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Canine Aggression Part 2

Prevention of Aggression

It 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 or sold.


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 and play.

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. (Overall, 1997)


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, 1997)


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 disorder.


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.


© Gary L. Clemons DVM

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