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The Faces of Aggression

What it is and Where it Comes From

Aggressive dogs bark and growl and snap and bite. Superficially, it all seems the same. Their intent is to harm a person or another animal and they do it because they are afraid or in pain or because they are just plain "mean". But the broad term aggression defines a multitude of biological factors and behaviors that can often times be quite complex. If we can better understand aggression we can more easily recognize the early warning signs and possibly avoid a serious if not life threatening situation.

We know that:

The domestic dog's early ancestors needed to chase and kill prey for food and that they used aggression to survive in the wild.
Since dogs are pack animals (like wolves), preferring to travel and hunt in groups rather than alone, the more aggressive the animal the higher the social position in the pack and the more that dog gets to eat and mate and keep his or her position.
Protection of one's territory including its space, food and potential mates, will sometimes require aggression to defend it. Long ago, humans recognized the potential value of a dog's aggressive predispositions and shaped them - through selective breeding and training - into useful working behavior for such tasks such as hunting, eradication of vermin, livestock herding and for protection from our enemies.

Inappropriate aggression, while infrequently a result of a medical problem, is usually caused by human mismanagement or, in some cases, little or no management at all. In most cases, the aggression that is deemed inappropriate is perfectly appropriate for the dog in the absence of our teaching. The dog is simply acting naturally (as he would in the wild) in order to survive.

Preventing Inappropriate Aggression

As with most things, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. When selecting your canine companion:

Select a dog that matches your lifestyle. Small dogs can get exercise running around an apartment while larger dogs need the outdoors.
Study the breed. What was it bred for? Working and herding dogs are more likely to show aggression since they were bred to do so.
Select a breeder with a good reputation for breeding for health and temperament. Local dog clubs, veterinarians and trainers are a good source. If a breeder does not handle the pups at an early age or allows them to leave the litter before eight weeks of age, find another breeder. These pups often develop behavior problems down the road.
Take your puppy to puppy classes for socialization and conduct socialization exercises away from class also..
Begin basic obedience training at four months to promote communication, respect and discipline.Categories of Aggression

Dominance Aggression
Attempt to move higher in the social hierarchy of the family (pack). Can be directed at family members including other dogs residing in the home.

Fear Aggression
Fear of an actual or perceived threat such as a person, animal or situation. The dog may "freeze", "flee" or "fight."

Territorial/Protective Aggression
Perceived threat to the home or family or family member. Usually a stranger.

Pain Aggression
Response to sickness or injury. Aggression toward nearest human or animal.

Maternal Aggression
Threat or perceived threat to a dam's pups. Aggression toward any human or animal too close to the litter.

Predatory Aggression
The predisposed behavior to chase and kill prey for food. Usually triggered by fleeing from the dog with or without fearful vocalizations. Can be a smaller animal or a child.

Seizure-Related Aggression
Caused by seizure-like brain disorders. Directed toward anyone or anything.

Treating Aggression Problems

At the first sign of an aggression problem, consult a qualified animal behaviorist or veterinarian behaviorist. Interview them and check their references. Basically, the methods used to lessen or eliminate aggression are:

Training (behavior modification)
Pharmacological Intervention (use of behavior altering drugs)
Surgical Intervention (usually castration of the male dog)

Avoiding Provocative Situations  

Territorial Aggression

The desire to protect the home or den was probably one of the fundamental reasons why man and dog became such close companions. Today, with crime on the rise, the dog is still valued as a protector of our home and family. Unfortunately, some dogs take this role a bit too far. It is clearly the responsibility of the dog owner to keep the family dog under control. Obedience training is an important part of this control. Teach your dog the "Quiet" command and the ""Stop" or "Out" command will teach the dog that you, as the leader, are in control. When my dog hears a noise and barks, I often investigate. If I see nothing, I say nothing unless the barking continues. Then I say "Quiet". If, however, there is someone outside, I praise my dog, "Good" and then I say "Quiet". My dog seems proud that he has alerted me of the approaching stranger.

If your dog rushes the door to bark at or bite your visitors, obedience training is needed as a foundation to control the problem. Your dog should be put into a "Place" command or a "Down-Stay" until the visitor enters and is greeted as a friendly person by you, the leader. The dog can then be released when the excitement is over, to smell the visitor and to say hello. Training for these situations will teach the dog how to behave when visitors arrive. Teaching your dog to defend you against a criminal attack (personal protection) is one thing. But only with proper obedience training will you make the decision as to who is a bad man and who is not. And what happens when you are not around? Now your dog is in charge.

Dog Aggression

(Between Dogs)

Inter-species aggression between dogs usually has it's roots in early learning, i.e. the lack of early socialization with other dogs. Maintained too long in isolation or not having the opportunity to meet enough other dogs and learn the social graces, dogs may become nervous or excited, both of which can present aggressive behavior. When a dog becomes extremely excited, or loaded as agitation trainers call it, he needs to bite. In some cases, if the owner is nearby trying to restrain the dog by holding his collar or leash, even the owner can become a recipient of the dog's bite.

The standard method of treatment for this problem can be corrected in a three step process.

Step One

As your dog walks toward another dog, at the moment the aggression is displayed, correct the dog with a leash-check or other form of negative reinforcement at the exact moment the dog displays aggression. Timing here is important because a correction after the aggression begins may cause further stimulation. Say "Leave-It!" and continue walking.

Step Two

As your dog walks toward another dog and looks at him, correct as above (now we are correcting him for even thinking about it.)

Step Three

As your dog walks toward another dog and looks away from him, praise him and give a food treat.

Using positive and negative reinforcement can often times act to re-shape this behavior. However, if your dog is older and extremely aggressive with other dogs, you should consult with a qualified animal behaviorist before undertaking any behavior modification.

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