Is Your Dog Giving You the Stink Eye?
Despite plenty of reasons to get mad, an animal behaviorist says dogs rarely express real anger.
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Last week, a client described his dog by saying, “He’s wonderful! The kids can do anything to him!” When I hear such comments — which, as an animal behaviorist and dog trainer, I often do — my first thought is I need to know what the kids are doing to that poor dog. Usually, “anything” entails climbing on the dog, pulling their ears or poking them in the eyes, dragging them by the tail, tossing them off the couch, chewing on their toys...the list goes on.
These are things you could reasonably expect to bother even the most patient dog. The average human facing similar situations would likely lose their temper and, quite possibly, lash out. (I’ve sometimes wondered why dogs don’t do so more often.) In my experience, anger is quite rare among dogs — and since aggressive dogs are my business, that’s saying something.
Dogs and Anger
The idea that a dog is capable of becoming angry troubles many people, which makes grappling with the concept difficult. There’s a tendency to ascribe only positive emotions to our dogs. We’re quite comfortable with the idea that dogs feel happiness or love, but we have a harder time getting our minds around the idea that dogs might also feel hate or anger.
There is evidence that this may be especially true of people who have spent a lot of time with dogs. A 2013 study that classified dogs’ facial expressions from photographs found that people who were inexperienced with dogs were better at identifying canine anger than those who were experienced. The authors suggest that perhaps experienced people were more likely to give dogs the benefit of the doubt and perceive them to be friendly rather than aggressive.
While it does not surprise me that many people have a hard time believing that dogs can get angry, studies on dogs’ (and other animals’) emotions suggest that they have a fuller emotional life than we once thought. If they can experience fear, love, joy, sadness, and grief — why not anger?
Do Angry Dogs Bite?
Why should we worry about whether dogs do or do not experience anger? Part of the answer is that to know dogs, we have to understand the full range of their emotions. Another issue is that when pushed beyond the limits of their control, dogs may express their anger in a very problematic way: with a bite.
Though aggression is common in my line of work, I am often amazed at how relatively rarely dogs bite. Janis Bradley, in the Animals and Society Institute’s policy paper, Dog Bites: Problems and Solutions, noted that — according to CDC statistics, which are gleaned from hospital ERs — the average is 11 bites per 10,000 people. More than one-third of U.S. households include at least one dog, which means that, at a minimum, roughly 113 million people are in daily contact with dogs. Of all those interactions, only a very small percentage result in a bite. More exactly, Bradley wrote, dog bites account for 0.1 percent of all emergency room visits, and 99% of those are rated as “level 1 injuries,” or the least severe of six categories.
Don’t get me wrong: Dog bites are still too common, and I’m certainly in favor of all efforts to decrease their frequency. I’m also well aware that far too many people have been scared, injured, or traumatized by an experience with canine aggression. Yet, when you consider how often dogs have an opportunity to bite but don’t, it’s pretty remarkable.
Do Dogs Get Angry?
There is compelling biological evidence to support the idea that dogs do indeed experience anger. Jaak Panksepp, who wrote the amazing book Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions, considered anger to be one of the core mammalian emotions. Also, anger is quite primitive, which makes it hard to argue that only humans feel it.
Biologically speaking, we have many things in common with our dogs, including the anatomy of our brains (particularly the amygdala, which plays important roles in both fear and anger) and the chemistry of our neurological systems (dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, for example). Additionally, we share many facial expressions that relate to emotion, as Charles Darwin wrote about extensively in his 1872 book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.
Mild forms of anger are called irritation or frustration, and the most extreme forms are referred to as rage, but they are all versions of the same emotion. Anger prepares the body — including the brain — for action, especially fighting, and has long been necessary for survival in many species. And because anger affects us physically, it is difficult to calm down once we become angry — it requires considerable emotional control to override the desire to act upon it. (That explains why it can be hard to resist kicking something when we are really, intensely angry.)
I have observed dogs whose behavior is easier to understand in the context of being angry. For example, I’ve seen a few dogs display what looked to me like temper tantrums. An angry dog losing their temper and having a tantrum sounds ridiculously anthropomorphic until you see a dog in such a state. I recall an American Water Spaniel named Jonas doing just that — frothing at the mouth, jerking at the leash, and stamping his feet because he couldn’t reach a toy that had gone under a dense bush, then redirecting a bite to an innocent bystander. For Jonas, these behaviors were routine, not actions that only occasionally surfaced when he was having a bad day.
Another client came to me with her Pomeranian / Shih Tzu mix, who was wearing an Elizabethan collar and was mad about it. Her emotional response and behavior reflected her feelings. She glared, was disagreeable about responding to cues, and donkey kicked at the doors and furniture.
Still, in the 20 years I’ve worked with aggressive dogs, I’ve only seen dogs who seemed to be truly angry a few dozen times. That means that, even among dogs with serious behavioral issues, it presents itself a couple of times a year. (On the other hand, I see the mild version of this emotion in the form of irritation or annoyance quite frequently — at least weekly.)
The Difference Between Anger and Aggression
While some people think dogs can’t get angry, others have the impression that all dogs who act aggressively are angry. Although they can occur simultaneously, anger and aggression are not synonymous. Anger is an emotion; aggression is an action. They may go together, but they are not the same thing. Certainly, aggression can be a result of anger, but it’s rare. I thank my lucky stars that I seldom encounter dogs who are aggressive in anger, because those dogs are very hard to help. Similar to humans with bad tempers, they may learn to better control their behavior, but few are able to keep it under wraps permanently and completely.
When a dog behaves aggressively, there’s always a lot of speculation about the reasons. It’s my experience that some factors are assumed to be common, even when — like anger — they are quite rare. Fear is by far the most common cause; roughly 80% of the aggressive dogs I see exhibit fear-based aggression. It may not be the only factor, but it is typically the main issue. This is actually good news because if we can help them overcome their fears, these dogs can significantly improve their behavior. Generally, fear as the cause of aggression is a positive indicator that behavior modification is likely to be successful.
Aggression most commonly develops gradually in young or adolescent dogs, and it’s typical to see the warning signs of impending trouble over weeks, months, or even years. Among the signals: a tense dog will freeze, their mouth will close, and their jaw will tighten; if something in the situation does not change, an aggressive response, including a bite, may follow. This is not as obvious as snapping, barking, growling, lunging, or showing teeth, but it’s a warning nevertheless — and it’s easy to spot if you know to look for it and understand what it means. Other, more subtle warning signs include behaviors like putting a paw or body between a toy and anyone approaching; a lack of normal friendliness; a wrinkled brow; and signs of fear or stress, including tongue flicks, yawning, whimpering, sweaty paws, or tail-tucking.
Aggression exhibited by a fully mature dog with no warning is often provoked by pain. I remember two cases in which dogs really did bite out of the blue. One was a dog with a serious injury to his tooth, and the other involved a dog who suddenly began to attack the household’s other dog, who he had happily lived and played with for years; it turned out that he had an undiagnosed back injury. In both cases, the dogs acted aggressively to prevent themselves from being touched in ways that would cause them to experience more pain.
Another uncommon scenario is the dog who “misses” when they try to bite. Yes, people can sometimes move fast enough as a dog is lunging at them. The thing is, though, dogs’ reaction times are many times faster than humans’. When dogs choose to bite, bite they do. I’m sure there are examples of dogs who do actually flat-out miss, but it is far less common than many people think. So, chances are that if it looks like a dog tried to bite you and missed, it wasn’t because you were fast enough to avoid their teeth. It was probably just a warning. If they wanted to bite you, they would.
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Karen B. London, PhD
Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression, and has also trained other animals including cats, birds, snakes, and insects. She writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life.