|Dealing with Aggression|
|Written by Administrator|
|Wednesday, 04 July 2007 23:08|
Firstly, its a problem because we humans define it as one. Dogs have a variety of agonistic (aggressive) displays, which include quite severe but not lethal biting, which they use to resolve conflict amongst themselves. Left to themselves, dogs will rarely injure one another seriously; major fighting problems almost always evolve as a result of well-meant but misguided human intervention. To us, a dog fight is quite terrifying, and the person who can stand back, watch a fight and assess it coolly before deciding whether or not intervention is warranted, is a pretty rare being. Show people, with their obsession with keeping their dogs pretty, are particularly bad in this respect! But in actual fact, almost all dog fights break up spontaneously within three minutes, and it is only if a fight continues for longer than this, or if one dog bites down hard on the other dog, holds on and starts working his way toward the throat that you should consider intervening. If the fight is all teeth and claws (lots of snapping, snarling and foot-waving), the best is to let it peter out by itself.
The level of noise in the fight is also a good indicator of how severe it is - and this might not work quite the way you think it does! Try this exercise. Get an apple. Shout as loudly as you possibly can. Now bite into the apple, and while still biting, shout as loudly as you possibly can again.
The first time (minus the apple), you'll probably make quite a respectable amount of noise. But when trying to shout while biting an apple, the most you're likely to produce is a rather muffled "mummphh".
The moral of the story, of course, is that the noisier a dog fight is, the less there is to worry about - and this is particularly important to understand when a youngster is being reared by older sibling dogs in a multi-dog household. When an adolescent pup is flat on his back yelling his head off, with a lot of growling, snarling, barking older dogs apparently ripping him to shreds, you can be pretty sure that he'll emerge with nothing worse than a mild nip here or there.
Quiet dog fights, on the other hand, are likely to be very serious, and if you hear a drop in volume from the dog who is winning an altercation, it's time to intervene. How to break up a serious dog fight without getting seriously bitten yourself will have to be the subject of a separate article (but there is some good information here - give the page time to download as it has lots of pictures, and scroll down to the text. There is one piece of information on this page with which I disagree strenuously - never, ever, ever alpha-roll a dog. Otherwise, it's excellent advice, including the material on treating bite wounds, which should never be stitched and always left to heal by secondary intention).
Aggressive behaviour is thus a normal part of a dogs behavioural repertoire, and is not necessarily deviant in any way. When dogs cross the line and start behaving aggressively toward humans, though, aggression becomes a very serious problem because of the huge potential for serious injury. Even at this stage, though, it is not necessarily abnormal, but nevertheless requires swift and expert intervention, particularly if the dog is a large one.
The issue of aggression is complicated in guarding breeds such as Dobermanns because some aggression in these dogs is desirable, and is selected for as part of the breeding process. Unfortunately, many Dobermann owners regard their dogs aggression as acceptable because they see it as part of his protective instinct, and thus fail to recognize that the aggression is in fact due to excessive anxiety or another maladaptive cause. Owners of guarding breeds also often wish to see their dogs as courageous, and have difficulty accepting the notion that their dog may be at risk of becoming a fear-biter.
The first step to being able to deal with aggression is understanding it better. Although there are over twenty identified causes of aggression in dogs, behaviourists generally agree that there are two main categories: predatory and affective.
Predatory, or quiet aggression is the type of aggressive behaviour involved in hunting for food. It is highly pleasurable to the dog, and is triggered by, for example, swiftly moving animals like cats or squeaking and squealing noises such as those made by small children. A lot of bicycle and car chasing problems fall into this category.
During predatory aggression episodes, the dog is usually quiet and there will be no signs such as hackles up or snarling; in fact the chances are that the tail will be wagging and the dog will look quite happy!
Any animal which finds itself under threat can choose from one of three options: fight, flight or freezing (playing dead). Dobermanns are bred (theoretically, anyway!) to select fighting as their primary option, and when we say that a dog has courage, what we mean is simply that he will tend to fight rather than run when confronted by a threat.
Usually a dog wavers between fighting and running, depending on the severity of the threat and the dogs temperament. Emotionally, the dog is torn between fear and aggression. Figure 1 shows the facial expressions of the dog on the two axes of fear and aggression, and is a useful way of determining which emotion is uppermost in a dog who is under threat. In a guarding breed, we would like aggression to be uppermost.
What this means is that fear and affective aggression are two sides of the same coin. There is a popular belief that aggression is at one end of the spectrum, and fear at the other. Nothing could be further from the truth. At one end of the spectrum is the confident, relaxed, unfazed dog and at the other is the threatened, anxious animal whose choices are to fight or to run.
A dogs defence threshold is the point at which he responds to a perceived threat. A dog with a low defence threshold will be what we call spooky. He will jump at sudden noises and be inclined to startle and snap at anything unfamiliar in his environment. (This dog, incidentally, although regarded by humans as having a poor temperament, is the one best adapted for survival in the wild. It is the brave, steady temperament which is the artificial one!)
A dog with a high defence threshold, on the other hand, will take most things in his stride and be fairly non-reactive. It will take quite a strong threat to push him into fight-or-flight mode.
The correct answers are: A-2, B-3 and C-1. How did you do?
Graph A depicts a highly dangerous fear-biter. This dog has a low defence threshold, i.e. he spooks easily and is very reactive. However, he also has a high avoidance threshold, which means that his preferred behaviour when under threat is to fight, and the threat will have to become pretty severe before he backs off.
Graph B depicts the temperament we are looking for in a good protection dog. His defence threshold is moderate to high, i.e he doesnt spook at everything, but his avoidance threshold is very high, i.e. when he does perceive himself as under threat, he fights, and will continue to fight under considerable threat. (This gap between defence threshold and avoidance threshold is what protection trainers sometimes refer to as defence drive.)
Graph C depicts a good pet temperament. This dog has an extremely high defence threshold, probably too high for a protection dog, i.e. the dog is pretty much unflappable. His avoidance threshold is very close to his defence threshold, i.e. when he does get spooked, the chances are he will run rather than bite. A good Labrador will have a temperament looking something like this.
Most aggression problems tend to occur when a dogs defence threshold is, for whatever reason, too low. This may be a global genetic problem (the spooky dog) or it may be in response to particular situations which have traumatized the dog in the past. For example, a dog may have been bitten by a Siberian Husky as a puppy, and may develop a lifelong fear of Siberians, attacking them whenever it sees one. It may be perfectly well behaved around other breeds.
Unfortunately the aggressive behaviour which results has traditionally been ascribed to dominance or various other debatable characteristics, and many handlers respond by punishing the dog for its unacceptable behaviour. This has the effect of making the whole syndrome worse. Not only is the dog scared of Siberians (or whatever), but he is also being punished for expressing his fear, which simply proves to him that his fear of Siberians is fully justified as terrible things always happen to him when he sees one! It is a very sound axiom that one cannot punish fear or aggression out of a dog.
So what can we do to treat this?
Assuming that the aggressive dog was inadequately socialized as a puppy, or was traumatized in some way, what treatment options are available for the adult dog?
The first and most important step is for the owner to recognize that the aggression is almost certainly based in anxiety. This may sound obvious, but many owners of guarding breeds are astonishingly reluctant to make this admission, mainly because it is also an admission that the dog is temperamentally unsuitable for the work it was bred for. Given that only about 10% of dogs from guarding breeds are actually suitable for protection work, one hopes that this attitude will change as understanding of behavioural techniques becomes more widespread.
Anxiety is in fact the number one cause of aggressive behaviour, and many behavioural scientists are coming to believe that even so-called dominance aggression has a strong anxiety component in nearly every case. It is so prevalent that it is probably safe to assume anxiety as the cause until proved wrong; certainly the treatment wont do any harm and may do a lot of good.
(We do recognise conditions like avoidance-motivated aggression (likely to be the real story behind 'dominance' aggression); in cases like these the dog behaves very aggressively and with very little apparent anxiety. Treating dogs like this is extremely dangerous and requires expertise, experience and a huge commitment of time and effort).
Dealing with anxiety-based aggression is also dangerous, and the risk of being bitten should never be underestimated, but where anxiety triggers can be identified, many owners are capable of applying treatment protocols successfully.
Treatment for anxiety-based aggression usually consists of a behaviour therapy called systematic desensitization. It was developed in the 1950s by South African psychiatrist Joseph Wolpe, and is still used all over the world as the best available method for treating phobias in people.
Systematic desensitization simply means exposing the patient to a little of the fear-inducing stimulus at a time, in doses he can handle, and gradually increasing the exposure. In working with dogs, this is usually combined with counter-conditioning, which means replacing a previous negative association with a positive one. For example, if you have a relative who comes to visit often, stays for hours and bores you with lengthy and monotonous tales of her childhood, when you see her walking down the street toward you, you will probably get an oh, no feeling in your stomach! But if your relative changes her tack, starts arriving with a gift you really enjoy, stays for 5 minutes, asks you all about yourself and gives you a chance to talk about things that most people wont listen to, and then leaves, your feelings will probably change, and when you see her coming down the road, you will now think oh, goodie, its Aunt Rosie!.
What has happened is that Aunt Rosie was previously associated with boredom and frustration, and is now associated with pleasurable experiences.
The best way to explain how systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning work together is to use an example.
Lets suppose Greta is a Dobermann bitch who lives with a single woman and is very scared of men. Whenever a man comes to visit, Greta becomes anxious, starts snarling and on the last two occasions has actually bitten the man. Gretas owner calls in a behaviourist and they decide to desensitize Greta to men.
Once Greta is ok at this level, accepting the treat happily and showing no signs of anxiety, she can move onto step two, where the man touches the gate. Again, the same five steps are repeated over and over until there is no sign of anxiety in the dog.
It is an unbreakable rule for this kind of treatment that the work progresses at the dogs pace and no faster. If at any stage Greta shows signs of becoming aggressive, the man leaves immediately and Greta goes back to an easier stage, and her hierarchy is reviewed and broken up into smaller steps. The worst possible mistake is to try to push the dog into going too fast, as this will simply increase the anxiety (and reinforce her perception that men are bad news!)
This kind of treatment is slow and painstaking, particularly at first, but has excellent results as it works directly with the dogs emotional conditioning rather than with the resulting behaviour. It is not at all impossible that within a couple of months, Greta will be welcoming male visitors with a wagging tail! In practice, nearly all dogs will respond quite fast and be able to take quite big steps, and it is only the severely anxious or traumatized dog who will need the extremely slow steps described above; but the rule remains the same proceed at the dogs pace, no matter how slow. Forcing the dog into proximity with something it is afraid of (and then punishing it if it reacts) is equivalent to dangling you over a 10th floor balcony by your heels to help you cure your fear of heights (and then dropping you if you scream!)
Temperament has traditionally been regarded as something hardwired and unchangeable, and a great many behaviour problems are often blamed on bad temperament and regarded as incurable. In fact, each temperamental characteristic can be thought of as being like a tap. How much of the characteristic the dog would display if the tap were fully closed (minimum possible) or fully opened (maximum possible) is determined by his genes. But how far the tap is actually open (and thus how much of the characteristic he actually displays in practice) is determined by his environment. Behavioural approaches give us much greater flexibility and effectiveness in turning the dogs taps on or off, and thus in modifying apparently intractable characteristics such as aggression and even social dominance. These approaches offer new hope for dogs whose fate would previously have been euthanasia.
|Last Updated on Thursday, 05 July 2007 00:46|