Aug 192012

As you may have read in part one of this miniseries, there is a big difference between aggressive dogs and dogs who assume defensive postures or initiate play in an assertive way. My Lucy was guilty of initiating play in an assertive and noisy way, and we worked on that a lot. Her brother Leo, on the other hand, has become a bit of a fraidy-dog in his old age; he assumes defensive postures, trying to intimidate dogs to make them sit still to let him smell them or to make them go elsewhere so he feels less threatened. It does not come off well, but we are working on that, too.

Understand aggressive behavior.  Understanding is a rough word to use in this context, because by its very definition, aggressive behavior is irrational. Much like phobias in people, aggression in dogs has no basis in reason. Some dogs are perfectly social and friendly until toys are present. Some are triggered by food. Some react to fences, to baseball hats, to sunglasses, or to other dogs. There are many manifestations of aggression, and only a savvy dog owner will be able to assess and address what triggers aggressive behavior in his or her dog. You may even need to elicit the help of your vet or a trainer.

Understand defensive behavior.  The easiest way to differentiate between aggressive and defensive behaviors is the duration of the behavior. If the dogs bark loudly and rather strongly for a moment, but then calm themselves, that is absolutely defensive and will pass. Aggression does not pass. The dog gets agitated quickly and remains inconsolable. Remember that the aggression is irrational. Defensive behaviors can result from feeling startled to feeling intimidated to feeling cautious upon initial meeting of a new person or dog. Defensive barking can be a nuisance and you should work on it (as I tried with my babies who fed off each other), but it is not dangerous.

If you see your dog’s hackles up or the body appears rigid, approach with caution—if at all. Some dogs can be fearful upon approach but can get past it once they smell and see that the threat was only perceived and not actual. Some dogs will react to fear with defensive posturing, barking, and some lunging. This also may not be aggressive but defensive behavior. Defensive behaviors can be as dangerous and difficult to predict or diffuse, but there is a significant difference in handling a defensive dog and handling an aggressive dog.

If the front of the dog’s body is closer to the ground than the back, and the rear is sort of up in the air that is typically known as a play bow. That is usually a good sign. However, if something that looks like a play bow is accompanied by a tail between the legs or raised hackles, it is more likely a defensive posture. Your reaction to a defensive posture should be to first make sure there is sufficient room for the dog to escape, and then to employ diversionary tactics. Divert your dog’s attention to something more positive in a direction away from whatever is making him feel defensive.

Tune in again for part three in this series to find out how to mitigate a situation if you are faced with a confrontation.

Jill Aronson is a former SLDogPAC  board member who lives in the South Loop with Lucy’s brother Leo. ©2010 Jill Aronson. This article originally appeared at 


 Posted by on August 19, 2012

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