In This Chapter
- Understanding the signs and causes of canine aggression
- Assessing whether your dog has aggressive tendencies
- Discovering the importance of breed differences
- Controlling and retraining the aggressive dog
Most people misunderstand the fact that the primary purpose of canine aggression is usually not to hurt and maim, but rather to change the behavior of another creature. Canine aggression is a tricky topic. Like human anger, it’s a healthy form of communication, but it can get out of control if it’s not comprehended properly, curbed, or redirected. Fortunately, only a small percentage of dogs elevate their responses to frustration, fear, or social challenge to a dangerous level. Out-of-control aggression can generally be traced to genetic or physiological sources, insufficient nurturing, lack of socialization, and/or rough or unintentionally confrontational handling.
Recognizing the Signs
Dogs don’t bite just because they can. They react for a set number of situations, and once you recognize each, you’ll be better equipped to understand your dog’s angry or tense reaction. Not every dog reacts to every stress, and many dogs are wholly unaggressive. If your dog is showing aggression, ask yourself the following questions about when your dog seems to be threatening:
- Does it happen when someone is staring at or threatening him, such as during discipline or greetings?
- Does it happen when he feels cornered?
- Does it happen when a food resource or object is at risk?
- Does it happen when competing for a limited resource (such as food, toys, or attention) with another dog or person?
- Does it happen when he’s disturbed during sleep?
- Does it happen when a territory is approached?
- Does it happen when competing for an object or resting space?
Reading body language
Dogs signal their aggressive intentions through certain clear changes in their facial expressions, their body posture, movements, or, more subtly, their social behaviors. If you watch your dog, he gives you many clear signals before his aggressive threats elevate to a physical level. Regardless of the underlying emotion — whether dominance or fear — these signals are danger signals. Actual physical aggression, where teeth are applied to skin, is really only the final step in what is usually an elaborate progression of aggressive signals. These displays include:
- A prolonged direct stare
- Raised hackles
- Bared teeth
- Body arching
- A stiff walk
- Tail curled between his legs or held very high over the back and fluffed out
- Pricked ears (if the dog has them) lowered to the side to look like a wide V or airplane wings
Many of these cues are seen long before a reaction actually erupts. Think back to puppyhood. Did you ever consider these actions cute? You’re certainly not alone. The first time your puppy grabs a tissue and baits you with a gleeful expression, it’s adorable. But antics like this soon lose their flavor, and before long, you may find yourself venting frustration over behaviors that you once laughed at. Of course, this reaction makes sense to humans, but it doesn’t to a dog. And suddenly, the very one your dog turns to for interaction (namely you) is now turning on him, showing signs of what he interprets as aggression. Play growling and nipping in a puppy can appear to be “cute,” or at least innocuous, but such behaviors may just be the tip of a growing iceberg that can sink your relationship with your dog. The answer is not to use force or rough handling to solve the problem, but rather to socialize and train him. (See Meeting the Needs of Your Growing Puppy
for more on living with a puppy.)
Human behaviors play an important role in canine aggression. Certain behaviors increase or decrease the likelihood of dog bites. For example, in 53 percent of dog bite fatalities, there was some suggestion that the dog was provoked by being struck or poked in the face, having things thrown at him, or otherwise subjected to human aggression. In the case of children, bites are more likely when they’re running, shouting, or screaming. It is interesting to note that a one-hour class on “bite proofing” has been shown to reduce, by more than 80 percent, the likelihood that a child will be bitten by a dog.
The behavior of the dog’s owners is also important. Dogs that are kept chained or confined in a small yard are approximately three times more likely to fatally bite people — and not just people who enter their territory, but people who they encounter when they escape or are released from their yard. Another important statistic is that dogs that have received obedience training (even just the simple beginners class where people stand around in a circle, and the instructor shows you how to get Rover to sit, come, and lie down) show nearly a 90 percent reduction in the likelihood of biting incidents. This result is probably due to the education, not only of the dog, but of the dog’s owner as well.
What is unintentionally rough handling? Many people are unaware that chasing, yelling at, or hitting a dog can result in canine aggression. Each attempt to curb a dog’s behavior in this manner is viewed as confrontational. A dog raised in this atmosphere often becomes defensive and guarded, which, as he matures, can lead to aggressive displays.
The problem is that once aggressive behaviors develop, they never disappear on their own. Dogs quickly become skilled at using aggression as a tool to get what they want or as a shield in stressful situations. If your dog is showing aggression or your young puppy is showing a propensity toward dominant behavior, do everything within your power to contain this behavior, then to reduce it, and finally to eliminate any reoccurrence of it. The first step is to know how to identify and acknowledge when and if your dog is showing signs of aggression.
Evaluating aggressive tendencies
We’re often quite blind when it comes to flaws in the behaviors of those that we love. That is why children can sometimes be well on their way toward delinquent or unacceptable behaviors before we even admit to ourselves that a problem exists. The same goes for our dogs. It’s psychologically difficult to admit that the dog that sleeps next to your bed could be a threat to anyone.
Now is the time to honestly evaluate the situation. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Does your dog growl at you, other people, or other animals?
- Has your dog ever snarled or shown his teeth to you or other family members?
- Does your dog snap, growl, or threaten when you try to take toys or other objects away from him or when you reach for or come near his food?
- Does your dog snap, growl, or otherwise resist when you groom or examine him?
- Does your dog growl, show his teeth, arch his body, cringe, or and curl his tail between his legs when petted, especially when your hand is raised over the top of his head?
- Does your dog nip at your ankles or those of children when playing exuberantly?
- Do you ignore nipping, chewing at hands, play snarling, or other mouthy behavior because you think that it’s “cute” or because your dog is obviously too small to do anyone any harm?
- Does your dog force you to invent excuses for his socially unacceptable growling or pushy behavior?
- Do you feel worried or apprehensive as to whether your dog may react in an unfriendly manner when a stranger or another dog approaches him?
If you answered “Yes” to any one of these questions, then your dog has the potential to become aggressive. The fact that you’re carefully reading this section at all may mean that you have some concerns about your dog’s aggression level. It’s important to read the suggestions in this chapter, however, if you find that your dog’s reaction is escalating or anyone in your household is afraid. Call for professional help from animal behaviorists or dog trainers specializing in handling aggression problems.
Factoring in Breed Traits
Many dog breeds have genetic potential toward aggression. Terriers have been bred to fight other animals, and generally speaking are quite chippy around other pets, unless raised with them. Protective breeds, including Akitas, Great Pyrenees, and Rottweilers, have fewer inhibitions about biting people. Because of the breed specificity in these behaviors, the public has been led to believe that certain breeds of dogs are inherently bad. The negative image of Pit Bulls is partly the result of sensationalized news reports, and it also is reinforced in movies and on TV.
The real question everyone wants answered is whether a dog’s breed is the best predictor of its aggressive potential. A series of studies commissioned by the U.S. National Center for Injury Prevention and Control has been looking at deaths due to dog bites based on records collected over several decades. In this national database, clear trends are evident, but the fact that a certain breed ranks high on a list of problem dogs may not be significant.
Obviously, popular breeds will necessarily be represented in higher numbers for any given problem simply because there are more of them, so you need to take into account how many dogs of a particular breed are around. You can do so by looking at the number of dogs of each breed registered with the American Kennel Club and using it as an estimate of the percentage of dogs of each breed in the country.
It appears that compared to their popularity, certain breeds are significantly less likely to be involved in fatal dog bites, even though they’re big and muscular. Leaving out the breeds that are simply too tiny to do fatal damage, the four breeds of dogs least likely to be involved in such incidents, although they have the bite strength and size to do so, are (beginning with the lowest proportional fatal bite frequency) the Labrador Retriever, Dachshund, Golden Retriever, and Bulldog. It may well be that the enduring popularity of Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers as family pets is in part due to the fact that they’re so safe.
Based on the national statistics on fatal dog bites, the eight breeds (starting with the most dangerous) that account for the majority of these tragic cases of aggression are
- Pit Bulls and Pit Bull-type dogs (defined here to include American Pit Bull Terriers, Staffordshire Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, and Bull Terriers)
- Chow Chows
- Saint Bernards
- Siberian Huskies
- German Shepherds
Sometimes genetic factors over and above breed identity predict aggression. For example, it’s well known that certain lines of Springer Spaniels have a genetically inherited condition called rage syndrome, which causes them to suddenly, without warning, start biting and attacking anything near them. This fit of aggression may last only a couple of seconds or up to a minute, but after it’s over, the dog acts as if nothing has happened. Now genetic and chemical markers can indicate whether this condition is in the dog’s hereditary makeup.
A common genetic marker for some conditions is coat color in dogs. Some English Cocker Spaniels can suddenly bite without warning in what looks like a milder version of the rage syndrome in Springer Spaniels. Research done at Cambridge University demonstrates that this condition is partially predicted by the dog’s color. Solid-colored English Cocker Spaniels are much more likely to have these conditions than are dogs with two or more coat colors. Furthermore, among the solid-colored dogs, those who are red or blonde colored have the strongest likelihood of biting.
Please don’t assume that each dog of these breeds is born with an overblown aggressive instinct. All that the science gives us is the baseline probabilities. Whether any specific Golden Retriever or Rottweiler becomes aggressive depends upon who he lives with, how he was raised and socialized, and how he was trained and integrated into human society. There is no doubt that kissy-faced Rottweilers and nasty Goldens are out there, and humans and their actions must take responsibility for both the good and the bad outcome.
Ruling Out Medical Factors
If your dog is showing aggressive tendencies, especially if this wasn’t a problem in the past, please rule out medical causes before addressing the problem behaviorally. Obviously, if an injury, disease, or some form of physical or neurological defect is the cause for the aggressive behavior, then no training or reconditioning of the dog’s behavior will be effective until the problem has been controlled.
When aggression suddenly surfaces, an ailment, such as pain in the teeth, back, or joints, may be distressing your dog. If you move or touch a dog that is in pain, you can expect to be snapped at. The dog isn’t trying to say anything with his behavior other than “Stop that! You’re hurting me!” Make an appointment with your veterinarian immediately.
Here are a few more other medical conditions that may be behind your dog’s sudden aggression:
- Hypothyroidism: Recent research has shown that fairly common conditions that cause the thyroid gland to produce abnormally low amounts of hormones may be associated with the onset of aggressive behaviors in more than 50 breeds of dogs. In addition to aggression, other subtle signs of imbalance are excessive shedding, bald spots, an increased number of infections, allergic symptoms, a tendency to gain weight, or (in intact female dogs) irregular heat cycles. Hypothyroidism is easily treated with appropriate medications and hormone supplements.
- Encephalitis: This disease can be caused by viruses or bacteria. Distemper and rabies are viral types of encephalitis. These conditions can appear in dogs of any age, and occasionally, although rarely, even in dogs that have been vaccinated. Sudden aggressive episodes are common with this condition. It’s easily diagnosed by testing a bit of cerebrospinal fluid (the clear fluid in the brain and spinal cord) and is treatable with antibiotics and antiviral medications.
- Hypoglycemia: This is the medical term for low blood sugar. Hypoglycemia can cause major mood swings in humans as well and is often responsible for the moodiness and flashes of anger that people on severe weight-reducing diets show. In addition to aggression, the symptoms of hypoglycemia can include apparent weakness (staggering) and a glassy, dazed look. You can usually easily treat this condition with a change in the dog’s diet and feeding schedules.
- Head injuries or brain tumors: A brain injury or swelling interferes with normal mental functions. Swelling, pressure, or even bleeding in the brain often results in a variety of neurological and behavioral symptoms and often aggression. If your dog’s mood swings and aggressive episodes are also accompanied by other symptoms — including confusion or disorientation, irritability, increased episodes of whimpering or nonstop barking, or changes in activity level (either an apathy-like decrease or increased hyper-excitability — ask your veterinarian to examine this possibility. Other important signs include changes in the ways your dog moves, such as an alteration in his normal gait, abnormal postures, head tilt, trembling, staggering, excessive circling, frequent falling, or loss of balance.
Increased aggression can also be the result of hydrocephalus. This congenital condition occurs when the fluid-filled spaces in the brain (the ventricles) become enlarged. Because of the pressure placed on the brain, the surrounding brain tissue suffers from pressure similar to the swelling caused by injuries or tumors producing similar symptoms. This condition is more common in toy breeds and those dogs with a flattened face, such as Pugs or Pekingese. Symptoms occur when the condition becomes extreme, which may not be until adulthood.
- Imbalances in brain chemistry: Some dogs, like people, can have an imbalance of vital chemicals in their brain. Common human conditions, such as clinical depression, obsessivecompulsive disorders, anger outbursts, and mood swings, exist in dogs as well and may result from these chemical changes. Serotonin, a hormone that serves as a neurotransmitter, plays an important role in the chemical control of aggression and mood changes in the brain, especially when certain other conditions that affect impulsive behaviors are present.
Unfortunately, these imbalances have no easy solution because serotonin can’t be administered with a shot or pill. In human beings, and now in dogs, however, there has been a good deal of success controlling these conditions with a class of drugs that keeps the serotonin already in the brain from being broken down and reabsorbed around the nerve endings, thus, in effect, increasing the amount of serotonin available for use by the neural system. The best known of this class of drugs is Prozac, which, in various forms, has been successfully used to treat some forms of aggression in dogs.
Altering your dog’s angry brain
If your dog’s brain chemistry is the cause of his aggression and mood swings, your veterinarian may well prescribe certain Prozac-type drugs to help increase the amount of serotonin in your dog’s brain. However, if you suspect that your dog’s brain chemistry is part of the cause of his aggression or as a supplement to behavioral treatments of aggression, you can do two things.
The first involves 5-Hydroxytryptophan or 5-HTP, which is a naturally occurring amino acid that is used by the body in the manufacturing of serotonin. In the United States and other countries, it’s marketed as a dietary supplement and is available over the counter in health-food stores and some pharmacies. It’s designed for people who want an antidepressant and something that may aid in sleep, but it works by effectively increasing the production of serotonin in the nerve endings and therefore can help reduce aggressive tendencies in many dogs. As in the case of Prozac, the effects may not be seen until the treatment has gone on for up to six weeks, and if you stop administering it at anytime, you go back to ground zero. Doses of 5-HTP are often recommended as a “booster” along with behavioral treatment of aggression.
Another treatment of body chemistry for aggression is still being researched but appears promising. At Tufts University, a team of researchers looked at switching dogs to low-protein, preservative-free diets (although if the only preservative is vitamin E, that appears to be okay). This diet seems to reduce certain types of aggression in a sizable percentage of dogs. Changing your aggressive dog’s diet in this way is worth a try because if it works for your pet, you’ll see the effects within a week or so and you don’t have much to lose.
Identifying Different Types of Aggression
At one time, aggressive behavior was considered to be a single problem, and therefore all dogs received the same treatment regime. Today, we know that aggression comes in many forms, each with its own cause and treatment requirements. It’s extremely important for you to understand what’s going on when your dog acts aggressively. Snapping at you because you touched him where it hurts is excusable behavior while snapping at you because you tried to move him off of the sofa is not and requires action.
The most common and treatable form of aggression relates to dominance issues. Dominance aggression involves a dog growling or biting family members in order to control their behavior and thus, effectively, move up in status in the pack or family hierarchy. While you may think that this aggressive behavior is sudden and unexpected, it’s actually quite planned and deliberate and most likely first began to show up when your dog was an adolescent or young adult. Once a dog achieves sexual and emotional maturity, between 8 months and 3 years, many of the social restrictions associated with puppyhood are left behind. It’s at this time that your dog tests authority to ensure that the most reliable “dogs” (which include him) are orchestrating group activities. This is the motivation for challenging those people or other family pets that he feels aren’t as dominant as he is.
As your dog assesses your home life, he may start to try to climb the ladder of social control by picking on the most vulnerable family members — children and other pets. If successful, his behavior may escalate to include challenges to you. If your dog begins to block the entrance into rooms or growls at family members near his food, toys, or resting places, seek professional help immediately.
In your dog’s eyes, if you’re not authoritative and sensible, you’re not good leadership material, and because someone must lead the group, he’ll assign himself the role. The result? Your dog becomes aggressive to enforce his leadership. Unfortunately his threatening behavior may well have to do with your own personality and the way you interact with your dog. However, you are the easiest variable to change, provided that you’re willing to modify your behavior for everyone’s benefit.
Dogs, like people, control the level of aggression used to make a point. Not all bites are created equally, and scientists, such as Ian Dunbar, classify bite-related aggression into six levels.
Level 1: This is a threat and a deliberate miss — snapping at air — and it doesn’t touch the skin. This “fair warning” snap is often given by well-socialized dogs as a “back off and leave me alone” signal.
Level 2: Involves teeth making contact, but the skin isn’t broken. There may be pain and bruising, but no visible blood. This “hard threat” suggests that the next time, the dog will really use its teeth as a weapon.
Level 3: The first level where skin is broken. It involves a single bite, which results in one to three punctures with none deeper than half the depth of the eye-tooth (fang). It’s meant to end the confrontation immediately because it threatens that the next stage of escalation may cause real damage. A dog producing Level 3 bites is well on the way to becoming a real aggressive threat and requires behavioral management.
Level 4: The dog is now trying to hurt his target. This bite is the result of a dog exerting heavy pressure, which results in one to four puncture wounds with one or more puncturing the skin to more than half the depth of the eye tooth. This bite may be accompanied by some tearing and bruising. Such a bite wound is likely to require medical attention. These injuries often result when the dog grabs and shakes what was in its mouth. It indicates a dog who is not inhibited about biting, and if no steps are taken, irreparable damage may be done to his next target.
Level 5: Involves multiple Level 4 bites. This dog is acting dangerously, perhaps because it feels that its life has been threatened, and he’s now moved beyond his normal ability to reason his way through the situation. This dog is a real threat to his family and to society at large, and steps must be taken to treat the situation.
Level 6: The dog has killed a pet or person. This level requires no elaboration. It’s the situation we’re trying desperately to avoid.
The issue of dominance aggression has been confirmed by research done at the Western University of Health Sciences in California, which showed that owners, who are gentle pushovers when it comes to their dogs, are more likely to have to deal with dominance aggression in their dogs. Tip-off behaviors can be seen in people who treat their dogs like little children, giving in to their whims, giving them treats from the table, and allowing them to sleep undisturbed on sofas and beds.
Dominance aggression can escalate and, when aimed at children, can be quite dangerous. Most of the recorded dog bites are, in fact, family dogs who bite children. You have to understand that the dogs that are unsafe around children are usually dogs that haven’t been well socialized. However, it’s still important to monitor the interactions between dogs and children. A child may try to grab a toy or some other possession that the dog holds dear, and the dog may see this action as both a loss of his cherished item and a threat to his status, if he feels dominant over children. That is a setup for a biting incident.
The essence of possessive aggression is that the dog is telling you, “This is mine! You can’t have it! You can’t touch it!” This type of aggression is usually focused on food or toys and is most common in dogs that
- As puppies, had to compete with other pups for food
- Live in households with multiple pets, or even children, who may be viewed as coveting the dog’s food or possessions
- Were shelter dogs, who may have been taken from a safe environment, but when thrust into a kennel surrounded by unknown situations, the dogs may vigorously guard their resources and space
The first step in protecting children from dog bites is to learn to read the facial expressions and body language that a dog uses to convey threat, frustration, or fear and to teach these to children. This is just basic safety education, like teaching children to look both ways before crossing streets.
Because children naturally are attracted to dogs, you should teach them how to approach a dog. First, have them ask the dog’s owner if they can pet the dog. Then the child should extend a hand. If the dog approaches to sniff it calmly, the dog is saying it would like to be friends. Calm petting can be supervised. If the dog turns away, growls, or lowers its head, the child shouldn’t proceed.
If a child is playing and a dog approaches quickly, the “stand-like-a-statue” technique is effective in reducing the likelihood of being bitten:
- Teach your child that dogs don’t chase statues.
- Ask him to think of a statue, and when approached to stand very still, to fold his arms across his chest and look up to the sky (discouraging all eye contact or interaction).
- Because statues are boring, the dog will eventually go away. When he does, back up slowly until he’s out of sight.
The spoiled dog’s dilemma
Not every wolf or dog wants to be leader of the pack, but he needs to know that someone is in charge and making decisions. It may seem strange to learn that a dog’s anxiety can be increased when he gets what he wants without any responsibility for earning it. This is often the case with pampered dogs whose owners believe that giving their dogs everything they desire and asking nothing in return is a way of showing their love. Because only the leader usually has full access to all the pack’s resources, this kind of treatment can lead a dog to feel that he must be in charge, meaning that he now has the responsibility to make all the decisions – even when the dog is uncertain as to what to do or when he may not understand what is actually happening. This uncertainty, combined with the fact that there is no one else in a leadership role evaluating the situation and making a decision, is bound to lead to fear and anxiety.
When you attempt to reassure this frightened dog, it often fails, because your reassuring voice tones and body posture can be read as fear by the dog, or simply because the dog hasn’t learned to look to you for direction. The dog reasons that because you lack the stature of a leader, you’re not in a position to make decisions or assessments of the situation for the rest of the pack, including her.
Don’t wait until you have an adult dog with a food- or toy-guarding problem. Teach your puppy that being touched when he’s eating is okay, and that your hands near the food bowl aren’t there to take his food away. When you feed him, kneel down beside him while he eats. Now and then, interrupt his eating to offer an especially tasty treat, such as a piece of chicken or liver, which is bound to be more interesting than the kibble in the bowl. After he gets used to this, hide the treat in your hand, put your hand in his food bowl, and when he pushes his face close, open your hand and give him the treat. Then let him finish his meal with you still hovering close by. In this way, he learns that your close presence at mealtimes is a good thing, not a threat.
You can use a similar procedure with toys, bones, or other objects that he becomes possessive over. Offer to trade the object for a special treat and then return the object. This way, he learns that it’s okay for you to handle his things because you don’t intend to steal them permanently.
However, don’t forget the principle of nonconfrontation in dealing with aggression. If your dog becomes persistently possessive over a toy or other object, then you must make it disappear from your dog’s life, and it must never be seen again.
The emotion that most commonly causes a dog to bite a stranger is fear. It is usually caused by a lack of early socialization. The early signs of potential fear biting aren’t aggressive at all. Rather you observe that the dog starts out by hiding behind a person or dog when stressed, running away from human or canine contacts, or fearfully urinating in the face of what they perceive as threats – which can be just about anything. The problem is that later in life, these dogs will learn to use aggression frequently, because it seems to make the “threat” go away.
Your dog’s acceptance of your leadership also helps to control anxiety and fearfulness because canines look to their leader to decide when a situation, visitor, or occurrence is a threat or challenge. If the leader isn’t showing fear or concern, then the dog has no reason to worry. Please refer to the upcoming section “Controlling Aggression” to resolve your issues.
Dogs are most confident in their own territory (your home, yard, or car). Unfortunately, especially if a dog hasn’t been well socialized to view all humans favorably, many dogs view any visitors as potential threats. They, therefore, bark to warn the rest of the pack or family that something is happening and also to threaten this stranger that they will use force, if necessary. From the dog’s point of view, this technique is very effective. For example, when the mailman comes, the dog barks while he inserts letters into the mail slot, and the mailman goes away. In his mind, this outcome proves that this form of aggressive response really works! This outcome is rewarding enough to guarantee that he’ll act even more aggressively next time.
Generally speaking, the easiest way to manage territorial aggression is to make sure that the postman, regular delivery people, and the garbage collectors aren’t strangers. Introduce your dog to these people and have them give him a treat and perhaps a pat. This introduction won’t stop your dog from alerting you that someone has arrived at your door, but it will tone things down and take away the aggressive territorial guarding behavior directed toward familiar people in your world.
Dogs evolved from swift running predators, and for some dogs, running and chasing are equivalent to dancing in humans – an enjoyable way to get into the rhythm of the universe. While for some dogs, the chase is all that is important, others enjoy pouncing at the end of the chase, which may mean nipping a cyclist, a child on a skateboard, or a jogger. In other words, these dogs are mimicking the aggressive patterns of the hunters in their evolutionary past. Certain breeds, including herding dogs, terriers, and hounds, are more likely to show these patterns of behavior.
As always, prevention is the best route. Early socialization and converting the puppy’s desire to chase toys that are thrown for him to retrieve are the best ways to prevent predatory aggression. If your dog is already chasing joggers and bicyclists, then some form of aversion therapy is needed. Get some friends to engage in these activities around the dog, but first arm them with water pistols. When your dog chases them, something unexpected now happens. The jogger or vehicle stops, the dog gets a shot of water in his face and hears a shouted angry “No!” For most dogs, that response is quite adequate as aversion therapy.
If your dog is unimpressed by the water gun reaction or if his aggressive response is advanced, call for professional help. Keep a leash and training collar on your dog and correct him the moment he alerts to an inappropriate distraction.
It should be obvious that dogs that have just given birth will aggressively defend their puppies from anything that may threaten them. This reaction is a completely unrestrained use of force since a canine mother will do anything to protect her litter. Early socialization to a variety of different people can reduce the likelihood of such aggression when the female has puppies.
Unfortunately, dogs have an additional complication, which seems to set them apart from other domestic animals. It appears that whether they’re pregnant or not, after ovulating, all female dogs go through a two-month period in which their body is flooded with the same hormones present during pregnancy. For some dogs, this experience even results in physiological changes that mimic pregnancy, such as lactating. In the last three or four weeks of this phantom pregnancy, the female may start acting in a strange manner around certain items, such as tennis balls, socks, soft toys, or shoes. Typically, she collects them and hides them under a bed or other piece of furniture. Furthermore, the female may become quite possessive and protective of these items and snap, growl, or bite anyone who comes near them or disturbs them. As in the case of a real pregnancy that results in a litter, the problem is reduced in a dog well socialized to people. However, the only real preventative is early spaying.
If this problem does occur in your dog, behavioral methods won’t cure the aggression. Hormone treatments can eliminate it, or you can simply wait out the situation because it will usually disappear in a few weeks by itself. However, during the time that this form of aggression is likely, isolating the dog may be best, and certainly keep children or nonfamily members from approaching that pile of toys that the dog is protecting as she would a litter of new puppies.
When dealing with aggression, the first step is to change the way your dog thinks about you — he must learn to respect you as a leader, not a follower or a playmate. Imagine meeting the president; though you may not like his political program, you still speak to him respectfully and, of course, you don’t try to bite him. It is important that family members, including children, should be treated with respect. Your dog must learn that in his pack (family), all two-footed dogs are higher in status than all four-footed dogs.
To restructure your dog’s thinking about his place in the family pack, he needs to learn to follow your lead, and to do so, you must act like a leader. There are behaviors that characterize the leader of the pack and distinguish him from his followers. The leader gets first choice of any food, can sleep anywhere he likes, goes first through any opening or into any new territory, and can demand attention any time he wants it. If your dog respects you (and your family), he is less likely to challenge you. However, you must reinforce your leadership.
Use a nonconfrontational approach when dealing with an aggressive dog. Attempts to confront a dog by using force will only cause the dog to respond in kind, which will ratchet up the level of aggression in the relationship. If the problem is based on fearfulness, confrontation, or dominance, your dog will view your retaliation as active aggression, causing him concerns about your authority and/or his own safety. Not only will a confrontational approach make the dog more reactive, but the dog’s insecurity will be greatest when you – the person threatening him or hurting him — are near.
If your dog is showing signs of aggression, here are two actions you may take in reshaping his worldview. If the aggression persists, please seek professional help.
– Hand-feeding: One approach that encourages your dog’s focus on your direction and presence is to hand-feed him. For the next month, and at every possible opportunity, hand-feed him his meals only after he has responded to a command, such as “Come,” “Sit,” “Stay,” and “Down,” mixing up the commands to strengthen his attention. The whole process should take a total of around 5 to 10 minutes.
If you’re feeding your dog soft food, you can spoon out portions. Should your dog refuse to take part in your program by responding to your commands, postpone the activity a couple of hours until his hunger has taken hold.
Each time your dog responds to a command, give him his food as you praise him softly and touch his collar. (Remember, the leader gets to touch anyone that he wants.) If you’re living with a spouse, partner, or kids, encourage them to take part in this activity.
After the dog has settled down and the aggressiveness and fearfulness have toned down, you can phase out the handfeeding routine for his breakfast and dinner. He still has to come and sit, but now he gets the bowl put down as his reward. At first, the bowl will contain just a part of his meal so that he’ll have to obey two or three commands before the meal is complete. Later on, it can contain a single serving.
– Touching: A simple method to strengthen your dominant position over your dog involves touching. Beyond daily strokes, this method involves systematic, full-body strokes that mimic the licking pattern a mother dog applies to her puppies. This “touch” not only helps to establish an emotional bond, but is also an expression of her dominance and control of the litter.
Make it a practice to touch your dog systematically on an almost-daily basis. Everyone in the family, especially the children, should be taught the following ritual because their position in the pack hierarchy is the most vulnerable. (Discontinue this procedure immediately if your dog shows aggression or rigidity. Get professional help immediately.)
The procedure to follow is quite straightforward. While talking in a soothing manner, saying the dog’s name frequently, have your dog sit or stand in front of you. Take her head in both of your hands. Stroke or fondle her ears, neck, and muzzle in this two-handed manner, looking into the dog’s eyes as you do. Next slide both hands down the dog’s neck, back, and sides. Lightly slide your hands over the dog’s chest and then all the way down each of the dog’s front legs. If the dog is sitting, raise it gently to a standing position, lightly rub its belly and back, and then run your hands down the hind legs all the way to the tip of the paws. Finally, run your fingers quickly and lightly over the dog’s tail (or tail region, if the dog has a docked tail). Finish by again grasping the dog’s head momentarily and saying the dog’s name in a happy voice.
The entire touching routine takes only about 30 seconds to a minute, and your dog will probably enjoy all the attention, but most importantly, she’ll recognize that she’s being subjected to being touched, which means that she’s lower in social rank than the ones doing the touching.
If your dog is sensitive in a certain area, don’t avoid touching your dog there unless she’s showing aggression. (Seek professional help immediately.) Condition your dog’s acceptance by offering her food or a lickable treat, such as peanut butter daubed on your finger, as you gradually increase your handling in this sensitive area.
The goal is, of course, to prevent the onset of aggression. To do that, your dog must unequivocally and, in fact, quite happily accept your leadership and direction.
If your dog accepts you (and your family) as higher in the pack leadership, he’ll be less likely to aggressively challenge you. However, your leadership can’t be questioned. A good approach to ensure your dog’s respect — a process you should initiate before your dog has shown aggression — is the family cooperation system.
The family cooperation system reminds your dog that he’s part of a family structure, and not in charge or at the center of it. You outline what behaviors earn him rewards and use those rewards to shape his behavior. Using this system, your dog learns to look for and respect your direction.
Here’s how it works:
- As the pack leader, you should never let your dog rush out of a door or through a gate ahead of you. Instead, use the “Wait” and then “Okay” commands.
- When the dog is resting in a favorite spot, make it move from time to time, using the phrase “Excuse me.” Praise your dog for his cooperation, allowing him to return to its original position.
- Occasionally take an object or some food away from your dog. (Start doing this when your dog is still a puppy so that aggression is less likely and more easily controlled.) The moment you’ve done so, praise your dog for being unaggressive and return the object or give your dog an additional bit of food (see the early section on possessive aggression).
- Everything from toys, play, to attention should be offered only after your dog has responded to a simple direction, such as sit or down. Ignore all rude demands for your attention, including pawing, barking, or placing her forepaws on you. Either walk away, bring your arms over your face, or tug on his leash if he’s wearing one. Immediately redirect him to “sit.”
- Use the lessons outlined in Communicating with Your Dog and Happy Training, Happy Tails and the suggestions on including children to teach your dog to respond to everyone’s directions. Choose two to ten word cues that you’ll use to direct your dog throughout the day. Speak in clear, quick, bark-sounding tones, identifying what you want the dog to do (like sit or come) or where you want the dog to go (car, upstairs, kitchen). This gradually gets the dog into the habit of accepting your leadership and direction, which also helps eliminate any thoughts of aggression.
If your dog is already growling at you, get professional help. Your dog’s aggression has escalated to a dangerous level and is beyond the scope of this book.
Figuring Out Whether Neutering Helps
As in humans, boys and girls are different, and it’s not just a matter of different plumbing systems. When it comes to canine aggression, the most common culprit is a male adolescent dog, and the issue is usually related to dominance. Male dogs are 6.2 times more likely to bite humans, and sexually intact dogs are 2.6 times more likely to be involved in attacks than are neutered dogs.
Neutering is a way to take sex out of the picture by removing the sex hormone-producing apparatus, which are testicles for males and ovaries and uterus for females.
The male hormone testosterone is responsible for influencing a number of dog behaviors, from territorial urine marking, to dog-todog aggression, to roaming in order to stake territory and look for a mate. Neutering vastly reduces testosterone levels, thus curbing these behaviors.
Female sex hormones, on the other hand, affect her personality only during her heat cycles, which usually occur twice a year. It’s then that she’s most likely to urine mark and wander. Progesterone, a hormone involved with the female cycle, has a generally calming effect; however, it also stimulates a possessive or protective attitude toward her puppies, or anything that serves as a puppy substitute, such as her toys or young children. Neutering stops this twice-yearly potential for aggression.
Least you think neutering is a cure-all, it rarely affects fear biting, territorial aggression (the dog’s natural defensive reaction when something comes near his home), or predatory aggression (which is the tendency to chase things that run and to nip or bite them).
Neutering does affect the dog’s personality quite subtly in other ways. Neutered dogs seem to pay more attention to people because they’re paying less attention to sex-related activities of other dogs. In addition, neutering a dog who is not yet an adult seems to freeze personality development at that stage, at least in terms of keeping certain puppylike traits in place.
Because the optimal time to neuter a dog is just before puberty, neutering becomes a useful tool if you have a dog breed where the adult tends to have pronounced aggressive tendencies. Generally speaking, the puppy is softer and less likely to show dominance and other tendencies that can lead to aggression later. Thus, if you have such a breed but like the pup’s personality at the age of six months, subject to your veterinarian’s approval, it appears to be a good psychological reason why neutering should be done at that age.
by Stanley Coren and Sarah Hodgson