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Making Sense of Canine Aggression

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This image shows a dog baring its teeth

In my work as a clinical animal behaviourist, I am often asked to help with dogs that are described as being aggressive. But, before we begin to label a dog, it is important to remember that aggression is only a symptom of a behaviour problem. Therefore, understanding canine aggression and determining what is motivating the dog to react aggressively is the key to treatment and behaviour modification.

What causes canine aggression?

There are many things that can motivate a dog to display and use aggression and some of them are completely natural. Take maternal aggression for example. It makes perfect sense for a bitch to protect her puppies and, like most species, she will defend them no matter what.

Self-defence is another reason for aggression and something that is very often overlooked is pain and illness. In fact, a study indicated that around a third of referred behaviour cases involved some form of painful condition. More alarmingly, the researchers suspect that this figure may be nearly as high as 80%.  That’s why a clinical animal behaviourist always asks for the dog to have a full veterinary examination before the consultation.

Emotions that underlie canine aggression include:

  • Fear: Fear is an adaptive response. It signals danger and is essential for survival. The key feature of fear is that it is directed to the location of the fearful stimulus Examples might include a loud noise, a stranger, another dog etc. Fear is generally terminated when the object of fear is removed. However, problems arise when the dog is in a perpetual state of fear or is unable to cope because of a lack of emotional resilience. This is often due to inappropriate or inadequate socialisation.
  • Anxiety: An anxious dog is one that anticipates danger and this causes them to be in a state of vigilance and high alert. These dogs are easily startled. Unlike fear, anxiety is abnormal and serves no function.

What do fear and anxiety have in common?

They both activate the stress response. The stress response is the coordinated reaction to threatening stimuli. It includes avoidance behaviour, increased vigilance and the release of hormones such as adrenaline – preparing the animal for action (fight and flight).

Why does fear and anxiety lead to canine aggression?

Fear and anxiety both lower the threshold for aggression. Even dogs that have never shown aggression before can, when anxious or frightened, use defensive aggression.

Defensive aggression occurs if the dog feels there is no escape (flight) from a fearful encounter. If their attempt to repel a threat using more subtle signals like backing away, averting their eyes or presenting a side-on stance are ignored, they may feel compelled to act more aggressively and use other defensive behaviours such as growling, baring their teeth and barking.

The problem can develop further when the dog discovers that aggression works. Soon, the defensive, avoidance behaviour may shift to more proactive and offensive aggression such as lunging, snapping and biting.  Sometimes, in extreme but rare cases, they can mount a full attack.

The ladder of aggression, designed by Kendal Shepherd illustrates this well.

To diffuse a situation it helps if you can understand and read canine body language. By recognising and responding to the early signs of a dog’s emotional discomfort , you can quickly remove them from the encounter.  This prevents problems from escalating but, importantly, helps them feel more secure – knowing that you are there to help control things for them.

What should I do if my dog is showing aggression?

Obviously there are different degrees of aggression and in all cases early intervention is crucial. Here are some practical steps to follow:

  1. Get your dog checked by a vet to eliminate pain and medical problems.
  2. Seek professional help as soon as possible from a suitably qualified canine behaviourist. They will assess the problem and provide practical help and advice.
  3. Begin muzzle training (under the guidance of a professional). Click here for a link to a short video demonstration.
  4. Ensure the safety of others – If people are the target of aggression either stop taking your dog out to public places or make sure that they are fully under control on a securely fitted lead and muzzle. Remember, that a dog does not have to bite anyone to be regarded as being dangerously out of control. You can be reported and prosecuted under the Dangerous Dog Act (1991) if your dog makes someone worried that it might injure them!
  5. Protect visitors to the home – Postal workers, utility providers and other authorised visitors to your property should be able to carry out their work without encountering and feeling threatened by your dog.
  6. Ensure that your garden is secure. This is not only to reduce the likelihood of your dog escaping, but to prevent trespassers as you may be liable if they are injured by your dog.
  7. If the target of aggression is other dogs or animals you must ensure that you have your dog under full control. A word of caution – it is common for dogs to inadvertently bite a person when they are in the middle of a dog fight!
  8. Take steps to understand the legal position. Even if a dog has underlying issues that can help explain their behaviour, there are legal implications of owning a dog that shows aggression.

What if my dog actually bites someone?

There is a lot of conflicting advice on this subject so seeking the help and advice of a legal expert is of great importance. This article by Quittance Legal Services

 explains what owners can do in order to help ensure a better outcome for all sides.

Hopefully this article has helped you have a better understanding of what might be causing canine aggression. However, being able to explain why a dog is driven to use aggression does not protect them nor does it make them less dangerous.  Therefore taking action to prevent the problem from developing and being aware of the legal implications is of paramount importance.

Do you live or work with dogs that are fearful, anxious, aggressive or reactive?  Learn much more through this accredited and veterinary approved course. Just click here for more information.

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