Dealing with Aggression

Aggression is probably the most misunderstood and mishandled behaviour problem amongst dogs.  It is also one of the most prevalent problems reported to behaviourists.  Many otherwise experienced trainers are at a loss when it comes to dealing with aggressive dogs.  So why is it such a problem?

Firstly, it’s a problem because we humans define it as one.  Dogs have a variety of agonistic (aggressive) displays, which include quite severe but not lethal biting, which they use to resolve conflict amongst themselves.  Left to themselves, dogs will rarely injure one another seriously; major fighting problems almost always evolve as a result of well-meant but misguided human intervention.  To us, a dog fight is quite terrifying, and the person who can stand back, watch a fight and assess it coolly before deciding whether or not intervention is warranted, is a pretty rare being.  Show people, with their obsession with keeping their dogs pretty, are particularly bad in this respect!  But in actual fact, almost all dog fights break up spontaneously within three minutes, and it is only if a fight continues for longer than this, or if one dog bites down hard on the other dog, holds on and starts working his way toward the throat that you should consider intervening.  If the fight is all ‘teeth and claws’ (lots of snapping, snarling and foot-waving), the best is to let it peter out by itself.

The level of noise in the fight is also a good indicator of how severe it is – and this might not work quite the way you think it does!  Try this exercise.  Get an apple.  Shout as loudly as you possibly can.  Now bite into the apple, and while still biting, shout as loudly as you possibly can again.

The first time (minus the apple), you’ll probably make quite a respectable amount of noise.  But when trying to shout while biting an apple, the most you’re likely to produce is a rather muffled "mummphh".

The moral of the story, of course, is that the noisier a dog fight is, the less there is to worry about – and this is particularly important to understand when a youngster is being reared by older sibling dogs in a multi-dog household.  When an adolescent pup is flat on his back yelling his head off, with a lot of growling, snarling, barking older dogs apparently ripping him to shreds, you can be pretty sure that he’ll emerge with nothing worse than a mild nip here or there.

Quiet dog fights, on the other hand, are likely to be very serious, and if you hear a drop in volume from the dog who is winning an altercation, it’s time to intervene.  How to break up a serious dog fight without getting seriously bitten yourself will have to be the subject of a separate article (but there is some good information here – give the page time to download as it has lots of pictures, and scroll down to the text.  There is one piece of information on this page with which I disagree strenuously – never, ever, ever alpha-roll a dog.  Otherwise, it’s excellent advice, including the material on treating bite wounds, which should never be stitched and always left to heal by secondary intention).

Aggressive behaviour is thus a normal part of a dog’s behavioural repertoire, and is not necessarily deviant in any way.  When dogs cross the line and start behaving aggressively toward humans, though, aggression becomes a very serious problem because of the huge potential for serious injury.  Even at this stage, though, it is not necessarily abnormal, but nevertheless requires swift and expert intervention, particularly if the dog is a large one.

The issue of aggression is complicated in guarding breeds such as Dobermanns because some aggression in these dogs is desirable, and is selected for as part of the breeding process.  Unfortunately, many Dobermann owners regard their dog’s aggression as acceptable because they see it as part of his ‘protective instinct’, and thus fail to recognize that the aggression is in fact due to excessive anxiety or another maladaptive cause.  Owners of guarding breeds also often wish to see their dogs as courageous, and have difficulty accepting the notion that their dog may be at risk of becoming a fear-biter.

The first step to being able to deal with aggression is understanding it better.  Although there are over twenty identified causes of aggression in dogs, behaviourists generally agree that there are two main categories: predatory and affective.

Predatory, or quiet aggression is the type of aggressive behaviour involved in hunting for food.  It is highly pleasurable to the dog, and is triggered by, for example, swiftly moving animals like cats or squeaking and squealing noises such as those made by small children.  A lot of bicycle and car chasing problems fall into this category.

During predatory aggression episodes, the dog is usually quiet and there will be no signs such as hackles up or snarling; in fact the chances are that the tail will be wagging and the dog will look quite happy!
Affective aggression (or aggression with an emotional content) can be loosely defined as aggression in response to a perceived threat.  It is unpleasant for the dog and will usually be accompanied by signs such as curled lips, hackles up and snarling.

Any animal which finds itself under threat can choose from one of three options: fight, flight or freezing (‘playing dead’).  Dobermanns are bred (theoretically, anyway!) to select fighting as their primary option, and when we say that a dog has ‘courage’, what we mean is simply that he will tend to fight rather than run when confronted by a threat.

Usually a dog wavers between fighting and running, depending on the severity of the threat and the dog’s temperament.  Emotionally, the dog is torn between fear and aggression.  Figure 1 shows the facial expressions of the dog on the two axes of fear and aggression, and is a useful way of determining which emotion is uppermost in a dog who is under threat.  In a guarding breed, we would like aggression to be uppermost.

Fear/aggression continuum
Figure 1 (from On Aggression: Konrad Lorenz)

What this means is that fear and affective aggression are two sides of the same coin.  There is a popular belief that aggression is at one end of the spectrum, and fear at the other.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  At one end of the spectrum is the confident, relaxed, unfazed dog and at the other is the threatened, anxious animal whose choices are to fight or to run.

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