Understanding Aggression

The first thing to remember is that aggression can be normal. If a threat is real then it might be an appropriate response – just imagine an armed intruder in your home, threatening your life – you may very well act aggressively in return. If you are in pain and someone attempts to move you, you might shout at the person, or push them forcibly away to protect yourself – again a normal response.

So aggression, in and of itself, is not a diagnosis.

Aggression is also often labelled by the target or the context – also not very helpful. If your dog has aggression to familiar persons it may still stem from a variety of causes. Perhaps it feels threatened by past punishment (fear and conflict) or perhaps it values resources such as bones highly ( learnt behaviour, anxiety).  If your dog has territorial aggression again the underlying motivation can be varied and complex.

So what to do?

When we talk about aggression and the threat it poses it is helpful to look at a number of criteria to assess the level of risk. One such criteria is understanding that dogs should normally follow a set behaviour sequence. For instance they should try to communicate discomfort before escalating their threat. They should move away, turn their head, lift a lip or even growl to signal they wish an encounter to stop – be this with another a dog or human. There should be a PAUSE whereby the receiver of the signal can then respond appropriately by moving away, withdrawing, allowing space. A normal dog would then see that his/her communication had been successful and the threat would STOP. In an abnormal dog this sequence can either happen very, very fast, so the receiver has no time to respond or the sequence may be so abnormal that it feels as if a “switch” has gone off in the dog’s head. For the high risk dogs there is an abnormal ability to read and respond to signals. This makes their behaviour sequencing abnormal and therefore they fall into the category of high risk.

If the behaviour sequence follows a predatory pattern, which appears very different from a bite that follows failed communication, then this would also suggest a HIGH risk case.

A dog who shows predation does so silently, with the aim to bite and inflict injury – and, in essence, this drive arises from a different part of the brain than does the drive to keep a dog safe from something he/she fears.

The dog predating someone/thing is not feeling threatened. It is alert and poses a serious risk.

Another criteria for assessing the degree of risk when dealing with aggressive dogs is the ability of the caregivers to manage and understand the risk their animal poses. If, for instance, the dog has shown aggression around children and lives in a home full of them then this makes this a high risk scenario. If the same dog lives with an elderly couple with no grandchildren and who can ensure the dog does not meet children then the risk is reduced. If a dog has shown aggressive responses to other dogs and caregivers want to  routinely let the dog off lead then this equates with a high risk and caregivers who have a poor understanding of the risks involved. As you can see the same dog can be classed as carrying a low or high risk dependent on who is the caregiver.

It makes sense that the larger the dog the more serious the risk. Yes, any dog can bite, and even small dogs have caused fatalities, but clearly the larger the dog the more serious the injury to both human and other animal.

Knowing the predictability can be useful. If you know your dog is likely to become aggressive in veterinary visits this can mean you can prepare yourself and your dog ahead of time. There is so much that can be done to reduce both the risks and, over time, improve your dog’s emotional association with the vet visit. Most dogs who are aggressive in veterinary clinic scenarios are mostly acting out of fear. They may have had a previous poor experience and therefore very strong memory of the past event. They are desperate to keep the vet away and they are a very real bite risk if the vet must examine them physically. Understanding this can allow for interventions such as training ahead of time, e.g. muzzle desensitisation, chin rest exercises and simple training that can at least allow a vet to give a dog a sedation injection.

Having a dog that has displayed aggression can be very frightening and upsetting but it is imperative to remember that aggression is a very broad label and really tells you very little. A lot more detective work needs to be done to understand the emotion behind the aggression and then decide what is the most appropriate treatment.

Focus on the emotion not the behaviour. This is the way forward.

Many times aggressive responses will be based in fear and anxiety and hence it is imperative to never punish the behaviours being shown – you are just confirming to the dog that it has every reason to want to protect him/herself.

Acknowledgement – this blog was inspired by attending an Aggressive Dog Workshop run by Dr Martin Godbout DACVB. Thanks Martin!


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