The Dog Aggression Epidemic

Photo by Patrick Danforth |

Photo by Patrick Danforth |

One of my VSPDT trainers recently remarked that she has been seeing a spike in aggression cases. And she's not the only one. Most dog trainers will tell you that aggression is on the rise in domestic dogs, and the aggression epidemic is on track to only get worse.

Why is it that our pet dogs are struggling more than ever to cope in our domestic world? Resource guarding, leash aggression, aggression towards other animals, and aggression towards people are some of the most common aggressive behaviors that dog trainers see on a daily basis.

Here are a few reasons why I think aggression is becoming more and more common, and what can be done about it.

1) A misunderstanding of dog behavior. 

This is the big one! Traditional training methodologies and so much of what people see in the media paint a very different picture of dog behavior than what modern science tells us. Dominance is a concept that continues to be misused and misunderstood by dog trainers who believe that we are in a constant battle with dogs over who is the "alpha" or the "top dog." The "pack leader" theory was actually debunked by the very scientists who created the theory while studying captive wolves.

The current reality is that many behavioral issues that are actually rooted in fear and insecurity are being misdiagnosed as "dominance" issues, creating the potential for some extremely dangerous consequences. Punishment-based methods like choke collar corrections, the use of shock collars, and alpha rolls are dangerous, ineffective, and in my opinion, the primary reason why we are seeing more aggressive dogs. Training through intimidation causes dogs to become stressed and insecure, which manifests itself in aggressive behavior.

2) Lack of exercise. 

Dogs in our modern world seem to be getting less and less physical and mental stimulation. Many dogs that are not given proper outlets for their energy will develop mild behavioral problems like digging, excessive barking, or destructive behavior. But some can develop aggressive behavior because of boredom and frustration.

Research has shown that dogs that are kept unattended in a backyard or are left chained or tethered with minimal human interaction are especially prone to aggressive behavior.

3) Poor socialization. 

Socialization is essential when raising a puppy. Puppies have two critical "fear periods" during their development--8-11 weeks of age, and 6-14 months of age. Puppies that are not exposed to the everyday sights and sounds of human life are at risk of developing fearful and aggressive behaviors later in life.

While you should be careful not to expose unvaccinated puppies to places like dog parks and pet stores, many dog trainers offer puppy socialization groups for puppies that haven't been fully vaccinated yet. These classes are a great opportunity for your puppy to meet other dogs and people, and to help set the pup up for success.

4) Backyard breeding and poor genetics.

While there are responsible breeders out there, far too many people are breeding purely for profit, at the expense of a dog breed's integrity. Brachycephalic dogs like pugs and bulldogs have been bred for appearance, and that cute smushed-up nose is often the cause of extreme medical problems in these breeds. Discomfort and pain can be a root cause of aggressive behavior.

Pit bull-type dogs are suffering more and more at the hands of backyard breeders. They are being bred to have exaggerated muscle tone and exceedingly large, blocky heads, and are not being bred for temperament. With many animal shelters being comprised primarily of pit bull-type dogs, there's simply no excuse for backyard breeding to continue.

5) A perfect storm of environment and circumstance. 

I often say that a dog bite comes as the product of a "perfect storm of environment and circumstance." Absolutely any breed of dog has the potential to display aggressive behavior, and any of the above factors (especially when combined) can create an aggressive dog.

Here are my quick tips for preventing aggressive behavior in dogs: 

  • Choose a dog that is a suitable match for your family in terms of energy level and know the standard temperament for that dog's breed/breed mix.
  • Start socialization early and find a great force-free trainer in your area before any behavioral issues arise.
  • Don't be afraid to ask for help if your dog is showing aggressive behavior.
  • Give your dog regular mental and physical stimulation.
  • Do not chain or tether your dog.
  • Teach children how to understand and respect dog body language.
  • Don't buy a puppy from a pet store, online, or a backyard breeder.
  • Do not fall for the dominance myth. Help create a confident, secure dog by using only force-free training methods.

If you have a dog displaying aggressive behavior, find a force-free trainer or read more about aggression

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Positively Expert: Victoria Stilwell

Victoria Stilwell is a world-renowned dog trainer best known as the star of the internationally acclaimed TV series, It’s Me or the Dog. A bestselling author, Stilwell frequently appears in the media as a pet expert and is widely recognized and respected as a leader in the field of animal behavior.


15 thoughts on “The Dog Aggression Epidemic

  1. Positively

    Hi JoeAnne,

    Thanks for your kind words! Victoria does in fact have a great book with all the most up-to-date information about dog training and behavior--it's called "Train Your Dog Positively." You can find it here in the Positively store or on Amazon:

    -Alex, admin

  2. Johanna Bouchard

    I currently own a fear-aggressive pit mix, the first aggressive dog I've ever owned, and the experience has been a real eye opener. So many people blame aggression solely on how the dog is treated by the owner, however that has not been my experience. I got Millie as a 5mo puppy and did everything the right way- positive training, lots of structure in the household, exercise twice daily, socialization with people/dogs etc. She is fed a fresh, home-made diet and has not been re-vaccinated since her puppy shots, so no over-vaccination problems. Her aggression came on about two months after we got her, seemingly unprovoked, and I feel strongly that it is due to genetics (perhaps I could have done a little more socializing as well). I have been researching aggression endlessly, and we are making some good progress with positive techniques, but I'm glad this article encompasses all aspects, and not just one!

  3. Renée Erdman

    5 months of age is when you acquired her and sadly most of the important socialization happens before 12 weeks of age.

  4. dogobsessed

    i will mention the increasing in fact prevalent opinion that its safer to keep dogs leashed at all times?most, yes most dogs will never get to go socialise ever due to owner fear-what may happen..being pts.. its so easy to take someone to court say if someone was knocked down or was scared of the dog running off leash. its become seen as an irresponsible thing to do. this is incorrect. i talk to many owners clutching leashes in good off lead areas about why and its always fear-of them running off for example..have you recall trained? no i would never trust her..etc the majority of animals young old pedigree or rescue are prevented from proper socialisation in life. owners do not seem to grasp that getting along with other dogs is actually important enough to take the time to achieve. i truly believe, other than lack of walking, that this massive fear culture is partly to blame as i regularly meet dogs never ever socialised and never will be..they hear a bark from their dog on leash at another dog-boom they think the dog doesnt like other dogs or worse is aggressive. total and utter lack of understanding of the dog. in fact it does make me angry as the dog cant socialize on leash its not natural and they feel restricted possibly even fearful. im not talking about in non suitable areas depending on the dog but at least once a week to socialize. we do not have facilities for dogs in the uk in cities and such-virtually no dog parks so you have to do your research. most dogs i meet have a lack of confidence and experience. which is true! i realize its a contributing factor and not the whole reason but generally feel that 10 and even 20 years ago many many more dogs ran off leash and were socialized as a result. if you attended everything attached to reins held by your parents...would you be confident in socializing?would you know how to behave?had you ever been close enough to another human to properly converse?if parents never taught you and then never let go off the "leash" would you be a confident and friendly balanced individual?or would you feel unsure of the world around you? add to that dogs use their noses to assess perhaps imagine going around blindfolded? im not saying teach and let go entirely as they are dogs not people...however , the idea i was trying to convey is that socialization really really hits the back of the queue in dog care..only a small percentage seem to grasp its importance..of course until its too late and the problem is already a tough one to fix. and the easy way out of just avoiding happens more often than a proper course of rehabilitation and re-socialization. im talking generally not about all dogs there are exceptions. just the annoying amount of over fearful owners robbing dogs of any socialization and then wonder why they do not know how to behave plus it reduces their overall exercise compounding the surplus energy that could easily translate into aggression. in the city i met a man with 9 perfectly behaved off leash dogs in the city commons which is huge..i would say maximum 2 dogs off leash per person in-case of anything but still i had to marvel at that compared to the normal..which is becoming people hiding behind cars/bushes pulling theirs dogs back..hardly anyone even lets them sniff on leash on a normal dog walk-people completely avoid each other!ive had dogs and had issues with them and struggle to find people willing to even work with me to re-socialize..i had to make a daily trip far away just to get them meeting other dogs because the locals just avoid each other on walks! in the village where i lived before the dogs met while on walks as people knew each other and my dog was perfect...not here and not anywhere ive lived since and my dog developed issues after realizing with dismay that instead of getting to say hello on walks every dog he saw would promptly be crossing the street away from him every time ..most frustrating for him and me and resulted in barking whining and then leash aggression and frustration of an otherwise super super friendly sociable dog. im not saying you have to have conversations with strangers everyday but just let them sniff even would be nice. genetics and such can be a cause i agree..i just think the culture of dog owners has changed dramatically...think of it like people on the bus now on iphones..i know many young children seemingly under confident and lacking the socialization skills in life as a result of just a lack of practice and changing lifestyle...people want to get on with their busniess and be undisturbed. except its not a washing bag you are taking to the laundrette its a dog with needs of its own which at that very point you can be be interested to hear victorias opinions on this and if she has seen a shift in dog walking behaviour-as i sure have.

  5. dogobsessed

    can i mention that when we go to the old village or to dog shows-he is perfect again as he KNOWs he will actually get to say hello to a few...

  6. [email protected]

    What an excellent post! Many people do "ask for help" - sadly, they ask the wrong people! As in their next door neighbour, the person sitting next to them on the bus, people at the dog park - most of whom will give them outdated and dangerous advice. By the time they reach a good force-free trainer their problems have been compounded. You wouldn't ask the bloke on the bus how to mend your car's brakes! Your dog's state of mind is just as important and rather more delicately balanced.

  7. Debra Moore

    Oh, I beg to differ. this rise in dog aggression can be traced to what is happening with the OWNERS of these dogs. At the local dog park, I see owners encouraging their dogs to 'stand up for themselves' to 'not take it' etc......all echoing the current pitiful state of our culture and ongoing race back to the cave.

  8. Ana Ferreira

    I feel that all these vaccines, chemicals like flea and tick , and other pesticides and poor diet are a contributing factor to dog aggression. After all dog food now a days is made with diseased animals even road kill. Horses and other various farm animals that are also ill go into dog food. So thats more chemicals and what ever else gets into the dogs food. Maybe dogs are getting the diseases from these animals and we dont know they have it. The rabies vaccine is well known to cause rabbid behaviors. My great dane got real sick after i got him a rabies shot. He was drooling bad and it was foamy and he was lethargic couldnt even lift his head. Why are we discrediting that vaccines are not harmfull when they are. They cause all sorts of autoimmune problems. I understand that rabbies is a must to vaccinate but i think its better to get titers done to see if the dog even needs the vaccine or you could be over vaccinating and causing the immune system to go on overdrive. I rescued a dane and he has very bad digestion skin issues and yeast issues and he was on pedigree dog food. I had him on a good dog food but he wasnt gaining weight very well so put him back on pedigree that i thought he was ok but he got really sick and went into bloat. I had a huge vet bill. He needs yogurt and enzymes or he gets bloat issues. Us humans as well as our pets have more health issues than ever before.

  9. Jenny H

    I would discount most of these 'reasons'. Golly think of all the street bred dogs we had around in the 1950s and 1960s. You wanted a dog? You went to the pet shop to buy one or waited for some neighbours to be giving away puppies. The pups were socialised from whelping with kids coming in to see the pups, and as they grew play with the pups.
    Then dogs were about and about. No leash laws, and we could take out dogs with us virtually anywhere. (Think "Harry the Dirty Dog", the Lassie books, and the dog in Enid Blyton's "Secret Seven" series.)
    Dogs knew people and other dogs, and people knew dogs. Nowadays with leash laws, "No dogs" signs all over, no dogs in cars, no dogs tethered in public and no dogs in shopping centres, our dogs stay home alone when we go out and about. Even picnic areas are no '"NO Dogs" 🙁
    Sure we can take them out and 'socialise' them - in a very strict and controlled artificial way. And then we blame the dogs for being 'aggressive' 🙁

  10. Jenny H

    5 months is not a puppy. 5 months is an adolescent dog. Many bitches will already have had their first 'season'

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