Dogs respond to physical aggression in three ways:

  • flight (active)
  • fight (active)
  • freeze (passive).

In a situation where your dog is faced with confrontation, you must first decipher which mode he’s in. His response is going to depend on who is initiating the confrontation. For instance, whereas he may respond to threats from other dogs aggressively, he may roll over and submit if he knows you’re displeased with him. The opposite reaction to both situations may occur; however, this is rare. Most dogs respond consistently to both humans and other dogs.

Dogs and Fighting Fighting between dogs should not be allowed or encouraged. It generally occurs when one or more of the participating dogs is unsupervised. For your own safety, exercise caution in breaking up any fights.

If you have more than one dog, you might notice aggressive behavior among your dogs. Observe their body language carefully. The alpha dog—the lead male, in many cases—typically expects submissive behavior from younger or female dogs. While you may hear plenty of growling and barking, remember that this is how dogs play. They’re just having fun. Give them plenty of room to play and insist that they do it outdoors so they don’t knock over your plants and furniture.

Playing or Fighting? It’s often very difficult to tell whether dogs are playing or fighting. In both instances, dogs bark, bite, growl and gnaw on one another. The key to determining whether dogs are playing or fighting is to look at their body language and to listen to the tone of their vocalizations. For example:

  • Before a fight, dogs usually stare at each other with hackles raised.
  • Fighting usually results in a lot of growling and yelps (from inflicted injuries).
  • Playing dogs bark and growl, but the tones are substantially different from fighting vocalizations.
  • Playing dogs often perform the “play bow.”
  • Playing dogs usually do not bare their teeth—i.e. their lips are not drawn back in a snarl.

To help give your dog a creative outlet for his aggressive play, provide him with lots of durable toys and give him plenty of exercise. When your dog is alone during the day while you’re at work, make sure children or other dogs walking by can’t tease him.

Submissive Behavior

Submissive behavior can be exhibited in many ways, depending on the dynamics of the situation. Submissive behavior is typically reflected by a crouched posture, perhaps rolling onto the back. Submissive urination may also occur.

Many dogs try to run away when an aggressor confronts them. If you’re out with your dog, tighten your grip on the leash and try to avoid the confrontation. If an older dog snarls at a puppy, in all likelihood the puppy is being annoying. Curb the puppy and distract him with a toy or activity.

Prevent your dog from being the aggressor or the victim by limiting his opportunity to be exposed to other unsupervised animals. Dog parks are wonderful places, but remember that not all owners may share your sense of responsibility and knowledge of their dog’s behavior.