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Redirected Aggression in Dogs

Nicole Cosgrove

Any form of aggression in your dog can be terrifying. In just a few seconds, your lovable, cuddly pup can turn into a blinding flash of teeth. If you don’t know how or why it happened, you’ll be powerless to stop it from happening again in the future.

One of the most common forms of aggression is actually called “redirected aggression,” and it can be incredibly dangerous. Redirected aggression is the most common cause of owners getting injured by their own dogs, as opposed to being attacked by a strange animal, so it’s incredibly important that you familiarize yourself with it.

To find out what redirected aggression actually is — and how to stop it — read on.

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What Is Redirected Aggression?

Redirected aggression occurs when a dog is acting aggressively or violently toward something (such as another dog), and a third party intervenes. This usually ends poorly for the third party, who is often just trying to play the role of peacemaker.

A common example is a person trying to break up a dogfight. While trying to pull the two dogs apart, the person could be bit by one or both of them.

The dogs aren’t necessarily intending to attack the person, and this may not make them untrustworthy around people. However, in their frenzy and fury, they’ll chomp on anything that gets in their way — including your arm, leg, or any other body part.

aggressive german shepherd
Image Credit: Christel SAGNIEZ, Pixabay

What Causes Redirected Aggression?

Redirected aggression really isn’t a separate form of aggression. It’s just garden variety aggression, except it doesn’t get focused on its intended target. At its most basic level, it’s caused by arousal (not always that kind of arousal). It can occur if something interferes with a dog while they’re being aggressive, but that’s not the only thing that can cause it.

Redirected aggression can happen when the dog is physically incapable of attacking their intended target. For example, if two dogs are behind a fence and both want to attack a cat on the other side, one dog may turn that aggression on the other.

They’re not mad at the other dog, but since they don’t have another outlet for their rage, their canine companion will have to suffer. These attacks could just be hard nips or they could be full-on violent assaults — or the dog could cycle between both options with little predictability.

Since redirected aggression is just thwarted aggression, you’ll need to treat it the same way that you’d deal with regular aggression. It doesn’t require any specialized training or treatment.

What Dogs Are Most Likely to Experience Redirected Aggression?

Redirected aggression is an inclusive condition, as it can affect all breeds, sexes, and ages of dogs. No dog is necessarily safe from it, although not every pup will be as likely to lash out.

Some individual dogs are more likely to experience redirected aggression than others, though. These dogs are considered to be “reactive.” It’s not just limited to dogs either — cats are also notorious for their bouts of redirected aggression.

This reactivity isn’t just limited to violent aggression, though. Reactive dogs are much more likely to bark or want to chase things like cars or cats.

Reactivity is rarely the root cause of the problem. Instead, it can be caused by other conditions, most likely fear or anxiety. To treat the reactivity, you’ll need to first address the underlying causes.

Many owners reject the possibility that their dog could be afraid or anxious, as they view their dogs as intrinsically happy. But even happy dogs can be reactive if put in uncomfortable situations, so don’t assume their agreeableness will ward off danger. Also, if your dog loses their mind every time you come home, that’s also a form of reactivity.

aggressive angry dog and female owner
Image Credit: IRINA ORLOVA, Shutterstock

How to Handle Redirected Aggression

Redirected aggression isn’t necessarily something that you need to worry about — you should worry about any aggression, period. The only way to stop aggression from being redirected is to avoid your dog while they’re being aggressive or to allow them to attack whatever it is they’re angry with (we don’t recommend this option).

That said, here are a few effective ways to nip aggression in the bud. After all, if you take away your dog’s aggression, there will be nothing to redirect.

An Ounce of Prevention

The best way to stop aggression is to never let it happen in the first place. There are several ways to do this.

The quickest way is to avoid any objects or situations that trigger arousal in your dog. If they don’t like the sight of other dogs, you might want to walk them at night or early in the morning, when you’re less likely to run into other pooches.

Aggression can be caused by an abundance of pent-up energy as well, so you may have success by sabotaging their fuel supply. An exhausted dog is less likely to want to attack something, so make sure your pup has plenty of vigorous exercise every day.

You can only avoid problematic situations for so long, however. Eventually, you’ll need to solve the problem, and the best long-term solution is to teach your dog new ways to react to triggering stimuli.

a woman with pomeranian dog
Image Credit: HeungSoon, Pixabay

Teaching Your Dog New Behaviors

At its root, your dog’s problem is that they’ve learned to react to a certain stimulus in a certain way.

That could mean that they’ve learned to run to the door when the bell rings and bark their heads off, for example, or that they’ve learned to lunge at the end of their leash in an attempt to kill any dog they see.

Your job, then, is to teach them new ways to respond to these situations. In the doorbell example, you could teach them to run to a different room and wait calmly for a treat.

This will take time and a great deal of effort on your part, and you may want to hire a professional trainer to help. With hard work and dedication, though, you may eventually be able to teach your dog not to react to the thing that triggers them.

However, even if you make a ton of headway with this technique, you’ll still want to avoid putting your dog in difficult situations. You may be able to stop them from trying to murder every dog that you encounter on a walk, but you should still try to avoid other dogs as much as you can. There’s no sense in testing your pup’s patience.

Medication

If your dog is extremely fearful or anxious or if you’re not having much success with behavior modification techniques, then it may be time to talk to your vet about putting your dog on anti-anxiety medication.

These medications work in much the same way that they do in people. You’ll have to give them to your dog every day, and over time, they can help deal with the brain chemicals that can cause anxious behavior.

You should understand, however, that if you start your dog off on anti-anxiety medication, you can never take them off of it cold turkey. Instead, you’ll have to ask your vet the best way to do it, because stopping the medication too suddenly could cause even more aggression.

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Deal With Redirected Aggression as Soon as Possible

Redirected aggression can be incredibly dangerous and unpredictable, so you should take swift, decisive action the first time that you encounter it. It can put your entire family — including your dog — in danger, so take it as seriously as you can.

It may not be easy, but it is possible to solve the problem and have your lovable, trustworthy pooch back again, once and for all.


Featured Image Credit: Sergey Granev, Shutterstock

Nicole Cosgrove

Nicole is the proud mom of Baby, a Burmese cat and Rosa, a New Zealand Huntaway. A Canadian expat, Nicole now lives on a lush forest property with her Kiwi husband in New Zealand. She has a strong love for all animals of all shapes and sizes (and particularly loves a good interspecies friendship) and wants to share her animal knowledge and other experts' knowledge with pet lovers across the globe.