'Aggression' - some things to think about.

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emmabeth
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'Aggression' - some things to think about.

Post by emmabeth » Thu Apr 08, 2010 11:27 pm

Thought I would do an article on this one as it comes up so often especially for new puppy owners!

'Is he being aggressive' and 'oh no, my puppy is aggressive' and 'thats an aggressive dog' - really common questions and statements that often strike an huge amount of fear into the heart of the dog owner or new puppy owner.

The connotations of the terms used are that a dog using aggressive behaviour is vicious, is determined to hurt somebody, is vengeful or hateful, is 'bad'.

The reality though.. is that aggressive behaviour, ie body language, and vocal sounds and acts such as biting/snapping/nipping.. are all perfectly NORMAL parts of your dogs toolkit of communication.

ALL dogs can growl, bark, bite, snarl, make vile and threatening looking postures and faces showing a horrifying array of pointy teeth - in exactly the same way as all humans can make threatening gestures, bite, scream, yell, kick, punch, beat etc..

Not only that, but from the time both species grasp the concepts of self propulsion they also practice all these things - you dont need to spend a lot of time with a toddler to realise that they will resort to using aggression when fearful, frustrated or in pain.

Puppies are no different, and what you see in the human toddler is pretty similar to the puppy, they are practicing behaviours so they will know how to use them later on in life.

There are differences of course - humans develop a much better ability to communicate verbally, and are better equipped to physically manipulate their world, pick things up, get close to objects and view them from a variety of angles. Dogs on the other hand don't tend to grow up and want to overthrow the universe!

So it shouldnt really come as a surprise that an animal who has evolved to be a hunting/scavenging creature will practice in infancy those skills he needs to keep himself fed and safe as an adult.

And yet somewhere along the line we have sort of forgotten that underneath the cute puppy fur, big eyes and comedically huge paws and ears, there is a living, learning animal in there, whose sole purpose in life ISNT actually to be cute and make you go 'aww'. (Though I would suggest thats a huge part of WHY the modern dog exists as it does today! Don't underestimate cute!)

Our job as a puppy 'parent' is to guide the barking biting growling snapping 'practice aggression' in the young pup, so that our dog grows up able to communicate, but unlikely to misinterpret and use aggression as his first option in any given situation.

Thats not so hard, dogs dont set out to be aggressive, they dont 'want' to use it, in many cases where a dog is truly fearful or frustrated, the apparent aggression is really a bluff, its a lie (yep they can lie!), if confronted they would probably back down IF they still have that as an option.

Using aggression and being actually willing to get in there and get physical is a risky strategy, its one wild animals use either when the odds are stacked in their favour heavily, or as a last resort - other displays of aggression between members of the same species, on closer examination prove to be ritualistic, bluffs, machismo and strength of character rather than the real thing (its no good being the toughest Gorilla in town if you die three weeks later from an infected wound!).

In dogs though, we meddle - we breed dogs that are much more willing to get physical, we select for those with a higher pain threshold, those who can retain a degree of calmness and control whilst fighting to the death - ie, dog fighting dogs.

Much MORE of a problem though is our meddling with our dogs ability to communicate with us. You may find a cute fluffy puppy lunging at you and snarling a worrying prospect, but I find an adult dog who DOESNT growl when fearful a much more worrying animal!

Puppies in their most natural, ideal environment, before they leave their littermates, with access to Mum and a range of other adult and semi adult dogs, will perform the same lunging biting snarling growling tusselling behaviour that you see in your cute labrador puppy at home.

The difference is, the other dogs are not offended shocked or upset, they dont think 'eek Fido is vicious' or 'oh no he doesnt love us'. I cant swear to what they DO think but the overall impression I get when watching such a scene is 'ugh, I am not playing with you'.

When puppies practice their aggression, as well as their hunting and chasing and stalking behaviours on other dogs, once that behaviour exceeds the acceptable level - ie the bites hurt, the other dog is fed up of it, the game ends because the annoyed party says 'no'. Either by roaring at the other pup, in the case of some adults, or by walking away and avoiding it.

This isnt to say that other dogs discipline dogs best of all, SOME of what they do is great - other stuff is less successful. For instance one of my dogs can give a dirty look and stalk away in disgust and no puppy yet has dared follow her and see what happens! But another of my dogs will just argue loudly, and you have a barking match which solves nothing and is really annoying to listen to.

So its not so simple as just doing what the other dogs would do, and not just because we are not other dogs!

What does work, consistently, is to clearly end the fun by removing either yourself or the puppy for a few seconds the second the unwanted behaviour starts. A time out.

But understanding which behaviours are worrying and which are fine can be difficult - you do NOT want to totally extinguish growling for example. Growling can be used as part of an aggressive display, real or bluff - but it can also be a general 'chatty' sort of communication, it can be done in play by pups and adults. Growling is NOT indicative of a vicious dog in the slightest, but it seems to be one of the things that freaks people out the most.

A pup who gets silly and giddy and the growling gets more and more frantic and the play becomes dangerous and wild, that sort of behaviour needs to be stopped before it really starts - time outs are useful here.

The pup growling at you when he has a bone or when he is eating his food though - thats not something you want to provide a consequence for, thats something you need to re-adjust YOUR behaviour around. That dog is communicating that he has something that is valuable and it is HIS. If you push him and attempt to take it he may be forced to take further action (its like a solicitors letter?.. :lol:)

Thats a useful growl, it tells you lots, it tells you how close you can be to that dog before he feels scared - ie if hes not growling, its ok, if he is... dont get any nearer.

What isnt ok is that he feels scared and feels the need to warn you - thats what you need to modify, and you cannot modify that by removing the growl. If you could rewind the situation and turn the volume off... that dog is still saying hes threatened and potentially willing to bite you, regardless of the fact you can no longer hear him say 'grr'!

So you change his emotion, the puppy who grrs over his food is fed in peace without people bothering him. He has sessions with an empty food bowl or three and the nice human walks around dropping bits of kibble into the bowls, plink plink plink.. one at a time so he can eat them quickly, has nothing to guard (hes eaten it) and a very very clear understanding that human near bowl = food.

Changing his emotions means he no longer needs to growl, he doesnt fear you taking his food away, he welcomes your approach because it might mean more food!

He still has the same ability to growl and to bite - if he felt threatened he still would, but now he isnt going to feel threatened by something that could be a misinterpretation on his part, so he is safe and he is happy.

Play biting is something else you need to modify, because although play biting doesnt turn into aggression, humans misinterpret it and it isnt safe for an adult dog to do.

Unfortunately most peoples reactions to a puppy leaping and nipping and biting is to squeal and move around quickly. WOW - thats SUPER fun! If you are a puppy.

Left to continue that as some dogs are, the owners may still tolerate it in a fully grown 30kg dog - though many do become frightened of their own dogs, but strangers absolutely will not and its all very well that you know Fido is only playing, but thats no consolation to the old lady flat on her back with her jumper torn because Fido played with her! This could see the end of Fido!

Handled wrongly this can become real aggression - start yelling at and hitting Fido and where you get to the point where its actually hurting Fido and making him fearful, thats where the behaviour turns to aggression rather than just play. (If you dont get to the point where you are actually hurting and frightening the dog, you teach him to be a better, faster, rougher play fighter... ).

So tackling that one by becoming more aggressive is no good, and again time outs become really useful here, alongside appropriate outlets for chewing/biting/ragging games with suitable toys, raw meaty bones etc, appropriate exercise and training to improve self control. You teach the pup that starting that sort of game will end in no game at all and you prevent him from starting these games in the first place so he doesnt form the habit of behaving that way with people. He still has the ability to do it - but he hasnt the history of finding it rewarding.

Another area that often frightens puppy owners, and causes confusion about practicing behaviours, is 'killing' toys and playing tug of war games.

These games are fine, if your dog enjoys ripping up a toy and ragging the heck out of it, that is what he enjoys (and he is probably a terrier) - you cannot tell him that isnt what he enjoys if it is! But the context of these games is what matters - with his own toys, these games are fine. Within a clearly defined set of rules, these games are fine. Playing raggy games with a rope, where the game ends should contact with skin be made or the dog gets too silly and cant listen any more, thats fine. Playing ragging with sleeves and socks and trouser legs... where the game ends because someone kicks the puppy across the room, or a kid starts crying and Mom slaps the puppy - not fine, the rules arent suitable, the items are not appropriate, the end result means the game starts to become tinged with fear and apprehension as well as excitement.

So - as I say - aggression is something we all have the ability to use. Human society has rules about where it is and isnt appropriate to use it. Puppies need similar rules that you can explain - they arent born knowing those rules in the same way that humans arent.

Dont panic and fear that your dog is inherently vicious - serious aggression comes from fear and pain, and this can be fixed. Puppy behaviours are practice, testing out their new world to see what works. Dont seek to eradicate a behaviour, just look to adapt and contain it in an acceptable and safe way.

And never take it personally!
West Midlands based 1-2-1 Training & Behaviour Canine Consultant

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Mattie
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Re: 'Aggression' - some things to think about.

Post by Mattie » Fri Apr 09, 2010 3:17 am

Good post Em, very easy to understand. Image
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Re: 'Aggression' - some things to think about.

Post by emmabeth » Fri Apr 09, 2010 6:36 am

Cheers Mattie - feel free to add anything in too... I am never quite sure if what makes sense in my head at 4.30am is actually going to make sense to anyone ELSE later on.. :lol:
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Noobs
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Re: 'Aggression' - some things to think about.

Post by Noobs » Fri Apr 09, 2010 7:58 am

Very thorough! Wish I'd had it to read during Murphy's first few months in my home when he'd get the zoomies at night! L and I used to shut ourselves in the closet as a time out (but really we were also scared!).

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Horace's Mum
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Re: 'Aggression' - some things to think about.

Post by Horace's Mum » Fri Apr 09, 2010 1:16 pm

Excellent post - could we have it stickied to send people to, and maybe some people will read it before posting too?

shining-one
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Re: 'Aggression' - some things to think about.

Post by shining-one » Sat Apr 10, 2010 4:19 pm

Thank you a brillant article.

I have only heard my Golden Retriever puppy growl when his back it itching and he tries to scratch it by rolling around on the kitchen floor!!!

He is so funny.

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Re: 'Aggression' - some things to think about.

Post by ournewpup » Mon May 17, 2010 7:25 am

Hi Emmabeth, I love your article, I can really relate to what you say and our puppy
I am hoping you may be able to help with my problem. We have a new pup, a border collie, 14 weeks old now, and he is constantly nipping my daughter, her ankles and legs, running round and jumping up at her, and pulling her clothes and tearing them. The nipping is constant. My daughter is not little, she is 14 and as tall as me so he can't think is one of his pup mates. She has been coming in the room and ignoring him initially if he wants attention and will talk to us instead and wait for him to calm down. But he is so persistent, and won't give up. She will tell him 'no bite' and he goes mad cos he has got the attention. His nipping is becoming a real problem, as he is getting bigger quickly and is now hurting her. She loves him to bits and is really upset he is being like this. He does not do this with me or my husband - he does forget himself sometimes when excited and will start mouthing and maybe a little nip, but is always told off and we withdraw. But my poor daughter tries to tell him off and withdraw and he won't let her!! I understand about time out, but physically getting him out of the room into another is impossible for her.
Any advice would be gratefully received!

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Re: 'Aggression' - some things to think about.

Post by emmabeth » Mon May 17, 2010 11:22 am

Ahhh... dont have her attempt to put him out (or say 'no bite' or anything else) - instead, you guys ignore him if you are in the room too and she steps otu of the room and shuts the door. As long as he gets no attention from anyone, and its her he reallllly wants the reaction from, then her stepping out of the room will be every bit as effective as having him out of the room.
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Re: 'Aggression' - some things to think about.

Post by jennyf » Mon May 17, 2010 1:03 pm

Interesting article. I have a 3 year old ex-breeding Westie that was rescued from one of those dreadful puppy farms. She was probably kept in horrid conditions and so her socialisation has had to start from scratch - it's like having a 3 year old puppy! She hasn't a nasty bone in her body, but will snap at the air and occasionally grab at my arm and nip my skin in the process.

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Re: 'Aggression' - some things to think about.

Post by Misha » Thu Jun 24, 2010 11:03 am

I have read this post and also the post on bringing a new dog home who is aggressive to the original dog. Still, I am looking for further advice.

I have two dogs: 13 year old border collie mix, and 5 year old beagle/basset. A few weeks ago I picked up a stray dog on the side of a busy road (no one has claimed her despite ads in local media). She is anxious and emotionally needy, but very friendly to people. She gets along fine with the beagle/basset. However, she will beat up on my senior dog, and in case the senior's tooth got knocked out, and in another I got a really bad bite as I instinctively thrust my arm out to break up the fight.

Jealousy over my affection seems to be a trigger. Sometimes I can have both of them sitting on either side of me and it's fine. But other times ... and I think it may be when I start out petting the stray "Jez" and then my older dog comes up for petting ... the stray will fly into a rage.

She also has shown aggression to another dog we have met on our walks, though she doesn't do that with all dogs.

Since I am one person caring for three dogs, I am having a hard time keeping everyone safe and sound. The stray doesn't like crates, goes nuts inside even if I'm sitting there, so I tie her up on a long lead if need be while inside the house. Sometimes I keep her inside loose and keep the other dogs outside in the fenced yard.

Any other suggestions on handling the aggression, and also, suggestions on finding a way to re-home Jez? I don't want to place her at a shelter because I fear she would be euthanized in a short amount of time. In many ways she is a fun dog, very loving, but she does have issues and I can't handle them safely. Jez, by the way, is about 3 years old, 45 pounds, and may have lab in her.

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Re: 'Aggression' - some things to think about.

Post by Mattie » Fri Jun 25, 2010 6:18 am

Misha can you start a new thread with your problems please? We can then tailor our replies just for you.

I have taken in an aggressive dog and got her to settle into my pack but it isn't easy and there is no guarentee that it can be done. It depends on so many things, dogs, us etc.
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Re: 'Aggression' - some things to think about.

Post by MastiffCrazy » Sat Jan 22, 2011 9:25 pm

me and my partner purchased an english mastiff at 5weeks old, since the day we got her she would growl durring feedings, we had tried to correct her and even reassure her, but as the months had passed she has become worse, not only is she growling and snarling but now she is trying to bite the hands that feed her even after the food is gone ..* out of sight and out of mind* ..we try to calm her by rubbing her head and the side of her face but that only makes it worse. she almost bit my partner. we are running out of faith and patience.. we are lost. please help!!

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Re: 'Aggression' - some things to think about.

Post by Mattie » Sun Jan 23, 2011 3:38 am

MastiffCrazy can you start a thread of your own in the Dog Training Advice section please? Every dog is different and needs their own thread because even if the problems look the same they are not.

Also can you give as much information as you can, what your dog is fed on, how much exercise, training etc what you have done to stop these problems with her, as much information as you can give.
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big boy
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Re: 'Aggression' - some things to think about.

Post by big boy » Fri May 06, 2011 9:47 pm

I have a 2 year old boxer.she is perfect energetic and great with family members and her 2 5 month old puppies. But she very in secure around anyone else or dogs.how di I help her behavior

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Re: 'Aggression' - some things to think about.

Post by Nettle » Sat May 07, 2011 3:34 am

big boy wrote:I have a 2 year old boxer.she is perfect energetic and great with family members and her 2 5 month old puppies. But she very in secure around anyone else or dogs.how di I help her behavior
Mattie wrote:can you start a thread of your own in the Dog Training Advice section please? Every dog is different and needs their own thread because even if the problems look the same they are not.

Also can you give as much information as you can, what your dog is fed on, how much exercise, training etc what you have done to stop these problems with her, as much information as you can give.
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