Dog aggression is any behavior meant to intimidate or harm a person or another animal. Growling, baring teeth, snarling, snapping and biting are all aggressive behaviors. Although aggressive behaviors are normal for dogs, they're generally unacceptable to humans. From a dog's perspective, there's always a reason for aggressive behavior. Because humans and dogs have different communication systems, misunderstandings can occur between the two species. A person may intend to be friendly, but a dog may perceive that person's behavior as threatening or intimidating. Dogs aren't schizophrenic, psychotic, crazy, or necessarily "vicious," when displaying aggressive behavior.
Because aggression is so complex, and because the potential consequences are so serious, we recommend that you get professional in-home help from an animal behavior specialist if your dog is displaying aggressive behavior.
Types Of Aggression
Dominance Aggression: Dominance aggression is motivated by a challenge to a dog's social status or to his control of a social interaction. Dogs are social animals and view their human families as their social group or "pack." Based on the outcomes of social challenges among group members, a dominance hierarchy or "pecking order" is established. If your dog perceives his own ranking in the hierarchy to be higher than yours, it's likely that he'll challenge you in certain situations. Because people don't always understand canine communication, you may inadvertently challenge your dog's social position. A dominantly aggressive dog may growl if he is disturbed when resting or sleeping, or if he is asked to give up a favorite spot, such as the couch or the bed. Physical restraint, even when done in a friendly manner, like hugging, may also cause your dog to respond aggressively. Reaching for your dog's collar, or reaching out over his head to pet him, could also be interpreted by him as a challenge for dominance. Dominantly aggressive dogs are often described as "Jekyll and Hydes" because they can be very friendly when not challenged. Dominance aggression may be directed at people or at other animals. The most common reason for dogs in the same family to fight with each other is instability in the dominance hierarchy.
What Does "Dominance" Mean?
In order to understand why your dog is acting "dominant," it's important to know some things about canine social systems. Animals who live in social groups, including domestic dogs and wolves, establish a social structure called a dominance hierarchy within their group. This hierarchy serves to maintain order, reduce conflict and promote cooperation among group members. A position within the dominance hierarchy is established by each member of the group, based on the outcomes of interactions between themselves and the other pack members. The more dominant animals can control access to valued items such as food, den sites and mates. For domestic dogs, valued items might be food, toys, sleeping or resting places, as well as attention from their owner.
In order for your home to be a safe and happy place for pets and people, it's best that the humans in the household assume the highest positions in the dominance hierarchy. Most dogs assume a neutral or submissive role toward people, but some dogs will challenge their owners for dominance. A dominant dog may stare, bark, growl, snap or even bite when you give him a command or ask him to give up a toy, treat or resting place. Sometimes even hugging, petting or grooming can be interpreted as gestures of dominance and, therefore, provoke a growl or snap because of the similarity of these actions to behaviors that are displayed by dominant dogs. Nevertheless, a dominant dog may still be very affectionate and may even solicit petting and attention from you.
You May Have A Dominance Issue With Your Dog If:
· He resists obeying commands that he knows well.
· He won't move out of your way when required.
· He nudges your hand, takes you're arm in his mouth or insists on being petted or played with (in other words, ordering you to obey him).
· He defends his food bowl, toys or other objects from you.
· He growls or bares his teeth at you under any circumstances.
· He won't let anyone (you, the vet, the groomer) give him medication or handle him.
· He gets up on furniture without permission and won't get down.
· He snaps at you.
What To Do If You Recognize Signs of Dominance In Your Dog
If you recognize the beginning signs of dominance aggression in your dog, you should immediately consult an animal behavior specialist. No physical punishment should be used. Getting physical with a dominant dog may cause the dog to intensify his aggression, posing the risk of injury to you. With a dog that has shown signs of dominance aggression, you should always take precautions to ensure the safety of your family and others who may encounter your dog by:
· Avoiding situations that elicit the aggressive behavior.
· During the times your dog is acting aggressively, back off and use "happy talk" to relieve the tenseness of the situation.
· Supervise, confine and/or restrict your dog's activities as necessary, especially when children or other pets are present.
· When you're outdoors with your dog, use a "Gentle Leader" or muzzle.
· When you're indoors with your dog, control access to the entire house by using baby gates and/or by crating your dog. You can also use a cage-type muzzle, or a "Gentle Leader" and leash, but only when you can closely supervise your dog.
Dominance aggression problems are unlikely to go away without your taking steps to resolve them. Treatment of dominance aggression problems should always be supervised by an animal behavior specialist, since dominant aggressive dogs can be potentially dangerous.
The following techniques (which don't require a physical confrontation with your dog) can help you gain some control:
· Spay or neuter your dog to reduce hormonal contributions to aggression. NOTE: After a mature animal has been spayed or neutered, it may take time for those hormones to clear from the system. Also, long-standing behavior patterns may continue even after the hormones or other causes no longer exist.
· "Nothing in Life is Free" is a safe, non-confrontational way to establish your leadership and requires your dog to work for everything he gets from you. Have your dog obey at least one command (such as "sit") before you pet him, give him dinner, put on his leash or throw a toy for him. If your dog doesn't know any commands or doesn't perform them reliably, you'll first have to teach him, and practice with him daily. You may need to seek professional help if your dog is not obeying each time you ask after two to three weeks of working on a command.
· Don't feed your dog people food from the table and don't allow begging.
· Don't play "tug of war," wrestle or play roughly with your dog.
· Ignore barking and jumping up.
· Don't allow your dog on the furniture or your bed, as this is a privilege reserved for leaders. If your dog growls or snaps when you try to remove him from the furniture, use a treat to lure him off. Otherwise, try to limit his access to your bed and/or furniture by using baby gates, a crate, or by closing doors.
· Always remember to reward good behavior.
· Consult your veterinarian about acupuncture, massage therapy or drug therapy.
· Obedience classes may be helpful in establishing a relationship between you and your dog in which you give commands and he obeys them. Obedience classes alone, however, won't necessarily prevent or reduce dominance aggression.
From your dog's point of view, children, too, have a place in the dominance hierarchy, because children are smaller and get down on the dog's level to play, dogs often consider them to be playmates, rather than superiors. Small children and dogs should not be left alone together without adult supervision. Older children should be taught how to play and interact appropriately and safely with dogs; however, no child should be left alone with a dog who has displayed signs of aggression.
Fear-Motivated Aggression: Fear-motivated aggression is a defensive reaction and occurs when a dog believes he is in danger of being harmed. Remember that it's your dog's perception of the situation, not your actual intent, which determines your dog's response. For example, you may raise your arm to throw a ball, but your dog, perceiving this to be a threat, may bite you because he believes he is protecting himself from being hit. A dog may also be fearfully aggressive when approached by other dogs.
Protective, Territorial And Possessive Aggression: Protective, territorial and possessive aggression are all very similar, and involve the defense of valuable resources. Territorial aggression is usually associated with defense of property. However, your dog's sense of territory may extend well past the boundaries of "his" yard. For example, if you walk your dog regularly around the neighborhood and allow him to urine-mark, to him, his territory may be the entire block! Protective aggression usually refers to aggression directed toward people or animals that a dog perceives as threats to his family, or pack. Dogs become possessively aggressive when defending their food, toys or other valued objects, such as Kleenex stolen from the trash!
Redirected Aggression: This type of aggression is relatively common, but is a behavior that pet owners may not always understand. If a dog is aroused into an aggressive response by a person or animal that he is prevented from attacking, he may redirect this aggression onto someone else. A common example occurs when two family dogs become excited, bark and growl in response to another dog passing through the front yard. The two dogs, confined behind a fence, may turn and attack each other because they can't attack the intruder.
Predation is usually considered to be a unique kind of aggressive behavior, because it's motivated by the intent to obtain food, and not primarily by the intent to harm or intimidate.
Dogs differ in their likelihood to show aggressive behavior in any particular situation. Some dogs tend to respond aggressively with very little stimulation. Others may be subjected to all kinds of threatening stimuli and events, and never attempt to bite. The difference in this threshold at which a dog displays aggressive behavior is influenced by both environmental and genetic factors. If this threshold is low, a dog will be more likely to bite. Raising the threshold makes a dog less likely to respond aggressively. This threshold can be raised using behavior modification techniques. How easily the threshold can be changed is influenced by the dog's gender, age, breed, general temperament, and by whether the appropriate behavior modification techniques are chosen and correctly implemented. Working with aggressive dogs can be potentially dangerous, and should be done only by, or under the guidance of, an experienced animal behavior professional who understands animal learning theory and behavior.
What You Can Do
· First check with your veterinarian to rule out medical causes for the aggressive behavior.
· Seek professional help. An aggression problem will not go away by itself. Working with aggression problems requires in-home help from an animal behavior specialist.
· Take precautions. Your first priority is to keep everyone safe. Supervise, confine and/or restrict your dog's activities until you can obtain professional help. You're liable for your dog's behavior. If you must take your dog out in public, consider a cage-type muzzle as a temporary precaution, and keep in mind that some dogs can get a muzzle off.
· Avoid exposing your dog to situations where he is more likely to show aggression. You may need to keep him confined to a safe room and limit his people-contact.
· If your dog is possessive of food, treats or a certain place, don't allow him access to those items. In an emergency, bribe him with something better than what he has. For example, if he steals your shoe, trade him the shoe for a piece of chicken.
· Spay or neuter your dog. Intact dogs are more likely to display dominance, territorial and protective aggressive behavior.
What Not To Do
· Punishment won't help and, in fact, will make the problem worse. If the aggression is motivated by fear, punishment will make your dog more fearful, and therefore more aggressive. Attempting to punish or dominate a dominantly aggressive dog is likely to cause him to escalate his behavior in order to retain his dominant position. This is likely to result in a bite or a severe attack. Punishing territorial, possessive or protective aggression is likely to elicit additional defensive aggression. Seek the assistance of a qualified, professional trainer!
· Don't encourage aggressive behavior. Playing tug-of-war or wrestling games encourages your dog to attempt to "best" you or "win" over you, which can result in the beginning of a dominance aggression problem. When dogs are encouraged to "go get 'em" or to bark and dash about in response to outside noises or at the approach of a person, territorial and protective aggressive behavior may be the result.