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Dog aggression to people

Dog Behaviour and Dog Training 

Maidstone Kent

Types of dog aggression

     There are several types of dog aggression: Dominance aggression, possessive or territorial aggression, fear-based aggression, inter-sexual (male to male), idiopathic (generic) aggression, aggression based on traumatic experience, learned aggression, controlled aggression, protective aggression, redirected aggression, predatory aggression maternal aggression, play aggression.

Dog aggression can be influenced by sex, age, size, hormonal status, territory, personal distance, dominance and or subordinanative hierarchy and the outcomes of previous encounters with individuals. Aggressive or threatening dog behaviour manifests as posturing, staring, barking, growling or biting for offensive or defensive purposes.  Dog to dog aggression is generally a form of competition to gain, for example, a higher position within a hierarchy, food, shelter, territory or to produce offspring.

Different types of Dog Aggression

Dominant dog aggression

Dog food aggression

The treatment of dog aggression is often complex and is best performed by a specialist canine behaviourist such as myself. General animal behaviourists may not have the knowledge and practical skills to understand the complexity of the dog behaviour. The first steps taken is to obtain an accurate diagnosis. Then, any provocative circumstances must be avoided. The more a dog repeats the aggressive behaviour the better it becomes in executing it and reinforces the association between context and behaviour. The dog should look to the owner for everything it wants. Owners should be aware when using treats of the difference between a bribe and reward, the latter will guarantee the treatment will fail. The aim is not to teach the dog to be submissive but to respond to the owners cues as to the appropriateness of it’s behaviour. Dogs defer to other dogs by sitting or laying down  and wait for a cue to proceed with their next behaviour. Sitting or laying down acts as a ‘stop’ command and allows the owner to take command of the situation. Physical punishment, rolling or pinning a dog down, prong or electric collars can make an already aggressive dog worse. I am often asked if castrating an aggressive dog will cure the problem. In my experience this has rarely been successful. As I mentioned earlier, treatment is complex and requires an accurate diagnosis by an expert.

Dominance aggression:  primarily influenced by the genetic make up of the dog and directed at those perceived as a threat.  The characteristics of a dominant dog include arrogance and defiance; it feels capable of defending itself and dealing with any situation.  The more successful an aggressive dog is, the more aggressive it becomes, so by being aggressive the dog gets it own way.  An owner not fully in control of such a dog transmits his anxiety, becomes nervous, tense and transmits fear to the dog via a change in vocal tones.  This is a trigger for the dog to take control.  It is thought that ‘aggressive owners can make a dominant dog worse’, however, a nervous owner will ‘cause a dominant dog to be aggressive’. 

Fear or nervous dog aggression: primarily a defensive mechanism; a learned behaviour and, as such, is more treatable than dominant aggression.  The cause of fear aggression may be lack of socialisation in puppy hood or insecurity; it may be the result of an incident leaving the dog to feel the need to protect itself, perhaps when the owner has failed to do so.  The fear of attack may incite a nervous dog to react on sight of other dogs.  Being a pack animal, dogs need the protection and security of a pack, so where there is weak leadership a fearful dog will feel obliged to take responsibility and defend itself.  It prefers to avoid confrontation and uses growling, barking and body language to persuade the perceived threat to withdraw.  The roots of fear aggression may be found in early learning, i.e. in the litter, but according to Bruce Fogel “there is a strong genetic component in certain breeds and individuals”. Fearful dogs exhibit an exaggerated response to sounds, movement and touch.  Other signs include pacing, barking, trembling and hysteria that manifest as biting, urinating, defecting, emptying anal glands, dilation of pupils, increased heart rate and high blood pressure.  All these signs would be picked up by another dog as a sign of weakness and, as mentioned above, without the protection  from within the pack or a strong leader, may incite an attack for fear of being attacked.

A fearful dog may seek to warn visitors by barking, nipping, growling or perhaps attacking the victim from behind.  These forms of communication are unlikely to be welcome within our society, but with intensive socialisation, training and a strong leader giving the dog a sense of security the problem may be remedied to a large extent.

dog displaying protective aggression

Protective dog aggression:  It is suggested that this type of aggression is first shown at the onset of puberty.  and is believed that protective dog aggression is not as common (as dominant or fear aggression) and “is displayed only when the dog feels that it has no alternative but to be protective”.  This may include the home, objects, family/pack members, the garden, the car, etc.  In the absence of a strong leader, a normally placid dog may feel obliged to show aggression.  In females, this may be to protect her puppies (maternal aggression that lasts during pregnancy or nursing), but also extends to objects. 

Some dogs are bred to protect, e.g. German Shepherd Dog and has an inherited ability to protect.  An example here is when the postman arrives (action), the dog barks (reaction) and (reward) the postman goes away. 

Protective dog aggression is acceptable when the dog is trained by the police, security services or the armed forces (where there is also an element of controlled aggression), however, such is not the case when unprovoked protective attacks induce fear to people, perhaps via a dog to dog attack in a public place.

dogs showing territorial aggression

Territorial aggression:  this is a learned behaviour and often occurs when visitors intrude into a dog’s space.  The need to protect – perhaps the dog’s bed, home or other area normally frequented by the dog (this may include areas regularly used for walking or exercising) may result in a show of dog aggression to repel the intruder.

This behaviour is unacceptable in our society.  A visitor should not feel intimidated when entering premises by invitation nor should other dogs be subjected to aggressive episodes in areas that a dog may regard as his territory.  Socialisation, training and strong leadership are essential to prevent this form of aggression.

Possessive dog aggression: Aggression to affirm ownership of an item signals that the dog is confirming its status and rights to that item.  When confronted by a rival, perhaps over food or a bone, the dog will stare, growl, bare its teeth prior to attack; the body posture accompanying such a display of dog aggression in order to protect whatever it has of value.  It may take possession of a high value item, e.g. a toy, slipper, clothing, etc., then use possession of that item to show the dog aggression towards anyone who goes near.  It is the dog’s opportunity to reinforce its pack position above that of the pack member who approaches.  This behaviour can become a ritual, each time reinforcing its position.

Given that it is generally unacceptable for dogs to aggressively guard possessions, their status should be reduced, they need to have strong leadership and any items that may trigger this type of aggression removed.

Controlled dog aggression:  Dogs are also able to control their own aggression in certain circumstances, for example, my dog Jazz will be enjoying a bone and Shogun will prance about wanting her to give it up.  When he approaches too close, she advances towards him, barking  aggressively, he backs off and Jazz returns to the bone unperturbed.....job done!  This controlled dog aggression contrasts with “learned aggression” inasmuch that it is a latent characteristic and is used to ward off potential attacks only to the extent that is necessary to achieve the desired outcome, as my example illustrates. 

One may also see dog aggression during play without going into a full attack.  Controlled dog aggression shows all the aggressive dog behaviours without actually making contact, as would happen in a full attack.  This would be dominant dog behaviour.

From a social aspect dogs that show controlled dog aggression need themselves to be controlled by a strong leader, respected by the dog.  Controlled dog aggression towards other dogs is a very effective means by which the dog protects itself, territory or its possessions, however, one needs to be aware that such behaviour may escalate into a full attack, that would be totally unacceptable behaviour in a public place especially.

Learned dog aggression:  The use of dogs for protection, e.g. by the police and armed forces, where dog aggression can be turned on or off by command for crowd control purposes or similar.  Dogs are also bred and taught to fight, e.g. pit bull terriers and the like that have inherent characteristics.  Occasionally this learned dog aggression may be taught to fighting dogs by using pain to induce the desired effect.  Being in the company of other aggressive dogs or from previous learned experiences, a dog can itself become aggressive as a form of offensive or defensive action.  Being ill-treated physically, the dog may learn to be aggressive to the perpetrator of the aggression.

For a dog to be taught attack practices, such as Schutzhund training (dog protection), and then to expect them to withdraw on command is demanding.  The dog needs to learn to differentiate between a visitor and a burglar, a dog fighting opponent or a playful pet dog.  Society demands that dogs are controlled and also that there are penalties for failing to do so.  It is up to the owner to be responsible for his dog as well as to it. 

Re-directed dog aggression:  occurs when a dog is unable to take out its aggression on the actual object, dog or person that is the cause of fear, anger or territorial notions.  As an example, two dogs may be in the garden and an unfamiliar visitor enters the house, the dogs may turn on each other.  It may be that the frustration generated by not being able to reach the “intruder” spills over into a show of aggression.  In such circumstances, anyone seeing the outcome of this frustration, would probably not understand that this was displaced aggression, simply because they do not know the underlying cause of the aggressive behaviour.

This is a dangerous form of aggression and as such any dogs that are known to re-direct aggression should be well controlled by the owner and, if necessary, muzzled in public areas.  A dog on a lead in a public area showing extreme aggression towards another dog or person may ultimately turn its aggression to the owner.

Idiopathic (generic) dog aggression: occurs when there is no consistent volitional, proactive aggression not contextual given the social signals, threat circumstances, or response received. The following condition is sufficient: as above in the absence of any signal or interaction from the animal that is attacked. It must be stressed, that at some level, the behaviours involved with aggression are normal behaviours. This diagnostic category, while usually associated with changes in social hierarchy that are often related to the development of social maturity in one of the involved animals, does not depend on either hierarchy or social maturity; it depends on the contextual response. This subtle but important distinction supports the contention that social shifts and occasional threats can be normal.

Predatory dog aggression:  learned from the mother; the basis of this aggression is genetic.  The aim is to kill, usually small mammals, e.g. rabbits, cats, however, male dogs are known to kill puppies or rivals in order to maintain their status, retain the attentions of the bitch and preserve their survival instincts in terms of procreation. The prey drive is strong within some dog breeds and is replicated by the desire to chase and fetch toys.  This form of dog aggression is difficult to overcome, particularly in rural areas where dogs may be shot when interfering with sheep, for example, however, counter-conditioning is unlikely to work, because the reward of the kill brings with it the ultimate sense of satisfaction.

Maternal dog aggression: has the following necessary condition: consistent aggression (threat, challenge, or contest) directed toward puppies in the absence of pain, challenges, or threats to the mother by the puppies. The following condition is sufficient: unprovoked, age-inappropriate attacks on puppies by the mother. When maternal aggression is profound, it is extremely easy to recognize, even though puppies are not necessarily injured or killed. The extent to which discrete aggressive behaviours can be a component of normal maternal behaviour has not been well quantified.

Inherited forms of maternal aggression are seen in both cats and dogs.

It is important that professional treatment is sought and much thought should be given as to whether breeding should continue.

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