Dealing with Aggression

Aggression problems

Most aggression problems tend to occur when a dog’s defence threshold is, for whatever reason, too low.  This may be a global genetic problem (the spooky dog) or it may be in response to particular situations which have traumatized the dog in the past.  For example, a dog may have been bitten by a Siberian Husky as a puppy, and may develop a lifelong fear of Siberians, attacking them whenever it sees one.  It may be perfectly well behaved around other breeds.

Unfortunately the aggressive behaviour which results has traditionally been ascribed to dominance or various other debatable characteristics, and many handlers respond by punishing the dog for its ‘unacceptable’ behaviour.  This has the effect of making the whole syndrome worse.  Not only is the dog scared of Siberians (or whatever), but he is also being punished for expressing his fear, which simply proves to him that his fear of Siberians is fully justified as terrible things always happen to him when he sees one!  It is a very sound axiom that one cannot punish fear or aggression out of a dog.

So what can we do to treat this?
There is not a lot one can do to change the dog’s genetic hardwiring, but a great deal of future problems can be prevented by extensive puppy socialization.  A genetically nervous puppy who is thoroughly socialized may well grow up to have a more stable temperament than a genetically sound puppy who is undersocialised.  But most people don’t recognize the problem until it has become a severe issue in an adult dog.

Assuming that the aggressive dog was inadequately socialized as a puppy, or was traumatized in some way, what treatment options are available for the adult dog?

The first and most important step is for the owner to recognize that the aggression is almost certainly based in anxiety.  This may sound obvious, but many owners of guarding breeds are astonishingly reluctant to make this admission, mainly because it is also an admission that the dog is temperamentally unsuitable for the work it was bred for.  Given that only about 10% of dogs from guarding breeds are actually suitable for protection work, one hopes that this attitude will change as understanding of behavioural techniques becomes more widespread.

Anxiety is in fact the number one cause of aggressive behaviour, and many behavioural scientists are coming to believe that even so-called ‘dominance’ aggression has a strong anxiety component in nearly every case.  It is so prevalent that it is probably safe to assume anxiety as the cause until proved wrong; certainly the treatment won’t do any harm and may do a lot of good.

(We do recognise conditions like avoidance-motivated aggression (likely to be the real story behind ‘dominance’ aggression); in cases like these the dog behaves very aggressively and with very little apparent anxiety.  Treating dogs like this is extremely dangerous and requires expertise, experience and a huge commitment of time and effort).

Dealing with anxiety-based aggression is also dangerous, and the risk of being bitten should never be underestimated, but where anxiety triggers can be identified, many owners are capable of applying treatment protocols successfully.

Treatment for anxiety-based aggression usually consists of a behaviour therapy called systematic desensitization.  It was developed in the 1950’s by South African psychiatrist Joseph Wolpe, and is still used all over the world as the best available method for treating phobias in people.

Systematic desensitization simply means exposing the patient to a little of the fear-inducing stimulus at a time, in doses he can handle, and gradually increasing the exposure.  In working with dogs, this is usually combined with counter-conditioning, which means replacing a previous negative association with a positive one.  For example, if you have a relative who comes to visit often, stays for hours and bores you with lengthy and monotonous tales of her childhood, when you see her walking down the street toward you, you will probably get an “oh, no” feeling in your stomach!  But if your relative changes her tack, starts arriving with a gift you really enjoy, stays for 5 minutes, asks you all about yourself and gives you a chance to talk about things that most people won’t listen to, and then leaves, your feelings will probably change, and when you see her coming down the road, you will now think “oh, goodie, it’s Aunt Rosie!”.

What has happened is that Aunt Rosie was previously associated with boredom and frustration, and is now associated with pleasurable experiences.

The best way to explain how systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning work together is to  use an example.

Let’s suppose Greta is a Dobermann bitch who lives with a single woman and is very scared of men.  Whenever a man comes to visit, Greta becomes anxious, starts snarling and on the last two occasions has actually bitten the man.  Greta’s owner calls in a behaviourist and they decide to desensitize Greta to men.
The first step is to find a treat or reward that Greta really, really likes.  As it happens, she’s wild about chopped liver, so her owner makes sure that she has plenty available before the next male visitor arrives.  She also makes a rule that Greta does not get chopped liver at any time other than while doing desensitization work.
The second step is to work out an anxiety hierarchy from the least anxiety-producing scenario to the most anxiety-producing scenario.
Something mildly anxiety-producing for Greta might be having a man pass the garden gate while she watches from inside the front door.  Something severely anxiety-producing might be for a man to hug her while tickling her ears.
An anxiety hierarchy contains small steps from mildest to worst scenario, so Greta’s hierarchy might start something like this:
1. man stands still just outside garden gate, then walks off
2. man stands still just outside garden gate, puts hand on garden gate, then walks off
3. man stands still just outside garden gate, opens gate, closes it again, walks off
4. man stands still outside gate, opens it, comes inside, stands still, goes outside, closes gate and walks off
…….and so on
It’s important to make the steps as small as possible, and in general, the more anxious the dog, the smaller the steps need to be.
The third step is to set up the scenarios and counter-condition while the dog is being exposed to a dose of the anxiety-provoking stimulus, in this case men.
So Greta’s owner would have to find a willing man (one to start with), and get him to come past the gate at an agreed time.  She would also have to be ready with the chopped liver.
The sequence of events for the first step in the hierarchy needs to be as follows:
A: man approaches gate
B: Greta notices man
C: owner immediately starts feeding chopped liver (we want to associate this specific treat with the presence of men)
D: man leaves
E: owner immediately stops feeding chopped liver
This needs to be repeated several times.

Once Greta is ok at this level, accepting the treat happily and showing no signs of anxiety, she can move onto step two, where the man touches the gate.  Again, the same five steps are repeated over and over until there is no sign of anxiety in the dog.

It is an unbreakable rule for this kind of treatment that the work progresses at the dog’s pace and no faster.  If at any stage Greta shows signs of becoming aggressive, the man leaves immediately and Greta goes back to an easier stage, and her hierarchy is reviewed and broken up into smaller steps.  The worst possible mistake is to try to push the dog into going too fast, as this will simply increase the anxiety (and reinforce her perception that men are bad news!)

This kind of treatment is slow and painstaking, particularly at first, but has excellent results as it works directly with the dog’s emotional conditioning rather than with the resulting behaviour.  It is not at all impossible that within a couple of months, Greta will be welcoming male visitors with a wagging tail!  In practice, nearly all dogs will respond quite fast and be able to take quite big steps, and it is only the severely anxious or traumatized dog who will need the extremely slow steps described above; but the rule remains the same – proceed at the dog’s pace, no matter how slow.  Forcing the dog into proximity with something it is afraid of (and then punishing it if it reacts) is equivalent to dangling you over a 10th floor balcony by your heels to help you cure your fear of heights (and then dropping you if you scream!)

Temperament has traditionally been regarded as something hardwired and unchangeable, and a great many behaviour problems are often blamed on bad temperament and regarded as incurable.  In fact, each temperamental characteristic can be thought of as being like a tap.  How much of the characteristic the dog would display if the tap were fully closed (minimum possible) or fully opened (maximum possible) is determined by his genes.  But how far the tap is actually open (and thus how much of the characteristic he actually displays in practice) is determined by his environment.   Behavioural approaches give us much greater flexibility and effectiveness in turning the dog’s ‘taps’ on or off, and thus in modifying apparently intractable characteristics such as aggression and even social dominance.  These approaches offer new hope for dogs whose fate would previously have been euthanasia.

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