Aggression in dogs is an emotive topic, and rightly so, because the consequences at the extreme end of aggression can be devastating.
A really common concern I hear from clients is “I don’t want an aggressive dog!”
My response is usually this:
“Aggression is not a personality trait!” Aggression is a set of behaviours that a dog may exhibit as a response to a perceived or actual threat.
If I were to shout and hoot my car horn at someone who pulled out in front of me at a junction, you would not then go on to label me as an ‘angry’ person. My behaviours in that context were angry behaviours. And of course underlying that anger would be anxiety about a potential threat to safety – there might have been an accident. Sit me down at home with a nice glass of wine and all angry behaviours are gone!
Another way to look at the aggressive dog concern is this:
“Every dog is an aggressive dog”!
Because every dog has the capacity to exhibit aggressive behaviours in the ‘right’ context/emotional state i.e. if the threat is great enough.
The context, the nature of threat (from the dog’s point of view) and the dog’s physiological state are all at play, which is why not every dog will respond the same way in a given situation.
In the vast majority of situations, the animal’s motivation is to get the threat to move away, or stop doing what it’s doing.
It might be an actual present threat “The scary vet lady is trying to poke in my sore ear – I don’t want her to, because it hurts”.
Or a perceived threat “That person is coming near my bowl – He might steal my dinner”
The real question dog owners should be asking is “Does my dog exhibit aggressive behaviours that are appropriate and proportionate to the context” or to put it another way “Does s/he over-react”?
Surely it’s OK for me to defend myself using force if I were attacked from behind on a dark night? But not quite as appropriate if someone bumped into me on a busy street while talking on their phone. (OK, being British I would probably apologise to them 😊)
If the aggressive behaviours are NOT appropriate and proportionate, the question is WHY? And what can we change to address that?
Very often when dogs exhibit aggression where it’s not ‘appropriate’ (barking and lunging at every dog that passes) there’s a learnt component based on a previous experience (or lack of experience) and the actual threat is no longer there. The dog makes a mis-assessment of the situation “I once got hurt by a dog – so ALL dogs are dangerous to me”.
And sadly in some cases, the dog has learnt that more socially appropriate behaviours (The equivalent of “Excuse me”, “careful”, “please don’t do that”) are no longer effective because they get ignored or punished, so escalation is called for.
I might try “get off” or “stop it” if my husband tried to steal one or two chips – but if he kept stealing them, eventually I would have to defend them with my fork.
No-one likes to think of their dog as being aggressive, but it’s important to talk about it, because aggression is a part of every dog’s behavioural repertoire whether society likes it or not.