I get a lot of concerned emails and phone calls from people as a result of a particular behaviour that they have seen from their dog which is causing them to question whether or not their dog is becoming aggressive. The general understanding that comes across in this type of enquiry is that dogs either are or aren’t aggressive and if they ‘become’ aggressive then that puts them into the ‘are’ category, where they will stay. So I wanted to do a little re-education on this matter.
Aggression is a behaviour
Aggression is not a permanent state, it is a behaviour. A conditioned reaction to a set of circumstances or events. Some dogs will be more conditioned to exhibit this behaviour than others, and some will experience the events which will create this reaction more than others. So we end up branding dogs as either aggressive, or not. The truth is that ALL dogs are capable of aggression. Just as all humans are.
Personally I am quite a calm person, I don’t get angry that easily and I have never been in a physical fight. However that’s not to say that I never would, and when I attended a self-defence class the instructor was really surprised by how much strength I showed on the dummy attacker. When I was doing this class I accessed the part of myself that would come to the surface if I was under attack, and the force that came out was the kind of force which would very much be justified if someone did attack me. And if that moment ever did arise I would be behaving “aggressively”. Because the other choices are not good options in that moment.
Why would a dog choose aggressive behaviour?
In circumstances where a dog becomes aggressive, it is because they believe that this is the only choice in this situation. They don’t dare not be aggressive, for fear of what the consequences may be (commonly referred to as ‘fear aggression’). Below I have laid out the most common scenarios in which a dog shows aggressive behaviour, to help you understand what is going on for your dog.
The information which underlies all of this is that if your dog is showing any aggressive behaviour, this is a very clear indicator that he/she is feeling stressed.
- Aggression towards other dogs is because these dogs are considered to be a threat to the survival of your pack. Your dog doesn’t think that it is safe for you all to be in the same environment, so is using aggression as a strong warning to the other dog, or as a direct attempt to get rid of the dog, before they try the same defensive (attack as a form of defense) behaviour on you. They may also feel this way about other people they see when you are walking them.
- Aggression towards visitors is because the visitors are seen as intruders into your territory. Dogs do not have a natural understanding of social visits, so they see all visitors as either potential pack members, or potential threats. The more stressed a dog, and depending on the behaviour of the visitor, then aggression may feel like the only option. The same could apply to neighbours directly outside, especially if they lean over the fence
- Aggression towards you as the owners is most likely because they feel threatened by you, so either they feel that you are challenging them in some way, e.g. over food or toy, or gaining height and they need to put you in your place – because they believe this to be their responsibility to do so. Or they feel you are a threat to them, not realising that you only want to be companions, they fear your advances into their personal space, so have no choice but to warn you off.
Unless in the extremely rare circumstance that your dog is experiencing some kind of medical anomaly, e.g. a brain tumour, then you can change your dog’s belief that aggression is the necessary behaviour. Although even in medical situations a lot can be improved by removing the stress factors.
Changing the need for aggression
By creating a new understanding in your dog of what their role is, then their need to use aggression as a way of dealing with circumstances can be massively reduced and eventually removed altogether. It all comes down to your dog understanding his/her role in the pack as you intend it. So by taking the role as leader yourself in a way your dog understands (which 100% of people I have been to help with their dogs were not already doing in their dogs eyes, despite 50% of them thinking they already were) you will be helping your dog by:
- Removing the responsibility that creates stress, meaning they are less on edge and less reactive generally.
- Managing the situations which you now understand are potential triggers for them, so there is less risk/misunderstanding.
- Showing them that they can look to you as the new decision maker, when there is a situation they previously would have made a choice to be aggressive. Your decision is for the pack as a whole, and is not an aggressive one. The pack survives, they learn.
- Showing them that you don’t need their help when people come to the door, you are capable of deciding who to let in, and who to “send away” (delivery people usually!)
- They realise that you are no threat to them, and that you are not challenging them for status over toys, food etc. Your type of leadership will be the kind type. You will take over through their choice because they trust you are up to the job, not through force.
So the question now is how do you become this leader that they can trust. The answer is read “The Dog Listener” by Jan Fennell – and get me or another dog listener to come and help you as a family. Aggression does not need to be the behaviour of choice, so let us help you get the right dog behaviours in place.