Treating canine aggression: How to make sure that they don't take the arm when offered a little finger (Proceedings)


Aggression to family members or persons who are familiar with the aggressive dog accounts for the majority of cases presented to veterinary behaviorists. Causes for this behavior vary greatly and may include competitive aggression, fear aggression, pain induced aggression or maternal aggression.

Aggression to family members or persons who are familiar with the aggressive dog accounts for the majority of cases presented to veterinary behaviorists. Causes for this behavior vary greatly and may include competitive aggression, fear aggression, pain induced aggression or maternal aggression.

Most commonly, owners of aggressive dogs assume that the pet is 'dominant'. This assumption is nurtured by discussion groups on the internet, lay publications, and a so-called old school of dog trainers. The concept of social dominance became popular among trainers when ethologists published observations on wolf behavior. It is important to understand the social structure and the motivation that underlies canine behavior to correctly diagnose and treat behavioral issues. Sadly, it leads trainers to advocate treatment approaches that use physical confrontations, such as scuffing, 'alpha'rolling', and choking ('leash corrections'). In some cases, these approaches suppress the behavior successfully or temporarily. In other instances, the aggressive behavior of the dog escalates dramatically, leading to severe bites and the dog's euthanasia. Even if one family member manages to control the dog using physical means, others may not be able to use the approach successfully. It is not desirable to teach children to control the behavior of others by means of physical violence, such as hitting and choking.

Other – appropriate and safe - approaches that will be discussed in detail, allow all family members to use a safer and effective approach, that is based on more recent knowledge in kynology. It allows owners to avoid an escalation of physical confrontation.

Well-socialized dogs are skilled communicators and resolve the majority of conflicts using ritualized behaviors that help avoid an escalation into fights. The individual that manages most consistently control the outcome of an encounter or monopolizes the access to resources will have the privilege of priority access to this resource. However, there is no such thing as 'a dominant dog'. Most commonly, status within a hierarchy varies, depending on the context, the motivation of each individual and the outcome of previous encounters. A dog may be higher ranking, but if he is not hungry, he may willingly give up food that a lower ranking animal is trying to access.

Aggression to humans occurs in a vast majority of cases because people send unclear and contradictory signals to their dogs. Some time, the dog may be required to obey. At other times, the owner readily responds to signals the dog gives to achieve certain goals (e.g. leaning into the owner and pawing to solicit attention). If a dog learns over the course of time that she can control the behavior of a certain person more commonly as described above than the person controls the dog's behavior, the dog will certainly be more likely to challenge a person in a situation in which they compete over a high value resource (e.g. a raw hide).

Inconsistency on side of the owner and failure to read social situations and signals that the dog gives correctly will often lead to apparently 'unprovoked' acts of aggression. An individual that is not able to predict its environment and the reactions of social partners will become increasingly insecure, anxious, aggressive, hyper, and reactive. If the person's behavior is predictable and if signals that the dog gives are recognized correctly, the dog will be put into a situation in which she can successfully avoid conflict. This insecurity is a common observation in cases of competitive aggression. Owners complain that the dog is stubborn and 'dominant' when in fact he is anxious.

Successful treatment involves careful evaluation of situations that lead to aggression. The A-B-C of the event (antecedent, behavior, and consequence) will allow correctly assessing the dog's motivation, preventing future events, and giving owners specific advice how the dog should be managed. Treatment varies from case to case and involves treatment approaches that are based on classic or operant counter conditioning, 'nothing in life is free' – protocols, and most of all careful management by the owner.

It is not uncommon to see dogs who behave aggressively due to fear of their owners. Examples include but are not limited to situations in which the owner applies punishment, when the dog feels cornered, or if the dog tries to avoid an unpleasant or painful interaction.

Maternal aggression is rarely seen within the pet population since a majority of female dogs is spayed. Aggression can occur prepartum, as the bitch prepares for whelping, showing some nest building behavior. The behavior continues up to three weeks postpartum, and should naturally disappear once the weaning period begins. Dogs that go into pseudo-pregnancy or false lactation will show similar behaviors and may redirect maternal instincts to objects such as toys. Treatment in these cases is typically not necessary unless aggression persists for more than 3 weeks postpartum of a few weeks in dogs in lactation falsa.

In general, it is your most important goal to ensure the safety of all humans and animals in the environment surrounding dogs that showed aggression in the past. Owners have to receive a clear and accurate risk assessment. Veterinarians have to be careful to make statements if they are not sure or trained in making these judgments since they may be held liable for future incidents that occur. The referral to a specialist or consultations for veterinarians who would like to discuss cases is typically available throughout the US and Canada (see or

The following guidelines apply to all cases of aggression:

     1. avoid situations that have previously lead to aggressive behavior if at all possible

      2. use tools to control the dog successfully whenever the dog may be in a situation that can lead to aggression (non-retractable leash, head halter, and basket type muzzle)

      3. never punish a dog in response to aggressive behavior; punishment will never decease the likelihood of future incidents; punishment may momentarily suppress a behavior, however it increase the dog's fear of certain situations and typically leads to an escalation of the problem long term

Medication is effective in a small minority of cases that may be too severe to be treated safely. Overall, psychotrophic drugs will not lead to the desired effects and owners are poorly advised if drug therapy is recommended as the treatment of choice.

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