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Frustration-Elicited Aggression in Dogs

Quincy Miller

July 1, 2021

Even the most sweet-natured dog can suffer bouts of aggression from time to time. While this is normal, it shouldn’t be ignored, as it could lead to injury for you, a family member, or even your dog themselves.

One of the most common causes of aggression in dogs is frustration. If your dog is suffering from frustration-elicited aggression, you should take immediate action to prevent the situation from escalating.

To find out what exactly frustration-elicited aggression is — and what to do about it — read on.

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What Is Frustration-Elicited Aggression?

If your dog wants something — such as a toy, treat, or attention — but they can’t have it, this will cause them to feel frustrated. If the situation isn’t remedied, the frustration will build and build, turning into a sort of emotional tinderbox, and all it takes is a single spark to cause serious aggression.

This aggression could be directed anywhere, including at you or other dogs. For example, a dog on a leash that wants to attack another dog will become frustrated when they’re not allowed to; if you reach down to pet them without letting them calm down first, they may snap at or bite you.

At its root, frustration-elicited aggression is caused by a heightened state of arousal in your dog. This can be caused by all sorts of underlying factors, including fear, anxiety, or even sexual urges.

Frustration-elicited aggression is similar — and in many cases, identical — to redirected aggression. That’s when your dog attacks a neutral third party because there are obstacles preventing them from focusing their aggression on their true target.

This makes frustration-elicited aggression dangerous for you and your family. A dog who has never shown any sort of aggression toward you could still bite you severely if they become too frustrated; they’re not trying to attack you, per se, but they are trying to blow off steam caused by their frustrated impulses.

aggressive shi tzu dog
Image Credit: Greg Nockolds, Pixabay

What Situations Can Cause Frustration-Elicited Aggression?

There are a few situations in which frustration-elicited aggression can crop up. One common one is when your dog wants to bark or lunge at something outside the house, but they can’t due to a window or fence being in the way.

As their frustration builds, they’ll become more likely to lash out violently if you or another animal get too close. That can lead to a fight between two dogs, or it can mean that you — or worse, one of your kids — suffers a nasty bite.

Frustration-elicited aggression often happens when a dog is on a leash or crated as well. Basically, anything that puts a barrier between your dog and the target of their arousal can create frustration and aggression.

Which Dogs Are Most Vulnerable to Frustration-Elicited Aggression?

Frustrated-elicited aggression can strike any dog, regardless of age, sex, or breed. It’s an individual thing, and there aren’t necessarily any clear markers that you can look out for before bringing a dog home (although the dog lunging at you from behind the cage at the shelter may be a bad sign).

What’s worse is that it can afflict even the sweetest, most trustworthy dogs. It’s not something that’s reserved for animals with nasty temperaments. This makes people more likely to get bit, as they think that their trusted pet would never bite them — and then they learn otherwise.

Dogs who are typically anxious or fearful can be more prone to this form of aggression, however. After all, aggressiveness is often a cover for being scared, so if your pup is in an uncomfortable situation, they may respond by lashing out — at anyone in biting range.

Of course, any dog who’s just aggressive in general will also be prone to frustration-elicited aggression.

One thing that these dogs all have in common is a high level of reactiveness. They’re impulsive and tend to be over-excited, and that energy can come out in negative ways. It’s important to recognize that even a dog that’s reactive in a happy way can turn aggressive if they get frustrated. For example, a dog running around joyously because their human is home may lash out if they can’t get to them.

woman petting dog on a leash
Image Credit: 99mimimi, Pixabay

How to Solve Frustration-Elicited Aggression

Dogs, like humans, often fall into behavioral patterns. If you do X, they’ll respond with Y. In this case, when faced with frustration, your dog will respond with aggression.

In order to solve the problem, you’ll need to give them something other than violence to use in response to the frustration. There are a few ways that you can go about this.

Remove the Source of Their Frustration

In the short term, the best thing to do is get them away from the thing that’s causing them frustration. This could mean obstructing their view of the outside world, or it could mean avoiding other dogs on walks.

This will work for a little while, but it doesn’t actually solve the problem. Sooner or later, something will slip through the cracks, and you’ll have another blowup to deal with.

Still, if you need immediate help with the problem, removing the frustration from your dog’s life is the way to go.

a dog behind a fence
Image Credit: Tillmann Hübner, Unsplash

Teach Them a Better Way

Ultimately, you’re going to need to teach your dog what you want them to do instead of lashing out violently. What that is can be up to you, but you’ll need to work with them consistently to ensure that they understand what you want.

For example, if your dog lunges at people or animals while on a walk, you can work to redirect their attention to you instead. This could mean taking treats with you on a walk and when you notice something that would set your dog off, grabbing their attention with a treat and rewarding them for paying attention to you instead of the trigger.

Over time, you can teach your dog that good things happen when they look at you instead of focusing on outside distractions, and they’ll be less likely to get worked up by everything that crosses their path.

While this is the most effective long-term solution, it’s not foolproof. Your dog might still feel aggression toward their triggers, so it’s best to minimize their exposure as much as you can. That is to say, your dog’s aggression is unlikely to be “cured,” but you can manage it with time and effort.

Don’t be afraid to enlist the services of a pro to help you with this. It’s vastly preferable to outsource the job than to deal with a lawsuit or something like that.

Consider Medication

If the training method doesn’t work or if it’s of limited usefulness, you may need to talk to your vet about putting your dog on an anti-anxiety medication.

Just like in humans, anti-anxiety medications help regulate your dog’s brain chemistry, making them less likely to suffer uncontrollable fits of rage. It’s not a perfect solution, but it can make a huge difference in some dogs.

If you go down this route, never take your dog off the medication cold turkey, as that can really throw their brain chemicals out of whack, possibly leading to more — and potentially worse — aggression. Instead, ask your vet the best way to slowly wean them off of the medication.

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Take Frustration-Elicited Aggression Seriously

Frustration-elicited aggression can be a huge issue in dogs, as it’s one of the most common reasons that pets attack their own families. If you notice your dog showing any signs of frustration-elicited aggression, you should take immediate action.

With time and effort, you can minimize the risk that your dog will suffer a bout of frustration-elicited aggression at a bad time. You’ll never fully eliminate that risk, however, so you’ll have to stay vigilant.

Your dog — and your family — are worth it, though.

Looking for other aggression types in dogs? Try:


Featured Image Credit: Piotr Wawrzyniuk, Shutterstock

Quincy Miller

Quincy has been around mutts his entire life and has been writing about them for the past nine years and now consists of sharing a house with three spoiled pups who couldn’t hold down a job to save their lives. Quincy never intended to be a cat person. When his wife brought home a kitten one day, he told her she had one week to find it a new home. That week turned into 10 years (his wife moves very slowly), and that kitten turned into three (they got two more, the kitten didn't self-replicate). After a decade of sharing his home with the dogs and three cats, one horrifying realization finally set in: oh God, he's a cat person now too, isn't he???

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