Aggression is defined as a forceful action with the intention of dominating another. In dogs, this would include biting, growling, curling the lip, and other threatening behaviors. Labs in general don't have aggressive tendencies, but any dog can become aggressive given the right circumstances or poor temperament inherited from parents. Aggression is a normal behavior for dogs — one of the many ways they communicate — but that doesn't mean it's okay for your Lab to ever behave aggressively. Because he lives in a human family, he needs to learn to temper his behavior to human standards.
Dogs can show aggression toward their owners, strangers, or other animals. Although it doesn't seem that way to us, most forms of aggression are motivated by fear. Some fears that can cause aggression in dogs include an invasion of territory by a stranger, another dog, or a new baby in the home; the fear of a mother dog that her pups will be harmed by an approaching stranger; or the fear of being hurt physically in some way. What are some of the types of aggression?
Conflict (dominance) aggression usually occurs when a dog doesn't understand his place in the family pack or fears that his position is threatened. They guard food and toys, refuse to move off the furniture when asked, or display aggressive body language.
Fear aggression is associated with a frightening experience, which could be anything from a bad visit to the vet to associating the owner with something the dog is afraid of, such as fireworks. These dogs bite when they feel trapped.
Territorial, protective, and possessive aggression occur in defense of what the dog considers his property: home, yard, owner, toys, or food.
Maternal aggression occurs when strangers — or even family — approach a mother dog's pups.
Dealing with Aggression
Fear and possessive aggression can often be prevented through plenty of socialization to people, places, movement (a hand throwing a ball or a toddler's awkward petting), and activities in early puppyhood. Practice taking away your Lab's food dish or toys and giving them back. One way you might do this is by adding a treat to your dog's bowl, removing the bowl, adding another treat, and returning the bowl. Smart dogs learn quickly that letting you take the food bowl away is a good thing.
If you're not sure whether your Lab is smiling or snarling, study his body language. A lip curled upward, in combination with a body that's stiff and quivering, is a sign of aggression. Lips pulled to the side and a wagging tail indicate a friendly dog.
Puppy kindergarten, obedience class, and play dates at parks with other dogs and people are good ways to deter territorial aggression. These situations teach your Lab that he must share neutral territory (the park or the class area) with others. Training helps your Lab learn to defer to you as the family leader and protector of territory. Neutering at adolescence can also help reduce the incidence of territorial aggression.
How should you deal with aggression? If your Lab is behaving aggressively for no apparent reason, take him to the veterinarian to rule out a physical problem that could be causing pain. If that's not the issue, seek the help of a qualified behaviorist. Serious forms of fear or conflict aggression often require behavior modification, sometimes in conjunction with drug therapy.