I occasionally have clients that get very upset about their dog's aggression. But, it might not be for the reason you are thinking. Obviously there are many reasons to get upset including concern about the safety of their family, the comfort and happiness of the dog, the myriad of decisions and daily management strategies that must be implemented, etc.
But, I have heard many people that wonder, "Why is my dog aggressive to me?" Usually the dog is given all the love, attention, and care that they need. They often have expensive dog beds, food, treats and toys. How could a dog that is taken care of so well be aggressive? Why are they mad at me?
Sometimes a dog is basically fine with most people and is reactive to only one family member. That is even more troubling to the recipient of the aggression.
There are many reasons why a dog can exhibit aggression, but in my practice I have found four main reasons why dogs exhibit aggression. They all lead to increased anxiety which can increase aggression.
- A dog spends a lot of time barking throughout the day and becomes more reactive over time
- A dog wasn’t socialized properly
- A dog had one or more traumatic events that skewed his response towards a certain group or event
- A dog has a genetic makeup that increases the likelihood for aggression
Following my premise that anxiety can lead to aggression, the four reasons above all lead to repeated emotional roller coasters and more anxiety. A dog doesn’t have to have all four of the reasons to be aggressive, but often dogs do. Genetics are also always a part of the mix.
I often compare a dog that is constantly anxious to a person that drinks too much caffeine.
Think of someone who practices yoga all day versus someone who drinks too much coffee. They both drive home and have a close call with a distracted driver cutting them off. Which one would you guess is more likely to honk, roll down the window and yell at the other driver?
I would guess the over-caffeinated person is more likely to yell because he is jumpy, tense and anxious. You will learn how to help your dog become calmer. A yoga dog!
Here is a breakdown of the four reasons mentioned above for the causes of aggression.
One of the most counter-productive things an owner can do is to allow their dog to bark out of the window, behind a fence or at a doorway at any point during the day. This basically teaches a dog to be a guard dog and to be jumpy and reactive. A dog sees or hears something and barks at it.
He might potentially also think, “It works when I bark at something. It moves away from the house and I have done my job!”
Dogs bark for a variety of reasons, but no one can convince me a barking dog is calm. Dogs bark to alert, as a fear-based response, to demand something, to protect a territory, or due to anxiety or boredom. Some dogs do vocalize when they are “talking” and having fun, but those are the exceptions. Barking is usually associated with some type of anxiety.
Improper socialization can lead to fear, anxiety, jumpiness, and even aggression. Often I will hear that a dog was socialized to the dog next door and because of that he is well socialized to dogs. That doesn’t cut it. The current thinking is that dogs need hundreds of positive experiences (ideally thousands) with people, dogs, noises, and movement before the age of 18-20 weeks.
A well-socialized dog is skilled at new events and interactions. The challenge with this concept is each dog, event or person is only new once. The next time the dog interacts with that trigger, it is not new. The confidence and experience needed for a dog to be able to enter into a new situation and remain truly calm, takes a concerted effort, a lot of time, and an understanding of reading anxiety and taking appropriate measures to prevent negative generalization.
A traumatic event such as getting attacked by another dog or abused by a person can lead to anxiety or aggression. Even something as simple as seeing something at the same time a loud noise or other scary event occurs can increase anxiety and form a bad association.
While sometimes traumatic events are difficult to avoid (fight over a toy at a dog park), understanding anxiety can help avoid constant stress for your dog. The more you understand the concepts in this book, you will also be able to identify an escalating situation more easily and potentially prevent a situation from getting out of hand.
Genetics is something that can’t be changed, but always factors into a dog’s behavior patterns and personality. You can’t look at a dog’s behavior and say, “He is doing that because of genetics, but that is from a traumatic event”, because everything is intertwined.
But, you can suss out some of the history of a dog’s behavior or bloodline and see if it provides any clues to a behavior pattern. Frequently I will interview clients with aggressive dogs and when asked if they met their dog’s parents, I sometimes get interesting responses.
Occasionally clients will mention that, “The breeder wouldn’t let us see the mom because she is not good with strangers”, or “The mother was friendly, but the father wasn’t around because he was a little shy.”
This is usually a red flag of any number of issues including a genetic predisposition for fear or aggression. The breeder possibly did not socialize the mother correctly leading to fear or aggression, but it could also be a genetics problem.
Another fairly strong indication that genetics are playing a large factor in a dog’s behavior is based on how young the dog was when the aggression started. If I hear that a 7 or 8 week old puppy is already showing extreme aggression around bones, showing teeth when petted, or growls and shows teeth when someone tries to extract him from his hiding place under the couch, then I am fairly confident that the puppy is genetically predisposed to aggressive tendencies.
The Treatment is the Same
When interviewing clients about their aggressive dogs, usually one or all of the previous categories get mentioned in their dog’s history. Whether a dog barks all day, was abused, improperly socialized, or just the recipient of an unfortunate genetic makeup, the strategies are the same to solve the problems.
Keep in mind, you don’t need to know your dog’s parents and know their genetic background, or know your dog’s background before you got him, but instead it is critically important to focus on what you do know and his day-to-day behaviors.
However, sometimes there are observable red flags that are missed. I don’t want you to make these mistakes.
For example, periodically clients have said their dog was socialized really well, but “Hid under the chair at puppy class.” In actuality this dog wasn’t socialized really well. There were mistakes made.
Whether the reason for the fear was a trauma, improper socialization, genetics or a combination of these, what this immediately tells me is that the dog in question was constantly pushed beyond her comfort level and showed signs of anxiety at a young age. If my client or the teacher did not identify this as a problem early on and remove her from the situation, there is a good chance the dog was constantly under duress, was improperly socialized which caused the anxiety to get worse.
I would have liked to have heard, “We took our puppy to a class, and she hid under the chair so our teacher had us move her out of the training area to observe the class. She eventually got more comfortable and was able to play.”
That scenario would have told me that anxiety was identified and steps were taken to lower the anxiety. Good!
Whether the root cause of a dog’s aggression is any of the above factors, or others, the treatment is the same. Lower anxiety, lower aggression.
In my experience, the answer to the question of "Why does aggression happen?" The answer can be boiled down to a combination of the above factors.
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