Cats and Dogs
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Do dogs get aggressive when stressed?

Stress and depression can cause dog aggression

I am having a difficult time socializing my one-year-old puppy. He is initially excited to meet other dogs and strangers, then suddenly he will growl, nip or jump on the other dog.

By Yvette Van Veen Special to the Star
Sat., July 31, 2010 timer 3 min. read

Q: I am having a difficult time socializing my one-year-old puppy. He is initially excited to meet other dogs and strangers. At will sniff them nose to nose. Then suddenly he will growl, nip or jump on the other dog. I usually pull on his leash to correct him and get him to sit. Do you have any recommendations on how to manage this behaviour? I would like to feel comfortable letting him play with other dogs.

A: Dog aggression can be stressful and frightening for owners to witness. It’s far more common that most people would think. Most aggressive dogs are stressed and depressed.

For years, experts have known that aggressive dogs have lower levels of serotonin. This brain chemical is responsible for feelings of well being.

Newer research from the University of Zaragoza in Spain indicates that aggressive dogs have higher levels of cortisol. The body releases this hormone during times of stress.

Social interaction can cause anxiety. As social scavengers, dogs have a wide repertoire of communication skills. Those need to be developed through experience.

We may never fully understand the subtle nuances of their language. What we do know is that dog communication does not always fit with obedience expectations. For example, dogs often greet each other sideways. They sniff one another on the butt. Dogs typically avoid making direct eye contact. It’s considered an aggressive overture.

Human expectations are different. Our pets meet face to face during walks. The dog’s natural social rituals are replaced with greetings that we prefer.

Leashes can magnify the problem further. Restraints prevent nervous dogs from fleeing. When this happens, many dogs try to fight their way out of an uncomfortable situation. It is critically important that owners pay close attention to ensure their leashed dog is not overwhelmed.

Leash corrections after the fact are not likely going to be effective. The dog has already received a reward that is much more powerful. The thing it fears has been driven away. Anxiety has been reduced.

That does not mean that punishment should be escalated. Aggressive dogs need less stress — not more. It would be like threatening a child who is afraid of water. The child is likely going to scream and cry even more. Instead, children first learn to have fun in wading pools. They proceed to coaching held in the shallow end of a pool. Fear is overcome one step at a time in a positive manner.

Pets need to face their fears in a similar manner. Initially, they can meet friendly and tolerant dogs and strangers through a secure fence. Owners should feed the dog treats each time the dog makes an effort to approach and relax.

Over time, the dog’s stress level will reduce. At that point it can learn to casually sniff other dogs and leave.

Similarly, the dog can learn to sniff at the hands of willing helpers. Physical contact, such as reaching and petting should wait until the pet is ready to face these more difficult challenges.

During these meet and greets, use safety devices such as muzzles. Not only do they prevent bites, they keep owners from nervously tugging on the leash and causing the problems they hope to correct.

Finally, hire a professional. Experienced eyes can help you learn when to push the dog further, and when to give a break.

Yvette Van Veen is an animal behaviour consultant. Write her at

The Link Between Stress and Your Dog’s Aggressive Behavior

As you probably know, if something’s bothering your four-legged friend, it’s not always easy to pinpoint the cause. If you pal’s acting sluggish, it probably means he isn’t feeling well. Off to the vet you go. But what about dog behavioral problems, such as aggression, which seemingly come out of nowhere?

According to Nicole Wilde , author of Help for Your Fearful Dog and other books, “Many times the cause for aggression is obvious, such as [when your dog is] guarding food or feeling threatened. But when the cause is not clear, the bigger picture must be examined, with the help of a professional if necessary.”

Your vet can help you determine whether there’s an underlying medical condition. It is possible that anything like disease, injury, or chronic discomfort could be causing your dog’s aggression . Sometimes, the cause is more nebulous, like stress. It’s worth asking your vet about the types of things that could drive your dog’s aggression and change her behavior.

What’s Stressing Your Dog Out?

“Depending on the individual, a stressor could be anything from the noise of new construction outside the home, to a beloved family member being away, to a new baby in the home,” Wilde says. These are all fairly common causes of a stressed dog and might have an effect on their own. Or, your dog might be experiencing what Wilde calls trigger stacking, which is a confluence of many little stressors that finally overwhelm your pup.

“This is when various stimuli that would normally stress your dog but not push him over the top to aggression happen in close proximity,” Wilde explains. “For example, a dog misses his usual exercise one morning, isn’t feeling well, becomes upset at a delivery person, gets petted on the hindquarters; while each individual act would not normally elicit aggression from this dog, when stacked one on top of the other, aggression could result.”

Sound familiar? These one-after-another distractions—the kind of things that we may have learned to live with as humans—could be warping your dog’s outlook. If you’re unsure, look for the signs of stress in your dog’s body language: ears down and flat against his head, lip licking, head turned away, eyes that are either closed in submission or have visible whites, and possible barking, whining, or growling.

How to Banish Stress

So, how do you help your stressed dog? The first step should be proper nutrition and regular exercise. Just like in humans, the more your dog can rely on a solid schedule of good food and good workouts, the better off she’ll be handling any complications that get thrown at her.

There may also be ways to treat individual issues, according to Wilde. “For example, if a dog is stressed from spending all day alone in the yard, treatment might be as simple as a pet sitter coming over midday. If stress is the result of being afraid of visitors, behavior modification is indicated.” There are also natural remedies and medications available for extreme cases, but Wilde cautions, “the important thing is to distinguish accurately what is causing the stress so that proper treatment can be implemented.” That’s where your vet comes in.

If your pet tends to stress out from specific stimuli such as a visit from the mail carrier or thunderstorms, you can try out some solutions like calming treats, diffusers or sprays. Sentry makes a behavior correction spray that uses noise and pheromone technology to stop your dog’s aggression.

And don’t overlook the possibility that you might actually be the thing stressing your dog out! Some dog owners, especially children, love to hug dogs as a sign of affection. But, as some research indicates , your pal might not be so keen. Wilde agrees: “To dogs, it is simply restraint. There are dogs who enjoy being hugged, many more who simply tolerate it, and some who find it frightening to the point that they become defensive and bite.” She recommends petting on the chest or ears as a safe alternative.

Dogs are such stalwart companions that it’s easy to forget that the accumulation of life’s challenges can get them down, too. But being caring and observant of your dog’s behavior are all that’s needed to keep your dog’s outlook sunny.

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