Prevention of Aggression
is imperative to start trying to prevent aggressive behavior before
it begins, when a puppy is very young. Pups go through a very critical
socialization period between 8 and 16 weeks of age. During this time
all pups should be exposed to people and children of all ages, exposed
to other dogs, and taken away from their homes to new environments.
It is a well known fact that the ideal time to adopt a puppy is 7
1/2 to 8 weeks of age. If a pup is being handled by a lot of different
people, of all ages, and exposed to other dogs, the age of adoption
is not quite as critical. Pups that are bottle fed, away from their
mothers, can develop inappropriate social behavior toward other dogs.
Pups raised in kennels past 3-4 months of age and not exposed to new
environments, people or other dogs, can become very fearful when adopted
It is very important that dog owners adopt pups at the correct age
and begin early training and socialization. They must teach the pup
to defer to them for everything. They must discourage rough aggressive
play such as hand-fighting, and in many cases, tug of war games. If
played, the human must always win and the game must stop if the pup
becomes too aggressive. All dogs must be taught early commands, especially
sit and down. Then it must earn everything it gets. It must sit before
it eats, goes out the door, plays, or receives attention, preferably
from all members of the household, especially children. No pup showing
aggressive signs, should be allowed on the furniture or in the bed,
because this elevates its place in the social order. Owners should be
able to hand feed and take favored objects away from pups. This 8 to
16 week age is extremely critical. If a pup has to earn its favors from
everyone, it soon learns it must depend on people for food, shelter
Treatment of K9 Aggression
Treating aggressive dogs is possible but clients must understand
there is rarely ever a cure, but the condition can usually be controlled.
At VHUP, client compliance was the single best determinant of success.
Clients must avoid situations or circumstances that are known to
precipitate the specific aggression. Any time the animal executes an
inappropriate behavioral response, it learns from that response. It
is critical that the dog not be allowed any reinforcement. Reinforcement
allows learning of inappropriate behaviors. (Overall, 1997)
Owners must be able to monitor the early warning signs and startle
or correct the animal prior to the development of the specific behavior.
If the behavior has already started, it must be interrupted within 30-60
seconds of the start of the behavior. (Voith & Marder, 1988)
Sitting and staying are natural dog behaviors that correspond to
lower positions in the social hierarchy and serve as a time out. It
teaches the dog that the owner is the leader and deserving of deferential
behavior, and all cues must be taken from the owner. This is very important
because at the crux of aggressive problems is the fact that these dogs
are abnormal; they are incapable of making appropriate, in-context distinctions.
These dogs exhibit inappropriate, out-of-context behavior.
Early intervention must be aimed at achieving excellent voice control
and teaching the dog to make better context distinctions by taking cues
from the owner. (Overall, 1997)
Dogs exhibiting dominance aggression challenge and threaten their
owners or other humans for control by staring, barking, or growling
when given commands. They lean on their owners, growling or biting when
disturbed while sleeping or stepped over, or frequently have the “last
word” when verbally corrected, and when physically punished, become
more aggressive. Absolutely no physical punishment must be used. (Overall,
It is very important for all dogs to receive some sort of obedience
training. Early testing of pups may help with early recognition of future
behavioral problems. It must be emphasized that most dogs with behavioral
problems are not just misbehaving, they are not normal, and to treat
them as normal, but misbehaving animals and expect normal responses
to ever intensifying corrections, is dangerous to the pet and the client
alike. (Overall, 1997) It is never appropriate to recommend to an owner
to hang a dog from a choker collar to subdue aggression. (Myles, 1991)
Types of Aggression
There are many different classifications of aggression. I will use
the classifications Dr. Overall uses in her book. They are maternal,
play, fear, pain, territorial, protective, inter-dog, redirected, food-related,
possessive, predatory dominance and idiopathic aggression. It is important
to realize that some dogs can exhibit several different types of aggression.
Dominance Aggression is the number one canine behavioral problem.
Dominance is not defined as aggression on the part of the dominant”
animal, but rather as the withdrawal of the “subordinate”. (Gartlan,
1968; Rowell, 1972, 1974) The behavior of the lower status individuals,
not the higher ranking one, is what determines the relative hierarchical
rank. Truly dominant dogs will tolerate lesser ranking dogs, as long
as they defer to the dominant dog. Through the use of body language,
dogs are able to communicate and avoid actual combat. A stare,
a slightly raised lip, or raised hackles, are usually enough to make
a lower ranking dog back down. Whenever two dogs feel they have equal
status, a fight may occur.
Dominance aggression is an abnormal, inappropriate, out-of-context
aggression, that is manifested by dogs toward people when the “resource”
is access to control. It is likely that dominance aggression, like most
other diagnosis of aggression, are manifestations of an underlying anxiety
When a dog is pathologically anxious about its relative role in the
social environment, the default rule is either to take control or test
the social environment to determine whether it can challenge for control.
When this behavior pattern is associated with people, it is called dominance
aggression. When it is associated with dogs, it represents one manifestation
of interdog aggression.
Dominance aggression is about the concept of control. The dog is faced
with a challenge about control in any punishment situation. For a dog
that already challenges a leadership role, the only choice is to return
any challenge in kind. (Overall, 1997) When dogs are anxious and uncertain
about their role in the social hierarchy, they will often make demands
and respond accordingly to the owners reactions. If the owner backs
down, the dogs aggressive tendencies are reinforced. Treatment requires
that the dog defers to the people.
Owners do not often recognize the
“pushy” behavior exhibited by dogs. The subtle growl when pushed off
the couch, the paws on the shoulders or talking back. The dog thinks
the owner is deferring to them. The following tables, Box 6-8 and 6-9,
from Dr. Overall’s book, lists human behaviors that may elicit aggressive
behavior and canine behaviors that are a part of dominance aggression.
Dr. Overall divides dominant aggressive dogs into two broad groups.
Those that have no doubt that they are in control and those that are
unsure of their social role and use their aggressive behavior to define
their social boundaries and roles.
A majority of the dominant aggressive dogs are males and castration
has limited effect toward treating these dogs. It is still recommended,
if for no other reason, than to keep them from reproducing. Intact male
dogs are more reactive and react more quickly, react at a more intense
level, and stay reactive longer. (Overall, 1997)
These dogs must be taught to defer to their owners for everything
and they must be asked to participate in any activity. They must wait
and perform some command before they are allowed to eat, play, go through
doors, be groomed or before receiving any attention. They must earn
everything they get. Eventually, through much deference, most dogs will
learn to become subordinate. Some dogs will not, and for every dog there
must be a stopping point. For some dogs, euthanasia is the only solution.
The dog owning public has much to learn about dog behavior, as do
many veterinarians and dog trainers. Fortunately, animal behavior courses
are becoming very popular. Videos, such as Ian Dunbar’s “Sirius Puppy
Training”, should be required viewing for everyone that gets a puppy,
whether or not they have ever trained a dog. People like Dr. Karen Overall,
at VHUP, by teaching veterinary students, their lectures to veterinarians,
and their books, are leading the way toward making dog ownership more
enjoyable and safer. People like myself must be the disciples that disseminate
this information to the dog owning public, so someday, talks about canine
aggression will be a thing of the past.