Arousal and Aggression in Dogs

If you’ve spent any time around me you have heard me say something to the effect of, “Arousal and aggression are linked.” It seems to be a mantra that is one of my soap box issues and I say it at least once every time I give a seminar.

  • It’s the reason I don’t want to roughhouse with dogs too much.
  • It’s the reason I don’t want play at the dog park to go uninterrupted for too long.
  • It’s the reason I stress that daycare staff need to supervise the dogs.
  • It’s one thing I want everyone who deals with dogs to understand.

Arousal and aggression are linked! But what does it really mean?

Arousal is a state of energy in which a dog is excited and on high alert. This could be because he is happily playing and having fun, or it could be because he is getting stressed and overwhelmed. Either way arousal may show up in the form of a faster heart rate, a tense body, barking, mouthiness, jumping, spinning or a general lack of impulse control.

Arousal in and of itself isn’t necessarily bad. However, leaving arousal at a high level without doing anything about it could be a problem because arousal can spill over into aggressive displays.
Think about it like this sports analogy. Ever seen hockey fans watching a high-energy hockey game? Ever notice how excited some of the fans can get? Yelling, screaming, cheering on their team…and then just as quickly, that energy can turn into an angry mob with fists flying. There is a tipping point that can spin the arousal into a spiral of aggression.

Parents of small children understand this concept. You watch your children on the playground so they don’t get “too wound up” because you know that “too wound up” can create problems. One minute your child is playing and laughing and the next minute someone is shoving someone else and tears are flowing.

This happens with dogs too. Arousal can lead to aggression if we don’t give the dog a break.

  • So the jumping dog might begin to nip.
  • The barking dog might begin to lunge.
  • The running dog might begin to chase and snap.

Like kids on a playground, it is helpful to keep an eye on the play and give brief time outs from the activity to ensure the arousal doesn’t get out of control. Free for all play without interruptions aren’t good for children, and they aren’t good for dogs either.

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

17 thoughts on “Arousal and Aggression in Dogs

  1. Great post Robin. This is why I often intervene between dogs at the dog park. I like to see dogs take frequent breaks in their play to allow one dog to opt out. Sharing this everywhere.

    • Separate them, put them in a brief timeout, walk them away from the “action” until they de-escalate and settle. More Play is the reward for playing nice. Know your dog and remove him/her BEFORE it escalates. Take a class or watch YouTube videos on dog body language.

    • Hi Andrea,
      It depends what the dogs are doing, but typically understanding canine body language is the first line of defense. That way you can interrupt and diffuse the behavior before it gets out of hand. Typically I recommend moving the dog away from things that might be causing arousal, giving a short break in play if the play is getting out of hand, getting the dog to sit for a moment, etc.

  2. Love this. Have passed it onto my husband who can’t understand why our rescued, under-socialised rottie gets so excited, so quickly. After three years I have just got to the point where I can walk her (on a long line) with other dogs. She doesn’t understand/can’t respond to calming signals and has a very, very low impulse control around other dogs. She loves them, and isn’t aggressive, but it could turn that way with another dog being scared very easily. She plays well with bigger, well-socialised confident dogs so she does get some play, but not nearly as much as she’d like!

  3. Aw, hockey fans are some of the greatest (and non-violent) fans in the world. Been a fan for 30 years and have very Rarely seen any fights at games. Now football and soccer, that’s a different story. All said, I agree with you about the interruptions, they definitely keep the arousal spikes down, key in keeping people (and dogs) safe.

  4. I love your blogs Robin. So practical and spot on ! It takes a long time for people to realize simple management techniques go a long way !
    Az Dog Sports

  5. Enjoyed the article. Have spent much time at dog park and what this talks about is true. We do employ the time out as a way to not let it get out of hand. Some dogs truly enjoy wrestling and don’t mind being on the bottom. We try to keep a short time limit how long one is pinned down in play like a few seconds. And we don’t allow them to all pile on one submissive dog.
    My dog becomes aggressive in body language/growls if he is on my lap when other run by. It actually dissipates that to simple (good) arousal when I then put him on the ground/ on even territory.
    One thing I wish parents of young children would do, is teach them about dogs, especially unknown to them. Just because their own dog may let them roughouse or run around in excited manner ,does not mean all dogs will allow that without lashing out. If you take children to dog park or any unleashed dog area, do not let them antagonize the other dogs intentionally or unintentionally by running , screaming, waving arms or approaching dogs they don’t know. There are posted signs about this but most don’t pay attention to it. I want the children to be safe and I take care of my responsibility for my dog, seriously.

  6. I enjoyed reading this article as we have a high energy intact flat-coated retriever. He’s not overly aggressive, but gets over theshold with visitors. After giving him 2 chances to be a gentleman, we put him in our fenced in area in our back yard. It seems to help him settle down, so he can manage visitors.

    • Great job, Barbara. I love that you recognize the fact that your dog needs to settle down with some time alone before coming back to be with the visitors.

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