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Treating canine aggression: How to make sure that they don't take the arm when offered a little finger (Proceedings)

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Nov 01, 2010

Aggression to family members or persons who are familiar with the aggressive dog accounts for the majority of cases presented to veterinary behaviorists. Causes for this behavior vary greatly and may include competitive aggression, fear aggression, pain induced aggression or maternal aggression.

Most commonly, owners of aggressive dogs assume that the pet is 'dominant'. This assumption is nurtured by discussion groups on the internet, lay publications, and a so-called old school of dog trainers. The concept of social dominance became popular among trainers when ethologists published observations on wolf behavior. It is important to understand the social structure and the motivation that underlies canine behavior to correctly diagnose and treat behavioral issues. Sadly, it leads trainers to advocate treatment approaches that use physical confrontations, such as scuffing, 'alpha'rolling', and choking ('leash corrections'). In some cases, these approaches suppress the behavior successfully or temporarily. In other instances, the aggressive behavior of the dog escalates dramatically, leading to severe bites and the dog's euthanasia. Even if one family member manages to control the dog using physical means, others may not be able to use the approach successfully. It is not desirable to teach children to control the behavior of others by means of physical violence, such as hitting and choking.

Other – appropriate and safe - approaches that will be discussed in detail, allow all family members to use a safer and effective approach, that is based on more recent knowledge in kynology. It allows owners to avoid an escalation of physical confrontation.

Well-socialized dogs are skilled communicators and resolve the majority of conflicts using ritualized behaviors that help avoid an escalation into fights. The individual that manages most consistently control the outcome of an encounter or monopolizes the access to resources will have the privilege of priority access to this resource. However, there is no such thing as 'a dominant dog'. Most commonly, status within a hierarchy varies, depending on the context, the motivation of each individual and the outcome of previous encounters. A dog may be higher ranking, but if he is not hungry, he may willingly give up food that a lower ranking animal is trying to access.

Aggression to humans occurs in a vast majority of cases because people send unclear and contradictory signals to their dogs. Some time, the dog may be required to obey. At other times, the owner readily responds to signals the dog gives to achieve certain goals (e.g. leaning into the owner and pawing to solicit attention). If a dog learns over the course of time that she can control the behavior of a certain person more commonly as described above than the person controls the dog's behavior, the dog will certainly be more likely to challenge a person in a situation in which they compete over a high value resource (e.g. a raw hide).

Inconsistency on side of the owner and failure to read social situations and signals that the dog gives correctly will often lead to apparently 'unprovoked' acts of aggression. An individual that is not able to predict its environment and the reactions of social partners will become increasingly insecure, anxious, aggressive, hyper, and reactive. If the person's behavior is predictable and if signals that the dog gives are recognized correctly, the dog will be put into a situation in which she can successfully avoid conflict. This insecurity is a common observation in cases of competitive aggression. Owners complain that the dog is stubborn and 'dominant' when in fact he is anxious.