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Extract from Aunty Kaye’s Doggy Dictionary of Training and Behaviour

Aggression is one of the most important and complex issues in dog training and behaviour. It is difficult to discuss because it’s obvious what it is – but we all tend to mean something different by it once we start to go into detail.

Issues which concern dog trainers are very broad: the causes of aggression, the types of aggression, the techniques for dealing with it and of course how to prevent it becoming a problem.

Aggression can be classified according to its object:

  • aggression against people
  • aggression against dogs
  • aggression against other animals (see predatory aggression)

Dogs who behave aggressively towards other dogs are not necessarily aggressive towards people and vice versa, and aggression towards other animals is not necessarily accompanied by aggression towards people or other dogs.

Aggression can also be classified according to what is thought to “drive” it:

  • dominance aggression
  • fear-based aggression
  • possessive aggression
  • predatory aggression
  • protective aggression
  • territorial aggression

There are others, but these are the ones discussed most often.

Some trainers say that it is unhelpful to call a dog “aggressive” as this attributes a general characteristic to the dog. It may be more useful to say that the dog “displays aggressive behaviour”. Virtually all dogs will show aggression in certain circumstances. This is part of the dog’s natural repertoire and it is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it can be appropriate, as for example when a dog barks at an intruder, or issues warning growl to another dog that is being objectionable.

Whether the aggression is appropriate depends a bit on the social context and needs of the owner. Some people want a dog who will welcome all visitors, others want a dog who will bark at the door but welcome friends in, and others want a dog to be more protective and wary of callers.

In assessing aggressive behaviour, we need to ask:

  1. in what circumstances does the dog show aggression?
  2. is this appropriate? and
  3. what degree of damage, if any, is done? The “level of bite” or degree of bite inhibition shown by the dog can be judged with some objectivity.

A problem with aggressive behaviour does not lie just with the dog. When assessing the chances of successfully dealing with an aggression problem, the biggest factor is the degree of responsibility (or irresponsibility) shown by the owner.

Prevention of unwanted aggression can include consideration of many aspects:

  1. Selective breeding of dogs to either bring out or down-play their tendency to fight, guard and be assertive
  2. Socialisation at an early age so that a puppy learns to regard people, dogs and other animals in a friendly, non-threatening way
  3. Establishing leadership, so that your young dog can look to you for guidance and protection, can pick up from you the appropriate emotions in any given situation (such as meeting a non-threatening stranger)
  4. Removing or preventing the development of underlying causes of hostility, such as associating a person or dog with a bad experience
  5. Avoiding threatening or confronting the dog, which can trigger aggression
  6. Development of handler skills, such as confidence, calm leash handling and understanding your dog’s body language and reactions
  7. Command-based control of the dog, especially to come, drop, stay and pay attention
  8. Interrupting over-excited, unruly behaviour which could lead to agitation and possibly aggressive behaviour, and re-establishing calmness around people and other dogs
  9. Physical control or restraint in some situations (although note that this can cause aggression in some circumstances, producing what is known as lead aggression and barrier frustration)
  10. Encouragement of non-aggressive emotional reactions
  11. Consideration of possible underlying causes related to health or nutritional problems

Techniques for dealing with aggression include:

  1. Removing threats and avoiding confrontation with the dog
  2. Establishing leadership
  3. Basic obedience emphasising control and attentiveness training
  4. Counter-conditioning by means of the “jolly routine” or “bar open” to change the dog’s underlying emotional associations with the object of aggression
  5. Reinforcement of new, non-aggressive behaviours
  6. More proactive monitoring by owner of their dog’s warning signs and comfort zone indicators
  7. Punishment, “correction” and physical restraint have been used extensively, but I do not recommend them, as there are alternatives available which have less risk of backfiring
  8. Medication is being used increasingly for aggressive dogs, but should be given in conjunction with a training program to modify behaviour, and then withdrawn after the behaviour modification takes effect.

Aggression against dogs

If your dog has caused damage to another dog, you need to seek professional help. If you are concerned about lunging, barking and aggressive-looking displays, but your dog has not done any damage, then the problem may be adolescent posturing and quite workable. Here are a few do’s and don’ts:

  • avoid too much free-for-all play in puppy class
  • teach puppies that meeting people and other dogs and being handled is “good news” – use treats, play with toys or use a happy voice to make a friendly association with the presence of people and other dogs
  • teach your dogs calm, relaxed walking on lead and when meeting other dogs
  • avoid stringing your dog up and agitating her around other dogs (a major cause of “lead aggression”)
  • be aware of “zones”, in other words, recognise your dog’s need for personal space and a comfort zone, and respect those of others
  • recognise eyeballing – often a precursor to agitation and lunging – and distract your dog before the situation escalates
  • establish and train in a distracter or interrupter, then use it to sever the connection between a trigger and its consequence – the earlier you intervene the easier and more effective it is
  • allow and encourage warning signs, but take notice of them
  • don’t use “obedience” (such as a stay command) to force your dog to tolerate a situation (such as being close to another dog) when she is not relaxed about it – this can make things worse
  • set up exposures to other dogs at a distance that your dog is comfortable with, and let her decide how close to come
  • create pleasant associations (using food, toys, movement and your voice) with the presence of another dog

Aggression against people

Dogs bite people. This unfortunately is the message we get from dog bite injury statistics. The data is incomplete, but a consistent pattern emerges from studies that have been done. It is useful to classify dog bite injuries according to where they take place, and who the victim is. Regrettably, systematic data collection about the circumstances of the bite is rarely done, but some inferences can be made by trainers who work with clients who own aggressive dogs.

Dogs who bite people who are known to the dog do so for many reasons. Dog bite injuries to children are likely to occur in the home of the child or a neighbour. Dogs are easily excited by the movement and voices of young children, and young children are inclined to grab dogs or behave in ways that irritate the dog. Training should be a two-way process, with parents teaching their children how to handle dogs and heed warning signals, and dog owners conditioning their dogs to become accustomed to children.

Dogs that bite people who are not known to the dog usually do in the vicinity of the owner’s property, presumably showing some degree of territorial aggression. The territory of the dog is not necessarily the same as the owner’s property, and many bites could be prevented if owners stopped their dogs from having access to public space adjoining their property. Strangers bitten by dogs in these circumstances are more likely to be adults.

According to  Dr Ian Dunbar, situations which commonly provoke biting are:

  • taking the dog by the collar
  • approaching food bowl, removing food or bone
  • approaching or removing a toy, ball etc.
  • a child hugging the dog (more likely to be girls)
  • kids playing boisterous games, teasing or exciting the dog (more likely to be boys)
  • the owner approaching to punish, remove or discipline the dog

These are so common that Dunbar recommends incorporating conditioning to these situations into standard puppy and young dog training. For example:

  • come, sit, take the collar, give a treat (a game known as “gotcha”)
  • approach the food bowl to give not to take
  • teach the dog to sit for a treat around children
  • teach people not to grab or physically discipline the dog

He uses a classical conditioning approach – teach the dog that these situations are “good news”.

More information – watch this space.

  • aggressive behaviour
  • signs of aggression
  • precursors

Sherry Woodard has described the body language precursors and signs of aggression:

Generally dogs do not like the Veterinary Surgery and in some instances may act aggressively towards the Vet or owner possibly to prevent the procedure required from taken place. Very rarely will an aggressive reaction have no warning rather that the behaviours leading up to the aggressive act have gone unnoticed or misunderstood.

The scenario may go as follows:

The dog may be uneasy in the waiting room surrounded by strange dogs, people, sounds and smells and may respond by blinking and nose licking, although a natural behaviour it is also indicative of a stress response and used to create a break in the current situation.

Entering the consulting room the amount of stress grows with the dog standing in the corner of the consulting room with his ears laid back, turned head and raised paw.

The Vet continues to approach the dog even though the dog is signalling he wants to be left alone.

The next behaviour to be displayed could be ‘standing crouched with tail tucked under’ showing that the dog is becoming distressed and fearful, this is the middle ground before appeasement turns to extreme discomfort and then aggression

In this case where the dogs signals have so far been ignored he would be likely to proceed by lying down with one leg up which is typically seen as submissive and is part of ritualised behaviour used in order to surrender and therefore subconsciously provoke the object of fear or discomfort (in this case the vet) to cease their behaviour and when this fails to have the desired response the dog feels even more threatened.

Followed then by an audible warning in the form of growling or snarling with the lip lifted showing teeth showing that he is now so uncomfortable that he may have to resort to physical aggression.

The next level is the snap which is usually (but not always) in the air but in the direction of what the dog perceives to be the threat, this is usually the final warning before a serious bite incident occurs.

If a dog displays avoidance body language (crouching, flinching, blinking, upper lip raising, and tail tucking) and is allowed to move away from the threat, a bite can sometimes be prevented. (Best Behaviour Ltd.)

Useful books

James O’Heare

– mixed messages – ambivalent signals

Brenda Aloff


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