Is This Aggression?

When we think of canine aggression, we think of snarling, snapping, and other precursor behaviors that if not stopped, lead up to a bite.

Recently, I’ve heard dog trainers describing this behavior as aggression:

Visitor comes to dog’s house,  dog runs and barks, runs and barks.  This can either be when the postal worker is on the front porch or if a visitor comes into the house, the dog barks, gets a little closer, backs up, and barks some more.

Would you label these behaviors as aggression?

Would the body language matter, as in the photo of the barking terrier vs. the barking Doberman?

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AKC Canine Good Citizen Director, Author of the AKC's official CGC book, "CITIZEN CANINE"
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16 Responses to Is This Aggression?

  1. I would call it fear, which can lead to aggressive behavior if not worked with.

  2. Michele says:

    “Cheers”

    Without seeing the dog in action, seeing his body weight, language and all that jazz, I would call this a fearful dog. However, with some fearful dogs, this can lead to a fear aggression behaviour which may progress with a snap or bite.

    • michele711 says:

      Above statement is for the “visitor” question.

      *Photos: It’s hard to tell,I would need more info. The Dobie’s ears, furrowed brow, ears apart and the pucker…This is not a good photo the background has been edited and the effects are making this hard to read. The whole body needs to be in this picture also.

  3. Cathy says:

    I would say the terrier is territorial. That CAN lead to aggression- it totally depends on the dog’s personality, family etc. The Doberman definitely is sending a message of aggression. Without knowing more, it is hard to judge why.

  4. Kat says:

    sounds more like fear or insecurity. could lead to fear biting. this dog probably has just never learned that new people can be something good, instead of something bad.

    • Kat says:

      oh and body language would absolutely matter. its important to look at the whole picture, not just bits and pieces

  5. Deb says:

    Regarding the photos, neither shows enough (especially the Doberman) to be sure. The dog on the left is not standing and therefore I would not classify this as aggression but more territorial warning. I can’t see the head features well enough and the lack of knowing what posturing the Dobie is showing makes it a hard call. There appears to be facial tension and I’d say this is aggression. Regarding the written description of the dog at the front door, it is clearly a fearful dog. Aggressive dogs are usually fearful dogs.

  6. Susanne says:

    It all matters. The body language matters and the facial expression matters. The history of the dog also matters. The behavior described, barking and backing up repeated,as described can also be a play behavior and without being able to see the body language, know the history, and even more importantly see the facial expression it is not possible to classify the behavior accurately.
    It is noteworthy that many behaviors labeled as aggressive by pet owners are better called distance increasing signals the purpose of which is to create distance between the dog and the trigger of the DIS. If a distance increasing signal is not effective for the dog it may escalate. Distance increasing signals can be subtle or overt and it is important to remember that the purpose is to increase distance so if this purpose is served the dog will generally decrease the use of the signal in that moment.
    Simply labeling a behavior as “fear” implies that the observer has information that is actually difficult to obtain, the state of another living creatures mind, and trainers should use due caution when assigning an internal state to a dog. Trainers need sufficient training to do this and while an applied animal behaviorist will have such training not all trainers do, it depends on how they are educated. Case in point would be the ridiculous number of behaviors labeled as “dominance”. Concentrate on modifying the behavior with operent and/or classical conditioning and the internal state of the dog will also change.
    As per the pictures, only the Doberman is giving clear distance increasing signals. The Jack has soft eyes, even winky (a benign intent signal), and relaxed ears so it is possible he is just being cued by his handler to “speak”.

  7. Regina says:

    I’d need to see a video so I can interpret the dog’s body language. It may be just excitement (my Manchester Terriers are very good at this, and they actually like visitors), or it may be territorial behavior. Again, difficult to tell without a video.

  8. Jen says:

    I’m disappointed to see the stereotypical “snarling Doberman” picture here (with the background edited and the light effects altered as well, it would seem). An actual barking Doberman picture would have been better, since that’s what you’re describing.

    The “airplane ears” actually suggest, to me, that this particular Doberman was trained to make “scary face” on command. I’ve seen pinned back ears during a bark, and that’s not what’s being displayed here, and the muzzle does not stay all wrinkled up like that during a bark.

    • carole says:

      I totally agree Jen. How are dogs with negative (and often undeserved) stereotypes ever going to shed these as long as people continue to utilize them as examples of this stereotype? I work with a large number of dogs daily, and I will say that I see more fear based aggression in small breeds of dogs, like the terrier, than I do in dobermans.

  9. Susanne says:

    Another thought, it is not accurate to say that all aggressive behavior is caused by fear (even though that sentence in and of itself makes me cringe a little). In our reactive/aggressive/growly dog classes we see a pretty good number of so called “leash aggressive” dogs who are in reality frustrated greeters. These dogs exhibit lots of “aggressive” signals to freak out their owners and others but all are well adjusted and dog friendly in day care, at the dog park, at home, basically anywhere off leash. Frustrate them with a leash and they do their best to imitate Cujo. When we do BAT (Behavior Adjustment Training) with them using the Tarzan Greeters protocol they learn impulse control and behavior changes quickly follow. These dogs are NOT afraid of their trigger, instead they are frustrated by the leash. The same things apply to these dogs when they are confined in a vehicle or crate. If we had attempted to label these dogs internal states as fearful based on our interpretation of their external behavior we would have missed the mark and behavior modification would have been slowed.

  10. my first impression of the JRT was Defensive/fear/insecurity but could, if pressured certainly lead to a bite — bet he could be a ‘sneak up behind you’ little fellow; the dobe on the other hand is up front and honest in his/her approach to [whatever] the situationi. He’s not lying to you – in the photo. But just looking at the pictures is like trying to read a book by looking at the cover – .there is so much more to consider – Who is being ‘barked’ at, What is the rest of the body telling you — I see a bit of a ‘poochy’ mouth on the Jack – puckered lips …. and sort of ‘bouncy’ on his front toes, but racked back on his rear ….. needs adjustment, but no, i would not arbitrairily label ‘aggressive’. Inappropriate greeing response, yes, but not going to go with ‘aggressive’

  11. Amy says:

    Owning a Doberman and small terrier myself, I find it somewhat amusing, and somewhat disconcerting that these two breeds were chosen for your poster dogs.
    Terriers are often mislabeled as unsocial, loud, obnoxious dogs. While I can certainly say that Terriers do have a certain spunk unlike many other dogs, they often bark because they enjoy the sound of their own voice more than anything else. If you were that small, you’d take advantage of some means to be heard and noticed in such a large world.
    The photographed terrier appears relaxed, and is likely only being loud. If it were fearful, I would expect to see more tension in the body, and the ears held back more.
    Ah, Dobermans. Such a feared breed, and truly what a goofy and seemingly unintelligent animal. :)
    I say this, of course, lovingly. Dobermans have quite the set of lungs on them, and do not commonly hesitate to use them. As a very alert breed, they do announce visitors, intruders, mailmen, dogs walking by, and birds landing on your fence, but outright aggression is not a common scene.
    The Doberman in the photo, although appears to have “aggressive” facial features such as an apparent snarl, tension in the neck, and focused eyes, I think it is very important to note that the ears are out to the side, and there are no wrinkles on the top of the head which may suggest a more apparent focus of the dog. This is actually a very common facial expression of Dobermans (and other dogs) whilst playing with dogs and people. If you were to video-tape a Doberman (or any other dog, for that matter) rough-housing with another dog, then take random stills, you would very often see this face. Are the dogs getting out of hand? Are there bite marks on the non-Doberman? Of course not.
    As one of the previous posters had suggested, it is also very easy to teach a dog to make this face. We have done so with our dogs, as it was a funny thing to do. Of course, our silly girls make goofy whines while making scary faces, then frolic around licking everyone while taking pleasure in their accomplishments of a job well done.
    As for the story of the dog who runs and barks, then backs up – without a visual, it is impossible to tell. The running and barking could be a territorial thing, or it could be a simple over-enthusiastic greeting (by human standards, of course). Backing up could be a sign of fear, or it could be a silly dog attempting to play; that really depends on the type of barking associated with the actions.
    That’s my opinion.

  12. flyballtoday says:

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    Canine “aggression” can take many forms and we cannot always recognize aggressive behavior.

  13. Pingback: Whispering is not Enough, Learn to Talk Dog – They will love you for it! | Paws Kennels Blog

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