Aggressive behaviours in dogs: a new descriptive-contextual classification  

The descriptive-contextual classification 

© Joel Dehasse*1, Maya Braem2, Sabine Schroll3

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

Corresponding author:  

See the Scientific Meeting Poster Article published in the proceedings of the IVBM (International Veterinary Behaviour Meeting), Caloundra, Australia, August 19, 2003. 

This is an unfinished work. 
This work may never be published.
That is why I propose it to everybody as a gift. 
I would like your comments to improve this work. You can send your comments to my email address:

[First part of the article on bibliographical and heuristic research in aggression-dogs-classification2.html] and summary table at aggression-dogs-classification-table.html 

Warning notice

I did not invent a totally new vocabulary. Sometimes I did, for example with "distancing aggression". Most often, I used the existing vocabulary. Keep in mind that if I use the word "irritation aggression", it does not mean aggression triggered by irritation, but aggression in a context of irritation. 
Lots of descriptions are still missing. My fault. I did not yet have time to complete that. It is a big job to observe, videotape, analyze, and describe the whole sequences. I am not yet there. Maybe you can help. I was first trying to have a correct number of types of aggression to work with. The Moyer description does not fit what we see in clinical practice with dogs and cats. And the one hundred types I found in the literature are too much to be usable. 
There are mistakes too, such as “infanticide” that cannot usually be a description or a context but the consequence of another kind of aggression. Sometimes in cats, tomcats may show infanticide and it may be a typical description; lions do that too. In my knowledge, dogs do not.

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1.The descriptive-contextual classification

The aggressive behavior classes are organized from mild controlled aggression to severe (potentially) lethal aggression. 

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1.1        Education of young / Parental disciplinary and weaning aggression

1.1.1        Parental weaning aggression

Controlled mild aggression used by parents (that involves threatening and even gently attacking their own offspring at weaning time); e.g., to terminate unwelcome suckling, etc.

1.1.2        Parental disciplinary aggression

Controlled mild aggression used by parents (that involves threatening and even gently attacking their own offspring); e.g., to keep offspring close at hand, to urge them into motion, to break up fighting, etc. (Dehasse, 1999).

1.1.3        Parental educative aggression

Controlled mild aggression used by parents (that involves threatening and even gently attacking their own offspring); e.g. to teach appeasing and submissive postures, etc. (Dehasse, 1999).

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1.2        Play aggression

Mild aggressive behaviors occurring during play, including mock-fighting, kicking and play-biting between young and/or adult dogs or dogs and humans (or other animals), and resulting in learning to control its movements and bites.

1.2.1        Play-fighting

Controlled mild aggressive-like, mock-fighting, behaviors strictly in the context of play.

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1.3        Competitive-social aggression

Controlled 4 phases aggressive sequence (threat, attack, end, refractory), shown towards conspecifics or humans in competition for resources or privileges. Competitive aggression results normally in hierarchization (when resources are average or plentiful), but there may be exceptions when resources are scarce and animal fight for their survival.

It may be coded as

q       Intragroup (between individuals of the same social system) or intergroup (between individuals of different social systems)

q       hierarchizing or not hierarchizing.

1.3.1        Food-elicited aggression

Aggression in a context of competition for (palatable) food, bones, …

Inside the social group, there is normally no inhibition of male aggression towards females and puppies over 3 to 4 months of age. There may be inhibition of male aggression in presence of high rank pregnant or lactating females and puppies les than 3 months of age.

1.3.2        Non-food object elicited aggression – Possession aggression

Aggression in a context of competition for non-food objects, toys, … Also called possession aggression with the following definition: “Aggression that is consistently directed toward another individual who approaches or attempts to obtain a nonfood object or toy that the aggressor possesses or to which the aggressor control access.” (‘possessive aggression’, in Overall).

This aggression is often violent, and sometimes not related to the group nor to hierarchization process. It may appear in different disorders, including unipolar disorders.

1.3.3        Resting area-elicited aggression

Aggression in a context of competition for a resting or isolation area (different from critical (fear-elicited) aggression).

1.3.4        Social interaction/alliance-control-elicited aggression

Aggression in a context of competition for social interaction with (high ranking) individuals of the social group.

1.3.5        Space-control-elicited aggression

Aggression in a context of competition for area which permit to observe, and control (regulate, forbid or authorize) the movements (passage) of several individual of the group, or having been recently included/accepted in the group; these individuals have to use appeasing rituals to move around.

1.3.6        Sexual-control-elicited aggression

Intrasexual aggression in a context of competition for interaction and intercourse with the other sex, i.e. aggression between males, aggression between females (in heat).

1.3.7        Other resource-elicited aggression, non specified.

Aggression in a context of competition for other resources or privileges.

1.3.8        Dueling fights

Aggression (particularly intragroup aggression) in an apparent context of competition for hierarchy (without competition for specifics resources), mostly between high ranking individuals and adolescent targets. The aggression seems quite brutal and violent towards the adolescent who has to use appeasement and submitting rituals repetitively. This dueling period may go on for several months until complete hierarchization of the adolescent in a lower rank.

The dueling fights happen more often between individuals of the same sex, but are sometimes intersexual too.                Dominance aggression

Controlled aggression shown by a dominant to a lower ranking conspecific or human, of the same hierarchy, as a rank demonstration (in which superiority is demonstrated), with no damage to the agonist (unless both protagonists are too well matched ‘in physical strength, experience and assertiveness). 
This classification has received many different definitions from different authors and should better be avoided. 

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1.4        Intrasexual (Intraspecific Intergroup) aggression

Controlled intermale, more often than interfemale, aggressive display between conspecifics of different groups. There is no evident resource or privilege that may trigger this aggression. 

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1.5        Sexual aggression

“A male’s aggression involving threats and attacks directed toward a female that forces her into a more prolonged sexual alliance with him” (Wilson 1975, in Barrows 2000).

It has been observed in feral and domestic male dogs towards female dogs (even not in estrus) and also sometimes from male dogs toward female humans and may evolve into rape-like behavior. 

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1.6        Irritation (irritable) aggression

Controlled aggression due to - or in the context of - an (anticipation of an) interference (or undesired interaction) with any behavior of the dog, by an individual (dog, human, other animal) to which the dog has been correctly socialized to, such as constraint, undesired or unexpected manipulation, and/or controlled aggression due to an intrusion in the critical distance of the aggressor dog by an individual (dog, human, other animal) that is not considered as dangerous.

This aggression can be coded:

  • with/without signs of fright or mild fear

  •  with/without signs of dominance or appeasement / submission: the sequence of acts and postures will then be modified accordingly to rank.


  • Aggression shown to constraint and manipulation at the veterinary clinic.

  • Aggression shown by a female dog, when not in copulating estrus period, toward male dogs trying to flirt and copulate with her. This is a specific example of alliesthesia, i.e. the same stimuli may provoke sexual responses or aggression depending on the internal state of the individual.

  • Etc.

1.6.1        Frustration-related aggression

Controlled aggression expressed when there is a lack of, or inaccessibility to, or delay of a positive expected event, such as absence of reward when expected.

1.6.2        Pain-related aggression

Aggression due to - or in the context of - an anticipated or existent pain or painful manipulation or disorder, and expressed to the person or animal or inanimate object associated to this pain (causing it or present when the pain is felt).

This irritable aggression is influenced and modified by classical and operant conditioning. 

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1.7        Defense of young

Aggression due to or in the context of a (threat of an) intrusion into the security and/or critical distance of one puppy or the group of puppies by adult males or female dogs.

1.7.1        Maternal aggression

Aggression due to or in the context of a (threat of an) intrusion into the security and/or critical distance of the nesting bitch protecting her puppies or affective analogues (in pseudocyesis). 

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1.8        Defense of space / Space-eliciting/managing aggression

There are several aggressive behavioral sequences related to the context of space management, such as the management of the space around the animal body, the space occupied by the group, or the individual/security space of the dog.

Evolutionarily, distancing aggression may precede territorial (proactive) aggression, since individual distance is an evolutionary precursor to territory. Territory management may need map-like brain cognitive capacities, something quite more complex than the defense of the area surrounding one’s body.

1.8.1        Distancing/Deterring aggression

Proactive aggressive behavior causing conspecific or human individuals (particularly unknown or from other groups (xenophobic reaction) to stay away or distance themselves from the security or perceptive distance of the aggressor dog.

What matters is that the dog seems to anticipate, preempt any threat from the target and attack it nearly at the same time as threatening it, bluffing it to go away. This mock-attack-like behavior evolves quickly into real attacks and bites. The security distance is larger then the critical distance and, in anxious dogs, may increase to several dozens of meters.

1.8.2        Group-defense aggression

Aggression to an agonist (threatening of) intruding into the (moving) area of the exclusive group or entering or intersecting the security distance of the group.


  • Guarding behavior of guarding dogs such as Kuvasz, Maremmano, etc.

  • Owner protective aggression (Beaver, 1994)

1.8.3        Territorial aggression

Aggression due to a (threat of an) intrusion into (and less often to an exit of) the territory of the exclusive group, or in the individual resting area of the dog.

The definition of territory is the one from Kaufmann (1971, in Greenberg): “An area in which the resident enjoys priority of access to limited resources that he or she does not enjoy in other areas", for example sleep sites and feeding area.

Territorial aggression is more often expressed toward strangers but, sometimes, also to other members of the group. It may be conditioned to specific targets such as mail carriers, meter readers, etc. 

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1.9        Redirected aggression

Aggression deflected from the object or individual that arouses it toward a neutral (or substitute) object or individual.

This aggression may easily be modified by classical and operant conditioning with a change of target when the dog is excited or triggered by a noxious stimulus.

For example, aggression to the phone or people answering the phone when the dog is overexcited, …

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1.10    Pursuit aggression

Pursuit of a mobile/moving object (bicycle, automobile,…) or individual (jogger, …) from a class/category to which the dog has been (probably not correctly) socialized.

This is probably part of the innate predatory aggression sequence but is classified separately because of the complexity of the hunting sequence.

  • Car chasing

  • Bicycle chasing

  • Joggers chasing

  • Etc. 

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1.11    Critical aggression

Also called ‘critical reaction’ (by Hediger), it is an intense aggression by a dog, showing (including autonomous) signs of fear, occurring only in cases where escape has been attempted but is not possible, when an individual considered to be dangerous invades the critical distance of the dog.

1.11.1    Fear-related/elicited aggression

Critical aggression when an individual considered to be a real or imaginative danger invades the critical distance of the dog, for example a cornered dog attacked by a conspecific or a human considered as (real or potentially/imaginatively) dangerous, intrusion in the critical distance by known individuals when the dog in an emotion of fear, or by unknown individuals considered dangerous.

[The notion of ‘fear’ as to be appraised contextually and spatially as a reaction to the invasion of the critical distance by a dangerous agonist and not as a common anxious or fearful emotion]             Antipredatory aggression

Fear-related aggression in presence of a predator. 

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1.12    Learned aggression

Aggression modified by learning.

1.12.1    Instrumental aggression

Also called ‘secondary hyperaggression’, it is an increase of the frequency and intensity of an aggressive behavior and/or increase of the operant phase of this behavior following the effects of (unconscious) operant conditioning.

The typical behavioral sequence cannot be recognized anymore.

1.12.2    Trained aggression

Specific aggression modified by specialty training (intentional operant conditioning) as for guard or defense or attack. 

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1.13    Mobbing/ganging

Coalition of different dogs of the same group to attack and sometimes injure severely, or even kill, a dog or a human (to whom the dog is normally socialized to) from the same or from another group, in a non-hunting context.

Mobbing is a modality and can apply to several types of aggression, such as territorial aggression or competitive aggression. It can be seen in intragroup aggression and lead to the death of a submissive or un-submitting (new) member of the group, such as in ‘pack-response aggression’ as proposed by Beaver (1994). 

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1.14    Infanticide

Aggression towards puppies leading to lethal lesions and sometimes cannibalism (cronism).

There are two kinds of infanticide: the aggression by a mother to her own offspring and the aggression by an adult dog towards strange offspring. The function and trigger factors may be quite different in both situations. 

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1.15    Predatory aggressions

Stalk, pursuit, catch and sometimes kill and consumption of (part of) an individual from a class/category to which the dog has not/poorly been socialized to.

We put predatory aggressions in the plural because they are complex different behaviors.  There are different typical behaviors depending on the size and behavior of prey. They are made up of the step-by-step organization of several independent behaviors (or stages) such as stalk, crouched run, walk and pauses, pursuit, prey-kill, neck-bite and asphyxiation, death shake, etc. The ending phase, i.e. eating part of the prey, will depend on physiological factors such as hunger and/or appetite.

  • Livestock, car, bike, joggers, balls, … chasing

1.15.1    Group hunting/predation

Hunting (and capture) of prey by groups. 

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1.16    Atypical aggression

1.16.1    Overactivity-related aggression

Uncontrolled repetitive (competitive, irritable, …) aggressive behavioral sequences shown by a pestering, biting, bullying, hustling (young) overactive dog (or puppy).

1.16.2    Somatic disorder-induced hyperaggression

Intense aggression without threat due to a somatic disorder (such as a dysendocriny, a neurological disorder, …).

Here are several causes: Cerebral tumor, Hydrocephalus, Epilepsy, Fucosidosis (English Springer Spaniel), Granulomatous meningo-encephalitis (GME), Hypothyroidism, Lead toxicity, lissencephalia, neosporosis, toxoplasmosis, Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE), …

1.16.3    Idiopathic aggression

Aggression for which there is no determined cause.

“Aggression that occurs in an unpredictable, toggle-switch manner in contexts not associated with stimuli noted for any behavioral aggressive diagnosis and in the absence of any underlying causal physical or physiological condition.” (Overall, 1997)

1.16.4    Dyssocialisation-related aggression

Intense uncontrolled aggression shown in context of frustrations by a dog who has not acquired the appeasing or submission communication rituals. 

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  • Archer 1988 

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  • Beaver B. 1994. The Veterinarian’s Encyclopedia of Animal behavior. Iowa State University press.

  • Dehasse J. 1999. The mother-puppy educational relationship. Proceedings of the second world meeting on Ethology, Lyon, 21-22 Sept.

  • Greenberg N.: Aggression, territoriality and social dominance.
    7eb87e5fe822a598852566a20073ce3e (9 April 2003)

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  • Morgan K. Defining behavior. (10 April 2003)

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  • Pageat P. 1995. Pathologie du comportement du chien. Le Point Vétérinaire, Paris, France.

  • Wittenberger 1991  in Barrows 

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© Dr Joel Dehasse - Behaviorist veterinarian - 2004-01-25