There are many varied circumstances and different motivations that lead to the development of aggression in dogs. Two of the most common motivations for aggressive behaviour are fear and frustration.
When a dog is highly motivated to do something but is stopped from doing it, this can cause aggression through frustration. Similarly to young children, dogs need to build up a tolerance to frustration. This includes learning to control their impulses. For example learning ‘I can’t always have what I want the second I want it’. This takes time to establish and is often something many dogs have never been taught before.
A common example of frustration is the normally calm dog that enjoys interacting with other dogs in the park when off lead. Yet when the dog is walked on lead they strain at the end of the lead and bark continuously at other dogs. The dog wants to meet up with other dogs rather than attack them but can not control their frustration at not being able to reach the other dog. Too often frustrated dogs are labelled as ‘aggressive’ or ‘disobedient’ and subsequently punished for their behaviour. In this case this could cause a conflict of emotion between the excitementof seeing other dogs and the fear of being punished. This type of emotional conflict can result in aggressive, unusual and undesirable behaviours. The use of punishment around other dogs may also cause the dog to become fearful of other dogs. This is because the sight of other dogs begins to predict punishment from the owner.
It is also not recommeded that a dog in a highly fustrated state on lead is allowed to approach other dogs as this can upset other dogs and lead to fighting. Instead working on impulse control and calm behaviours around other dogs is required. For this type of training see your local trainer or behaviourist.
Aggression initiated by fear is caused by the dog feeling the need to defend itself. Although dogs have adapted to live with humans some human-dog interactions remain unwelcome. This includes the way in which many of us initiate contact with dogs such as hugging dogs around the neck and patting them on the head (particularly around the eyes, nose and mouth). Think about how you would feel if upon meeting you someone began putting their fingers near your eyes or grabbed you around the neck, it would probably make you feel rather uneasy!
Although you may be thinking ‘I do that with my dog and it’s never been a problem’ very often the subtle signs of discomfort are there. Watch out for lip licking, blinking, yawning and turning their head away. As a rule dogs may also feel threatened if they are chased after, cornered or physically restrained particularly when trying to avoid something they are unsure of. It may be that your dog can tolerate many of these interactions however there is also an effect known as trigger stacking. This is when several triggers occur and eventually it all becomes too much for the dog to cope with. A human example of this would be 'reaching the end of your tether'. For example your dog may cope with the children chasing him, poking him and pulling his tail but when one of the children then goes to hug the dog it is all suddenly too much to cope with and a bite occurs. Think of it as the final straw during a stressful day! This build up of stressors is likely the cause of many bites within the home that to owners often appear out of the blue (the dog previously coped with the triggers when they occurred one at a time) and without warning (they didn’t know the warning signs). Ultimately the majority of bites are predictable and can be avoided through sesnsible managment and training.
Punishment can be a significant cause of fear and anxiety in a dog’s environment. the use of punishment is counterproductive doesn't actuall teach a dog what they need to do. The use of a stern ‘no’ is generally confusing for dogs because the word has no real meaning i.e. does it mean stand still? Sit? Move away? Or something else? and is used in such a wide variety of situations. Therefore the use of punishment often leads to confusion, increasing anxiety and makes an aggressive response all the more likely. For example, in a dog that is punished when they do not give up a toy the dog learns to avoid punishment by avoiding the owner when they have a toy. The dog then runs away from the owner with the toy. This avoidance leads to further punishment increasing the dog’s anxiety and eventually contributing to aggressive guarding behaviours around toys. This scenario can easily be avoided by teaching the dog to give up the toy to get a reward and by returning the toy afterwards. The dog learns that giving something up is beneficial and does not always mean they won’t get it back.
There are many potential causes of aggression only a few examples of which have been covered in this article. If you are struggling with dog aggression it is always best to consult a professional for the safety of yourself, your dog and others.
An Introduction to Canine Aggression
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.