Types of Aggression
The two most common types of aggression seen in dogs are fear aggression and dominance aggression.
Fear aggression occurs when a dogs is placed in a situation that makes them feel scared or uncomfortable. Sometimes these situations may seem completely harmless, such as a new person coming around to the house or a motorcycle driving past while on a walk. The dog becomes anxious and nervous, and reacts with a very aggressive response to try to protect themselves. One example would be the family dog barking or snapping at a dinner party guest when they try to pat the dog.
Dominance aggression is very different from fear aggression, but can look outwardly similar. Dogs are quite territorial animals, and will have specific areas that they consider to be theirs and they may act dominantly and aggressively to protect their belongings and territory. Dominance aggression can occur inside the house, such as when a dog fiercely guards their bed or a chair and growls if people come close. However, it is more commonly seen outside – a dog that barks wildly at other dogs through a fence or on a walk is usually showing dominance aggression.
What can owners do to deal with aggression?
Before you start any type of training or behaviour modification it is important to remember that aggression issues, whether they are related to fear, dominance or any other cause, can become serious and in some cases can be dangerous. It is vital to make sure that you never put yourself or any other person at risk of being bitten. With that said, there are a number of safe methods for helping dogs with aggression issues.
For any behavioural issue, it is important to make sure the dog is being exercised regularly, having regular meals and having a decent amount of owner-dog play and interaction daily. Setting the foundations for a normal, healthy relationship will go a long way in preventing these issues from occurring, and a tired and satisfied dog is much less likely to cause trouble than a bored, energetic and ignored dog.
How to determine whether aggression is fear or dominance based
It is also very important to differentiate between fear and dominance aggression, as the treatments and solutions are very different. A fear aggressive dog will normally have a low crouching stance with their tail between their legs and their ears back against the head. A dominance aggressive dog with generally have a high stance, the tail is pointed stiffly back from the body and the ears are pricked up and forward.
Dealing with fear aggression
To help with fear aggression, first determine situations that trigger the behaviour. Then slowly expose the dog to the situation in a calm and controlled environment. Try to keep the dog’s attention or prevent him focussing on the trigger – some trainers will use a loud clicking device or a whistle to help focus the dog. Then give them a treat and a reward. As with separation anxiety, this is a counter-conditioning training technique which works to replace a negative emotion with a positive feeling. Remember that we’re never trying to scare the dog, so if they are finding the situation uncomfortable then stop the training and try again later. Also, try to work with the dog’s anxieties, and prevent exposure or triggers if possible – for example, if a dog is uncomfortable when new guests visit then the owner should welcome the guest as a friend to show the dog they are no threat, then ask the guest to leave the dog and not make eye contact or try to pat the dog, at least for a few minutes until everything is settled.
Dealing with dominance aggression
Dominance aggression is much less common that fear aggression, but it can potentially be much more dangerous. I would be very careful when working with a dominance aggressive dog, and I would generally recommend an owner to consult with a veterinarian or professional trainer before any training begins. Dominance aggression is usually the result of a dog thinking it is above other members of the family in the dominance hierarchy -they think they’re the boss. I would never suggest an owner directly confronts or challenges a dominant dog, this is very likely to escalate into a fight. Instead, I’d suggest a gentle shifting of the pecking-order. Whenever the dog wants something they must perform a command first – this way they are following your commands and subtly acknowledging that you are the boss whilst still getting a reward. For example, the dog should sit before being fed dinner or going on a walk. The dog should also be fed in their area – not near the table, and food should not be given from the table. Lastly, there should be human-only areas of the house, such as the chairs and beds, where the dog is not allowed to sleep. This will help reinforce the idea that they are not the master of the house. Of course I’d always recommend that a dog has their own personal sleeping area as this will give them a sense of belonging and sanctity. I should also note that this hierarchy should include everyone in the house, including helpers and other family members, being above the dog, and everybody should engage in the training as long as there is absolutely no risk.
A product called Adaptil can also really help dogs with aggression issues. Adaptil contains a pheromone, a special scent that is only detectable to dogs, and has no odour or effect on humans. It is bioidentical to the dog’s normal territory marking scent, and makes the dog feel comfortable, relaxed and safe. It is available as a plug-in pheromone diffuser, spray, or pheromone-impregnated collar. Adaptil is completely safe, does not contain any drugs and has no side effect, but can be a great aid in helping calm anxious dogs. Vetopia.com stocks a full range of Adaptil products here.
Lastly, I would also suggest that owners consider using a muzzle when outside or in potentially risky situations with a dog with aggressive issues. Even if the chance of a dog biting is small it’s important to make sure everyone is safe. There are a selection of good muzzles here.