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How to Identify Aggressive and Dominant Behavior in Dogs

Does the thought of training a dog who has been labeled “aggressive” or “dominant” make you feel stressed out, fearful, or anxious? First things first – take a deep breath and relax. 

At Dog Training Newbie, we understand firsthand how difficult it can be to work with aggressive and dominant behavior, and we are here to assist you in finding the absolute best solution for your dog’s training needs. 

Today, we’re going to teach you how to identify aggressive and dominant behavior in dogs – two behaviors that can be really tough to manage. 

But before we embark on this journey together, it’s important first to make one thing clear: the word “aggressive” defines behavior. It does NOT define your dog.

aggressive and dominant behavior

Using such a broad term to describe a dog’s demeanor oversimplifies what are, in most cases, truly complex behavioral problems – and generally speaking, the aggressive and dominant behavior that a dog may display is only the tip of the iceberg.

Such generalized labels will not help your dog… but understanding the cause of their behavior will.

A Word on Dominance Training

One final thing we’d like to mention before getting started – in years past, dog trainers have used the term “dominant” in wildly inappropriate ways to advocate for such outdated training methods.

One of which is called “Alpha Dog Training” – a methodology defined by the dog trainer’s intent to prove themselves the “alpha” of the pack. 

These types of training methods are aggressive (in the true meaning of the word) and archaic, to say the least, and rely heavily on a skewed perception of canines themselves. 

To learn more about dominance training and other such outdated methods, check out our blog post entitled Owners Beware – 3 Outdated Dog Training Methods.”

Defining the Labels: Aggressive and Dominant - What Do They Really Mean?

Before we can truly understand what makes an “aggressive” dog behave the way he does, we must first have a firm grasp on the meaning of the word itself. 

The term “aggression” is defined by Oxford Languages as “hostile or violent behavior or attitudes toward another; readiness to attack or confront.”

For dogs, many of the behaviors that we humans perceive as “aggressive” are, in reality, tools of communication amongst one another. 

In the animal kingdom, things like a growl, a hard stare, or a snap are used to deliver warnings that a dog is worried, uncomfortable, or simply needs space. 

A great example of this can be seen with mother dogs – if a puppy pulls too hard on the mother’s ears or won’t get out of her face, she will deliver a quick (but harmless) snap toward the puppy to correct him. 

Only when these actions are not sufficient will dogs escalate to more severe behaviors such as lunging, stronger vocalizations, and biting. Typically, these actions are reserved for instances when a dog feels like their safety is being threatened. 

So does the word “aggressive” really apply to these behaviors? Not exactly. 

The word “dominance,” on the other hand, is used to describe any action which intends to garner “command, control, or prevail over all others.”

While many problematic canine behaviors, such as growling, herding, resource guarding, and mounting, are often attributed to dominance, there is no real evidence to suggest that dogs have the desire to dominate humans. 

All behaviors labeled “dominant” can be more easily approached by simply taking the “D“ word out of the equation and, instead, looking at the circumstances surrounding that behavior. 

For instance, a dog pulling on a leash may not yet have been trained to respond reliably to the scenario in which they are not responding. 

Sure, your pup may walk alongside you perfectly in your backyard – but has he been taught to do the same in a crowded public park? 

Problematic behaviors will never be resolved if we view the situation without context. 

Mounting or “humping” is another problematic behavior that we come across frequently – and while this particular action is less-than-savory, we again must look at the context. 

For example, some dogs use humping as an attempt to play or get attention, whereas an anxious dog might use it to self-soothe. 

All this to say that labels can be dangerous when it comes to dog training, and things are not always what they appear to be. 

So if the terms “dominant” or “aggressive” have been used to describe your own dog, it may be time to connect with a reliable trainer who can help determine what’s really going on beneath the surface.

Dog Training Methods For “Aggressive” Dogs

If there’s one key take-away from this post, let it be this: 

Aggressive behaviors can not be treated with aggression.


Aggression should never be used to modify a dog’s behavior, and doing so will cause far more harm than good. 

Again, when approaching behavior modification, it’s important to first understand the why behind those undesirable behaviors to know how best to reverse them. 

Most aggressive and dominant behaviors are triggered by underlying emotions, such as fear, anxiety, pain, or even exhaustion. 

When you use aggression to tackle aggressive behavior, you only add another layer of fear and anxiety to your dog’s already-overwhelmed emotional state, which can lead to more severe behavior down the line. 

Instead, pet parents should adopt a science-based dog training approach that aims to understand the root cause of their dog’s behavior and how best to modify it without causing more harm. 

These types of training methods also enable you to build a strong bond with your dog.

One of the best ways to approach behavior modification is to use positive reinforcement methods, which can help control your dog’s behavior, build confidence, and increase trust. 

It’s a proven fact that when dogs receive positive reinforcement, they learn to associate good things and actions with rewards. 

This approach helps to reinforce desirable behaviors and discourage unwanted ones – all without making a bad situation worse. 

As mentioned before, aggressive and dominant behavior typically occurs when a dog is trying to signal that they are stressed, fearful, or in need of some space. 

While physically punishing a dog may suppress the aggressive and dominant behavior temporarily, it will not change the underlying emotion causing this behavior. 

And, as we’ve learned, addressing the root of the issue will be far more effective than correcting the actions alone.

Understanding Aggressive and Dominant Behavior in Dogs

Aggressive and dominant behavior is a complex subject – one which many standard dog trainers won’t touch. 

Instead, addressing these behaviors is best left to professionals specializing in the subject. 

Behavior modification is much more complex than obedience training, so we will often recommend joining forces with a behavioral specialist AND your veterinarian so that your dog can be treated with medication, if necessary, in conjunction with behavioral modification techniques.

As mentioned above, dogs often use aggressive and dominant behavior when they feel stressed, overwhelmed, or fearful as a tool of communication. 

But if we do not heed their warnings and address the behavior immediately, they become learned behaviors that your dog relies on to keep them safe.

Dogs can also exhibit predatory aggression, as well, which is far different from behavioral aggression. 

This natural instinct is triggered by moving targets (cats, bunnies, squirrels, etc.), though not all dogs have it – and the response varies greatly amongst those that do.

Causes of Aggressive and Dominant Behavior in Dogs

While fear is perhaps the biggest trigger for an aggressive response, it’s certainly not the only one, so it’s important to remember that other things can contribute to your dog’s emotions and behavior as well 

Pain is often the culprit, especially if your dog has had sudden behavioral changes. In this scenario, a veterinary check should be your first order of business.

One great example of this occurred when a trainer friend of mine walked into a house to start a consult with a dog that was snapping when people would reach to pet him.

 But unbeknownst to the family, the dog had a massive ear infection that the trainer could smell right away – and suddenly, his behavior made sense! 

When people scratched the dog’s ears, it caused him pain which triggered an aggressive response. He didn’t snap at his owners to be mean but to prevent a painful interaction! 

Again, discovering the root cause of a dog’s behavior, especially if it develops suddenly, is key to this whole thing. 

Dogs can also exhibit aggressive and dominant behavior when they fear losing a resource such as food, water, a favorite toy, or even access to their favorite human!

 They may also show aggression when they are afraid for their safety, such as is the case with those dogs who have had negative interactions with other dogs or people. 

Fear of an environment, another animal, or even people can also illicit an aggressive response if a dog has not had proper exposure to people and places during their critical socialization period (between 3-16 weeks of age).

It’s important to remember that, even if the dog is not in any real danger, a perceived fear is genuine to them. 

Take, for example, a dog who attacks the vacuum cleaner – we know the device is harmless, but the threat is genuine to them. 

Sometimes, an aggressive behavior is hard for us to understand because we don’t observe anything that would actually put the dog in danger, but this is when we have to take a closer look at the situation through the dog’s eyes and listen to what they have to say through body language.

Identifying Aggressive and Dominant Behavior in Dogs

Most dogs will almost always sends out warning signals before resorting to real aggressive and dominant behavior, though some warnings are so subtle that they might be easy to miss. 

That’s why learning your dog’s warning signs and way of communicating is essential – doing so will help prevent the behavior from escalating. We must look at the full picture to determine the dog’s intent. 

Here are some of the biggest signs that your dog is feeling threatened:

Stiff body posture: Your dog may stiffen or “statue.” Movements are slower than normal.
Eyes: Hard stares are common. Half-moon eyes (also called whale eyes) indicates stress. Alternatively, if a dog averts its gaze, they are signaling that they are uncomfortable with the current interaction.
Mouth: Panting or a stiff mouth posture (sometimes referred to as long lips) can indicate stress. Yawns and lip licking are signs of stress.
Ears: Ears may be pinned back or focused in the direction of whatever is concerning them.
Tail: A tail wag does not always mean happy. A high stiff wag indicates excitement and stress. A tucked tail suggests fear.
Fur: Raised hackles is a sign of excitement and stress. Often you will see the dog’s hackles go down as they adjust to the situation. As long as the hackles are up, your dog should be supervised and then removed from the situation as needed.
When a dog is overwhelmed with fear, they will respond by using the four Fs: 

Flirt/Fidget: A dog that goes belly up is saying they are of no threat, and it is often a signal calling for mercy. Some dogs may jump up on their handler, tug on the leash or use any number of deference behaviors that make it seem like they are simply misbehaving when they are really uncomfortable.

Flight: A dog runs away or hides behind their human.

Freeze: As mentioned above, many fearful dogs statue like they are hoping to just fade into their environment. This is often mistaken for a neutral stance.

Fight: A dog usually resorts to fighting as a last resort unless they have previously learned it is the most efficient way to manage their environment. Fighting can range from growling, snapping, and lunging to biting with contact.

To see visual examples of relaxed and stressed dogs, check out this excellent video by Fear Free Homes on Dog Body Language.

Side Note: Dogs will also display many of the aforementioned behaviors during play, such as stalking, nipping, and growling. These actions can be off-putting for the Dog Training Newbie to witness, but are very normal in the animal kingdom – so don’t get too worried.

In Conclusion

As a loving dog owner, it’s natural to be worried and unsure about what to do if you suspect your furry friend is exhibiting aggressive and dominant behavior. 

While it can be tempting to try and handle the situation yourself, it’s essential to seek the guidance of a qualified pet professional. Not only can they accurately diagnose your dog’s behavior, but they can also offer expert advice on how to manage and ultimately improve it.

In the next part of our aggression series, we’ll be diving deep into the process of finding help for your dog. 

From researching veterinarians and dog trainers to understanding the various types of aggression, we’ll equip you with all the knowledge needed to make the best decision for your canine companion.

We’ll also discuss practical solutions for managing your dog’s behavior in the meantime, including ways to minimize triggers and promote positive interactions.

Remember, seeking help is not a sign of weakness for the dog parent – it’s a responsible and compassionate choice that can benefit both you and your furry friend in the long run. 


  • Devene Godau, CPDT-KA

    Devene obtained a BA in Journalism from Michigan State University and spent several years working in marketing. However, when she adopted her first greyhound (who came with some behavior challenges), she began researching ways to modify her problem behavior and found help with a local dog trainer. She became a volunteer assistant to learn more, and eventually started teaching classes and conducting private lessons. She currently trains puppies full-time to become scent detection dogs. Devene lives in Michigan with her husband and kids, as well as 4 dogs, 2 cats and a tortoise.

  • Morgan Messick

    Morgan Messick is a content creator for Dog Training Newbie, a website that is all about dog training tips, techniques, news, and more. Morgan has two dogs, three cats, and a lovely wife who support her passion for writing. Morgan loves reading murder mystery novels and listening to true crime podcasts in her spare time. She is also passionate about supporting small businesses by creating dynamic content that customers want to see.

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