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.


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