Aggression in Dogs
Aggression, defined as an appropriate or inappropriate threat or challenge that is ultimately resolved by combat or submission, is one of the most common behavioral problems in companion dogs. Aggression can occur in any breed, age or gender of dog and can be directed towards people or other animals. It is potentially very destructive, and very dangerous. Aggression can take a number of forms and be caused by a number of things. Common signs include biting, growling, snarling, curling lips, barking, snapping, head and tail up with direct stare, head and tail down with body withdrawn, frantic tail waving, posturing and lunging.
Common Causes of Dog Aggression
All breeds, ages and genders of dogs can become aggressive. However, very few dogs are born aggressive, and frequently aggressive behavior in dogs is normally a direct result of something else.
Aggression in dogs is part of the normal range of canine behavior in many cases and is strongly influenced by breed, sex, early socialization, handling, individual temperament, genetics and other variables. It is possible for underlying medical conditions to cause or contribute to aggression, although this is rare. Still, medical causes of aggression (such as pain or neurological disorders) must be ruled out before an appropriate treatment protocol can begin.
When humans started breeding companion dogs, they did so in a manner that would consistently produce desired traits. The current range of canine breeds is a direct result of human manipulation and breeding for these various traits. Some breeds were bred to be pampered, gentle and tolerant. Other breeds were bred to protect flocks or herds, or for family protection. Some breeds were bred for their ability to track and hunt birds, wild boar, rats or fox. Others were bred for size, or smallness, or coat, or cuteness. Dogs bred for aggression (which they never should have been), may naturally have a tendency to be aggressive. Most breeds commonly associated with aggression towards people (“pit bulls,” bull dogs, others) actually were bred to be extremely trainable and restrainable by people, but were taught to be aggressive to other animals.
No matter how gentle a puppy is, abuse, mistreatment and neglect can cause that dog to suffer behavioral problems, including aggression. Dogs that are raised without proper socialization, nutrition and affection will not know how to act appropriately in social situations involving people and/or other dogs. It is extremely sad to see fear or other forms of aggression in a dog because of an abusive or neglectful background.
Medical causes of canine aggression are uncommon but may include: pain, head trauma, swelling of the brain, rabies, distemper, epilepsy, arthritis and other neurological or painful disorders. Painful dogs may bite their owners without really knowing what they are doing (for example, after being hit by a car or attacked by another dog).
Curbing Aggressive Behavior
Aggressive behavioral problems are difficult to resolve without the assistance of a specialized trainer or veterinary behaviorist. Realistically, dog owners should hope to manage and modify unacceptably aggressive behaviors in their pets, without expecting complete correction. Of course, the younger the dog, the better chance there is to resolve inappropriate behaviors.
The goals of treating canine aggression are to eliminate the aggressive behaviors and render the dog safer, to enhance human safety and the human-animal bond, to alleviate the anxiety causing the dog’s aggressive behavior and to make the dog and its people happier and calmer. Treatment for aggression involves desensitizing the dog to the eliciting stimulus (other dogs, threatening people, children approaching their food, etc.) and counter-conditioning or rewarding the dog for calm or good behavior. Complete control over the dog, by either the owner or the trainer, is essential for this to work. A head halter or harness can be a valuable tool that provides not only physical control but also causes the dog to focus his attention on his handler, rather than on external stimuli. No amount of superficial advice can provide what your veterinary behavioral specialist can provide to assess and address your dog’s particular situation. However, physical punishment and harsh restraint are strongly discouraged as they usually intensify aggression-based behaviors.
Proper socialization of puppies to people and to other dogs is critical, regardless of the dog’s breed, gender or prospective use. Puppies go through major developmental phases between 3 and 12 weeks of age where proper and positive interaction with other animals, people and novel environments are crucial to helping them develop appropriately solid social character traits. Puppy classes are an excellent way to achieve this socialization while establishing a solid training foundation. If an owner fails to capitalize on these critical developmental periods, their puppy may not develop the proper skills and behaviors to make it a good household member.
Understanding the cause of canine aggression is essential to assessing and helping a dog and its owner in any given situation. Professional help from a veterinarian and a skilled behavior expert are key components of a healthy recipe for treating aggression in our companion dogs. While this condition can be extremely frustrating for owners (and no doubt for affected animals as well), there are steps that can be taken to address the situation. Euthanasia should never be an automatic “treatment” or “solution” for behavioral disorders in our pets.