How to Deal with Aggressive Behaviors in Dogs
Almost every dog owner has dealt with aggressive or dominant behaviors. Another term for a dominant dog is an "alpha" dog, which implies that they are in the lead position in the pack. Many behavioral problems such as aggression, anxiety, and coprophagia (eating feces) are related to "dominant" or "alpha" behaviors. Behaviors such as rushing out the open door that occur due to pure positive reinforcement from the dog's perspective have been referred to incorrectly as "dominant behavior."
Some appeasement behaviors (e.g. jumping up to lick the face) are sometimes confused with dominant behaviors. Most people think that aggression is the same as being dominant. But this is not exactly the case; dominance rank is not directly correlated with aggressive events. For example, wolves with a high rank in the pack have few aggressive encounters.
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Aggressive Behavior in a Dog
Dogs with aggression are often thought to be dominant or alpha dogs, however, most of this dogs are actually fearful dogs. Unfortunately, the lack of understanding of what dominance and aggression are has lead to canine suffering and death. The saddest part is that many dogs suffer terrible consequences of these behaviors, just because people don’t understand that they are afraid and not aggressive. Some people become abusive to a dog because of this. When forceful actions are taken to correct the dog, at best the dog may become conditioned to avoid further aversive actions from the owner; at worst the dog will become more fearful, more aggressive, dangerous and, in some cases he/she may even be euthanized. This may be due to a misunderstanding about the true motivation behind the behavior.12
One question that may arise with the human dog relationship is if there really is a pack dominance hierarchy ever formed between these different species. Considering that humans and dogs communicate with different languages, there is an obvious barrier for the establishment of a true hierarchy. When was the last time a person put their ears back in communication to a dog? And recent research supports the idea that canine hierarchies are more flexible than previously considered and that they are based primarily on appeasement behaviors, which are essentially active displays of submission and deference, keep the peace.
Dominance aggression is commonly seen in dogs (although as we said before many of the cases are not actual dominance problems). Family members or friends are the most susceptible to suffer canine aggression. The dog feels that he/she has a higher position in the pack, so he/she uses aggression to control the situations when he/she feels threatened. But most of these aggressive dogs are actually fearful dogs.
These behaviors are in conflict with what a truly dominant dog is. Puppies who display these behaviors are often the easily trained in certain settings and they are often described as very smart dogs. They can learn both “good” and “bad” behaviors very fast; this is an example of operant conditioning. If the dog is not dominant, then what is going on? There are some medical diseases that may be causing behavioral issue, but what is most common is that these could anxious dogs.
Many dog aggression episodes occur in a context of social dominance but the real cause is often anxiety and/or fear. There are dogs who reach anxiety threshold and resort to default of aggression to control situation and dogs who are unsure of their social role and use aggressive behaviors in a desperate try of knowing what is being expected from him/her. They find that aggression is a very effective way of finishing an uncomfortable situation, so he/she learns that it is a good way of managing these situations.
If the motivation behind the aggression is anxiety and not a dominant dog, then the management and training plan must reflect this. It is common for people to think that neutering will take care of “alpha” behaviors, and sometimes it does, however, when the problem is anxiety, neutering often has little effect on aggression. This is because reducing testosterone is unlikely to alter fear and anxiety. Domination techniques in response to conflict aggression are not recommended in these cases, as they would only serve to increase the anxiety of the dog. Many owners experience an escalation in the aggression when they attempt these domination techniques and this is understandable if the dog is truly in a state of anxiety and fear.
Important Treatment Principles For The Dog With Conflict Aggression Include:
- Avoiding confrontation
- Having a safe way to handle the dog and establishing consistent dog owner interactions.
- If there is a specific trigger situation, desensitization and counterconditioning to that trigger can be implemented.
It is normal to think that if we avoid the confrontations with our dogs, we are letting them think that they have the control over the situation (that they are the pack leaders!). But, this is often not the case; because when animals are anxious or too exited they are unable to learn. The dog will be taught acceptable behavior when he is calm and relaxed. The owners also want to avoid being placed in situations where the dog's aggression is successful, thereby reinforcing the unwanted aggressive behavior. If the situations that lead to aggression are avoided, the dog will not learn any unwanted behavior.
If a specific trigger for the aggression is identified, gradual desensitization and counter conditioning to that trigger can be implemented. The dog is being conditioned to respond a different way to the trigger stimulus. It is not learning to be submissive or less dominant, it is being taught that the threat is no longer working.
About the author
Dr. Stephanie Flansburg-Cruz practices mixed animal veterinary medicine and she has a special interest in shelter medicine and animal welfare. Stephanie enjoys volunteering at local animal shelters, reading, writing and traveling.
American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Spay/Neuter Your Pet. Retrieved on April 9, 2016 from: http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/general-pet-care/spayneuter-your-pet.
Neilson, J.C. (2012). Canine Aggression to Owners: Alpha or Anxious?
64th Convention Of The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association. Senior Veterinary Technical Consultant, Pacific Northwest ELANCO.
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