Veterinarian Reviewed on March 29, 2014 by Dr. Janice Huntingford
Dog Aggression (Aggresive Canines)
Signs and Symptoms
Dog aggression is a very common problem and is one of most frequent reasons for having dogs put to sleep. This type of behavior can be troubling and upsetting for a pet owner, and many people have no idea how to properly and effectively deal with canine aggression. Aggression is actually a natural and normal behavior for dogs to display, to a certain extent. However, aggression becomes abnormal and problematic when it begins to disrupt the human-canine relationship or the dog’s ability to interact with other animals. While it may not be possible to completely cure your dog of aggressive behavior, it is possible to control aggression. Also, since aggression tends to get worse with age, the earlier this behavior is identified and dealt with, the more success you’re likely to achieve. This is why it’s important to be able to recognize the warning signs of abnormally aggressive behavior on the part of your pet.
There are actually a number of different types of aggression that a dog can exhibit, including owner-directed aggression, dog-dog aggression, territorial aggression, aggression toward smaller animals, and aggression caused by pain or medication. Often, a dogwith this behavioral problem will display a combination of several different types of aggression. While the warning signs for each type
of aggression may differ somewhat in the way that this behavior is directed or how it manifests itself, there are several general symptoms of canine aggression that you can keep an eye out for.
While biting is the most serious act of aggression that a dog can exhibit, most canines will display several other aggressive behaviors and warning signs before escalating to this level. Signs to look out for include excessive barking, growling, lunging, and snapping. This can occur when a dog is trying to protect its food or possessions, or just in the presence of people or other animals. Dogs with an aggression problem may also behave in this way when groomed or lifted. These dogs may also attack other animals, including cats or farm animals, and may have a tendency to chase moving objects such as bicycles, motorcycles, and cars. It is also common for overly aggressive dogs to make frequent escape attempts from their home or yard.
In addition to these acts and behaviors, dogs with an aggression problem also tend to display certain postures that are the same or similar to many fear postures. For example, such canines will often flatten their ears and lower their head when faced with a trigger of their aggression. Raising their hackles, wrinkling their muzzle, and pulling back their lips are also postures commonly displayed by overly aggressive canines. Even if your dog has not yet attacked people or other animals, if he or she is exhibiting any of the above symptoms and behavior, you may have an aggression problem on your hands. Although it may not seem serious to begin with, this behavior often escalates with time, with very unfortunate results. So if you think that your pet may have or may be developing an aggression problem, the best thing to do is have your dog examined by a veterinarian so the possible causes can be identified, allowing for the initiation of a proper and effective treatment program.
Accurate diagnosis of canine aggression is incredibly important, as administering the wrong type of treatment for such behavior can actually make the problem much worse. Moreover, it’s vital that pain or medication be ruled out as the cause of the behavior before any treatments are administered. While it’s always a good idea to start with a veterinarian, when aggression is suspected you may be referred to a qualified canine behaviorist or trainer who specializes in dealing with this type of problem.
When diagnosing dog aggression, it’s important for the professional to be able to identify the type or types of aggression being displayed, as well as the triggers that tend to set off your pet’s disruptive behavior. This will require input from you, as the pet owner. By describing your dog’s behavior in different situations, this can help to narrow down the diagnosis. Once the type of aggression and the common triggers have been identified, the behaviorist or trainer will then develop a plan for treating and controlling this problem. Again, since an inappropriate treatment plan or inaccurate diagnosis can greatly exacerbate canine aggression, it’s vital that this diagnosis and identification be carried out by an experienced and qualified professional.
Pathophysiology and Psychology
While some dog breeds may be more predisposed to exhibiting aggressive behavior than others, excessive aggression tends to be more of a behavioral and social problem. Practically all mammals and other animals are capable of showing some form of aggression. Out in the wild, this behavior is often necessary as animals must be able to compete for food and mates and to be able to defend themselves from predators and other threats. Moreover, some animals, including canines, are predators and hunters. Therefore, chasing and biting are natural behaviors for dogs. However, as pets, domesticated canines do not need to exhibit such behaviors to the same extent as they would in the wild. Yet, in response to certain experiences and triggers, some dogs show more aggression than is necessary, and this can escalate to a point where disruption and danger arise.
When in a situation that triggers a dog’s aggression, the animal may feel fearful and threatened. In such cases, the aggression is a type of fear response, arising as a form of self-defense and self-protection. A dog may also feel that it needs to exert its dominance, either in order to protect itself or its territory, or to maintain or establish its rank among animals or humans. In order to understand why overzealous responses can occur in dogs under such circumstances, it helps to understand the important socialization phases that a dog goes through.
First of all, it’s best if dogs are socialized before they reach the age of fourteen weeks. If a puppy has not been adequately socialized by this age, it may be difficult to instill proper behaviors in the animal and it may be untrustworthy or shy throughout life. For the best results, puppies need to be socialized beginning at three weeks of age. Also, the optimal time to purchase or adopt a puppy and introduce it into a new home is when a puppy is around seven or eight weeks old. Until the puppy is ten weeks old, it must be handled very gently and not harshly punished in any way. When mistreatment or lack socialization occurs during these early stages of a dog’s life, the animal may not possess the proper coping skills that will allow it to successfully interact with humans and other animals in the years to come.
While improper socialization plays a large role in causing canine aggression, several other factors can contribute to this problem as well. Many of these factors are environmental ones, as is improper socialization. For example, poor living conditions, isolation, abuse, and excessive punishment can all give rise to disruptive aggression in a dog. In addition, being frightened or attacked by another dog or being regularly teased by children can lead to aggressive behavior. Spoiling your pet can also have a detrimental effect in this regard, by enforcing negative behaviors.
Another contributing factor is the dog’s social rank or dominance. It’s in a dog’s nature to try to establish a social order, and they will do this even with the humans in the household. In order to establish their place within the social rank, a dog will challenge other household members, especially more submissive ones such as children. If it is not made clear that the humans in the household socially out rank the dog, the canine will believe that it is dominant and will act aggressively when it believes that its social position is threatened or infringed upon. The way to avoid this contributing factor is through continued, proper discipline.
Treatment for dog aggression should almost always be carried out either by or under the supervision of a qualified animal behaviorist or trainer. It’s important to make sure that the professional you select to work with your pet is fully qualified and experienced. A behaviorist or trainer who does not meet these standards may use unacceptable methods while dealing with your pet and could very well make the situation worse. With a dog that displays overly aggressive behavior, some treatment methods include avoiding the triggers that set off your dog’s aggression and teaching your pet to be submissive and deferential to you. In addition, if a dog is particularly aggressive toward a specific person, the treatment may involve making this person the sole provider of the dog’s necessities, such as food and water, while other members of the household ignore the canine. However, the type of behavioral treatment required will depend upon your dog’s particular circumstances and should be determined by a professional.
In addition to behavioral treatments, some homeopathic remedies may be helpful with regards to dealing with your pet’s aggression. Plants and other natural substances contain properties that can help to calm your dog and help it to cope with stressful situations and circumstances. For example, passion flower, lemon balm, and hop are known to be effective with respect to calming an animal’s anxiety, reducing tension, and aiding relaxation. Chamomile and valerian are also beneficial in this regard. Homeopathic remedies may combine several such ingredients in order to achieve the most effective results possible for your pet. If you are interested in using natural products to help treat your dog’s aggression, speak your veterinarian; he or she will be able to help you to determine what is most appropriate for your particular pet.
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Janice Huntingford, DVM, has been in veterinary practice for over 30 years and has founded two veterinary clinics since receiving her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph. She has studied extensively in both conventional and holistic modalities. Ask Dr. Jan