What does it mean if a dog bares its teeth at you? Is it warning you to back off or is it simply smiling? Or if a dog snaps at you - is this a failed bite, some other faux pas, or a well-placed warning shot across the bow? Here's a clue: Dogs can snatch flying insects out of the air with their teeth. And how about a large dog that stands on its hind legs, puts its forepaws on your shoulders, and stares at you, pupils big as manhole covers, making the hair stand up on the back of your neck? Is this dog checking you out or simply saying hello?
The truth is, these are typically aggressive behaviors, ranging from simple visual warnings to postural and symbolic threats. Most people like to think that they can easily recognize aggressive behavior in a dog when they see it, but aggression can be enigmatic. It presents in several different forms and its function, though often misunderstood, is not primarily to harm so much as to alter the behavior of another creature. Dogs communicate their aggressive intentions through changes in expression, posturing, and maneuvering, some so subtle as to be easily missed or misconstrued by a passerby, or even an owner. At the other end of the spectrum there's the ultimate form of aggression, the physical kind, which we all immediately recognize and dread.
The trouble people have interpreting aggression in their pets arises from difficulty in interpreting the premonitory signs, which involve a communication system quite different from our own. Physical aggression in the form of biting is only the final step in an elaborate progression of possible aggressive responses. Staring, growling, tensing up, and walking stiffly are just some of the ways that dogs signal aggression. Also, the causes and context of aggression differ considerably from what we might anticipate, and our pets' motives can be difficult for us to grasp. The progressive unfolding of aggression as a dog matures can be another point of confusion. Aggression may develop gradually in a pup as it matures, and because of this, owners can become immune to its occurrence until a serious incident takes place. Play growling and nipping by puppies may seem innocuous, but they often represent the tip of the iceberg.
If there are no repercussions from overly rough play, you just can't get any respect. So when should you start to suppress nipping by puppies? The most logical solution is to allow young pups some free rein at first, but once they start to nip with more force and confidence the brakes should be applied. You can, for example, make a loud noise and put your hands behind your back or in your pockets each time the pup's nipping exceeds your tolerance level.
But beware, rehearsal of aggressive roles by puppies is not confined to nipping. There are other insubordinations that pups practice on unsuspecting owners as they push the envelope of tolerance through play. Growling, face licking, and humping, especially by males, make up the trinity of this one-upmanship.
Growling is, by any manner of means, an aggressive act, a voluble warning or threat. A human equivalent would be a child cursing at or verbally threatening his parents. The child, like the growling puppy, is likely to incorporate this obnoxious form of communication into it's behavioral portfolio (and even build on it) if the behavior goes unchecked. The best way out of this unfortunate loop is by avoidance. Stop whatever you are doing that makes your pup growl. For example, if tug-of-war causes growling, don't play with your dog in that way. Choose a more benign game, like fetch or hide-and-seek. If unchecked, growling will progress to nipping, nipping to biting, and so on.
Aggressive pups often first use their newly honed aggressive skills to make a serious demand when they are six to eight months of age. The first really troubling incident occurs when the dog is ten or eleven months old. By this time the problem may have escalated to one of a full bite. Getting a handle on aggression once it has progressed to a biting stage is not always easy but, with patience and understanding, some inroads can be made with the consistent application of dominance-control strategies. The outlook is bleak, however, for repeat offenders, very large dogs, dogs that have bitten hard, and dogs that have bitten children.
Owners seeking to reverse dominance aggression need to transmit a clear signal of their leadership to the dog concerned. a non-confrontational, no yelling, no hitting approach to achieving this mastery makes most sense and is safest for the owner. The best approach is to regard the dog as a child. Positive reinforcement of desired behaviors is the rule. You should not expect too much too soon, and you should ignore, or at least not respond to, unwanted behavior. If intervention is necessary, it should be non-confrontational and should provide new direction. In other words, give the dog something to do other than what it is doing at the time. Yelling "No" is usually ineffective, and physical punishment should never be necessary.
A lot of times, when dominant dogs obey a command, they do it in a desultory way. "Down", meaning lie down on the floor, is the hardest command for a dominant dog to follow without some kind of resistance or revolt. Typically the dominant dog will spend a few long seconds gazing at the owner who has just issued the command "Down". He may then slowly go down onto one elbow, then the other, leaving his rear end sticking up in the air. Then, for an instant, he might dip and touch his chest on the floor before springing up and running around like an idiot, anticipating all kinds of praise and affection from the all-too-grateful owner. Alternatively, the dog may just look at the owner as though he had three heads. If the owner starts to shout and scream at the dog, the animal will either enjoy the show or retaliate with an aggressive warning.
A training session of five- or ten-minutes twice a day would go a long way toward reestablishing control. In these sessions, which should be fun for the owner and the dog, they should use one-word commands, such as "Come," "Sit," and "Down," rewarding a timely and accurate response with immediate warm praise and perhaps brief petting directed to the chest area. Commands should never be repeated, and failed responses are to be ignored. Try to avoid any confrontations with the dog. If, for example, you found yourself in the presence of a growling dog misguidedly guarding his food bowl or resting place, you should, without any visible display of emotion, circumnavigate the area and busy yourself with some other activity, not looking at your dog, not speaking to him and basically ignoring him. This technique alone would defuse the situation while you can initiate a program designed to increase your authority over your dog.
Avoiding confrontation also serves to prevent further reinforcement of the aggressive response. the next task for me was to explain why some circumstances could lead to aggression, so that potentially dangerous situations could be avoided.
Dominance is a behavioral trait designed to insure survival of the individual. It is expressed in two main ways - competition over resources and self-protection. Competition over resources, sometimes termed possessiveness, can break out over food, valued objects (toys), cherished resting areas, and sometimes certain people of whom the dog is particularly fond. The second component of dominance, self-protectiveness, may be a response to threatening postures or gestures, such as bending over the dog and patting it on the head. If you try to make dominant dogs do something they don't want to do, they may come back at you with a growl or snap (or worse), and if you admonish them, the situation can escalate. Such dogs are the canine equivalent of willful, overindulged teenagers. They will do what you want them to do only when they feel like it. When they are not in the mood, forget it. These dogs need relatively less affection than their more submissive counterparts, and they also need their space. It is interesting to note that violent human criminals also need their space. The term body buffer zones has been coined to describe the physical space people like to have around them; in aggressive individuals, any intrusion upon this space induces a sense of uneasiness or threat. The more violent the criminal, the larger the body buffer zone. A dogs aggression around food or stolen objects or when approached on the couch reflected the competitive or possessive components of his aggression. Self-protective components of his trait can come out when you attempt to discipline or otherwise physically deal with the dog.
In the wild, dominant dogs both initiate and terminate many activities that involve other pack members. It is reasonable, then, to expect the same type of behavior in relation to human pack members. You should put all the toys away and provide these playthings only after he obeyed a command. Playthings that have previously stimulated aggression or very high emotions should be taken away forever. From that point on, all games should be initiated by you, not the dog. You should call the dog to you, have him sit, and then throw the ball. You should also terminate all games, by issuing a command such as "Cease" or "Enough", so that the game is over at their direction - even if they have to motivate the dog to make that final retrieval. Rough games such as slap boxing, wrestling, and tug-of-war are entirely forbidden. German Shepherds and Rottweilers are prepared for protection work using tug-of-war tactics. Such dogs are trained to attack, wrestle, and pull at a padded sleeve, which ultimately is worn by a person who acts out the role of an escaping criminal. Prior to competition, the dogs are riled up by showing them the sleeve and allowing them to attempt to wrestle it off the handler, amid much yelling and excitement. Tug-of-war also plays a valuable role in confidence-building for competition dogs.
One of the primary resources in a wild dog pack is food. Even if you are not having problems with your dog around the food bowl, it's important for you to show your dog that you're in charge of this valued resource. This is accomplished by requiring the dog to work for every meal. He should be required to sit or lie down on command before having his food bowl put down in front of him. There should be no more free lunches! Once the food is down, he should be allowed to eat undisturbed, but the food should be picked up after he has finished eating - but not before he has left the room, in order to avoid a confrontation. The point of picking up the food at the end of the meal is to make sure that he doesn't have the free choice to come back to the food later and eat. Being allowed to take food throughout the day, does nothing to engender respect for the human food providers. If the dog chose not to sit or lie down before a meal when instructed, he should simply not be fed that mealtime. That would send a pretty clear message.
In rare cases it may be necessary to begin by feeding the dog small quantities, requiring a positive response to a command prior to each helping to ensure a continued supply. Hand feeding, as dangerous as this might sound, can also generate great respect. When the feeding strategies are working well, the quality of the response can be improved. Initially the dog is allowed three seconds to obey a command, but as his proficiency improves, the acceptable response time should be shortened to two seconds, then one second. Finally a virtually instantaneous response would be required. As petty as this may sound, it should be noted that it is in the nature of the dominant dog to be purposely sluggish in response to any direction. Insisting on a rapid response to commands both at mealtime and during training sessions, will instill greater reverence and respect in an unruly dog.
If done correctly, tactile stimulation of a dog - petting - is an extremely potent reward and, as such, is something that can be rationed by owners and provided only when a reward is due. Contrary to popular opinion, most dogs do not like to be patted on top of the head and, like us, don't like to have their fur ruffled. The best places to pet a dog are on the chest, under the chin, and behind the ears. The petting action that appears to be most appreciated is one of stroking or scratching. You will know when you are doing it right because your dog's eyelids may begin to close and he may get a far-off look. For some dogs, petting is ecstasy. Owners who pet dogs indiscriminately are, unbeknownst to themselves, rewarding their dog for nothing. This is not a problem if the dog is not dominant, but can undermine the authority of owners who find themselves losing control.
It is also important to restrict access to high places. It is generally observed that dominant dogs will be more aggressive when their eyeballs are on the same level as or higher than the family member's. This could occur if the owner is, for example, rolling around on the floor playing with the dog or by climbing up on top of something, whether it's a chair, bed, or sofa. In order to avoid confrontation in those circumstances, order him with a firm command such as "off", said with feeling but not yelled. If by some chance he jumped right off, then of course the correct response would be praise, warm praise from the heart, perhaps associated with one of those rare chest scratches, to make him feel very good about what he has done. If, however, he raised one eyebrow and sighed, remaining firmly in place, he should be called away (rather than hauled away) and redirected to some other activity, such as one that involves food, access to a favorite toy, or a walk outside. In either case, if he responds, he should be praised for obeying. If neither of these approaches worked, and if his high-place activities were confined to a particular location, then perhaps that chair or sofa should be made physically inaccessible by putting it away or tipping it up, or folding the pillows down when you're not using it. Finally, the ultimate deterrent is upside-down mousetraps on the forbidden piece of furniture. This teaches the dog that high places are not as pleasant as previously thought. A good trick is to cover the mousetraps with stiff brown paper so that when the dog jumps onto the couch or chair, the mousetraps snap against the paper with loud noises.
Signs of Dominance-Related Aggression
Aggression - growling, lifting a lip, snarling, snapping, or biting - directed primarily at family members or people with whom the dog is familiar, is often dominance-related aggression.
Many dogs that are fearful have multiple fears. For example, a dog that's frightened of people may also be frightened of blowing leaves or flapping tarpaulins. The same dog may well suffer from mild separation anxiety or become anxious during visits to the veterinarian's office. When fears are mild, we tend to dismiss them as idiosyncratic. If a fearful dog leaves the room or hides under a settee when visitors arrive, its owners may simply think that the dog is silly for being scared of harmless strangers. If a dog hides when the vacuum cleaner is turned on or looks miserable and whines when left alone, owners may not regard this behavior as a problem. Fear-related conditions are often only recognized when they reach a point where the dog is physically affected or deals with the fear in ways that disturb the owner. A dog that's frightened of thunder may start to pant and pace and cling to its owner. A dog that's frightened of people may growl at them instead of hiding. This is the point when the veterinarian or behaviorist is often consulted.
If the dog is both fearful and dominant, there is an extra level of commitment to intimidation, which can then result in serious bites and real danger for the victims of the dog's attacks. These dogs are more dangerous when they have no possibility of escape. When it's fight or flight and there's nowhere to run, that only leaves one alternative. For a dog, the back view of the victim is less threatening than the front, so fearful dogs may bite only as the stranger turns to walk away. Many of these dogs bite on the ankle or back of the thigh. Fearful dogs are least dangerous off the lead and in the open. They may run around a stranger in a wide circle, barking, but in this situation are free to choose how far away they wish to be and to escape if necessary. The result: no aggression.
One of the hallmarks of fear of people is that it is directed toward strangers. These strangers are usually men or children, as it seems it is these two groups that are most likely to treat the dog in a more aggressive way than women, and we all know the kinds of things that some children do to animals.
In some dogs, fear of strangers becomes so generalized that almost any unfamiliar person will elicit some degree of fear response. This makes detective work difficult and full-scale desensitization virtually impossible. The outcome of encounters between strangers and the dog depends on some extent to the reaction of the owners and the stranger. The worst combination is an owner who panics or becomes excited and an apprehensive stranger who nervously tries to make friends with the dog. Family members and people the dog is familiar with do not themselves have any problems with this type of dog, which can be an extremely loving and affectionate pet. The problems occur only with strangers, and - unlike anxiety-driven territorial aggression, which is much worse at home - fear related aggression of this magnitude is fairly consistent from place to place.
Treatment for Fear of People and Fear-Related Aggression
Dogs that are frightened of people may show avoidance behavior when young. This might subsequently develop in fear-related aggression, which is directed primarily toward strangers (especially men and children). These dogs often have a checkered history of ownership and/or socialization problems and may have had known unpleasant encounters. This type of aggression is magnified when there is no possibility of escape - for example, when the dog is on lead, chained, or in a confined space.
Some dogs' aggressiveness to strangers and other dogs occurs when they are approached while on their home turf. This turf, or territory, includes the owner's home and property, the surrounding streets, sometimes part of the neighbor's yard, and the mobile territory of the car. Dominant dogs guard these areas because they believe it is their job, and to some extent it is. They will bark and otherwise attempt to intimidate any intruders until such time as it is clear that the visitor is welcome or has made appropriate conciliatory gestures. After the sometimes rude welcome, these dogs usually seem pleased and interested to have the stranger around.
Behavior Modification Techniques
For the Fearful Dog
counter-conditioning involves teaching a dog that a mildly fear-inducing stimulus or situation leads to a contrary sensation of relaxation, pleasure, or reward. Sometimes counter-conditioning can be used on its own to reverse minor fears and anxieties. counter-conditioning reverses the response to a previously conditioned stimulus by changing a performed perception and facilitating the development of an alternate response. Food treats are often employed to alter a dog's perceptions in this way. Operant counter-conditioning is a similar technique in which the dog is trained to lie down and relax int he presence of a stimulus that previously elicited a fearful reaction. Of course, it is not always possible to accomplish this goal, unless the intensity of the fear-inducing stimulus can first be controlled so that it can be presented at a tolerable level.
(b) Systematic Desensitization
When fears are too strong to be overcome by counter-conditioning alone, a graded approach to confronting the dog with his nemesis must be employed. For example, if a fearful dog is too frightened to be able to think about receiving food or relaxing in the face of a particular fear-inducing stimulus, a systematic and incremental introduction to the fear-inducing stimulus is indicated. Systematic desensitization is almost always employed along with simultaneous counter-conditioning, though it can also be conducted on its own. Simply allow the dog to settle at each level that the stimulus is presented without attempting to readjust the dog's perspective.
One mistake that some trainers make is to advise rapid desensitization. For example, if your dog is frightened of children, they say "Take him to the Little League game," or if it is frightened of strangers the word is "Bring him to a shopping mall and plant him by the entrance so that he will be exposed harmlessly to hundreds of people. That way he will desensitize to people's presence," Neither of these two techniques is systematic desensitization, which involves an approach more like peeling off the layers of an onion. Sudden and continued exposure to a fear-inducing stimulus is a technique that is rarely indicated or successful in anything but the mildest fears. In more severe fears it is positively inhumane and its execution is not only ineffective, but also counterproductive.For the Dominant Dog
(aka Nothing in life is free, Working for a living, or No free lunch)
This non-confrontational program was designed specifically for use with dominant-aggressive dogs but it can also help restructure a stronger healthier leadership role for the owner of an anxious or fearful dog. With regard to the principles implicit in this program, the mnemonic phrases bracketed above say it all. The basic requirement is the owner's mind-set that the dog must, initially at least and to some extent for time immemorial, earn every valued asset. This attitude will, in time, cultivate the dog's dependence, respect, and reliance, and thus the owner's control and influence.
There is one essential prerequisite for the program - a modicum of training. The dog must understand and obey at least one or two commands prior to starting the program, though its repertoire can and should be increased subsequently. It is not imperative that a dog entering this program obey every command at first, just as long as the owner is sure that it understands some directives issued and is in a position to obey should it so choose. As a backdrop to the program, owners are asked to reinforce any obedience training they have learned by rehearsing it with the dog for a few minutes each day and utilizing commands whenever possible to accomplish various ends. This said,the stage is set. Here is what I call the twelve-step program of rehabilitation.Avoid Confrontation
The golden rule of a non-confrontational program is NO CONFRONTATION. To facilitate this approach, I ask owners to complete a list of circumstances that elicit aggression from their dog, including those that induce growling, lip lifts, snaps, and bites, and I then run through the individual situations advising the owner how to circumvent each. As benevolent as this sounds, it is no soft shoe approach. Avoiding aggression is an essential component of non-confrontational programs, and if not engaged it will undermine other measures applied. It is useless to work on such a program while simultaneously attempting to apply coercive training methods, as the two approaches are, like water and oil, immiscible.
Keep in mind that aggression begets aggression. Naturally, there is a level of aggression you can apply that silences any dominant dog, but that approach is not for me or my clients. Like Dr. Gerry Flannigan explained to his client: "You can get better of a dog by fighting with it, but you must be prepared to fight to the death." I think he made his point, because the client declined this approach.
The sort of measures to follow is that if your dog guards a rawhide from you, it won't get them anymore. Problem solved!Feeding
Since food is such a valued commodity within the pack, it is imperative to make the dominant dog realize that you control this asset. It must learn that it is powerless over food and that you are its higher power. Food must no longer appear like manna from heaven but only from you. Right from the get-go of this program your dog must earn all food from you by responding positively to some command from a family member. As I've said, there's no free lunch.Toys
The provision of toys is another privilege for which the dominant dog must work. Again, fair is fair, they can have all the toys they want... they just have to work for them. The way to arrange it is as follows: Pick up all toys and put them in an assigned drawer and supply toys only when your dog obeys a command. When your dog is done playing with the toy, you pick it up and replace it in the drawer, ready for the same charade the next time.Games
The trouble with dogs and games is that if you don't make the rules, they do... and the next thing that's happening is they're playing with you, instead of the other way around. Take the game of fetch for example. The dominant dog will often bring the ball to you to initiate the game. If you pick up the ball at this point, you have just made mistake number one. You have allowed the dog to determine when the game starts. Since dominant dogs initiate most activities within the pack, if you respond, you have just dealt yourself a card of low denomination. It is important that, similar to the situation with petting, you realize that the dog wants to play but decide the time and place yourself a short while later. Just when the dog is fed up with waiting for you to respond, pick up the ball and issue a command "C'mon, Whiskey, let's go" - and stride to the throwing place. Whiskey either comes or doesn't and by now you know how to respond to either occurrence. If Whiskey comes and you initiate the game, you play by your rules. The rules are that the ball is brought back to you and dropped at your feet. Dominant dogs tend to take over the game and drop the ball short or refuse to let it go... to jerk your chain and gain the upper hand. If you lumber forward to pick up the ball they may grab it and take another couple of steps back. "What's the matter, too quick for you, eh?" would describe what they're thinking. It is imperative that you don't end up falling for this trap, and you don't need to. If things don't go your way, you simply quit the game with a finish command such as "Finish" or "Enough". it doesn't matter who has got the ball at that point; you just walk away if necessary, leaving the dog standing there with the ball in its mouth thinking, "What went wrong?" But don't worry, they soon figure it out. The alternative is to have the dog decide it has had enough and to walk off leaving you holding the ball saying, "Whiskey...wanna play s'more?" Who's in charge here? The same general rules apply to any game you play with a dog that's causing you problems cause of its dominance. Basically you have to do what dominant dogs do in the pack. That is, you initiate all activities and you decide when they're over. Anything less just isn't leadership. Rough games are simply out.Needs vs Wants
Demanding what they want and getting it, is another way that dominant dogs exercise control over compliant owners. These willful dogs sometimes rag on unsuspecting owners to get their own way, barking in their owners' faces, interrupting their conversations, and refusing to take no for an answer. Constantly responding to such willfulness can undermine an owner's authority with such dogs, creating an atmosphere favorable for the expression of dominance aggression. On the other side of the penny, going against a dominant dog's will can lead to aggression against the usurper. There is a middle way to facilitation and prevention called ignorance (pronounced "ignore - ance" in this case). Basically, you should not cater to any demanding behavior from the dog, whatever the short-term consequences. It is rare for a dog to attack an owner because the owner isn't doing something it wants, though many such dogs make quite a nuisance of themselves initially if their owners attempt to give them the cold shoulder. The invasiveness gets worse before it gets better. Again, mental toughness is needed to get through this phase of treatment. It goes without saying that, "ignorance" aside, the dog can have anything it wants if it is prepared to work for it, and that all spontaneous good behavior should be rewarded.Company
Along similar lines to the provision of attention to a dog is the provision of companionship, only this is a more passive type of situation. No one said that dominant dogs weren't fond of their owners; they often are and will seek out their owner's company and close physical contact when the mood so takes them. The typical scene is of a dominant dog taking up residence on an owner's lap and just hanging out there. Larger dogs may simply lean against their owner's feet or position themselves on the couch next to their owner, or the like. If the owner moves, the dog might become mad and growl or bite. As treatment for this curious aspect of dominant behavior, your company and close physical presence should be rationed in the same way as everything else and only provided as a reward for submissive behavior.High Places
The simple rule for dominant dogs is NO HIGH PLACES, and this means no going on beds or other furniture. When dominant dogs get on eye level with a person, or conversely when a person gets down to their level, their authority is increased and aggressive encounters are more likely. Owners who have difficulty in enforcing this rule without forbidden confrontations should attach a ten-foot-long nylon lead to their dog so that they can gently pull the dog off the couch from a safe distance should it not respond to the command promptly. But they should not forget to praise the dog the minute it has four feet firmly on the floor, even if they did have a hand in facilitating the response. For really difficult dogs, booby traps that will deter future excursions onto the furniture can be arranged.Freedom
Believe it or not, freedom, for dogs, too, is one of life's great privileges, and with privilege comes the need to social responsibility and respect. If all a dog has to do to obtain its freedom is to bark at its owner or paw at a door, where's the respect in that? Freedom is a gift and, for dogs of dominant disposition, one that should only be allowed to those deserving of it, and denied to the unruly.Exercise
The jury is still out on the benefits of exercise in the treatment of dominance. It can be argued both ways. On one hand, exercise appears to be generally beneficial, but then again, most dominant dogs are more aggressive to their owners in the evening, when they're tired. The latter could be due to daily variations in the brain level of serotonin, a neurochemical involved in regulating aggression, which tends to fall during the day as it is metabolized to melatonin. If fluctuations in the sreotonin level are the cause of aggression, exercise should be a good therapy because it elevates and stabilizes brain serotonin, preventing mood swings and reducing aggression. A minimum of twenty to thirty minutes of aerobic exercise daily is necessary to make exercise a worthwhile therapy, and I leave owners to work out for themselves whether they think it is beneficial for their dog's aggression problem.Diet
Here's one other gray zone where the advice you get depends upon who you ask. Again, the jury's out on this one,but until the judgment time many behaviorists and trainers advise low-protein, preservative-free diets for dogs manifesting various types of aggressive behavior.