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What are the dog signs of arousal aggression?

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Signs of arousal aggression include:

  • lunging and pulling on a leash;
  • destructive shredding of toys and human owned stuff;
  • fast, staccato-like barks and yips;
  • not responsive to owners’ requests;
  • charging people/dogs/cats and/or wildlife;
  • bites with various amounts of pressure and resulting damage, ranging from no-puncture to kill. (The rabbit, cat, squirrel, or even small dog that is killed when the chasing dog catches up with the chasee.)


The propensity and level of aggressive behaviors due to arousal depend on various factors, one of them being the genetic, hardwired disposition of the dog.

Many pedigreed pooches are bred to be driven, engaged and excited about life. Intense behaviors are a deliberate and desired personality trait. That is increased in working breeds and dogs that are bred for dog sports. These dogs are hypersensitive to motion, sound or smell, become aroused and react with instinctive, by humans often perceived as aggressive, dog behaviors.

For example: herding dogs tend to be sensitive to motion (sheep, goats, cattle, geese, balls, Frisbees ect.) and bred to bring order back into motion chaos = to go after it. What happens next depends on the kind of training the dog received. It could be bringing the ball back, gathering the sheep to the human shepherd, or driving cattle forward. Training a working dog to do his/her job takes knowledge, commitment and patience. One of the crucial thing the working dog learns, and what ultimately prevents over-the-top arousal-aggressive behaviours, is self control. Without it the protection German Shepherd would shred the culprit and the herding Border Collie would spook the sheep and scatter them, instead of gathering them. High arousal activities are combined with quiet time and focused brain work. The dog is content instead of frustrated, and remains responsive to the handler rather than crazing out.

What are the dog signs of arousal aggression?

That same herding dog in suburbia, belonging to a lovely family with three kids who play ball and Frisbee, go to the dog-populated dogpark, participate in agility and flyball, and offer the pooch the big yard to hang around in, where he is exposed to dogs and people passing by the fence all day, is overstimulated and becomes quickly, and often chronically charged up, and expresses the arousal aggressively, directed toward the kids he might nip, the family cat he chases, the people and dogs passing by he barks at.

Punishment or more exercise lead to more aggression. On that note, the popluar laser-beam chase game can lead to a dog who is chronically over-aroused and obsessively looks for shadows, light-beams, TV-flickers he can go after. A canine version of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Does the motion sensitive dog need physcial exercise? Absolutely. But it has to be combined with mindful brain work like obedience, tricks, or finding things. I hide my one-track-minded Australian Shepherd’s ball after every third throw (if I’d throw it 500 times, she’d bring it back 500 times) to prevent over-arousal aggression that is, in her case, expressed in yips ‘n nips. First, I ask her in a down-stay while I hide the ball. That is a calming exercise and she needs self-control to obey me. Then, I release her and give her the “find” command. Working her nose to find the beloved toy is also calming. Because heeding a command and searching for things is not nearly as much fun for her than running after the ball, I reward her with at least one more throw after she obeyed my requests.

Sniffing is a calming exercise I direct my excitable canine clients to, but there are exceptions to that rule. Many a scent hound becomes more aroused when engaged in nose work – not less. One case example is a very keen working stock German Pointer. The boy’s needs are well understood by his savvy owners, who offer daily outings to parks and natural areas. When out and about he experiences the intense smells he was bred to detect and track, and which arouse him, but he never experiences the end result of his job – to stand and point wildlife. The frustration of the missing end adds to the tracking arousal and the next jogger or bird watcher he spots is charged at.

Should his owners stop the wood and field outings? Absolutely not. But they should practice obedience commands until they are solid, particularly “leave” and “come”, and channel their dog’s superb tracking ability into hide and seek games. (Find mom, dad, the kids, the kids’ friends, mom’s sock, dad’s mitten, and so on.) That way the nose work is focused on the owner, and not directed into the environment. In addition, tracking leads to an end result when the person or person’s belonging is found.

The arousal-aggressive dog is the one at a shelter, who is overstimulated all day by the typical shelter commotion. He might redirect with a snap or bite when touched by a human, or might bark and lunge after a dog that is led by his run.

Dogs that live in a too large a pack, or an incompatible one, can be permanently over-aroused and act aggressively. Overcrowding leads to stress and resulting aggression in all mammals. That, by the way, includes the dog-busy dog park. Chase and play can easily get out of hand, turn into aggression and result in fights or redirected snaps and bites to humans. The hand that wants to split or clip the leash back on the collar might get bit – not because the dog is too dominant, but simply because he is too pumped.

The pooch who latches onto a child’s pants or jacket, growlingly backing up, is usually the one who played tug-of-war or wrestled with dad or the older brother a while back. His aggression is often misconstrued as alpha – when in fact he is just charged up.

The crazed dog who jumps at you when you come home, or at your visitors, falls into that category. Although not aggressive he, too, is aroused. Proactively dealing with a problem before it escalates is good leadership.

This gives you some insight into the very common, yet surprisingly rarely discussed, high arousal aggression. It is, like all dog behaviors, complex. Individualized assessment and modification guidelines lead to faster success mellowing Rover than the “one solution fits all approach”. Generally though, giving the dog a cozy and safe place to chill, incorporating mindful brain work into physical exercise, and practicing at least one obedience command to default, goes a long way.

Stay tuned, predatory and dominant aggression is discussed soon.