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IS YOUR DOG AGGRESSIVE?
AGGRESSION: WHAT IS IT USED FOR?
It is important to understand that aggression is a normal behavior. Aggression helps every species remain alive, procreate and keep safe from real or perceived danger. An aggressive act is scary to watch and frequently can be misinterpreted, especially if the use and need for it aren't understood. Most acts of aggression, no matter how frightening to watch, are actually not meant to do harm but, rather, to warn away danger or a competitor.
Every species must have ritualized methods of avoiding severe, "fight to the death" aggression; otherwise, the species would quickly become extinct. For instance, many wild animals-lions, rams, wild horses, bears, and even squirrels-have specific ways of "duking it out," while actually leaving opponents intact with no real damage done. As Konrad Lorenz says in his book On Aggression, "Aggression of so many animals toward members of their own species is in no way detrimental to the species, but, on the contrary, is essential for its preservation."
We humans also have a need to exhibit aggression, although it isn't necessary to our survival in this day and age. In Coercion and Its Fallout, Murray Sidman points out that "prohibited by social custom and law from striking each other, we watch football, wrestling or boxing; bridge, chess and checkers too, are socially approved forms of competitive aggression."
Like us, our companion dogs no longer need to fight to stay alive-we care for them, feed and clothe them, take care of their medical needs, and give them a warm place by the fire and a soft place at the foot of our beds. However, the instinctual need for aggression still remains within them, and when it surfaces, it frightens us. We try to "remedy" this scary but perfectly normal stuff, and in our ignorance, we usually blunder and botch it so that our dogs do, sometimes, fight to the death.
For our dogs to successfully co-exist with us in our human society, we must teach them that aggressive behaviors are no longer essential; we must channel those behaviors into, as Sidman says, "socially approved forms of competitive aggression." For example, we can concentrate the dogs' energies toward sports such as agility, tracking, sheepherding, Freestyle, Rally obedience and many other dog sports. We also must make sure that we do not unwittingly intensify or even cause the very aggression we are trying to control. In the next few chapters we will explore the ways that humans cause aggression in dogs, since that is the cause we can most easily control. Just as the dog must learn about our world, we must learn about his.
WHAT'S IN A LABEL?
There seems to be a big push lately for labels for each type of aggression: dominance aggression, fear aggression, idiopathic aggression (which actually means that the person giving out the "diagnosis" has no idea as to its cause), inter-animal aggression, pain aggression, play aggression, predatory aggression, territorial aggression, food-related aggression, maternal aggression, and possessive aggression. The label itself often becomes too complicated and confusing-it can actually hinder and bog down effective treatment. Additionally, once the "diagnosis" is given, an owner may come to feel that the behavior can't be changed and give up completely, either euthanizing the dog or dumping him in an unsuspecting shelter.
Although labels may be important to an owner on some level (knowing the name of the "disease" may make a person feel better), what is really more important-in fact, what is crucial-is not the label itself, but knowing exactly what triggers the dog to aggress. This may be people, dogs or other animals, the food bowl, tactile stimulation (touching), or the perceived need to guard objects, territory or people. It is thus much easier simply to define what a dog reacts to, than to spend time seeking out the fancy words that most of us have to look up in the dictionary.
The information you will receive in this book will help you and your dog, no matter what his issues are. Yes, your dog is special, but the ways and means for the systematic desensitization process-the process that will transform your dog's behavior in the face of his own particular scary bad things-are all the same.
IDENTIFYING YOUR DOG'S ISSUES
Many reactive or aggressive dogs have more than one issue. You will need to recognize and define each one as a separate entity. To start the systematic desensitization process, you'll have to write down, in exacting detail, a list of each thing your dog is afraid of, for fear is where aggression begins. The following are some examples of different things human-aggressive dogs may find scary:
* Eye contact from a stranger
* Body parts, hands, legs or feet moving in weird-or even normal-ways (such as reaching out to pet the dog or leaning over)
* Loud sounds from people
* People coming up from behind
* Large groups of people
* Small groups of people
* Men (especially those with facial hair or wearing hats)
* Kids on bikes or skateboards
* People in a training building (such as during a group class)
The following are some examples of different things a dog-aggressive dog may find scary:
* Another dog looking at him
* Another dog running or chasing something, such as a ball or toy, or even running agility
* Another dog barking, lunging or pulling on leash
* Large groups of other dogs
* Small groups of other dogs
* Dogs getting too close, either outside or inside a training building
* Certain breeds of dogs
* Certain sexes of dogs
Your dog may have other issues, such as:
* Difficulty in accepting touch, or any other grooming/handling issues
* Aggressing when people, dogs, cars, or kids go past your fence line
* Being afraid of certain inanimate objects
* Aggressing on leash although fine off leash (more commonly called "leash aggression")
Suppose your dog is human-aggressive, will not accept grooming (even from you), and is afraid of bulky winter coats.
To be able to work on these problems, you need to break them down even more. Ask yourself exactly how and in what situations is he aggressive toward people? Is the problem with large groups of people or a single person? Does it involve direct contact (touching), direct eye contact, fast-moving people, kids, loud noises or moving body parts? Is he aggressive off leash, on leash, through a fence, up close (define how close), at home, away from home, far away (define far away), or toward people who come out of nowhere? What part of grooming is he sensitive about-nails, shaving, ear cleaning, scissoring around his face or legs, or hind end brushing? Is he afraid of you leaning over him or of being on the table or on the floor? Is he afraid of men, women or kids wearing that bulky coat? Does he aggress even if familiar people that he likes wear the coat?
Again, suppose your dog is dog-aggressive and also afraid of the garbage truck and flags. Let's break this scenario down. Is he aggressive toward one dog or many dogs? At what distance? Does he aggress at neutered or intact male dogs, spayed or intact female dogs, or puppies? Is he more aggressive when he is on leash or off leash, behind a barrier, in his own yard or away from home, when dogs walk straight up to him or when they come from behind him, or towards any particular breed(s) of dogs? What is the other dog doing when your dog reacts? Is he playing, lunging, barking, chasing or minding his own business? Regarding the other issues, is your dog afraid of the noise, sight or movement of the garbage truck or the sound or movement of the flag?
The catch-all terms "human-aggressive" or "dog-aggressive" are extremely general. You can uncover much more specific and useful information simply by breaking each issue down into its exact components. You must do this; otherwise, you may be inadvertently setting your dog up to aggress because you haven't defined and recognized each distinct problem in its entirety. In order to cope with your dog in the real world, you must have an intimate understanding of his specific triggers. It will be helpful for you to set up a log sheet like this: