There are times when our beloved dogs can regress to their more primal roots and show aggression. Depending on the size of dog the aggression can range from annoying to down right dangerous. The aggression can be directed towards humans, either in the family or strangers, dogs only, cats only, smaller animals such as squirrels and other rodents.
If a dog is aggressive towards other animals it does not necessarily mean that it will be aggressive to humans. Of course aggression towards humans is the most serious type which can have extreme consequences. The Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania reported that aggression was the most common presenting complaint for dogs coming to their behavior clinic.
Canine aggression is a very broad topic with many causes and multiple categories. The field of veterinary behavior is relatively new so there is much to be learned on that topic. The experts don't even always agree on how to categorize the different types of canine aggression. Generally, the aggression is characterized by who it’s directed towards or the circumstances in which it occurs. For example inter dog aggression is aggression directed at other dogs. Food aggression occurs when someone approaches the animals’ food or if someone tries to take food away from the dog. Maternal aggression occurs when a mother dog is protecting her puppies from strangers. Territorial or protective aggression occurs when the dog is in its own yard, house, or car. There are up to 15 different categories of aggression. Not all episodes of aggression are the same. It takes someone with training to diagnose the aggression so proper treatment can be implemented.
Aggression can be recognized when a dog barks, growls, snarls, snaps, or bites another living thing. There are times when aggression can be a normal response to the circumstances such as when a dog is threatened. A normal dog can be pushed to become aggressive due to traumatic events, harsh training, frustrating chaotic environment or rough play. Other causes could be genetic as some breeds are more prone to have aggression issues than others. There are also a small population of dogs that are abnormal in their brain chemical balance which can make them more predisposed to aggression. There are some medical causes of aggression the most common of which are pain, brain tumors, and hypothyroidism.
Prevention of aggression should start as soon as you take the puppy home for the first time. Avoid rough play and physical punishment. Keeping a structured environment and doing basic obedience training can work wonders in preventing behavior problems in your dog. Getting the puppy to earn everything in his life by obeying a command is called deference training which teaches the puppy its proper position in the family and to depend on you for everything. Socializing the puppy in a lot of different situations with people and animals in a non-fear inducing way before the age of 4 months will also decrease anxiety and thus the potential for developing aggression.
If your dog has shown aggression it is vital to bring that to the attention of your veterinarian. It is very important to first diagnose the type of aggression that we are dealing with. In order to get the diagnosis the veterinarian would take a thorough behavior history, do a complete physical exam, and do blood work including a CBC, blood chemistry, thyroid hormone level, and urinalysis. The workup will help rule out physical causes for the aggression such as pain, hormonal problems, blindness or hearing loss which could induce fear, and possibly even a brain tumor. If all that comes back normal the veterinarian categorizes the aggression by who it is directed towards. After gathering that information if would be helpful to be able to observe the dog during an aggressive event either in person or via video tape to see the dogs body language just prior to the aggression. The body language of the dog prior to the aggressive event could give clues as to "what the dog is thinking".
There are certain body postures that dogs take on depending on how they are feeling. If they are fearful, ears will be pulled back, head lowered, no teeth are exposed, and the dog seems to be making himself look smaller than he is. When a dog is showing pure aggression the teeth are bared, the ears are up and forward, and they try to make themselves look larger than they are. Often a dog will show a blend of these body postures which show that fear (anxiety) and aggression can be linked. This is why anti anxiety drugs can be used to treat aggression in dogs.
Once the type of aggression is characterized a treatment plan can be implemented. Some consideration must be given to the fact that there are risks in treating an aggressive dog. No specialist or medication can guarantee that there will never be another aggressive event. Some risk factors to assess are whether there are children in the house under the age of five years old, if the aggression is predictable, if there is warning given by the dog such as a bark or growl, how long the aggression has been going on, how severe the aggressive events have been. If you decide to proceed with treatment after the risk has been assessed a behavior modification protocol will be implemented. There are times when medication can be used to help the treatment plan be more successful but training and behavior modification techniques are the cornerstone of treatment. This does require a fair amount of time commitment from the owner.
We have had many successful treatments of dogs with aggression. If we feel it is a situation that needs more expert handling there is a behavior specialist at the Animal Emergency and Referral Center in Fairfiled, NJ.