Aggressive behaviours in dogs: a new descriptive-contextual classification

Joel Dehasse*1, Maya Braem2, Sabine Schroll3

Table of contents


1Ave. du Cosmonaute 3, 1150 Brussels, Belgium
2Lerchenstrasse 56, CH-4059 Basel, Switzerland
Hohensteinstr. 22, A-3500 Krems, Austria

Corresponding author:  

Poster presented at the IVBM (4th International Veterinary Behavioural Meeting), Caloundra, Australia, August 19, 2003. Proceedings n352, Post-Graduate Foundation in Veterinary Science, University of Sydney, p.203-205. 

Article / Poster based on bibliographical and heuristic research, published in this website in articles aggression-dogs-classification2 and aggression-dogs-classification3 and summary table at aggression-dogs-classification-table.html 


There are many different classifications of aggressive behaviours in dogs that do not seem to agree with each other. Our intention is to review and analyse these classifications and to propose a clinically operative classification based on the integration of several existing ones.



We used books, articles and Internet articles to review what has been written on the specific subject of classification of aggressive behaviours in general (in ethology and animal behavioural medicine) and in dogs in particular. This overview was correlated with our experience in a heuristic way. We constantly kept in mind our objective, i.e. to build a valuable classification useful to clinicians and for research purposes. 




We reviewed the current situation of paradigms, definitions and classifications on the different aggressive behaviours in general and in dogs. We have understood that the actual descriptions confuse descriptive, contextual, etiological, functional, neural and other classifications as if they were the same concepts. But they are not and hence cannot and should not be mixed.

How should aggressive behaviour be classified? It will depend on the objectives. To depict the ethogram of canine aggressive behaviour, one should use a descriptive classification. To treat aggressive behaviour, one should use a disorder classification, in which aggressive behaviours are mere symptoms, or a symptomatic classification correlated with effective treatments. This ideal clinical classification does not yet exist (there is no agreement on the terminology of diagnoses and disorders).

The ideal classification would be a global one, using descriptive, contextual, functional, and causative details and particulars, including, if possible, neural circuitry and genetic analysis. We may ask ourselves the question: does this ideal classification exist? Actually, the answer is no. The diversity of the phenotypes of the dogs behaviour may well be due to the combination of the actions of only a few neural centres and mechanisms, which we are not actually able to prove yet.

As the global description of a behaviour should include a depiction of the sequence of acts, the analysis of context, postures, triggers (or eliciting factors) and the multiple consequences, we think a descriptive-contextual approach is the method best suited to the analysis of semiotics.

The proposed classification will be hierarchized by dangerousness for the target (or victim), from mild to lethal.


The classification

Education of young / Parental disciplinary and weaning aggression

  • Parental weaning aggression
  • Parental disciplinary aggression
  • Parental educative aggression

Play aggression

  • Play-fighting

Competitive-social aggression

  • Food-elicited aggression
  • Non-food object elicited / possession aggression
  • Resting area-elicited aggression
  • Social interaction/alliance-control-elicited aggression
  • Space-control-elicited aggression
  • Sexual-control-elicited aggression
  • Other resource-elicited aggression, non specified.
  • Duelling fights

Intrasexual (Intraspecific Intergroup) aggression

Sexual aggression

Irritation (irritable) aggression

  • Frustration-related aggression
  • Pain-related aggression

Defence of young

  • Maternal aggression

Defence of space / Space-eliciting/managing aggression

  • Distancing/Deterring aggression
  • Group-defence aggression
  • Territorial aggression

Redirected aggression

Pursuit aggression

Critical aggression

  • Fear-related/elicited aggression and Antipredatory aggression

Learned aggression

  • Instrumental aggression
  • Trained aggression



Predatory aggressions and Group hunting

Atypical aggression

  • Overactivity-related aggression
  • Somatic disorder-induced hyperaggression
  • Idiopathic aggression
  • Dyssocialisation-related aggression

Discussion and Conclusion

A good descriptive classification based on ethology and behavioural medicine paradigms is a preliminary stage before starting correlation studies and cluster analysis of different aggressive behaviours in dogs.  



  • Aggression

  • Classification

  • Dog


Dr Joël Dehasse - Behaviorist veterinarian - 2005-11-16