Dealing With Aggression

by Nancy E. Christensen

Canine aggression has a myriad of origins and meanings. Why does a dog snarl, snap or bite?

There are many reasons for aggressive behaviors in dogs, due to time constraints, we will be discussing some of the most common reasons.

Dogs are often called “mean” or “vicious” when the dog is observed growling, snarling, barking, attempting to bite or biting. The truth is that all dogs are capable of, and will, bite, depending on the circumstances.

Growling, snarling and snapping are all warning behaviors from a dog. This is the dog´s attempt to avoid biting. Most dogs would prefer not to really bite a person. When the above behaviors are corrected without understanding why they happened, sometimes a dangerous dog is created. The dog knows it will be corrected for giving a warning, so it “does nothing” until pushed into a bite. Then it is deemed dangerous because it bit with no warning.

Training in any of the protection sports does not “teach the dog to bite”, all dogs bite.  Sport training does teach the dog under which circumstances it is acceptable to bite, and also how we want him to bite (a full, calm grip- never thrashing or hectic) and to let go when told. Dogs with unstable temperaments should never be trained in protection sports, just as they should not be shown in conformation, or used for breeding.

Aggression towards other dogs is fairly common, usually inter-male aggression or a “doesn´t like small/hairy dogs” predatory aggression. Dog aggression is not a useful trait in a working dog like the Doberman and should never be encouraged! Most dog aggression can be trained under control, including socializing puppies to other breeds and sizes of dogs and distracting the pup´s first indications of dog aggression.

Probably the most common reason for our dogs to be labelled aggressive (mean or vicious) is when they display defence aggression. Defence drive is present in all canines, it is a basic survival drive hard wired in the canine. Dogs will defend themselves, their pack, their pups, their food, their territory and any object they consider a possession. In general, this is a very useful trait in the Doberman, as a home and personal protection dog. Many bites happen because the dog is teased, which would come under the broad heading of defence aggression. No dog should be labelled vicious for defending itself, it´s pack (especially pups), it´s territory or possessions from strangers.

Dogs will also become aggressive in determining rank. This can be within a pack of dogs or dogs and humans together (a household) or it can be manifested during training when a dog receives a correction and decides to challenge the handler´s status as Alpha. This social dominance is also seen in pet or even show homes when the dog may challenge a family member for moving him off the bed, chair or couch. This is a training issue, not a true temperament issue.

Virtually all dogs will display biting behavior when they are in pain. A dog hit by a car, kicked by a horse, shot, etc, will be in pain and will very likely bite even the owner coming to his aid. This is not aggression and should never be interpreted as such.

As you can easily see, the above behaviors and reasons for aggression are not well-defined from one another, the lines between why a dog might bite a person are blurred. As with drives, the balance is critical in determining the reasons for a bite and the plan of action in retraining and avoiding another such incident.

One common denominator in all of the reasons for biting, is displacement. Humans being bitten are very often the result of displacement behavior by the dog, rather than true aggression directed towards the human. Displacement has a great deal to do with the nerve structure and clear headedness of the dog. Highly excitable (nervy) dogs are very likely to bite in displacement.

Often dogs are labelled “vicious” as a result of bites to a human, when the actual aggression was originally directed at something else. It is likely that everyone has seen two or more dogs peacefully co-existing in a yard, that will “go after” one another when chasing a squirrel or running the fence with a dog on the other side. The dog(s) cannot reach the object of their aggression, so they strike out at what they are able to reach. Unfortunately this may happen when a person is walking a dog on lead who perhaps is dog aggressive, the dog sees another dog and displays aggression. Since the other dog cannot be reached, the aggression is displaced on the human holding the dog back, whom the dog can reach. Or a dog displays territorial aggression, barking strongly at the door when a stranger approaches, the aggression may be displaced to the owner when the dog is pulled away from the door to answer the bell. The displacement can also be directed at inanimate objects, such as the dog in a vehicle that bites the seats or steering wheel when a stranger looks in or tries the door.

One less common form of biting is the dog who has not learned proper bite inhibition. The dog will bite in play or greeting, with no intent of injury (and no aggression), yet because the bite is not properly inhibited, it may hurt or even break skin. Usually dogs with this problem are singleton pups or from very small litters that had limited interaction between pups (health reasons, etc) and/or from litters that were not allowed interaction with the dam and other dogs during the 3-7 week period. This is when pups learn to control their mouths and understand that biting can hurt. Usually the owner continues this by reinforcing “ouch” when puppy play gets too rough and by channelling the pups play biting to a toy.

It is a rare dog of any breed that is simply a dangerous biting dog. Most of the problem biting dogs are training issues. Often they are temperament issues in that the dog is nervy and reactive, not clear headed, is afraid or is a strong, dominant dog. None of those are simple issues and often training problems have been out of control for a length of time that gives rehabilitation a poor prognosis. No breeder, owner or rescue should ever be chastised for making the decision to euthanize a dog they are not comfortable with. Especially rescue. There are too many good dogs to take a chance “saving” one that is a problem. And no Doberman of even possible questionable temperament should ever be bred- no matter how beautiful, how great the pedigree or how high scoring they might be in any working venue.

© 2003 Nancy E Christensen/Renejade

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