Aggression – topics around dominance aggression, avoidance motivated aggression etc

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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More on Dominance

Q. My dog is dominant and has growled at me a few times when I try to kick him off the couch. I’ve been told that I ought to alpha-roll him to prove that I’m dominant, but I’m scared he’ll bite me. What should I do?

A. The wolf-pack theory of dog behaviour is so prevalent amongst dog trainers and people who write articles about dogs that it has become taken for granted. Articles on how to deal with “dominant” dogs abound. It is assumed without question that social status and rank is important to dogs. “Dominance” aggression toward owners is one of the most frequently reported problems behaviourists have to deal with. So it would be nice to know first of all how much truth there is in the idea.

Early research into dog behaviour suggested that the dog evolved from the wolf with his patterns of social behaviour pretty much unchanged. Wolves are highly social, hunt in packs and form fairly fluid linear dominance hierarchies in their packs, with the highest-ranking wolf called the Alpha. The wolf-pack theory of dog behaviour thus suggests that the dog regards his human as another dog and that it is very important for the human to treat the dog as an Alpha Wolf would. In particular, if the dog misbehaves or shows aggression toward the human, the human is called upon to demonstrate his Alpha-ness by “alpha-rolling” the dog – hurling him to the ground on his back, pinning him by the throat and growling at him. The more devoted aficionados of the theory hold that this will “put the dog in his place” and apparently resolve a variety of training and behavioural problems at the same time.

It’ll certainly frighten the dog, or alternatively provoke him to even worse excesses of aggression, but whether it will make any difference to the dog’s perception of his social rank is highly doubtful, and it certainly won’t compensate for undertraining – the most common reason for misbehaviour.

There are several things wrong with the wolf-pack view of dog behaviour. The first is that dogs (or wolves, for that matter) don’t alpha-roll each other. An animal which is already low in rank may voluntarily roll over and display its stomach to an animal higher in rank, but this is a deferential behaviour on the part of the low-ranking animal, not an attempt on the part of the higher ranking animal to “put the other one in its place”!

The second is that dog social behaviour is not actually all that similar to wolf social behaviour. Dogs seldom hunt in packs, their social structure is much looser, and they probably don’t have an exact equivalent of the Alpha wolf. Observations of domestic dogs which have gone feral and of village dogs in primitive communities make this very clear.

The third thing wrong with the idea is that dogs almost certainly do not perceive their human companions as other dogs. The relationship, especially when it is a good one, is far closer to that of parent-child than of alpha-subordinate.

The fourth problem is the idea that dogs are continually jockeying for status. Dogs almost certainly don’t even have a concept of social rank as being something desirable as such, and it’s certainly not something that they would put themselves at physical risk for by fighting. What they will fight over is access to resources – the best food, space, the best place to sleep – and the dog who tends to win these encounters will emerge as dominant with respect to the other dog or dogs, sometimes in very specific situations. It is not uncommon for one dog to be dominant over another with respect to food, while the situation may be reversed with respect to sleeping space, for example. Once a dog has won the bulk of a series of encounters, he will expect the other dog to defer to him over access to resources, but whether he actually cares about his ‘rank’ as such is highly doubtful.

This leads to a much more sensible view of dominance, and one which fits in much better with the scientifically observed facts. Firstly, dominance is an attribute of a relationship, not of an individual dog, and secondly, it is a result, not a cause. Let’s elaborate:

Spot and Curly get into several fights over who gets the best bone. Spot wins most of them. Eventually he has only to glare at Curly and Curly will leave a bone and allow Spot to take it. Over time, then, we can say that Spot emerges as dominant, or higher in rank, with respect to Curly. Fido, on the other hand, may be able to take food off Spot every time, so Spot’s dominance is an attribute of his relationship with Curly, and not something intrinsic to Spot. We can say that Spot is dominant with respect to Curly, but it is not accurate to say that Spot is a “dominant dog”, period.

Furthermore, Spot doesn’t fight with Curly because he wants to be higher in rank than Curly. He fights with him to get the best bone. His higher rank is a result of the outcomes of several fights.

Some dogs, of course, are physically big and strong, and have a low threshold for offensive aggression, and possibly a high pain threshold as well, which means that they are likely to emerge the victor in most of their squabbles, and thus to become dominant. Such dogs often learn that they can defeat most opponents, and the more winning they do, the more confident and threatening their behaviour becomes when meeting a strange dog. But this is still an outcome of physical ability coupled with a history of winning. The dog doesn’t set out to “pull rank”.

So how does this relate to the situation where a dog is showing signs of aggression toward his owner? Is there such a thing as “dominance aggression” toward the owner?

The condition which behaviourists loosely call “dominance aggression” certainly exists, but has relatively little to do with rank at least in its early stages. It’s more likely to exist in a dog which wants to attain control of various resources and is socially inept. It’s only when the owner has inadvertently backed down to the dog a few times that rank may come into it, or that the dog may perceive itself as “higher-ranking” insofar as it expects the owner to give way to it.

Prevention, as always, is better than cure, and the best way to ensure that the problem never develops is to maintain control of access to all goodies and dole them out in exchange for obedience from the get-go, so the dog is never in doubt either about who controls the goodies or about how to get them. This has two benefits: first, the dog is never in doubt about its position in the household, and second, the dog’s environment is highly predictable and controllable, which reduces anxiety and frustration and has the effect of making it easier for a socially anxious dog to negotiate his role.

Where the problem has already developed, do not confront the dog or alpha-roll it. This is an excellent way to get severely bitten. Be particularly careful if there are children in the household as these are easy targets for a dog who has learned that aggression works.

Depending on the level of aggression, it may be possible to deal with this without professional help. If the dog has not actually bitten, then the first thing to do is to sit down and make a list of all the things which trigger growling or snarling. The next thing is to use management techniques to ensure that the dog has no access whatsoever to theses triggers (and they are usually quite specific). So a dog who growls over access to the couch must be kept off the couch, and this usually means keeping him out of the room containing the couch, or confining him by crating him or tying him out when he is in that particular room.

Thereafter, desensitization protocols should be followed for each trigger. In the case of a dog refusing to get off the couch, teach him a cue for getting off and follow up with a high quality food reward. Initially the dog should be lured off (and on) with a tasty treat so that he focuses on the treat rather than the fact that he is being asked to get off the couch. Once he is doing this quite willingly, the cue can be added and the lure faded, to be exchanged for a treat once he has actually done as asked and gotten off. If he refuses at any stage, turn round and leave the room, preferably shutting him in, and take the food with you. Try again a few minutes later.

In the case of a dog who is growly over toys or food (which need not have anything to do with dominance), start an object exchange protocol where he learns to give up an object in return for a treat and the return of the object. To start with, any high-quality items like rawhide chews, fresh bones and favourite toys need to be eliminated from the environment. Starting with a fairly boring toy is a good approach. Say a cue such as “leave it”, and offer the treat. As soon as the dog drops the toy, say “good dog” (or click if you have started clicker training), give the treat, and return the toy. Again, fade the lure until the dog will drop the toy happily on cue, and then gets rewarded. Then a slightly more interesting toy can be used, or another variation is to have two toys and swap them each time the dog is cued.

In general, the approach to a dog like this should be one of giving him many opportunities to earn small rewards in exchange for obedience: sit if he wants to go out, sit for dinner, lie down to have his lead put on for a walk, sit for attention and patting, and so on. Obviously he needs to know a few basic commands, and these should be taught using reward-based techniques, a) because using a punitive approach is dangerous with an aggressive dog, and b) because reward-based techniques give him an opportunity to get control over sources of reward. Usually, greater consistency and patience on the part of the owner will reap results.

If the dog has become seriously aggressive (biting and drawing blood), I would recommend calling in a behaviourist unless you know a great deal about learning theory. Avoid anyone who recommends aversives, alpha-rolling or the use of e-collars straight away. You are looking for someone who can identify behavioural triggers and construct the safest possible desensitization hierarchies, and also someone who has a working knowledge of behavioural pharmacology and will be able to recommend medication, at least during the process of behaviour modification.

Whether you deal with the problem yourself or call in a professional, the dog should never be regarded as cured. Managing his behaviour will mean that you will have to make changes in your behaviour which will have to last for the rest of the dog’s life.

Dominance Myths

It started with the words of dog trainer Konrad Most, writing in 1910:

“In a pack of young dogs fierce fights take place to decide how they are to rank within the pack. And in a pack composed of men and dogs, canine competition for importance in the eyes of the trainer is keen. If this state of affairs is not countered by methods which the canine mind can comprehend, it frequently ends in such animals attacking and seriously injuring not only their trainers, but also other people. As in a pack of dogs, the order of hierarchy in a man and dog combination can only be established by physical force – that is, by an actual struggle in which the man is instantaneously victorious. Such a result can only be brought about by convincing the dog of the absolute physical superiority of the man.”

This highly influential theory has permeated to all levels of the dog world, and has resulted in dog abuse on the grand scale, culminating in atrocities such as the Koehler method, with its horrific recommendations such as beating dogs with rubber hoses and half-drowning them to prevent digging. Even trainers who do not themselves espouse the more violent methods beloved of Koehler and his disciples generally accept the dominance model of canine social behaviour without question. Dogs who are routinely beaten or hung by their owners, and who finally retaliate in self-defence, are written off, over and over again, as ‘dominant’ because they decline to submit peacefully to appalling levels of physical punishment. And the solution offered by most trainers, even today, is more punishment, and still more, until the dog has to be put down because its temperament has been irrevocably ruined.

It’s only in the last decade, with its explosion of interest in the field of canine behaviour and cognition, that anyone has seriously questioned the appropriateness of pretending to be a wolf when interacting with your dog! And the results of this somewhat more rigorous and scientific approach to the subject have been surprising indeed. Here is the truth behind some of the most cherished myths of dogdom:

Myth: Some dogs are naturally dominant, while others are naturally submissive.

Fact: Dominance is an attribute of a relationship, not of an individual. If Rover and Fido have had several fights of which Rover has won the bulk, Fido will start trying to appease Rover whenever Rover threatens him. We can then say that Rover is dominant and that Fido is submissive, but only in the context of Fido and Rover’s relationship. Fido may well be the dominant partner in his relationship with Curly, while Rover may well be the submissive partner in his relationship with Spot. In this way, loose dominance hierarchies develop.

It thus does not make sense to say that Rover is a dominant dog, nor does it make sense to say that dominance is an inherited characteristic. What can be inherited are traits such as large body size and a low threshold for offensive aggression, which will make a dog more likely to succeed in disputes, and thus to become dominant. Dominance is learned, not inherited.

Myth: Dogs, like wolves, have a rigid and linear pack structure.

Fact: Both dogs and wolves have a fairly fluid pack structure. There will generally be separate male and female hierarchies, so a pack will thus have an alpha female as well as an alpha male. Within those hierarchies, however, there is a lot of movement, and most dominance behaviour seems to be situational, with the same dog being, for example, dominant with respect to food resources and submissive with respect to social space.

Myth: Dominance can be tested for and detected in puppies as early as seven weeks.

Fact: At seven weeks, dominance is as fluid as any other temperament characteristic. There is in fact no correlation between social dominance test scores at seven weeks and at sixteen weeks.

Myth: Dominance can be maintained only by physical force.

Fact: Dominance may be established by physical force, but is maintained by, at most, the use of stereotypical threat-appeasement displays. In fact, many canine dominance hierarchies are established and maintained without any force whatsoever, and furthermore, these hierarchies are far more stable and likely to last than those established by means of force.

In fact, it is more accurate to refer to dominance hierarchies as deference hierarchies as they are maintained by the affection and deference of the submissive members toward the alpha rather than by threat displays and violence from the alpha toward the submissive members of the hierarchy. What is important is that the flow of attention and affection should move up the hierarchy rather than down it.

Myth: If your dog jumps up at you, he is trying to dominate you.

Fact: If your dog jumps up at you, he is trying to lick your chin, an act of active submission which developed from the puppy behaviour of licking the mother’s chin to get her to regurgitate food! Next time he jumps up at you, watch his ear position. Chances are, his ears will be pinned back!

Myth: Your dog sees you as another dog and it is essential that you should be perceived as the alpha.

Fact: The relationship between you and your dog is far more complex than a dominance hierarchy can explain. There is a surprising amount of evidence to suggest that humans are a supernormal object of affection to dogs, i.e. that dogs love their humans much more than other dogs and relate to them more deeply than they are capable of relating to other dogs. And the reverse may also be true, which might explain why we’re so crazy about our dogs! Certainly it is true to say that your dog probably does not regard himself either as particularly dominant or as particularly submissive in his relationship to you. Where competition between human and dog emerges, it is more likely to be pseudodominance (or obnoxious submission) than true, status-related dominance.

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