Conflicted Canines - Understanding Aggressive Behaviors In Order to Prevent Them
Before recommending a behavior modification or training program for a dog that has exhibited aggressive behavior, it is helpful to determine the root of the problem behavior being presented. Trainers who are not specialists in solving behavior problems may be attempting to diagnose and make suggestions before they have a comprehensive understanding of aggressive behaviors. All people who work with dogs are going to encounter aggression, but not everyone is going to understand what they are seeing.
Looking back at my own personal experience, I realize that I did not begin to understand aggressive behavior until I started working extensively with dogs who exhibited it. Trainers tend to be proficient in their own field of expertise and frankly, with my start being in competition obedience, and then moving on to conformation handling, in the first part of my training career I worked with very few dogs with aggression issues other than dog-to-dog aggression. In the 70s and 80s, my clients were primarily show dog breeders, most of whom believed that dogs which exhibited aggressive behavior towards people should be put down. When I opened a pet care facility and my clientele changed from working with competition dogs to working with companion dogs, things were quite different. Instead of clients who owned multiple dogs that come and go, I had clients who owned one or two companion dogs, beloved pets that stayed with their family for life. Suddenly I became called upon to “fix” problems that before were simply culled from the gene pool.
Companion dog owners actually have very high expectations of their dogs, in comparison to owners of competition dogs. For example, training for the conformation show ring requires teaching the dog to gait properly on the leash without galloping, to look at the handler with an attentive expression and to tolerate handling by the judge. Some of the softer dogs require extensive socialization, but it is primarily socialization at fun matches and handling classes--teaching the dog to accept the type of circumstance that surrounds a dog show.
Pet dogs, on the other hand, are expected to be well behaved family members in a myriad of different circumstances. They must tolerate handling from all types of strangers, and be under control at home, at grandma’s house, on vacation at the lake and the beach, at soccer games surrounded by dozens of screaming children, at the park, you name it. Many of these dogs were adopted from a rescue organization or a shelter, and before their adoption received very little handling or exposure to novel situations. As puppies, they may have missed important interactions during the 3-16 week age period, a critical time for socialization. Even adult dogs purchased from competition dog breeders may not have had the type of early training that will prepare them to be a “family dog”, because they may have been kept in a kennel situation as opposed to an inside environment. Owners of companion dogs are not good at “culling” nor are they particularly good at lowering their expectations. Instead they pick up the phone and call the local dog trainer, who must somehow help the dog conform to the owner’s expectations, which can be like putting a square peg into a round hole.
After we opened our facility, I started receiving these type of phone calls, so even though I had already been training dogs for fifteen years at that time, I decided to educate myself more thoroughly on canine behavior, particularly aggression related issues. In 1991, I began attending seminars, workshops, reading books, even traveling up to Cornell for a couple of years for their workshops on solving canine behavioral problems. I also evaluated and fostered dogs for rescue groups, volunteered at the local shelter and began to develop a network of acquaintances who were experienced at evaluating and solving aggression issues. The explanations and definitions of behavior expressed in this article are based on almost four decades now of training dogs, but just as important, they are also derived from the experience of other trainers and behaviorists who have worked with thousands of dogs themselves.
That said, let’s take a look at varying types of aggressive behaviors. Keep in mind that aggression is simply that - a behavior, not a personality type. Yes, some dogs have an overall low threshold for aggression--these dogs are what trainer George Cockrell calls “Mad Dog Mean”. But these dogs are very few and far between. The majority of dogs are like people - they will exhibit aggressive behavior if put in a certain circumstance, but 99% of the time, they do not behave in an aggressive fashion. When a dog attempts to bite someone, there are normally many factors involved. The following quote from Chad Mackin helps lend understanding to this concept:
“I have rarely seen a case of aggression that fits entirely into a single classification. Nearly always it is a combination of aggression types. This makes sense since human behavior is rarely straightforward, and I see no reason to conclude that dog behavior is any more straightforward than ours. I guarantee you, if I were to haul off and hit someone, it would be the result of many factors coming together at one point in time. I am convinced that, for the most part, this is true when dogs become aggressive as well. It is usually not just a single thing, but a series of stresses that converge to adversely affect the dog’s behavior.
But by attempting to identify the types of aggression involved, we can propose a plan of action that deals specifically with the types of stressors that trigger the aggression, and more importantly, the underlying contributing factors (lower the stress related to these factors). As with any behavior model, the key to effectively applying it is to remember that it is a “model” and is imperfect.”
Chad Mackin, A+ Dog Obedience, Webster, Texas
So if we accept that aggression is a “behavior”, not necessarily a personality type, how do we begin to look at the root causes behind the behavior? We have already briefly mentioned the fact that most dogs who are adopted as older pups or adults have not had the necessary socialization. When we place these dogs with a normal pet dog owner (by this I mean, an individual or family who has typical expectations of what a companion dog should be able to do) then the dogs are sometimes put under a great deal of stress, and this stress can manifest itself in aggressive displays, even truly dangerous behavior like biting or attacking. I would like to suggest that there really are basically two types of aggression seen in canines--social and predatory. Please read on and let me know your thoughts, based on your own experience.
Siberian Huskies are not commonly thought of as "aggressive dogs", as they are rarely territorial and usually are not even good watchdogs. If raised with children, they make good family pets if someone understands that they need lots of exercise, shed profusely and have to always be on leash or in secure fencing. However, they do typically have very high "prey drive', meaning they will go after small animals, and can dispatch of a squirrel, bunny, or even the neighbor's cat in seconds! So, like any dog, they should never be left alone with an infact, since a screaming baby can be perceived as prey by a dog that was not raised IN THE HOUSE with young children. Don't adopt or purchase any dog without finding out if the dog has high prey drive, and talk to an experienced breeder and trainer to find out how this should be managed so that the dog lives a happy life, without any issues with smaller animals or people. Some prey drive is inhibited, like Retrievers, who love to have a bird in their mouth, but have been bred not to bite down. Unfortunately, Siberians have a heritage of being allowed to run loose on the tundra in the summer and catch their own food, so if they reach a bird, they typically shake it, since their prey drive is not inhibited like that of a sporting dog.
When we are dealing with dogs who are handling stress inappropriately due to lack of early socialization, we could say we are looking at behavior that falls into the category of “social aggression.” We also see inappropriate social behavior towards people exhibited in dogs purchased as puppies, not just in rescued dogs who did not receive appropriate socialization. Often these dogs have inherited a tendency towards being either fearful or strong-willed, or they may have learned certainly behaviors from their canine mother, before they were old enough to go to their new homes. Another common scenario, when we see well-socialized dogs who still have aggression issues, is that they may be owned by someone who does not understand how to teach a dog his proper place in the social hierarchy.
The majority of aggressive behavior that the dog trainer deals with on a daily basis falls into the “social” category; behaviors that an animal would exhibit towards their own species (versus “predatory” behavior, aggressive behaviors exhibited towards outside species perceived as prey). Again, “to recap, social aggression” is behavior, whether towards animals or people, is behavior that a dog would typically exhibit towards their own species.
Problems such as guarding resources or territorial and dominance displays fall into the broader category of social aggression, because these are behaviors that a dog exhibits with other dogs. Even fear-biting and defensive behaviors, where the dog is overreacting to something he perceives as a threat, are in the social category. Aggressive displays that involve things such as nipping at the heels or biting the calf of a jogger, or even more dangerous behavior such as attacking a running child or a screaming infant, are predatory behaviors. When looking back over my own experiences and personal research, the only type of biting that I do not see as falling into either social or predatory responses is that of true pain-elicited aggression--the dog who exhibits a type of panicked response when their foot is stuck under a fence, and they bite the hand that is trying to free them, not even seeming to realize they have bitten anyone (dogs in this type of circumstance may even inflict bodily harm upon themselves, biting off their foot, for example, in an attempt to free themselves).
What about treatment programs for social and predatory aggressive behavior? To lessen aggressive responses that fall into the “social” category, we concentrate heavily on the relationship between the dog and his owner. The social climber, the dog who always prefers to be in charge, needs a firm leadership program. Problematic dogs that exhibit defensive social behaviors will also require a confidence building program, which teaches steadiness on the part of the owner and the dog. Timid dogs will feel safer in the presence of a confident leader, just as a child feels safer in the presence of a confident parent.
Problem behaviors that involve predatory responses require implementing a training program that concentrates on impulse control and perfect compliance to obedience commands around distractions. Predatory behavior varies from the merely annoying herding behaviors to the extremely dangerous behavior of perceiving young children as prey.
Dogs with high prey drive require responsible management for their entire lifetimes---for example, they should never be allowed off-leash around children, small animals or anything that they may view as intended prey. The owner of any dog who has exhibited aggressive behavior, whether social or predatory, must be committed to the type training program that instills instant compliance to commands---things that trainers like George Cockrell can achieve, which he calls a “bomb-proof recall”, a “drop anywhere/always” and a “stay-forever”. This type of work requires dedication on the part of the owner, and is different from the type of training for come, down and stay that is taught in 99% of obedience classes around the country today. Not every owner, not even every dog trainer, is capable of achieving this with difficult dogs. Remote collar training can be very effective, but keep in mind it is remote collar training - the training is the key; the remote collar alone is not a magic panacea for problem solving. Anyone who owns a dog must be responsible for insuring that their dog is never put into a situation where he could harm someone.
I spent over a decade studying fatal dog attacks. Now there is an excellent organization which does this work, and they provide as many details as they can through their research which is aimed at preventing these tragedies. If you read the information provided, you will see that prey drive has inevitably kicked in, because often the attacks involve a dog attacking a jogger or someone on a bicycle, or a child or elderly person. In the case of the children and the elderly, it is probably a combination of social and prey driven aggression. The organization that does this research is Dogs Bite, and you can find them at dogsbite.org.
Before closing, I would like to reiterate that aggression is a behavior that an individual exhibits, it is rarely an across-the-board “personality type”. I like this quote from George Cockrell, who gives a very clear explanation of aggression definitions. If you read his words carefully, I think it is obvious that almost all dog bites can be prevented, if we recognize that aggression is situational, and we do not put our dogs in to situations where they can make a "fatal mistake". By fatal, I don't mean necessarily that a person or animal will die. Usually the fatality is the biting dog, even if the dog inflicted only a wound that required no more than cleaning and a band-aid In many localities, a dog can be declared vicious and put down for very minor acts of aggression.. It is up to us, as our dog's owners, to make sure we keep our dogs responsibly, train and contain them in a way that they cannot inflict harm.
“Aggression is an act, not necessarily a trait. It is a response to a particular stimuli in almost every case. If one must put labels on things, then we should get things right. For example, ‘fear aggression’ is really an act of defense; the dog is ‘defensive’’. When the dog does not feel threatened, it would not be seen as aggressive.
‘Territorial aggression’ is really a warning, so that dog is ‘territorial’. Without an interloper, the dog would not be seen as aggressive.
‘Predatory aggression’ is the act of predation, so that dog is acting as a predator. Without prey, there is no aggression.
‘Dominance aggression’ is usually disciplinary, so that dog is only ‘dominant’. Without conflict, the dog is not aggressive.
Many trainers I’ve met do not understand that an aggressive act does not make a bad dog. The most dangerous dogs I have met have been Mad Dog Mean. They are aggressive in both act and attitude. This type of dog is extremely rare, and once one works with this type of dog, all the different labels tend to fly right out the window.”
George Cockrell, Companion Dog Training, LLC, International Association of Canine Professionals, Regional Group Coordinator, Kensington, Maryland
I have published a version of this article several times in the past, and it is perhaps the least popular article I have ever written. However, I am going to continue to write on this issue until breeders, rescue groups, and dog owners realize that dogs do use their teeth, if not trained to do otherwise! I think the words of Mr. Cockrell above, help emphasize that aggression, no matter what category you wish to put it in, is almost always preventable, with the exception of the few "Mad Dog Mean" dogs which really are not acceptable pets, and should be humanely euthanized.
If 99.9% of all dog bites are preventable---let's prevent them!
Melanie Schlaginhaufen, Knowing Dogs