TL;DR: Owner Directed Aggression
We love our dogs, and we want them to love us. When we think of dogs behaving aggressively, it's usually (incorrectly) attributed to the idea that the dog must be protecting their loved one.
When dogs behave aggressively towards their family members, it can create a cacophony of complicated emotions and create a unique strain on the human-dog relationship.
*Owner-directed aggression is a label that refers to aggressive behavior enacted upon the dog's guardian. This is a challenging behavior set to manage and address.
Management can be more precarious than in other situations, impacted parties may experience chronic stress or trauma, and the potential emotional and relational damage to the human-canine bond cannot be understated.
Here we explore the function of aggressive behavior, acknowledge the unique emotional and relational impact of this behavior set, and categorize the most common functions of aggressive behavior directed toward the dog’s guardian.
[We aren't huge fans of the term "owner" for our relationship with our pets, but we believe this term will help this article reach the people it's meant to support. Throughout the post, though, you'll see we use different terms.]
This article will operationalize aggressive behavior to include ritualistic aggression such as growling, posturing, and hard staring and more overtly aggressive behaviors like snapping and biting.
Aggression is a natural response to a perceived threat; a communication that says clearly to increase one's distance.
A growl says, "I need space."
A snap says, "I'm freaked out; please stop."
Dogs displaying these behaviors are often in a heightened state of arousal. Their ability to think logically is severely compromised. Their nervous system has brought online the survival brain, and they are gearing up for a survival response.
When a dog's survival brain responds with an aggressive response, the brain says, "Fight is the best option here." The same dog may enact a flight, fidget, or freeze response in other scenarios triggered by the same stimuli.
Before they are lost to their survival brain, we often observe quieter requests for space – lip licking, turning, or moving away, yawning, ducking the head, soft blinking. Here's an example: uncomfortable
Then, when those fail to gain the desired space, physiological signs of stress may present, including panting, dilated pupils, tense face and body, and excessive shedding or dander.
Ritualistic aggression may appear next. Growling, lifting the lip, or hard staring are all intended to prevent further escalation and to prevent injury.
It is of incredible importance not to suppress or punish these warning signs. Though telling the dog not to growl is tempting, this inhibits communication and risks increasing anxiety or fear.
From there, the dog may snap - an intentional miss - or bite in varying degrees. Most dog bites leave red marks, bruises, or light scrapes on the skin's surface. Other bites leave inhibited punctures. In high states of arousal, a dog may deliver multiple or uninhibited bites.
Emotional and Relational Ramifications
The bond we have with our pets runs deep. Many people mourn the loss of a pet more than they mourn the loss of a human family member.
Some pet guardians experience their pet's aggressive behavior towards them as a betrayal. They report feeling confused by the behavior and hurt emotionally. Some are now afraid of their pet or unsure if they can continue to co-exist.
The physical injury in these contexts can range from non-existent to quite severe. Yet the emotional impact and impact on the dog-human relationship is often severely impacted more than the physical body. A guardian whose dog has growled at them may experience similar or more emotional and relational damage than someone who has received a physical injury.
When people have been bitten by a dog, let alone their own dog, they often find that therapy or other means of support are vital to recovery. Some dog bite victims develop post-traumatic stress disorder due to aggressive incidents.
There is always a chance of a management breakdown, and folks in these dynamics may find themselves hyper-vigilant and anxious, always wondering if they closed a gate correctly or if they properly put away all the resources their dog might guard.
Their dog's behavior might heavily depend on how many other stressors they experienced that day, whether they are feeling well, and how much sleep they've gotten. Dog parents might juggle multiple needs to help their dogs succeed and keep themselves safe. This can quickly drain the family's emotional bank account.
Impact over Intent - How to be Supportive
As outsiders to the situation, friends and family may unintentionally cause harm. Family-directed aggression is a topic most are not well-educated on until they need to be. Well-intended comments asking what the person did to provoke the behavior, or outdated advice suggesting this is due to the person's innate weakness, can cause a lot of harm.
Especially if their dog does not display aggressive behavior with other people or in other contexts, the person might feel incredibly guilty and ashamed without understanding how to change the situation. They may wonder why their dog only aggresses with them and assume it means they are not only the problem but the only variable. This can lead to intense despair and hopelessness.
On the other hand, some friends and family members may be adamant that the dog be rehomed or euthanized. Whether or not this might make sense given the situation, being told what to do by outsiders to the situation (however well-intentioned) is rarely the way to support someone navigating a situation this emotionally and logistically complex.
Many victims of owner-directed aggression report experiences like those experiencing intimate partner violence. They feel afraid in their home, perpetually tense, and walk on eggshells to keep themselves safe.
They may feel isolated and be unaware of other families who have experienced family-directed aggression from a family pet. Finding appropriate professional support can also be challenging, and may folks may have been through many trainers only to find the situation unchanged or even worse.
Why is My Dog Biting Me?
Let's now focus on common labels used to describe the motivating factors in an owner-directed case. This list is not all-encompassing but does cover many of these situations. It is important to remember that the immense constellation of variables in an individual behavior case makes every single situation unique. What works well for one family may make things worse in another. It is important not to
compare cases this way or take one-size-fits-all advice.
Most commonly, aggressive behavior is fueled by fear or anxiety (many of the categories below are also fueled by fear or anxiety). A dog displaying aggression towards its guardian may fear them in general, in specific contexts, or when they enact certain behaviors.
A dog may experience fear and snap at their guardian when they approach with nail-clippers or attempt to bathe the dog.
The dog might become frightened when their guardian startles them awake accidentally or makes a sudden loud noise.
The dog may struggle when the guardian enters or leaves a room or when they come down the stairs.
Some dogs may fear people when they join the family and may not be comfortable with anyone in the home or with select people.
Although we often take personally a dog's fear of us - let alone our own dog - this may have little to do with the individual human, nor is it necessarily indicative of an abusive or traumatic past.
Many factors can affect how the individual sees the world, including genetics, perinatal conditions, early environment, and learning history.
It is essential to behavior therapy that the dog has a secure attachment figure, someone they trust and can go to for social support and safety. This relationship can be damaged or fail to form when the caregiver is sometimes or always frightening to the dog.
This can also be emotionally devastating to the people involved, who generally are trying their hardest to show their dog that they are safe and loved. People may feel rejected, grieve the relationship they hoped to have or be angry.
Behavior therapy in these cases often involves addressing the dog's fear or anxiety at its root, building relationship, and improving communication.
Resource guarding is a label for a set of behaviors many humans can deeply identify with! We tend to go to great lengths to protect our things.
Sometimes dogs will use aggressive behaviors to protect their resources. We can imagine that this behavior may stem from a variety of emotions. When humans are robbed or burgled they report a range of emotions from anger to despair, hopelessness or depression, fear, and anxiety.
Resources can include the usual food, toys, and chews but can also extend to people, spaces, novel items, and ‘stolen’ items. They may guard their items against
some individuals and not others or only protect the thing in specific contexts.
Dogs might guard the perceived potential of a resource or react to certain behaviors as though they are a threat to a resource (such as reaching or bending over) even if they are not.
It is essential to reduce the conflict and perceived threat in these situations, work on emotional change for the dog and often the family, and teach supportive behaviors.
Conflict aggression is a label that refers to aggressive behaviors borne from conflict between the dog and, in the cases of owner-directed aggression, the guardian.
This conflict may be overt. The person may stand their ground, and the dog stands his ground, and the person finds themselves on the receiving end of a dog bite.
Aged advice regarding being ‘dominant’ or ‘alpha’ has more than once led to an escalation of aggressive behavior on both ends.
Attempts to correct behavior such as yelling, leash popping, or posturing may create conflict leading to an aggressive response.
Sometimes, though, the conflict may be less noticeable. What may seem a massive conflict to our dog may feel like no big deal to us. I might pick up my small dog or push my pup into their crate without malicious intent, but my dog may have big feelings about losing their autonomy.
We may inadvertently communicate conflict to our dogs with a forward posture or prolonged eye contact. We may miss quieter signals of our dog asking for space; when the dog has enough, it lets us know more clearly.
These instances are often fear-based as well (are you seeing a trend?) and the desired result is to create space and make the threat disappear.
In this situation, we strive to remove and reduce the conflict, rebuild relationships and trust, and create alternative plans to navigate these situations.
A recent study (Mills, 2020) suggests that up to 83% of aggressive incidents are affected by pain or discomfort in the dog, whether as a direct cause or otherwise. Of these, most are orthopedic or gastrointestinal.
When aggressive behavior first appears or escalates, it is imperative to talk with a veterinarian. This is a specific conversation with your veterinarian, separate from your general wellness visit. Additional diagnostics, thorough exams, pain trials, or referral to a specialist may be warranted based on these concerns.
Let your vet know about any other changes in the environment or routine and any changes to sleep, activity level, or appetite.
You may notice in these situations that the dog requires more personal space in general or is sensitive to being handled in a particular location.
In addition to treating and managing the dog's underlying medical needs (which may be recurring or chronic) we can focus in these cases on improving communication, teaching flight cues and alternative behaviors, and other skills the dog may need.
This category could arguably be considered out of place in this article, as in redirected aggression, the entire point is that the attack is not directed at the guardian; it’s being RE-directed towards them.
However, that point is often moot when one’s dog has aggressed them so let's
include it here.
When a dog is in a high state of arousal and unable to reach the target of that arousal, it may redirect that arousal onto the next available thing. This might be their leash, dog friend walking next to them, or guardian.
We may see a redirected bite when a dog is frustrated they cannot greet another dog, or when a person grabs their highly aroused dog running the fence-line.
The intent is less important than the impact, and at the end of the day, a violation of trust has also occurred in these situations.
Likewise, a family member who finds themselves injured breaking up a dog fight or another aggressive or reactive incident may have similar feelings even
though their dog did not intentionally cause them harm.
In addition to managing and addressing the primary stress triggers for the dog, additional safety such as muzzle training may be warranted. Defensive leash handling, protective clothing, and knowledge on how to safely break up a dog fight can all be relevant information in these situations.
We love our dogs, and they love us. When violence enters the relationship, family members may find themselves in a unique array of emotional dysregulation and relational disrepair.
These families have difficult decisions to make in which they weigh the safety and well-being of everyone involved. There are no easy answers.
Those who have experienced family-directed aggression or are living with it now should know they are not alone.
Those who know or love someone in this position should know how much a non-judgemental safe person can mean.
We work virtually with clients across the globe and specialize in aggressive behaviors. Contact us to learn more.
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