Due to extensive media coverage whenever there is a serious dog attack we are all aware of what can go wrong when dogs act aggressively. Yet many owners still believe that their own dogs would never behave in this way. It is a common assumption that dogs involved in human attacks must be untrained, abused or a “dangerous breed”. However, with dog attacks rising year upon year in the UK and more attacks appearing to occur within the home, it is becoming apparent that this is simply not the case.
But what is Aggression? Before we can manage aggression we first need to understand what aggression is. Although aggression is difficult to define we know that aggressive behaviours are actually normal behaviours displayed by most animals throughout their lifetime. Aggression helps animals to survive by fending off threats and protecting valuable resources such as food, water and shelter. Aggression may also occur during periods of frustration or if an animal has learned acting aggressively gets them something that they want (i.e. it has been reinforced). Often the aggression we see in dogs is normal given the circumstances.
If a dog were to try and steal another dog’s food a normal response from the dog with the food would be to protect their food to avoid starving. Many dogs will allow other dogs and people to take their food, however, if you try to take a food bowl away from a dog mid-meal you should expect that they could react aggressively. This is a normal and predictable response to an obvious threat. Understanding situations like these and not automatically treating aggression as abnormal, disobedient or unpredictable allows the risk of aggression in dogs to be managed much more effectively. In addition it is worth remembering that animals tend only to use aggression involving physical contact as a last resort after first using many other warnings and signs of discomfort.
A useful model used to understand how aggression can escalate in dogs is the ‘ladder of aggression’. Although by no means applicable to every dog, this model describes a general sequence of behaviour that typically precedes a dog bite, particularly in situations where a dog is fearful. Most dogs will signal initial discomfort through subtle behaviours such as licking the lips and nose, yawning, blinking and turning their head away. These behaviours are used by dogs to signal to other dogs ‘I’m uncomfortable with this’ but as humans we tend to miss these signals. If a situation remains unresolved the dog may progress further up the ‘ladder’ until, as a last resort, an actual bite occurs.
There are cases where progression up the ladder can happen extremely quickly, particularly in situations where a dog is excessively fearful. Managing these situations involves careful behaviour training as well as avoidance of all similar situations until the issue has been fully resolved. In other cases steps on the ladder can become missed out completely. Often this can be due to previous punishment for these behaviours leading to the behaviour being suppressed. For example the dog that has been punished for growling subsequently will not growl before biting. In this way punishing dogs that growl can take away the last warning that a dog is about to bite. The use of punishment to try and reduce aggression is therefore potentially highly dangerous. In addition to taking away warning signals at times when the motivation behind the initial aggressive behaviour (e.g. fear, frustration or pain) subsequently outweighs the fear of the punishment the aggressive behaviour is likely to reoccur. Worse still the dog is likely to progress further up the ladder to try and resolve the situation. Instead to effectively resolve aggression issues the underlying motivation for the behaviour in the first place must be addressed.
Tamsin Peachey is a Clinical Animal Behaviourist living in Hurley, Atherstone. Tamsin is passionate about dog safety and debunking the current myths surrounding animal behaviour training.