Our greatest disadvantage regarding dogs is that we simply cannot fully understand canine cognition. A complete understanding of the dog mind will most likely forever elude us, because dogs cannot speak and communicate in a way to help us understand everything that happens in their head. Comparatively speaking, we still do not fully understand the human mind; so, we are just scratching the surface of canine brain.
We have a pretty good understanding of how they learn though, and we mostly understand the way they communicate with both other canines and non-canines. We are not completely helpless when it comes to understanding the dog’s thought process. However, helplessness is what many owners feel when they are dealing with a serious, or potentially dangerous, behavior problem. Many owners also do not fully understand what their dog is experiencing, they just know that either their dog is frightened, or perhaps their dog is frightening them. But once you understand a few things about dog behavior, you can begin to sniff out the source of the problem.
True aggression (defined as “aggressive displays that are not caused by fear or accompanied by fearful/anxious behavior”) is rare in dogs. There are some nervous conditions and illnesses, usually attributed to genetics and inbreeding, that cause true aggression. The first and most important step in determining the type of aggression is a vet visit. Now, if you own what has been labeled as an aggressive dog, this can cause a mild panic attack for you. But in order to understand the root of the aggressive behavior, we have to rule out a few things first.
Pain, especially joint pain and arthritis, can cause aggressive behavior. Some other internal problems, such as thyroid issues, kidney and liver issues, and hormonal imbalance can cause aggressive displays. Simply put, if you don’t feel good and healthy, you’re not going to act good and healthy. Blood work, x-rays, ultrasounds and other tests can rule this out. Some dogs simply need to treat a health problem, like a thyroid issue, to stop displaying aggressive behavior.
However, most cases of aggression are reactive aggression. Aggressive reactivity is where the dog has learned to respond in an aggressive manner to an unpleasant or frightening stimulus. For example, your recently adopted shelter dog is becomes aggressive when he sees other dogs. Perhaps he wasn’t socialized properly, or maybe he was attacked by another dog when he was young. He is reacting to a stimulus or trigger in an aggressive way.
This doesn’t mean that your dog is aggressive. It means that your dog is frightened of something, so frightened of it in fact, that they are trying to defend themselves, and sometimes you, from it. To give you an example using people, I’m going to refer to my own family. My parents are terrified of snakes. I mean, crawling up the walls-beating down doors-breaking out of windows terrified of snakes. It’s almost comical. My parents are so afraid of snakes in fact that they will kill a wild snake on sight if they can. My parents have an aggressive reaction to snakes.
But why aggressive? Why not try getting away from the thing that is frightening your dog? They can’t. Your dog is either trapped in a house or stuck on a leash, and literally cannot get away. And if they are on leash, and you aren’t moving them away from it (either at all or not fast enough), then they simply don’t have a choice. Fight or Flight has taken over, and they have learned Flight isn’t an option.
Aggressive reactivity is also a learned behavior, the dog is getting rewarded for acting in an aggressive manner towards a trigger. To explain, imagine this scenario: Your dog is frightened of men. One day, while out on a walk, you walk past a man and your dog suddenly becomes aggressively reactive. Either you beat a hasty retreat or the strange man quickens his pace and walks away. The dog has been rewarded since the trigger (the strange man) is now gone because the dog reacted in an aggressive way. This behavior has been reinforced through the use of negative reinforcement – the dog saw the frightening man (aversive stimulus), reacted in an aggressive display, and the strange man was removed from the situation (the trigger has been subtracted from the situation).
But there is hope! Your dog can learn to not have aggressive reactions!
Next week, I’ll discuss counter-conditioning and positive associations in dog training.
-Ben The Dog Trainer