- Lisa Mullinax, CDBC
UNDERSTANDING AGGRESSION IN DOGS
When dogs exhibit aggressive behaviors, it is always upsetting.
By gaining a better understanding of aggressive behavior, you can better prevent, manage, and modify aggression in your dog.
WHAT IS AGGRESSION?
Aggression is a category of behaviors, all of which are a response to a perceived threat. These behaviors include:
Tooth displays of varying degrees
"Muzzle punch" (striking with a closed mouth)
Snapping (without contact)
Biting without injury
Biting with varying degrees of injury
There are many non-aggressive ways dogs attempt to avoid or escape a threatening situation before escalating to aggressive behaviors but too often these early warning signs aren't recognized by most dog owners. The exception to this description is predatory behavior which, although violent, is linked to food acquisition and not aggression.
WHAT CAUSES AGGRESSION?
Aggressive behavior in dogs is most frequently caused by fear and stress due to various factors including, but not limited to:
Lack of proper and early socialization
Lack of training
Unskilled use of aversive methods (bad training) (1)
Genetic predisposition (poor breeding)
Medical issues can also contribute to aggressive behavior. In the last ten years, dogs that came to me with reported aggression were diagnosed (by the dog's veterinarian) with hypothyroidism, Cushing's Disease, mast cell cancer, urinary tract infections, hip and elbow dysplasia and more. This is why a trainer may refer you to your veterinarian for blood work and other testing if illness or injury is suspected.
Some types of aggression may be neurological. There was a popular internet video of a dog protecting his bone from his own foot. This is a very good example of a behavior problem that has medical or neurological causes. These types of behaviors require the assistance of a veterinary behaviorist, as training is not enough.
What are not causes of aggression:
"Spoiling" the dog (2)
Playing tug games
Not being pack leader-y enough
In most cases we see, the main causes of aggressive behavior are lack of or improper early socialization and/or the unskilled use of aversive methods and equipment, either on their own or at the hands of an individual advertising as a professional dog trainer.
WHAT ABOUT DOMINANCE?
There's no shortage of websites claiming that "dominance is the leading cause of aggression." But is that really the case?
The subject of dominance is worthy of it's own article and we recommend AVSAB Position Statement on Dominance pdf for a complete definition and explanation of what it is...and what it is not.
Bottom line: The vast majority of aggression is a response to a perceived threat, not some attempt at total world domination.
IT'S NOT ABOUT THE BREED
No matter what the headlines say, no matter what one person's individual experience has been, breed is never a predictor of aggression.
Golden Retrievers are as capable of aggression towards humans or other dogs, as Pit Bulls are capable of working as therapy dogs and search and rescue dogs. It is the individual dog, not the breed, that must be considered.
Except in very rare cases, aggression is not random. This is why a dog that shows aggression toward strange dogs is not likely to act aggressively towards family members. A dog that displays aggression towards strange people may be perfectly friendly when meeting new dogs. So why does it seem to occur without warning?
Dogs give numerous subtle signals of anxiety or discomfort that aren't recognized by most dog owners. When these signs of stress are ignored, the dog may feel the need to escalate to a signal that is more clear to humans, such as growling, snarling or snapping.
Common signs of stress/anxiety include:
Avoidance of people or other dogs
Repetitive licking of the lip/nose
Tense body language
Low tail carriage
Backward ear carriage
When owners fail to recognize these signs, they may continue to put the dog in stressful situations. Finally, the dog escalates to a clear sign of discomfort, causing the owners to claim the dog was "fine" previously and that the aggression appeared without warning.
A professional trainer will teach you how to read your dog's body language, so you will be able to recognize when your dog is anxious.
There is no such thing as an "aggressive dog," as no dog will exhibit aggressive behaviors 24 hours per day. Aggression is not a breed characteristic or personality trait. Aggression is always a response to something in the dog's environment, whether it is the action of a human, the sudden appearance of another dog, pain caused by injury or illness, and more. This is called an antecedent, which means a preceding occurrence, cause or event. Antecedents are also called triggers.
In order to determine the triggers for your dog's aggressive behavior, it is necessary to gather a detailed history of each incident. A professional trainer can work with you to determine a pattern in the situations that have triggered your dog's aggression. Once these triggers are identified, a training/behavior plan can be devised.
DOGS DON'T BITE WHEN A GROWL WILL DO
Dogs make choices in the form and level of aggression they use to communicate with us or with other dogs. If a minor form of communication, such as a small growl, is enough to achieve the goal of stopping a person from taking a bone or another dog from mounting, the dog has no need to escalate to a higher level of aggression.
Even when biting, dogs make decisions as to the location and severity of the bite. The vast majority of bites inflicted by dogs never cause injury. These are still bites, by definition, but the dog has chosen to use a warning without injuring the offending person or dog. Because dogs are so much faster and more accurate than we are, these non-injurious bites are not because the human moved quickly enough to avoid the bite, but that the dog chose not to cause damage.
For information about the levels of dog bites see Dr. Ian Dunbar's Dog Bite Scale, which many trainers use as a guideline.
HOW DO YOU FIX AGGRESSION?
Aggression is not an illness or something that can be removed, it is an instinctive reaction to a perceived threat. Just as no one can train you not to defend your family if they are threatened by a burglar, you can not train out a dog's instinct to protect itself. All dogs are capable of aggression, regardless of breed.
What behavior modification CAN do is decrease your dog's stress around the situations that used to trigger aggressive responses, teach your dog an alternate behavior she can perform in those situations (such as look at you instead of bark at strangers), and even form positive associations to the situations that were previously a problem. The level of positive association will depend on many different factors. In the case of dog-dog aggression, some dogs may eventually be able to play with new dogs after a careful introduction. For others, they may only learn to tolerate dogs at a distance (such as walks), but never learn to like other dogs.
In order for a behavior modification plan to be successful, a careful management strategy must be implemented. This strategy will be customized to each dog and household and will be designed to prevent aggressive behavior from recurring while you are going through the training process.
PUNISHMENT IS NOT THE SOLUTION
Many owners and even some people advertising as trainers believe that the best way to address aggression is to provoke the dog into reacting, then applying some form of punishment to teach the dog that aggression is "wrong."
However, when a dog is pushed to the point that it reacts aggressively, the sympathetic nervous system becomes activated. Most people know this as "fight or flight." When this happens, the parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates all other functions, disengages, shutting down digestion and other non-essential functions during times of great stress, including parts of the brain that process learning. This is why when we experience acute stress, such as fear (bear circling your tent), anxiety (a letter from the IRS) or trauma (grief), food doesn't seem remotely appealing and it is difficult to concentrate. This is why the belief that "food doesn't work with red zone/dominant dogs" is so prevalent in dog behavior mythology. When the dog is pushed to the point of extreme stress, he or she is in survival mode and no longer learning.
Traumatic events, however, DO get remembered in this state. If the dog sees another dog, barks and then is jerked, kicked or shocked, the dog is not going to learn what he is doing is "wrong," but will very likely associate the aversive methods with the presence of other dogs, creating a more negative association than before.
Aversive methods often appear to work because they can suppress aggressive displays. However, this is just hiding the symptoms without addressing the underlying cause of the aggressive behavior. This is like cold medicine. Cold medicine can clear the sneezing, runny nose and other symptoms, but it doesn't cure the cold.
In order to change the dog's behavior permanently, we have to change the dog's association to that situation through training and behavior modification.
HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE?
The amount of time it will take and the level of success you can achieve depends on a variety of factors outside the trainer's control. First and foremost is your commitment, including how consistently you follow the trainer's instructions and how often you practice the new exercises assigned. Implementing exercises and suggestions from several different sources (tv shows, friends, neighbors, etc.) can undermine the success of your dog's behavior program.
Factors such as early experiences and genetics also play a critical role in the amount of time and effort it will take to reach your goals. A dog that was not adequately socialized in the first few months' of its life will require more time and work than a dog that was well-socialized as a puppy. A dog that was fearful at 8 weeks of age will require more work than a dog that was confident at that age.
In some cases, changing your dog's behavior and preventing further incidents of aggression may be relatively simple and quick. In other cases, it may be a lifelong process. When working with aggression, we have to work within the time frame our dogs give us.
FACTORS FOR SUCCESS
Unfortunately, not every dog and owner will be successful with their behavior modification program. After medical and other factors that training can't change, dissatisfaction is usually the result of owners failing to meet the following requirements:
Must have long-term commitment. There is no quick fix for aggressive behavior. Because many dogs exhibiting aggression lack reliable training, several training sessions may first be needed to teach leash manners, come when called and other important skills before entering the gradual process of behavior modification. After that, changing the underlying cause of the aggression takes time.
Must have realistic goals and expectations. Unfortunately, many owners expect training to change who their dog is completely or have a specific deadline that the dog must meet. However, we have to work within our dog's limitations and time frames in order to be successful.
Must have a lifestyle compatible for long-term management. If a dog with stranger-directed aggression lives in a busy household with many guests coming and going, the prognosis is much lower than for the same dog living in a quiet household with few visitors. The ability to prevent problems while going through the training process is critical to success.
Must be consistent with non-aversive training methods. Inconsistent methods by owners seeking a quick fix leads to an increase in stress in the dog. Further, owners who feel the need to "dominate" their dogs through the use of any form of physical punishment, including jerks of the leash, are far less likely to see success for the reasons listed above.
Because dog training is an unregulated industry, any dog trainer can offer "guaranteed results" at any price. However, no trainer has control over the factors above, nor do they have the ability to alter a dog's genetics, medical conditions, or past experiences, making such guarantees worthless.
ANY BEHAVIOR CAN BE IMPROVED
Thanks to our ever-expanding knowledge about dogs and their behavior, we have gained the ability to create training plans based on each dog's individual need, rather than use punishment as the solution for everything and every dog.
While we can't always "fix" behavior problems, we can increase our dogs' tolerance to situations that trigger aggressive behavior. Just by reading this article, you are already one step closer to changing your dog's behavior than you were yesterday.
It can only get better from here!
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(1) Herron M, Shofer F, Reisner I. 2009. Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors. Appl Anim. Behav. Sci, 117 47-54
(2) Voith, V.L., Wright, l.C. and Danneman, P.l., 1992. Is there a relationship between canine behavior problems and spoiling activities, anthropomorphism, and obedience training? Appl. Anim. Behav.Sci., 34: 263-272.
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