Impulse Control Aggression in Dogs — What Is It and How Do We Address It

Impulse control aggression in dogs sounds like a scary and unsolvable problem. It’s very intimidating, especially for new dog owners. People often find themselves searching for a quick solution for impulse control aggression in dogs, without actually realizing that this is a complex issue that requires a lot of work.


Anxiety and Impulse Control Aggression in Dogs   


Unfortunately, anxiety and aggression go hand in hand when it comes to dog behavior. Given that anxiety issues are the most common ones that dog owners have to deal with, it’s no surprise that impulse control aggression in dogs is an often discussed topic among doggy lovers. However, while connected, anxiety and aggression have a few different ways of manifesting themselves.


Manifestation — Fearful or Impulsive


Impulse control aggression in dogs isn’t the only way that anxiety manifests itself. Dogs can also become fearfully aggressive, which leads to social withdrawal. They use several strategies that include increasing the distance between them and whatever they perceive as a threat.

Because the fearful behavior is visible even from a great distance, we can never mix up fearful aggression and impulse control aggression in dogs. However, it’s vital to know that one can stem from the other. Fearful dogs can turn more aggressive and get labeled as dogs with impulse control aggression.


However, that doesn’t happen overnight. It’s essential that we know and address all signs of abnormal behavior in our furry friends. Barking, growling, attacking other animals or people, or lounging at them are definitive signs that something isn’t right with your pooch. Threatening behavior that includes attacks is usually warranted — if not by the current situation, then by something that’s already happened. So, it needs to be addressed. But how? And why is it even happening in the first place?


What Is Impulse Control Aggression in Dogs


Impulse control aggression in dogs is the complete opposite of fearful aggression. While fearful dogs increase the distance between themselves and the perceived threat, dogs with impulse control aggression decrease the distance. They approach the threat and address whatever concerns them.


What’s more, these dogs are always on alert. They look at their surroundings for potential threats, and, once they spot them, they don’t back down. They inspect and address the threat, but, rather than calming them, this behavior only increases their anxiety.


How many times have you been in this situation? A dog sees you, stands up, starts barking, and practically lounges at you. Once it approaches you completely, it doesn’t stop the barking and growling — it just keeps going. This is a clear indicator of a lack of impulse control. Whatever triggered the dog — be it you or something you’ve done — it cannot ignore the trigger.


Inspecting a perceived threat isn’t unusual behavior for dogs. However, the fact that they don’t stop their bad reaction, whatever it may be, is a sign of trouble. Dogs should be able to detect information that you aren’t treating them. A closer inspection — when they sniff you and look at you closely — should ease their anxiety. With impulse control aggression in dogs, their reaction will be quite paradoxical, as they intensify their aggressive behavior.


The Definition of Impulse Control Aggression in Dogs


Simply put, impulse control aggression in dogs is a behavior issue that manifests in abnormal reactions to perceived threats. These reactions can be irregular, out of context, and inappropriate because the dogs consistently exhibit aggression toward other animals or people, no matter what the circumstances are. Not that long ago, this was known as “dominance aggression” because most people believed that this behavior stems from the dog’s need to establish itself as the “leader of the pack.”


However, dogs are not packed animals. Therefore, the cause of impulse control aggression in dogs is more pathological in nature.


The “Leader of the Pack” Conundrum


People who aren’t dog owners, often confuse impulse control aggression in dogs with territorial behavior or a fight for dominance. While it’s perfectly reasonable that a dog defends its territory, this behavior won’t manifest in the same way as impulse control aggression in dogs. A dog with a lack of impulse control will actively approach and initiate aggressive interactions, whether it’s on its own territory or not. When dogs defend their lands, so to speak, they don’t tend to leave it to approach you.


Impulse control aggression in dogs is also often confused with the fight for dominance. Many people associate dogs with wolves. If wolves have leaders, shouldn’t dogs have their own alphas ass well? In short — no. If they did, every dog owner would continuously be in a battle of dominance with their furry buddies.


’What’s more, pack leaders — those in wolf packs — do not exhibit aggressive behavior. Wolf alphas often fall to the back of the pack so that they can inspect a potential threat from a distance. Furthermore, pack leaders don’t display dominance over other pack members with aggressive behavior.


Therefore, if your dog is getting increasingly aggressive towards you, it’s not fighting for dominance. It has impulse control and anxiety-related problems that you need to work on.


Impulse Control Aggression in Dogs — How It Manifests and Why


As mentioned, some aggressive behavior is justified. When the threat is real, and the dogs are defending themselves or their family members, or when they are hurt, some aggressive behavior is normal. Any aggressive behavior includes one or more of the following:


  • the rigidness of the body
  • barking and growling
  • charging after or lunging at the threat
  • mouthing or muzzle punching
  • snarling and teeth showing
  • snapping the mouth without making contact
  • biting that leaves no marks
  • biting that leaves marks — tears, bruises, puncture wounds
  • rapid biting that’s repeated over a short period
  • biting with grabbing the target and shaking it


Untrained dogs may exhibit impulse control aggression during the learning process. If your dog isn’t sure what their relationship with you is and doesn’t know what’s expected of them, they might lash out. This is a part of the learning process and should be dealt with immediately.


We also have to search for the cause. What’s triggering the behavior? Why did that specific thing become a trigger? Why are they trying to control your behavior? These are all essential questions for dealing with impulse control aggression in dogs.


The Causes of Impulse Control Aggression in Dogs


Most of the time, the dogs exhibit impulse control aggression with their owners because they are “hands-on” learners. This means that they aren’t fighting for dominance, but are struggling with taking cues from their owners.

One of the critical aspects of impulse control aggression in dogs is approaching and initiating the situations. That’s because the dog doesn’t feel that sitting back and watching is good enough. It wants to engage with the situation or the environment.


The dog’s impulse is to control the situation. When it fails — it lashes out. The failure to control leads to an increase in stress levels, which leads to aggression.


Why Dogs Act Aggressively — a Problem of Specific Breeds?


There can be a genetic component to aggressive behavior. However, that’s extremely rare and, more importantly, doesn’t fall under impulse control aggression in dogs. Furthermore, some people think that specific breeds are more prone to impulse control aggression.


For decades, dog owners have fought the prejudice against specific dog breeds that were often labeled as “overly aggressive.” It seems that every decade has a different breed that’s on the chopping board — pit bulls, German shepherds, Dobermans, etc. A lot of dog breeds are classified as aggressive or combative. But the truth is, out there, it’s every dog for themselves. That means that aggressive behavior is related to the experiences of a specific dog, not their breed. But why do those dogs act aggressively?



Anxiety and stress are closely related. If a dog is stressed, the anxiety levels go up. Thus, self-control, or impulse control, gets difficult, and the dog lashes out.


Excitement and fear

Strong emotions can lead to aggressive behavior. An already anxious dog probably won’t react well to excitement or dangerous situations. Again, impulse control gets out of hand, and dogs fail to control themselves.



Aside from not being able to control their reactions, dogs with impulse control issues also have a hard time stopping their abnormal behavior. These dogs react badly to a particular stimulus. However, their response provides them with an outlet for stress and anxiety. It makes them feel good. Basically, it’s blowing off steam. We all do it because aggression is a rewarding behavior. We feel better after an aggressive outburst because we’ve let go of a significant amount of energy. And so do our dogs.


But unlike us, the dog doesn’t realize that it has to find a different way to vent. That causes repetitive impulse control aggression in dogs. In other words, the dog will always react to a specific stimulus in the same way. We can punish the dog in an attempt to stop the negative behavior. However, that isn’t enough. To deal with impulse control aggression in dogs, we have to teach our best friends to substitute their behavior with a more suitable one. We have to change the way it always reacts to that specific stimulus, not just stop the action when it’s already happening.


Do All Impulsive Dogs Exhibit Impulse Control Aggression the Same Way?


There are two types of impulsive dogs. Their behavior is somewhat similar, while the underlying causes of the aggression are very different.


Truly Impulsive Dogs


Truly impulsive dogs are always anxious. They are uncertain in their environment, owners, and themselves. That means that emotional reactions are always close to the surface and, thus, difficult to control. Anything can trigger them because they are never truly relaxed. In fact, most calming techniques don’t work on easing their anxiety. Truly impulsive dogs have unpredictable behavior.


Challenging Impulsive Dogs


Unlike the first group, these dogs use impulse control aggression as a form of controlling their environment. Aggression is a way to interact with the threat and get information about the risk. These dogs struggle to relinquish control and provoke people and animals around them because that is their way of learning. However, another problem lies in their interactions. Once they do get the information they are after, they can’t calm down. They don’t back off or distance themselves from the threat.


Because they use their behavior in a learning setting, these dogs just seem unpredictable. Yet, it’s actually quite easy to say when a controlling impulsive dog will react aggressively. There’s a pattern to this behavior that makes it predictable.


If a dog perceives a specific situation as new, or simply as a change of status quo, it will try to gain control of it.


For example, let’s say you are trying to get out of the door. Your dog might see that, and try to stop you. Assertive dogs will park their furry behinds in front of the door in an effort to get you to give them attention or take them with you. When you refuse, they will get sad, but they will accept the situation.


With controlling impulsive dogs, the situation is somewhat different. They see you going out as a change in their social environment. That makes them anxious, so they stand in front of the door to monitor the potential change. The dog isn’t sure if and the change will affect it, it will provoke the situation to get more information. It will block you, try to grab you, or it will become rigid and unmoving.


Now, there are several ways to deal with this. Namely, there are the right ways and wrong ways. If you see your rigid dog try to block you don’t react aggressively toward it. If you do, you’re actually enforcing negative behavior.



How to Deal with Impulse Control Aggression in Dogs


Dog owners know all about positive reinforcement. We have to teach our dogs how to behave. Positive reinforcement is the best way to do that. Otherwise, the training will be extremely difficult. Impulse control aggression in dogs is the perfect example of that.


As mentioned, dogs with impulse control issues are hands-on learners. They learn from experience by engaging with their surroundings and family members. If the dog uses aggression to achieve something, and it succeeds, it will keep using it. After all, animals are very goal-oriented. Punishing the dog won’t help in this case. In fact, it will be quite counterproductive. In most cases, the aggression will increase since the dog is now also defending itself.


The time to deal with impulse control issues isn’t when the dog exhibits aggressive behavior. Yes, we have to stop the behavior, but in order to deal with underlying causes, we have to wait until the stress levels, excitement, and defensive attitude are lower. Confronting an aggressive dog with aggression, and then trying to enforce another behavior will never be successful.


Tips and Trick on Dealing with Impulse Control Aggression in Dogs


Dealing with impulse control aggression is no easy task. However, there are some tips and tricks that might help you.


Give the Right Cues


It’s vital that we go into training with the right attitude and energy. As mentioned, we can’t teach our dogs impulse control when they are expressing aggressive behavior. Nor can we teach it while we are aggressive.


Giving correct cues is vital. Thus, we must be firm but calm. If you’re anxious, scared, or fearful, your dog will pick up on that, and act on impulse.


Pinpoint the Areas the Dog Struggles with


Not all dogs struggle with impulse control in the same way. What’s more, there will always be specific areas that your dog struggles with the most. It’s vital that we determine what those areas are, and what are the underlying causes that trigger a bad reaction.


Once we determine the areas our pooches struggle with the most, we can devote most of our time working on them. Handling this in a controlled environment, while exposing the dog to triggers slowly and cautiously is the key to success.

We recommend spending at least half the time you devote to impulse control on areas that the dog is struggling with. Impulse control is hard to accomplish, which is why you have to be on the lookout for perfect opportunities. Wait until your dog wants something. Then, use that situation to teach it to wait and control its urges. After that, reinforce this behavior.


Be Consistent


It’s crucial that we don’t mix negative and positive reinforcement. Each time our dog manages to control its impulses, we have to reinforce that behavior. Give it a treat or pet it. However, don’t give it a treat just for trying. Dogs don’t get that. Be consistent and never get aggressive.


Avoid Triggers and Pick Your Battles (And Your Battlefields)


We can’t teach our dogs impulse control when they are already exposed to a trigger in an uncontrolled environment. So, if your dog barks, snarls, or snaps at the mailman, that is not the opportunity to teach it anything. We must shut the behavior down, and use another opportunity to teach the dog how to control its emotions.


To do that, we must diminish distractions. Teaching a dog some coping mechanisms by using positive reinforcement rather than aggression is a good start.


Some situations may be more triggering than others. Therefore, while we try to correct impulse control, we might have to stay away from specific triggers. If you leave the house or the mailman arriving is particularly triggering for your furry menace, then avoid those triggers while you work on impulse control with less enticing triggers. Work your way up.


The Training Never Stops


There are a lot of opportunities throughout the day where you can teach your dog to wait.  Waiting for a meal, a treat, a toy — your dog should know how to do all these things. If it doesn’t, you have to use positive reinforcement to implement it.


It’s vital that we don’t reward negative behavior in any way. We must be patient and wait for our dog to exhibit the behavior we want to implement, and then reward it consistently. Even if our dog exhibits aggressive behavior, it can’t do that forever. So, wait it out, and then reward the calm behavior that follows it.


A Few Parting Words


Dealing with impulse control aggression in dogs is by no means an easy task. It requires a lot of time, dedication, and effort on our part. However, it’s also not impossible. Therefore, all of those struggling with controlling their furry buddies — have no fear. Well, literally, given that as we already mentioned, showing fear will be counterproductive.


In the end, you must know this — each dog is different. Each dog has a specific set of triggers and reactions. Therefore, while there are some general tips and tricks you can try, you have to find the ones that work for your dog. Impulse control is one of the vital concepts your dog will ever learn. Therefore, give it due attention and effort.


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