Clinical dog aggression is defined as a behavior performed by a dog whose intentions are to injure another organism.
Dog aggression is somewhat of an arbitrary label since dogs don’t intrinsically have aggression inside of themselves (like a heart) but is an action associated with feelings. Dogs have a limbic system and a full range of feelings and emotions just as we do.
However, like in humans, aggression can be intrinsically reinforcing (self-reinforcing) if it alleviates fear anxiety or stress.
Dog aggression is not a personality trait but a response to a stimulus in the environment. When a dog cannot increase his distance to a scary object or aversive stimulus the dog may become aggressive.
A common example is when the mailman comes and scares the dog. The dog then barks, growls and lunges after the mailman, then the mailman goes away (increases distance). Therefore, the dog’s aggressive behavior continues to get reinforced.
In this example, when the mailman is removed from the dog’s threshold of fear, the dog stops displaying aggressive behavior. Hence this cycle strengthens the dog’s aggressive action and the dog’s behavior becomes conditioned, stronger and learned. The is learning that when he acts aggressively by barking, growling, and lunging, the mailman increases his/her distance.
Aggression is a verb linked to emotion and chemicals. An ethologist, dog behaviorist, and dog aggression trainer will operationalize (scientifically measure) your dog’s behavior and provide a functional assessment. We describe behavior without predefined labels.
For example, what’s more constructive, saying my dog is aggressive? Or the dog lunged three feet to the left and air snapped two times at an 8-year-old child and continued to lunge and growl while piloerected for one minute until the child walked away?
Descriptive actions are measurable and objective. Not merely labeling a dog behavior as “aggressive.”
The term aggressive is subjective and cannot be operationalized. Also “aggressive” means different things to different people. For example, most parents label their dogs as happy after the dog comes back from dog boarding or daycare even when the dog is fearful or stressed. On the other hand, many people label a dog as aggressive when a dog is simply playing with their dog toy or being social and playing with another dog.
However, for the sake of ease and convention, I will use the term aggression and aggressive in this article. However, if a certified behaviorist and trainer comes to help train your aggressive dog, they will ask for operational behaviors that can be measured (dog growling, dog barking dog lunging, dog jumping, pinning down another dog, the dog is crouched down leaning back towards his hind legs with his tail between his legs and is piloerected, snarling with front teeth vertically exposed and commissures pulled back, etc.)
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There’s is no consensus amongst dog behaviorists regarding types of dog aggression labels. There is also overlap between many types of dog aggression.
The overwhelming majority of dog aggression comes from dog anxiety and fear. Dogs show anxiety and fear, primarily through their body language, but also through vocalization and biting.
Since I have worked with hundreds of aggressive dogs, I am often asked, “Do I have an aggressive dog?” and “What are signs that a dog is aggressive?”
I teach clients how to read a dog’s body language and emotion. If we can’t read a dog’s body language very well, we can’t receive vital information a canine is communicating to us. In particular, analyzing a dog’s anxiety and fear levels can serve as a preventative warning system for a person to take action to prevent a dog from becoming aggressive.
Important caveat – Dogs often display these warning behaviors prior to a bite. However, dogs don’t always show a nice linear progression up the ladder of aggression but jump directly to a dog bite. These dogs have a very low threshold for reactivity and low resiliency to fear aversion and novelty. This type of maladaptive dog may show very few signs of fear before they bite someone and are prime candidates for psychopharmaceuticals.
Most dog aggression stems from fear and anxiety, not dominance. Disregard what you might have heard from your local training“expert” or from what you heard from a television reality show host.
Just like aggression, dominance in dogs is not a personality trait inside a dog. Dominance is defined as priority access to preferred resources established by force. It is a relationship between individuals that requires aggression and submission.
Dog-person dominance (heterospecific dominance) is moot since people hold all of the resources and without us, our dog would die. Dog-dog dominance (conspecific dominance) does occur and is situational, treatable and manageable.
Now that that’s out of the way… Some of the reasons why dog’s become aggressive are because their needs are not being met in some way. Make sure your dog’s Five Freedoms are cared for.
When a dog is anxious or afraid, they have three choices, Fight, Flight or Freeze. They will choose what has worked in the past to create distance to whatever stimulus is causing fear, anxiety, or stress.
An impulsive dog that has not learned to self-soothe and self-regulate becomes impulsive and reactive. These easily startled, less resilient dogs become less confident in their environment and feel less safe.
First, we need to tell what the root cause of a dog’s aggression is before we can formulate a treatment plan. For example, a fear aggression treatment plan would look radically different than a predatory aggressive dog or pain-induced aggressive dog treatment plan. Remember there is no regulation in the dog training and behavior industry so make sure to understand this before going to a dog aggression “expert.”
Another common example would be if intraspecific dog aggression presents itself in your home. A solution may be to alter one of the dogs and not the other. Spay/neutering one of the same-sex dogs would help change the chemical makeup and likely help with conspecific dog aggression in combination with SD/CC (systematic desensitization and counterconditioning) and obedience training, exercise, play, enrichment, socialization, and many other treatments listed below.
It is best to see an expert certified dog behaviorist who specializes in dog aggression. Dog aggression can have serious consequences from legal and financial ramifications to euthanization.
All dogs bite and will react aggressively to a stimulus if they have no other options. Every dog needs management, but dogs who have a bite history or a history of aggression, especially need active management. Management procedures are part of a behavior modification protocol and are essential and vital protocols to ensure a dog’s safety and public health. If a parent does not have excellent management skills, an aggressive dog’s training prognosis is not optimistic.
Because each dog is unique and each situation different, it would be impossible to give a broad one-size-fits-all dog aggression training and behavior modification solution. Dog aggression treatment involves many hours of detailed analysis, learning about your dog’s ontogeny, environment, family, history, triggers, coping style, etc.
In many cases of dog aggression, anxiolytic medication is important. Especially for fear and anxiety-related aggression in conjunction with management and behavior modification techniques. Medication is often most useful for severe anxiety and phobic dogs, generalized dog anxiety, impulsive dogs that have little control and high physiologic aroused dogs.
It is imperative to never use pain, or punitive training devices to try to treat or cure dog aggression. Never use choke chains, shock collars (aka vibration collars) or pronged collars as they will make your dog’s aggression worse and cause more harm. For more information on why punitive dog training equipment is harmful to dogs please refer to this article.
Instead, a behaviorist may use any of these training methods and factors to treat an aggressive dog.
Setting up the treatment plan and environment is critical to ensure everyone’s safety. Do not let your dog rehearse aggressive behavior. It is imperative to hire a dog trainer to help you analyze and change the environment so that your dog does not continue to be triggered by the scary stimulus to set your dog up for success.
Dog behavior doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The following behaviors typically do not mean your dog is aggressive, but in some contexts, may.
What and who determines a dog bite? Is it based on contact with a person’s skin, damage to a person/ animal, or a dog’s intent? These are not easy questions and there are no universal answers.
Dog bite scales are often used in dog bite court cases but are subjective and flawed. Under certain definitions, anytime a dog touches their teeth to the skin of a person or another animal it could be considered a dog bite depending on how someone defines a dog bite.
With regards to an aggressive dog who bites it would best to seek out a dog bite and dog training expert.
Do you have an aggressive dog? Dog aggression is complex and requires an aggressive dog training expert with years of theoretical and practical experience treating and training a diverse population of dogs.
See how we can help you with your aggressive dog. We are experts in dog aggression training. Fun Paw Care specializes in dog aggression cases and has been successfully helping parents with their aggressive dogs for decades! Fill out this short form for an expert certified dog behaviorist and trainer to help you with your dog’s aggression and training today.
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