It is hard to explain how to evaluate for aggression, but for the sake of CBR Relief & Rescue Volunteers, we'd like to try and address and define this behavior trait. We asked Lynda Montgomery - our own Chessie rescue volunteer in Arizona to discuss aggression behavior in an article here.


There are many, many types of aggression. Some of them overlap, others are "mutually exclusive." Each dog has a combination of some of the traits. Some traits make good guard dogs, some good K9 unit dogs, some good schutzhund dogs, some loyal family dogs. No dog will "cubbyhole" into all the categories, nor is aggression "just" aggression.

For example, the best police dogs should have some prey drive (so they will chase the bad guy), some territoriality (so they will guard the squad car), some natural protection (so they will guard their handler), no defensive aggression (they must be willing to die for their partner) and no inappropriate aggression. They must not be mean or unpredictable.

These are some of the types of aggression most commonly seen:

Prey Drive: the desire to chase movement. Dogs high in prey drive will bite when guided/excited/stimulated by movement. These are classic schutzhund dogs.

Territoriality: guarding -- the home, the yard. Won't let intruders into back yard, for example. This does not include guarding people. If the dog also protects people, then he has natural protection (see below). Chessies tend to be territorial. Early socialization and obedience training enable the dog to defer to humans for decision making -- i.e., whether the dog "should" guard or not. Early training and socialization will provide the basis for effective communication, which will allow a Chessie-owner to control his dog.

Natural Protection: guarding one's human. Does not include the yard/house. Chessies tend to be high in natural protection. As discussed above for territorial dogs, early training and socialization are critical.

Defense (Not the classic "schutzhund" definition): guarding the dog's own body. This is based in fear and/or weak nerves, and can be seen in dogs that go into total panic when the vet needs to roll them over, for instance. Defensive aggression is different than dominance, as dominance is not based in fear but rather in the dog's will. A dog with defensive aggression likely will "curl" his lip to bare his teeth, try to "tuck" his legs towards his abdomen (if on his side) and become very stiff. If standing the dog may tuck his tail and "lash" out to bite without warning. This is a dangerous type of aggression, and one considered "inappropriate" as it cannot be controlled. Unlike guarding, defensive aggression has no useful purpose. Breeders should try to eliminate this type of aggression in their breeding programs.

Dominance: the dog that decides when and what he will do is dominant, and this is linked in some breeds to aggression. The dog may choose to use his teeth to prevent you from rolling him over. The dog may growl first, but there won't be the "curling" of the lip and teeth-baring associated with defensive aggression. Even the most dominant dogs generally can be made more tractable through effective obedience training. Dominant dogs usually have stable nervous systems.

Redirected: a dog who is in one mode of aggression, say, guarding his yard, when another dog or person walks too close, will "re-direct" his aggression towards the interfering person/dog. Terriers have high prey and re-directed aggression, especially pit bulls.

Object Aggression: this is toy-guarding, or food-guarding.

Sibling: this is when littermates, or dogs of similar age/dominance level, fight. Two females, two males, or three total dogs in a household, unsupervised, provide an opportunity for this type of aggression. Obedience training can help, but unsupervised, the potential for fighting between the dogs, and subsequent injury is present.

Same-Sex: sometimes two females or two males will vie for dominance in the household. As above, effective obedience training can help, but the pair should not be unsupervised. Sometimes a pair of dogs will get along, but the introduction of a third dog can upset the "balance." While same-sex aggression usually resolves itself through effective obedience training and proper management of the dogs, there are rare instances in which the dogs cannot be made to co-exist peacefully.

There are many more forms of aggression, and the one that should be singled out is
Inappropriate Aggression: This is any form of aggression that is not provoked/warranted. In my book, a dog should never, ever bite or threaten a child. To me that is inappropriate aggression. (And I have been around some very high-powered dogs that were gentle beyond belief with children.) Where aggression is concerned, I use this as a rule of thumb: If I cannot guarantee that this dog will never, ever deliver an inappropriate bite, no matter the circumstances, I must consider the dog to have inappropriate aggression.

Then depending on the nature, type and level of aggression, as well as the nervous system make-up of the dog, plans can be made to effectively train, socialize, rehabilitate and re-home the dog. Or the dog must be euthanized. This is an alternative we all try to avoid whenever possible, but one that is a reality, especially when dealing with Rescue dogs.

Q: What is the difference between obedience training and effective obedience training?

A: Obedience training is the labeling of certain behaviors and positions: sit, heel, down, come, etc. The dog has an understanding of what these positions are, and might even remain in them until given another command. Many "obedience-titled" dogs earned their titles while remaining at the level of having been "obedience trained."

Effective obedience training actually changes the dog's perspective on life...a truly "trained" dog will not make his own decision about whether to jump on a guest, or whether to bite a "suspicious" person. A truly "trained" dog will look to his human master to collaborate and take direction regarding what to do in any situation.

Q: What is the difference between a dog with weak nerves and one whose nervous system is "sound"?

A: A dog that has weak nerves will react to less stimulation, and often the reaction is excessive. These dogs appear more tense, flighty, often are gun-shy or storm-shy (but not all gun-shy dogs have weak nervous systems). Dogs with weak nerves can be trained and socialized so that they appear "normal." But when faced with a new, startling situation, these dogs revert to their "genetic" program. A dog with any form of aggression and weak nerves is a potential liability, as the dog might react with a bite when startled.

A dog with a stable nervous system will appear more calm, although he may still be busy (or not). This is a dog that takes new places, new people and startling situations in stride. These dogs benefit from socialization, but don't require it to the extent their weaker counterparts do. These dogs are better able to survive having a "bad start" in life, as some Rescue Dogs have.

I know that a full evaluation of any dog cannot be gained in an hour, but it can be determined whether or not the dog has inappropriate aggression and excessive dominance. But for the sake of CBR Relief & Rescue Volunteers, looking at the dog's basic posture will be of tremendous value -- especially the first few minutes the volunteer is in the home.

Experienced, trained volunteers making evaluations can try to set up situations in which the dog is startled or stressed. Dogs that react poorly to pain cannot go to homes with children, for example.... While this may sound cruel, the only way to "know" about a dog is to stress him and see what he does. Learning techniques to test stress responses can be an important part of evaluating dogs effectively. Watch for seminars offered by training and behavior experts in your area. Alternatively, set up a relationship with your area behavior expert for occasional consultations.

- by Lynda Montgomery


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