As a behavioral consultant a large number of my calls have to do with aggression. Often the first thing a person tells me on contact is, “My dog is aggressive. Can you help me?” Of course this kind of introduction requires a lot of questions. Sometimes, when I am asking my questions, the person will ask, “Why all these questions? It’s aggression.” These people think aggression is a catch-all term. If I ask, “What does this aggression look like?” the person doubts my abilities. “What do you mean? Don’t you know what aggression looks like?” One concerned mother called me, “My dog has become aggressive and I think I will have to put him down.” Let’s not move so fast. Tell me what happened.” My 2 year old child poked him in the eye and he turned and with a bark he snapped at her face.” Did he touch her face?” “No, he missed.” “What happened next?” “He went to his bed and laid down.” This dog had never before or after the incident been aggressive. He is gentle, affectionate, and very submissive to family and visitors. I first tried to explain that dogs don’t miss. The dog was very specific in his expression of pain and intrusiveness. I tried to tell her that her dog is NOT aggressive. He reacted to something the mother should have been managing. The fact that he “missed” tells me he made a statement, and was not aggressive.
We have to remember, dogs are animals. They are not humans in fur. Dogs are another species with its own language and culture that demands our understanding if we will get interrelate. It is this that a good trainer/behaviorist grasps. Before I address the subject of aggression I want my reader to comprehend this. The dog is the only animal (including humans) we do not allow or tolerate aggressive or even irritable behaviors. We spend hundreds of dollars to be sure our pet is placid in temperament, and gentle in behavior. Think how incredible this is. This “perfect behavior” expectation sets our dogs up for failure, and when they breach our expectation thousands land in a shelter, of which many are met with an untimely and unnecessary euthanasia.
Quite honestly, if someone did to me what some people do to a dog, I would respond with more than bite. And how I responded would be information of how I felt about it. And that is just what a dog’s behavior is, information. It is information about how the dog feels about something. What I, as a behavioral consultant, must do is help interpret that information. Because dogs do not lie (as different from humans) and is honest in its behavior, there are not “bad” behaviors.
Their behavior is just that, a behavior. I work hard to attach that behavior to something the dog is perceiving or misperceiving. I bring these together and either change the dog’s reaction or remove the “thing.” This latter is called management.
Example: My granddaughter was home for the holidays and brought with her, Turner, a wonderful Boarder mix. One day he would not come into the fireplace room. He would look around the kitchen table and bark vigorously. He was giving to me information. I looked around to see what might be different. There was a plastic bag on a table. I touched it and he ran in fear. I moved it to another location in the room, his behavior was the same. I removed the bag altogether, I think to a closet. Matter resolved. I was managing the environment for him. My dogs didn’t react. They didn’t even give notice. I could have “made” Turner come into the room. I could have scolded or berated him. Some would have punished him. But, the matter was very simple, remove the object, change the behavior. Management is us taking responsibility and making the environment such that our dog is secure.
I guess some would have considered Turner’s behavior, aggressive. But not in the least. So to help people learn to interpret a dog’s behavior in this regard, I want to address this issue of aggression. Misunderstanding a dog’s behavior in this regard never ends well for the dog.
Example: I was testifying in court in a dog case. The plaintiff’s attorney asked, “Mr. Turner, wouldn’t you agree, if a dog has a person cornered on the porch barking and showing its teeth, that that dog is aggressive?” I answered, “No.” That answer caused him to be upset because he thought for certain I would say, “Yes,” thereby supporting his clients claim. I told the judge I was not trying to be argumentative, but if the person mistreated the dog then the dog was pushed to become reactive. There is a difference. For me, the antecedent was important.
I helped bring understanding to this dog’s behavior. Thankfully, the judge listened to me and the dog’s life was saved.
I try to help people understand, when we talk about aggression, we are talking about a broad sort of behaviors. Because a dog shows an aggressive behavior does not mean the dog is aggressive.
I am not denying the fact that because of a person putting terrible things in a dog’s history that the dog becomes an aggressive dog, and that dog is beyond anyone’s help. For the safety of everyone there may be no other option for the dog, it must be put down. But please understand, unless the dog has a mental disorder, such as caused by rabies, almost always it is due to the mistreatment of humans.
Most all the time, before a dog follows through on its threat of aggression, there is a hierarchy of behaviors. I most clearly see these “warnings” when I behaviorally test dogs in a shelter. Some of the warnings are as follows.
I know people say, “He bit me out of the blue.” What they mean is, “I didn’t see or heed the signs he gave before he bit.” Dogs do not want to bite. They try to avoid getting to that level. The problem is that people do not know the language of dogs. Some lowest level signs, and I don’t mean in importance, are,
>Head turning/averting gaze
> Trying to leave
These are not 1,2,3,4. One has to recognize what the dog is saying. Here is when the dog “Bites out of the blue.” When the dog shows any of these avoidance behaviors and the owner punishes the dog, the owner is taking that warning out of the dog’s “warning bag.” When this happens, the dog jumps over the warning signs and goes straight to the bite. All the time the dog is talking, trying to negotiate the situation. Most bites could be averted if only we would listen. When I work with a dog, if I get bitten (to now I have not been) I would consider it my fault, not the dog’s. I would correct me, not the dog.
When I get a call that a dog has displayed aggressive behaviors I ask these questions.
>What was the situation?
>Who was it the dog was aggressive toward?
>When did it happen?
>Where did it happen?
>What was going on in the environment?
>What happened just before?
>What happened right after?
>How was the dog involved?
>What happened to the dog?
>What stopped the behavior?
>What did you do immediately after?
I have to know the answer to these questions to find the trigger to the dog’s behavior. If I am not accurate in my evaluation and assessment I do a disservice to both the dog and the family. The answers to these questions are important for me to determine the type of aggressive behavior the dog displayed and what therapy to apply. I have to uncover the purpose (different from the cause) of the behavior. What did the dog accomplish? With this information I can then determine the type of aggression I am dealing with. Here are a few different types of aggressive behaviors.
Most aggressive behaviors fall into this category. Fear can elicit some crazy behaviors of us humans. If a dog is afraid he goes into a fight or flight mode. If there is nowhere for the dog to go, he will choose the fight response. If the scary thing will not go away, the dog may make the first move and attack (Defensive Aggression). The dog will try to leave or make the scary thing leave, but if the scary thing doesn’t leave and the dog can’t leave, the dog feels it has no other option.
RESOURCE GUARDING AGGRESSION
This is the dog, for whatever reason, feels it has to guard what it has. You see this aggression with food. Someone gets close while the dog is eating the dog may lower its head and will freeze, he will display whale eye (you see the whites), his tail will go down. He may or may not give a low growl and if you keep coming closer, he will snap at you. He may or may not bite, but he is emphatic, “Move away.”
He may do the same thing with a toy. The dog is afraid of losing whatever it is. The dog may lock his paws over it, freeze, and whale eye, all again saying, “Back off.” If one does not respect the dog, it will bite.
Animals have a territory. If another animal transgresses that it is inviting a conflict. Our dogs can develop this same behavior. It may be toward other animals or people, or both. The dog learns that barking or growling makes that thing go away, and develops from there.
Many people, including trainers, classify this. Personally, I do not subscribe to the dominance theory. A trainer friend, Dave Thatcher, says, “I don’t believe the dog wakes up this morning and says, I think I’ll dominate Betty, or Bob, or Fido today.” I know Wolves have a hierarchy, but dogs are not Wolves. We need to be careful about making comparisons with Wolves. It is easy to find relationships where there are none. My view on this means also, I do not buy into the “dog experts” who teach that we must be the “leader of the pack” or “that you must dominate your dog.” This teaching leads a lot of people to create conflicts with their dog. Again, in this battle, the dog always loses.
If your dog is sick or injured and you try to move or pick him up, he may bite. This does not mean he is aggressive. If you have a gash and someone touches the proud flesh, you too will react. We have hands, dogs do not. Dogs have mouths and uses it for a variety of purposes. If this happens, never correct the dog. He is communicating the best he can. Hear him and leave him alone.
These are the basic forms of aggression displayed by dogs. These can be broken down into a longer list of the types of dog aggression. But the big question owners have is, “Can these behaviors be treated?” YES. It will take a professional trainer, preferable Force-Free, or/and a Veterinary Behaviorist. What an owner does not want to bring in is a “trainer” that uses aversive methods. Punishment elicits further aggression. But yes, these are treatable.
Your dog’s situation may require medication therapy. However, medication therapy must always be with behavioral modification. Medication alone does not modify behavior. A professional needs to be involved. Your Vet is a part of the team.
In rare cases of these mentioned may have progressed too far and other sad alternatives turned to. If you think this is the case, please involve a professional. I know professionals cost money, but when you chose that dog you chose to take care of and advocate for that dog. Don’t bail out on that dog because he gets sick or develops some unwanted behaviors. For most of us our dog is like our children. They are our responsibility. Your dog trusts you and looks to you for food, wellbeing, shelter, and safety.
Lastly, know this, your dog, if experiencing any of these, DOES NOT ENJOY being in this state of fear and aggression. I hope some of this is helpful to you and to your dog. You are his only advocate.