two dogs fighting

By Cesar Millan

When people ask me for help with their dogs, I ask them to tell me what they think the problem is. Quite often, they immediately diagnose aggression. “My dog is aggressive on the walk.” “My dog is aggressive around food.” “My dog is aggressive all the time.”

In fact, in a recent Facebook survey of my fans, when we asked you to pick the single most serious problem you have with your dogs, aggression was the number one choice.

However, more often than not, the dog is not aggressive. It is curious and excited on the walk, it is not calm and submissive before being fed, or it’s just an excited dog in general. In reality, very few dogs are actually aggressive. But, because they have big sharp teeth, we tend to interpret any incident in which a dog approaches another dog or human quickly as aggression, especially if we don’t know the dog.

If a strange dog approaches us and our dog on the walk, we often become apprehensive ourselves. Our dog interprets this as weak energy and is forced to protect us, and their defensiveness can then lead to the other dog becoming aggressive in defense as well.

However, other behavior problems in dogs, if not resolved, can lead to aggressive behavior. Here are a few of the major ones.

Fear, Anxiety, and Insecurity

All animals have three natural responses to danger: fight, flight, or avoidance. They will either attack, run away, or try to hide from that danger. Fearful, anxious, or insecure dogs will not naturally fight. They will run or hide. However, if either of these things does not remove them from danger, then they can lash out aggressively.

A dog in a constant state of anxiety can eventually stop trying to run or hide first because its internal energy is very high and very scattered, so they can progress to reacting aggressively to everything.

These kinds of dogs require lots of exercise in order to burn up that excess energy and bring them back to a calm, submissive state. They also require calm, assertive Pack Leaders who will build up their self-confidence by providing protection and direction.


When a dog’s needs are not fulfilled, the dog experiences frustration — particularly if what’s missing is exercise. An otherwise happy-go-lucky, high energy dog stuck alone in a small apartment for twelve hours a day can become so frustrated that aggression may result. The problem is made worse if the humans don’t also give that dog discipline by providing rules, boundaries and limitations.

If you can’t be home to walk your dog at least every four hours, then you need to take the dog on a long walk before you leave and after you return home.  In the meantime, make sure that there are plenty of things to mentally stimulate your dog while you’re gone, like toys with treats hidden in them, acceptable things to chew on, and so forth.

Lack of Socialization

A dog knows how to be a dog and how to relate to other dogs. It’s only when human behavior short circuits that process that a dog becomes antisocial. This is particularly common with smaller dogs, because humans have the irresistible need to pick them up at the first sign of danger.

You never see someone pick up their Rottweiler because another dog on the walk is barking at it. And yet, for breeds like Chihuahuas and Yorkies, this is the first thing that people do, and it completely confuses the dog.

They associate being picked up (affection) with another dog being aggressive toward it, so what do they do? They learn that this is what you want. When they meet another dog, it’s time to go crazy with barking and lunging so they can get their “reward.”

Even without picking the dog up, we can make it antisocial through our reactions. If we become tense or nervous and tighten up on the leash when we see another dog, then we’re teaching our dogs to see other dogs as a threat.

Dog on dog aggression is not natural. It’s a learned behavior and we teach it. In order for our dogs to unlearn it and become socialized, we have to become aware of what we’re doing to make our dogs antisocial and we have to learn what to do to let our dogs be dogs.

Injury or Illness

Sometimes, a dog that has never shown any signs of aggression will suddenly lash out and snap at a family member unexpectedly. If none of the above cases apply, then this may be your dog’s way of letting you know that it’s in pain and the snarl or nip is a spontaneous reaction similar to someone yelling “Ouch!” when they stub their toe on the coffee table.

If your dog suddenly lashes out at a familiar human when being touched, then your first step should be to visit the vet and find out if there are any physical causes for the reaction. If this is the case, your dog will be grateful to you for helping stop the pain.

A lot of people assume that a dog is either naturally aggressive or not, but this isn’t really the case. Aggression is not a cause, but a symptom. If your dog is aggressive, then it’s telling you that something else is lacking. By paying attention to the behavior, we can understand what our dog is telling us and then figure out the cure to the problem.

Does you dog currently display any of the undesired behaviors that might lead to aggression? Now that you’re aware, how do you intend to address the issue? Share it with us in the comments.

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