Dog aggression is an overloaded word.
It can mean anything from staring, jumping, showing teeth, lunging, growling, barking, or the terrible B-word – biting.
Usually, aggression is used to describe dogs that overact to a stimuli (e.g. another dog, a stranger, food).
Reactivity is a new, perhaps less negative term, coined to describe the same behavior. Some trainers use aggression to describe dogs that overact as a result of dominance and reactivity to describe dogs that overact as a result of fear.
These terms, however, are just labels, and it is not useful to overly focus on which label to use.
The important thing is to recognize extreme behavior in our dogs, which causes us to lose control.
What constitutes extreme behavior varies from person to person, and is dependent on context. Mouthing and showing teeth in one context may just be play (top and right), while in another, it may be dangerous.
A problem only arises when the human/owner is not in control of the situation.
If your dog is biting you and causing puncture wounds, it is best to seek help from a professional dog trainer.
My Experiences with Dog Aggression
I was very embarrassed, shocked, and worried when my Shiba first showed signs of aggression. It happened four days after we brought him home (at 10 weeks old), when we took him to the vet.
The vet was very afraid of him and had to muzzle him to do an examination. She later recommended that we return him to the breeder. I never visited with this poor vet again, but at the time it was very difficult not to be embarrassed, and try to show that we were good dog parents by scolding and punishing our Shiba.
Many of my neighbors also gave us the ‘you are such a bad dog parent‘ look.
Because I was so embarrassed I made some very bad mistakes. The worst was using alpha rolls and other aversive techniques including leash jerks with him. My embarrassment also caused me to get angry, and frustrated with my dog.
I was jealous and hurt when my dog would behave better with other people. After all, I feed him and take care of him most of the time, why should he misbehave most with me?
Although it is very natural to have such feelings, they are very detrimental to helping a dog with his reactivity or aggression issues.
Dog Aggression and Love
Remember that your dog’s behavior is a result of behavior conditioning, and not from lack of love
It is natural for us to place our own, very human values and expectations upon our dogs but that is not the way they think.
Dogs respond to conditioning (classical and operant). Dogs will repeat behaviors that have good results and reduce behaviors that have bad results.
What constitutes a good or bad result can sometimes vary from dog to dog. If your dog is showing aggressive behaviors that are continuing to escalate, then he is inadvertently being rewarded for that bad behavior.
- Does he get to go on a walk when he jumps up on you and makes a pest of himself?
- Does he get to smell the other dog by whining loudly and lunging?
- Does nail clipping stop when he mouths or bites you?
- Do you back away when he growls and shows teeth?
If so, then your dog is getting what he wants through aggressive behaviors and will continue those behaviors.
Once we accept that our dogs are not acting out of hate, jealousy, or some other human emotion, we can move on and start reshaping their behavior by changing the consequences of their actions.
Dog Aggression and Other People
Do not worry about what strangers think. Your dog’s welfare is a lot more important.
Actively watch out for feelings of embarrassment, anger and frustration and try to redirect yourself to a more positive frame of mind. Rather than focus on the judgment of strangers –
- Think about the fun you had with your dog just this morning and how cute he looked with cheese bits all over his muzzle and his tongue hanging out in a goofy smile.
- Carry some happy pictures of your dog with you to help redirect your negative feelings.
- Remove yourself and your dog from the unpleasant stimulus as soon as possible.
Dog Aggression and Breed
Some dog breeds may be more prone to reactive or aggressive behaviors. Breeds that are strong-willed, stubborn, and independent will have a higher propensity for challenging you, and displaying aggression in that process.
Breeds that have a strong prey drive may easily become over-excited when they spot prey (e.g. squirrels, cats) and redirect that energy onto you if you thwart their instinct to chase.
Similarly, a strong protective drive may result in using aggression to guard territory, food, toys, or other resources.
More primitive dog breeds often have a lower reactivity threshold. I.e., they may easily go rear-brained when excited, stressed, or fearful.
Make sure to take your dog’s temperament and natural breed instinct into account while retraining his aggressive behaviors.
Dog Aggression – What to Expect
Dealing with dog aggression can be difficult, and may take a long time to fix, but …
- The rewards are well worth the trouble.
The journey will reveal many things not just about your dog, but also about youself. In the process, you will develop a special relationship and strong bond with your dog – and that in itself is priceless.
- Things will get better.
Many dog owners are going through the same thing, and their dog’s behavior has and continue to improve.
- Your dog will challenge you less as he matures.
… but he may keep challenging you. That is one of the joys of dog ownership
When the world says, "Give up,"
Hope whispers, "Try it one more time."
~~[ Author Unknown ]
If you are having aggression issues with your dog, know that you are not alone. I had many aggression issues with my Shiba Inu.
More on Aggression
- Aggression: The Humane Society of the United States
- Behavioral View on Dog Aggression
- Desensitizing your Dog with Clicker Training
Canine Body Language
- Calming Signals: An article about Turid Rugaas.
- How to Interpret Your Dog’s Body Language, Facial Expressions and Vocalizations