It is commonly assumed that there are certain dog breeds that are more likely to be aggressive than others. According to experts, however, this is not the case; aggression is a trait that any dog can develop at any point in its life.
The best way to understand the premise of aggression in dogs is to treat it the same way we treat it in humans; different individuals have different personalities and different circumstances, and therefore different reasons for aggression.
Aggressive behaviour, on these grounds, is not an independent problem but almost always a symptom of another underlying issue. It can be immediately stifled with the wrongful domination and threatening, only to resurface later, or it can be adequately and permanently managed over a period of time. Needless to say, any responsible dog owner would prefer the latter.
What is Aggression in Dogs?
It is first important to understand that dogs are not naturally aggressive creatures, whether towards humans or towards other dogs. If your dog is aggressive, it is most likely trying to tell you something else. Before you begin working on the problem, it is imperative to ensure that the exhibited behaviors are indeed signs of aggression and not other manners – like excitement – being mistaken.
It must also be made sure that a single ‘angry’ act in an isolated incident is not being confused with ‘aggressive’ behavior, which is a repetitive pattern of behavior. It will usually include attacking or attempting to attack another dog or a human. Ignoring it or not addressing the problem on time will lead to personality changes, resulting in an animal that is disobedient, problematic, uncontrollable and potentially dangerous.
Signs of Aggression in Dogs
It must be understood that aggression in dogs is case-sensitive; no two dogs will exhibit it the same way, and neither will their reasons be identical. It is important to know a dog well to distinguish behaviours and to truly understand what is out of the ordinary.
Not all dogs will exhibit early signs of aggression and may lash out suddenly. However, keep an eye out for early signs. These may include snarling and baring teeth, snapping, excessive barking, continuously staring as if about to attack, stiffening ears, stiffly moving the tail, or standing tall and upright. Knowing your dog well is the key, and any behaviours that are out of the ordinary should be closely observed.
Some common signs of aggression may include the following:
Ideally, your relationship with your dog should be comfortable and calmly assertive; your dog should not growl in response to you touching, lifting or grooming them. If your pet suddenly starts growling when you try to go near them or physically handle them, chances are there is a problem to look into.
If your otherwise trained dog is suddenly beginning to aggressively bite you or other dogs, or even violently biting toys (as opposed to playful chewing), you must closely observe the activity for nature and repetition. However, be sure to not confuse this with the behaviours of poorly trained pups.
Younger puppies that are separated from the litter sooner than 8-10 weeks often suffer from poor bite inhibition; they are unaware of the fine line between biting playfully and biting hard enough to cause pain, and require additional training to learn better.
3) Ignoring learnt commands
Another common sign of aggression is when your dog does not stop when told to. For instance, if your dog violently jumps at you or attacks another dog, and does not back off when you give the command to stop, there is a problem. Remember that an out of the blue attack might signify a misunderstanding rather than aggression, but continuing the behaviour despite reprimand is where the issue lies.
Keep in mind that the amount of damage or injury a dog causes may not be a reliable indicator of aggression. Smaller dogs like Chihuahuas and larger ones like Mastiffs will obviously differ in the damage they cause, even if the mental intensity of aggression is similar.
Causes and Solutions for Aggression in Dogs
As already stated, every dog will exhibit aggression due to different reasons, and these reasons are exactly what will lead you to solving the problem. In essence, if you are trying to solve the problem of aggressive behavior in your dog, the bottom-line is your relationship. The more you know your dog, the more likely you will be to spot the problem and its causes. Without tapping the root cause, it is unlikely that you will be able to permanently manage the behavior problem.
A common mistake made by dog owners is to try and stifle aggressive behaviour when the dog portrays it. As pointed out by expert dog trainer, Zak George, this is an ineffective tactic that can actually do more damage. Aggression cannot be treated with aggression. Exactly like an angry person cannot simply ‘snap out of it’ and cannot be reasoned with until they calm down, an aggressive dog cannot be immediately taught the right behaviour. The rectification is a gradual process that may take a couple of weeks to a few months.
Here are the common causes of aggression in dogs, and how to deal with each one of them:
Poor understanding on part of the owner
One of the most basic reasons dogs become aggressive is because of owners being unintentionally ignorant and misinformed. Adopting a dog is a huge responsibility – no lesser than deciding to adopt a child. A puppy requires as much attention is a newborn child would, which is why it is important to research into the needs of your new family member.
More often than not, people adopt dogs based solely on popular breeds and their appearance, unaware of their differing needs. A Labrador, for instance, is an adaptable dog but is not naturally made to live outdoors. Similarly, a German Shepherd is not meant to live in a small space like an enclosed apartment.
Adopting a dog is a huge responsibility, and when it goes unfulfilled by failing to provide for a breed’s natural needs, aggressive behaviour born from frustration may be the consequence.
Poor leadership and bond
A dog is one of the pets that need a strong bond with the owners in order to exhibit their best behaviour. Expert dog trainer, Cesar Millan, addresses the issue by introducing the concept of a ‘pack leader’. As domesticated animals, dogs have evolved to naturally require a pack leader, and it is the owner’s job to prove that they are capable and confidently in-charge.
Dogs are extremely smart animals that can sense fear, reluctance and weakness, and any of these on part of the owner will lead to them being perceived as a poor leader. A dog’s trust and respect must be earned by effectively establishing rules and laying down boundaries. Poor control will often lead to the dog seeing the owner as incapable and ‘rejecting’ them as the pack leader, and thus showing signs of aggression as a way of attempting to be the dominant entity.
Fear and Anxiety
When afraid, dogs will naturally run away; if this does not seem possible or effective, their second instinct would be to attack. In a way, a pet reflects the owner’s behaviour. A dog that is brave needs an owner who is confident and can calmly provide direction. The owner’s weak control or poor protection can very quickly translate into the dog’s confusion, panic and anxiety, resulting in aggressive behaviour as a form of defence mechanism.
It is rightly said that dogs learn the most important skills in the first 8 weeks that they spend with their litter. This also goes on to say that dogs are not naturally afraid of other dogs; it is an entirely taught behaviour, mostly occurring due to unintentional cues given by owners. An example is taking a dog out to the park for a walk.
It is not uncommon to become apprehensive when a strange dog approaches your dog, and you may unknowingly portray your own fear by picking your dog up or tightening the leash. This gives the dog the idea that something is wrong, and that they must provide protection, resulting in other dogs eventually being seen as ‘rivals’.
To best avoid this, it is a great idea to enroll younger dogs in puppy daycare centers and familiarise them with their own kind. It is also essential for owners to learn how to be calmly assertive at all times, and to not be ‘overly protective’ of pets. It is best to let a dog behave in its own way and not let ‘human’ behaviours interfere.
A dog’s aggressive behaviour might just be the excessive energy they have. Dogs need to burn their natural energy; if this need remains unfulfilled, the energy is likely to come out in behaviours like aggression. To avoid this, it is best to walk your dog every 4-5 hours. If this is not possible, walk them every morning and every night.
In addition, provide chew toys for when you are away. Cesar Millan highlights a commonly ignored need here: mental stimulation. Dogs are smart animals that need to burn physical as well as mental energy, so keep challenging them with small tasks like finding hidden treats.
Several older dogs that come from shelters haven’t had the best experiences. Stray dogs are commonly attacked and tortured, which triggers aggressive behaviours as a response. Same is the case with dogs that come from abusive homes.
When adopting a dog like this, it is extremely important to understand that they will need a lot of love, care and attention before they can begin to trust you. It can take months of care before an abused dog allows someone to even stroke them without running away or biting.
If an otherwise well-behaved dog is suddenly biting or growling, this might be a reaction to pain from injury or illness. Discomfort from constipation, for instance, often causes puppies to become agitated and growl. Look out for signs of diseases, and take your dog for a regular checkup if the lashing out is sudden and inexplicable.
On A Final Note
One of the best solutions to correcting or avoiding aggressive dogs is to enroll them into dog training courses. Whether you’re adopting a older dog or bringing home a new puppy, taking a basic course in dog training school might help you bond, control, and understand your dog better. Furthermore, your dog could greatly benefit from the chance to socialize with other dogs from his or her class. HERE are some classes in Singapore you could consider signing up for.
Ultimately, effectively treating aggression behaviour in a dog falls back on the dog-owner bond. It is important to know your dog well and to understand that aggression cannot be ‘cured’ in a couple of days. It can be a persistent problem that needs continuous effort and may take up to a few months to manage. At the end, it will depend on your resoluteness and responsibility, and the relationship dynamics you share with your pet.