!"

That is such a great idea! I wonder how could one go about starting a group like this?

Submitted by Leslie | December 5 2013 |

This really struck a nerve with me on a day when I came home from work feeling particularly beat up only to be comforted by my 'aggressive' dog.

So she behaves badly around most other dogs because she believes a good offense makes the best defense. So she runs away from people she doesn't know. She welcomes me home with kisses and cuddles.

And those kisses and cuddles mean more than any that come from a dog who is everyone's best friend because they are only for me. They are our sacred bond. She trusts me alone and I honor that trust.

Thank you for this. I needed a good cry tonight.

Submitted by Kay Levine | December 5 2013 |

We had a wonderful rescued Aussie who was so afraid of everyone else he could be quite threatening. With us, he was the soul of gentleness. Once, he found a rabbit crouching in a field. (The rabbit was brown, the field was white with snow). Nick picked up the bunny by the back of the neck, then turned to me, a questioning look in his eyes. I told him to "leave it." He put the rabbit down and came over for a treat. How many dogs would do that? Nick died from renal failure at only eight. I will always remember him as a gentle, gentle soul. And now that I know about desensitization and counter conditioning, I might do better with a future Nick.

Submitted by mike | December 6 2013 |

This has got to be one the dumbest thought processes I've ever read. Really, the saddest part about having a dog that barks, bites and lunges at people is that those same people don't know how sweet the dog can be? The saddest part about having an aggressive dog is obviously the fact that it bites, barks and/or lunges at people and the owner, or a dog behaviorist, can't do anything about it.

Submitted by meg | December 6 2013 |

@ mike

Aggressive humans scare me much more, and your tone is both aggressive and condescending. For many people, others' perceptions of their companion are often limited to the situations they witness. Thus, for owners that have chosen to persist in their efforts in ensuring that their companion is both happy and healthy - regardless of their companion's special needs - it must break their heart to see others fear an animal that they experience as such a loving, caring being.

Submitted by Robin Rosner | December 7 2013 |

Mike is unfortunately uneducated in this area, and most likely would be the kind who wouldn't have the patience, time or energy to invest in any being with special needs or differences. That is very sad.

Submitted by Logan | December 11 2013 |

I agree with Mike. Additionally, I find it fascinating that the people attacking him for stating the obvious/disagreeing with the author are acting like those fearful dogs the article mentions.

Submitted by Jenny H | January 8 2014 |

To me the saddest thing about having an "aggressive" dog is that people lump you and your dog together and ostracise you! :-( I have found people very unpleasant when I have my dog that THEY have labelled as aggressive with me.

Then of course that people behave so badly around dogs that they THINK are aggressive, that any normal dog will react aggressively. Then these people's behaviour makes YOU feel stressed and nervous and your dog's behaviour becomes even worse.

It then becomes very hard to be public with your dog. I found Paul Owens' "complete breathing" technique so liberating for both me and my dog :-)

Submitted by UWProf | December 7 2013 |

One of my students recently did a research paper on cyber bullying, an example of which appears above, courtesy of poster Mike. The student found that there were two main factors that contributed to such behavior: 1) the poster's own unhappiness, and 2) the poster's cowardice. Unhappy, but not aggressive enough to spread misery face-to-face, they resort to the comforting anonymity of the internet. Secondarily, I suspect that Mike is both jealous of and threatened by Karen's success. Whatever the cause, Mike set out with the specific intent to hurt Karen's feelings, otherwise his comment would have been worded very differently. The sadness of being a cyber bully must truly be impenetrable.

Dr. London, do I get extra points for using the word "aggressive" in my response?

Submitted by Elspeth Inglis | December 7 2013 |

We have a 12-yr-old Airedale/lab mix who at age 2 began dog-on-dog aggressive behavior, but only when on leash or behind a fence. With proper introductions, he's been OK (although we have limited the contact to females or very passive, neutered males). When we decided to adopt a puppy several years ago, we monitored the introduction and settling-in period closely -- it was fine! Then again last summer, we wanted to adopt another dog from a no-kill shelter. They insisted that we bring our two dogsto the shelter to meet the prospective adoptee. I tried to explain that that situation would not be a fair assessment of our Airedale mix, but they insisted. Sure enough, the sounds,smells and sights of 144 other dogs, plus the fact that they insisted on handling him (with a choke which we never use), made the situation worse and he lunged repeatedly at the young dog we had fallen in love with and wanted to adopt. Needless to say, they wouldn't let us adopt from their facility. I was heartbroken and angry. PS, we adopted another dog from a different, more savvy organization, and our old fella been fine with the new pup at home.

Submitted by Robin Rosner | December 7 2013 |

Karen, you nailed it in your essay. As I write this, my little one is curled up beside me, her head on the pillow snoozing. I am counting my blessings. In my case I wish the elder parents I also live with could comprehend the movements that could trigger a negative interaction. When I am home I often see myself as the resource my little one wants to protect..either in general principal, or because she is smart enough to realize the elder male has been physically abusive toward her when her behavior hasn't fit his idea of ideal. The amazing thing is that when I am not at home during the day, the elders and she get along! AND they LOVE her as well. And she shows them great affection. They have refused to be involved in the most minimally demanding training exercises, so that she will learn to respect their requests. When I am home I more often than not keep her on a 6 foot leash. Although we are often in the same room, I am always on guard for the sudden moves I can't get the elders to understand she perceives as a threat. She startles at sudden moves when they are seated, or the rustling of newspaper (because she has been hit with one by one of them). I use my body to block and keep my eye on her, and try to avoid any of them crossing into our space which can (but isn't always) perceived as a threat.
Even though she knows they are in the house, when we are in our bedroom, if they pass the doorway, however quietly, she will jump up at the door and woof aggressively, but briefly. Happens if we're in the kitchen too. I have tried to tell them to just say "it's me Lal" to see if that wouldn't alleviate the surprise or threat effect...

One of the most distressing episodes happened at our vet's office. We have been going for years, and she wags her tail there, loves the staff. At one visit our vet was a bit loud in voice, and reached out (and over her head) toward me to shake my hand and she immediately responded by jumping up and going for his arm with her mouth...but missed. He took it in stride but not without some loud responses like "hey what are you doing knucklehead" and no doubt we wound up with a black mark on our record to warn everyone else for the future...though everyone else seemed to know her prior behavior and is less concerned. At the same visit the elder vet who owns the practice came out abruptly and startled her and she reacted...but I had her completely under my control. He "believed" she would have bit him, and he knew already about the behavior with the other vet. He didn't want her to be problem in the community or with other etc...so presented me with the name of a vet with a behavioral practice.
I felt so horrible I did investigate it...only to learn of how unaffordable it was, and how they had a program set up that would continue to generate income for the practice, all of course with no guarantees.

But all of this is off track from the main question: what I really want people to know is what you said: she is a love you is filled with joy, a desire to protect, who makes me laugh, who loves to snuggle and can learn. She is more devoted and a better friend and family member than one could ask for. She wasn't always like this, she has been treated inappropriately and is reactive. Respect her, and what I convey.

Submitted by Robyn | December 8 2013 |

We have a 3 yr old Pit Bull, Eloise. We rescued her as a puppy and she developed fear aggression issues early on. We can only imagine what she was exposed to before we got her. For her safety and others when we have anyone over we harness and muzzle her. It is so sad to see our loving sweet girl look so scary. She and our grandson lay on the floor hugging each other when they are together. She senses when someone is nervous around her and then she becomes nervous in return. It breaks our hearts when my brother - who doesn't like her- says she belongs 6 feet under. Eloise is a sweet loving devoted family dog and I am hoping with age some of her fears will mellow. We are blessed to have such a sweetie. Thank you for writing about this tender issue for those of us who see beyond the aggression to the loving dog within.

Submitted by Sandi Fuller | December 8 2013 |

Yes, I have one of these aggressive dogs. Max is as sweet as can be at home, always by my side, looking after my older dog, Minnie, and playing with his best buddy, the cat. He is a 9-pound chiweenie and often mistaken for a puppy. He doesn't like any dogs bigger than him and is distrustful of other people, especially men. He came to me as a quivering puppy, afraid of everything and everyone. I don't know what he had been through but he was not in good condition. He has come a long way in the last 2 years but I don't think he will ever be a friendly, trusting friend to all.

Submitted by Tracey | December 10 2013 |

I have a 5 year old red nose pitbull who at the age of 3 got attacked by another dog.Since that day he isn't very friendly to other dogs.He is very tall and intimidating to those who don't know him.People call him a beast.let me tell you he is the apple of my eye.I cry when I see the commercial about abandoned and abused dogs and no matter where my big boy is,he comes and licks the tears from my face and he does something to make me smile or laugh everyday.To those who don't smile when they see him or any aggressive dog and just brush them off as bad,it is your loss.

Submitted by Rita | December 12 2013 |

Our Jake is 85+ lbs of fear reactive German Shepherd who is afraid of other people and dogs of all sizes. We adopted him a little over 2 years ago when he was approximately 3. He is truly a joy and a wonder and we often comment that we wish everyone else could see him the way we see him. At home he is a loving, loyal, happy, ball-crazy, smart, cuddly, well-behaved dog. When confronted with someone or something he is afraid of he turns into a barking, lunging, scared dog who believes the best defense is a good offense. We, too, struggle with trying to train him/help him work through his fears as we have very few visitors and no one close by with friendly, "bomb-proof" dogs. It hurts when our parents fail to understand that we are committed to giving Jake the best life possible because we love him and that our choice does not mean we are choosing him over them. Every night before bed I tell him that I love him more than all the stars in the sky and I mean it. He has found his forever home and if others fail to see him the way we see him or fail to try to help us help him - it's their loss. Because Jake deserves a great home and love just like any other dog.

Submitted by noel | March 28 2014 |

our bull terrier is almost a year old. he is loveing towards other dogs and people very social dog from 7 weeks old . in the past month he has started growling when we walk past his food dish when hes eating, or chewing on his chew bone or raw hide bone.there is another dog in the house they play very well with each other. he only growls when we are around his food dish or his bones. what do we do to stop this behaver

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