One of the lesser understood-by-the-dog-owner types of aggression is known as redirected aggression. Sometimes redirected aggression looks like another kind of aggression (owner directed aggression, leash aggression, dog aggression, etc.) which can make it not fully apparent at first.
Redirected aggression is simply aggression, excitement, arousal, or frustration that is directed at a particular target but when the dog is unable to reach the intended target, the dog redirects that energy to what is near to it.
Owners of cats are probably the most familiar with redirected aggression. Cats quickly do this behavior when watching prey animals outside a window. Because the cat can’t reach that bird or squirrel, the cat becomes frustrated (as it is in a hunting arousal state), and if the owner tries to pet the cat, the cat will often hiss or move to bite.
This is similar to what can be observed in dogs. Here are a few very common examples that demonstrate how you might see redirected aggression in a dog:
You’re walking your dog on the leash. He is very social and friendly with new dogs, and he really likes greeting every dog he meets because he is used to going to the dog park. As you walk down the street and he sees another dog, he begins straining at the leash, barking. The longer he does this, the more frustrated he becomes, and you feel a nip to your thigh.
Two dogs that live together and get along well are relaxing when the door bell rings. Both dogs run for the door and before you can open the door to let the visitor in, the dogs have turned on each other growling and biting.
Your dog loves to go outside for a walk. One day he learns that squirrels like to run around a particular area across the street. He frequently sees them. As such, he gets even more excited to go on the walk, but as you don’t walk fast enough, he has taken to barking as soon as he gets out the door and grabbing the bush near the doorstep instead.
Your dog likes to run the fenceline with the neighbor dogs. Recently your dog started grabbing the wooden fence and yanking on it, ripping off pieces of wood in the process.
These are all variations of examples that can commonly be attributed to redirected aggression.
Why does redirected dog aggression occur?
Redirected aggression ALWAYS happens when the dog is in a state of arousal. It doesn’t matter what the stimulus is for that arousal. There are a variety of stimuli that can cause such a heightened state of arousal.
The most common type occurs when the dog is overly excited, hyper, or in anticipation while excited. The longer the dog remains in this elevated excited state, the more likely he might redirect that energy onto something close to him. This is very common in breeds that excite easily like terrier breeds and some herding dogs, although it can be seen in any breed of dog.
Anything that builds up frustration in the dog while he is in an excited arousal state will also increase the likelihood of redirected aggression. Frustration builds when the dog doesn’t feel he can reach something. That means anything that serves to restrain the dog (like a leash or tether) or any type of barrier (like a fence, kennel, or baby gate) can increase the frustration the dog feels in the moment.
How to handle redirected aggression?
The greatest part of handling redirected aggression is to not allow your dog to get to the arousal state required for it to occur. This is when management becomes a huge part of the training process. You’ll need to alter the way the dog’s environment works in order to alter the way this behavior works.
For example, if you had two dogs like in our previous example that got into a fight when the doorbell rang, it would be best to not allow the dogs to be present at the door when visitors come in the house. Instead, train the dogs that the door bell ringing means to run to another room where you can reward them. This way the doorbell has a new meaning for them, and it removes them from the situation that causes the problem.
A professional trainer can investigate the best way to handle redirected aggression in each individual case. Once the dog learns a new behavior and you reduce the overall arousal level, you shouldn’t continue to see the problem.
As a last note, many of the dogs that exhibit redirected aggression are more wound-up type dogs with lots of excess energy to burn. Make sure you have invested in a rigorous, daily exercise plan that burns that energy off. A well exercised dog with less overall energy will be less likely to jump right into a high level arousal state.