Types of Aggression in Dogs
There are at least five commonly encountered forms or subtypes of canine aggression. It is important to determine the type of aggression a dog is displaying before attempting to address the problem. In most cases, owners should seek the advice of a professional trainer to diagnose and address aggression in their dogs.
Fear aggression, or defensive aggression, happens when a dog perceives that it is in a threatening situation. The fearful reaction may be entirely normal and appropriate under the circumstances, or it may approach being phobic. There is no age or gender predisposition for this form of aggression, although it is often seen in young puppies around 12 weeks of age, and again when they approach sexual maturity between 9 and 12 months of age. Fear aggression is not affected by neutering. Certain breeds seem to have a genetic predisposition to this behavioral condition, particularly German shepherds, Border collies and several other breeds. When put in an unfamiliar and threatening situation, a dog’s instincts are to run or to fight. Depending upon the situation, the only realistic option may be aggression. For example, fear aggression is highly overrepresented in dogs that are chained. Fear aggression can be extremely dangerous because it can lead to human harm. Signs of fear aggression include trembling, growling, barking, lip-lifting, snapping, cowering, crouching, backing up, lip-licking and tail tucking. Often, so-called “fear biters” have a history of abuse, and lash out when cornered.
Impulse-Control (“Dominance” or “Social Status”) Aggression
Dominance aggression in dogs can occur in all breeds and either gender. It is reported to be more common in English springer spaniels and Dalmatians in the United States. The clinical signs involve growling, baring teeth, staring, a dominant and forward stance, and/or biting – particularly in response to people staring, reaching towards or over the dog or punishing it inappropriately. This type of aggression is often displayed toward human household members, such as reaching for the pet, pushing it off sleeping sites or approaching food or toys.
Interdog Aggression (Male or Female)
Interdog aggression is almost always exhibited between dogs of the same sex. It seems to be more common between intact male or female dogs. The signs are intense staring, hair raising, growling and challenges, although frequently once a fight starts, the dogs are almost silent. It is an “old wives tale” that male-male dog fights are worse than those between two females. In fact, males challenging one another with this type of aggression usually fight until one of them submits. In fights between females, the fights can lead to extremely severe injuries, and death. Interdog aggression becomes dangerous to people only when they try to break up the fight, as the involved dogs are fighting irrespective of pain tolerance. These fights are often described as involving “blind rage.”
This type of canine aggression is characterized by barking, growling, snarling, biting and other aggressive behaviors apparently designed to protect objects (car, house, property, people). It worsens when the dog is behind discrete boundaries, such as in a car or behind a fence. I most cases, these dogs are not aggressive away from their territory.
Food aggression is characterized by growling and lip-lifting if approached, or sometimes even if only looked at, when eating. It often progresses to biting if removal of the food or treat is attempted. Obviously, this can be quite dangerous to people, especially children who are oblivious to the dog’s verbal and postural warnings.
Resolving or Preventing Canine Aggression
Most dogs are not born aggressive. While some breeds are particularly trainable to a number of behaviors, including aggressive ones, they usually do not come by aggressiveness on their own. Much more often, aggressive dogs have been mistreated, ignored, chained, unsocialized or improperly trained during critical periods of development. Humane training methods under the guidance of a skilled trainer can help nip aggressive behaviors in the bud. Head halters and harnesses are very helpful in controlling dominant dogs. Consistency, kindness and predictability in managing aggression is critical. Methods that involve extreme punishment or harsh forms of physical restraint have no place in modern dog training and actually can make dogs more aggressive and dangerous to the people in their world. Many talented, knowledgeable canine behavior experts are available to help you and your veterinarian address aggression in your dog.