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Behind the Bite: Dog Aggression Basics – By Debbie Kendrick, ABCDT and VP of ABC

Wednesday, December 03, 2008 : 4:54:29 PM
As an ABC Certified Dog Trainer, you will undoubtedly encounter aggressive dogs at some time in your career. Learning why the dog is reacting aggressively will go a long way in helping you treat the behavior. In this article I will talk about three basic types of aggression in dogs -- dominance-based aggression, territorial-based aggression, and fear-based aggression. In my opinion, they are the three most common types of aggression you will see as a professional dog trainer. It is important to understand that most aggressive dogs have multiple motivations for their aggressive behavior; however, it is critical that you identify the primary one.

Dominance-Based Aggression
This type of aggression is usually directed at immediate family members or any other person that the dog has a relationship with. A dominant dog is typically very competitive and sees himself or herself as the leader of the pack and views the family members as part of his/her pack. A dominant dog will often be outgoing and friendly until a pack member does something he doesn’t like. For example, unwanted petting, attempting to take away a toy, disturbing him while he sleeps, lifting him or moving him, removing the food bowl, grooming, or attempting to correct him for anything may instigate an aggressive reaction from a dominant dog.

A dog’s basic will to overpower or dominate is inherited and varies from dog to dog; however, dogs of breeds that were bred to protect (i.e. German Shepherds, Rottweilers, and Dobermans) are predisposed to this behavior trait genetically. It is important to understand that a dominant dog will likely interpret the gestures of over-accommodating owners as subordination which will only reinforce the dog’s status within the pack. Most owners are unaware that their acts of kindness (letting the dog sleep in bed with them, stepping over the dog so they don’t disturb him, etc.) are creating a dangerous situation. I believe that dominant aggressive dogs owned by individuals lacking this knowledge account for the largest overall percentage of dog bites in the US.

Below is a list of signs that might indicate a dominant aggressive dog.
• Food and/or object guarding
• Direct eye contact or staring
• Dominant body posturing
• Mounts people and/or other dogs
• Bites or attempts to bite when being petted, groomed, moved or lifted

Basic Outline of Treatment
1. Implement all of the re-ranking exercises immediately as outlined in the ABC
curriculum. These exercises will likely become part of the dog’s life permanently.
2. Increase the dog’s activity level to the equivalent of 30 minutes of daily aerobic exercise.
3. Begin obedience training using only positive reinforcement based techniques because punishment can cause the aggression to escalate.

Territorial-Based Aggression
This type of aggression is directed at strangers when the dog feels his territory is invaded or threatened. This behavior is often inadvertently reinforced through normal daily activities. One example of this would be the mailman. The dog hears the mailman coming up the walkway and begins barking non-stop. The mailman continues up the walkway, drops the mail in the mailbox on the front porch and immediately leaves. The dog finally stops barking once the mailman leaves. The dog’s perception is that his barking caused the mailman to leave which inadvertently rewards the dog daily and reinforces the behavior. Other situations that could reinforce this aggressive behavior are the pizza delivery person and people walking along the property fence line.

Basic Outline of Treatment
1. Implement all the re-ranking exercises immediately as outlined in the ABC
curriculum.
2. Increase the dog’s activity level to the equivalent of 30 minutes of daily aerobic exercise.
3. Begin obedience training using only positive reinforcement based techniques because punishment can cause the aggression to escalate.
4. Desensitization exercises directed at meeting strangers on the dog’s property (work with the pool man, the gardener, etc.).
5. Limit the dog’s urination to one spot in the yard.
6. Do not allow the dog to urinate during walks in the neighborhood as this only expands his territory.
7. Remove the stimulus. For example, consider putting up a solid fence or getting a P.O. box.

Fear-Based Aggression
This type of aggression is primarily directed at strangers and, unlike territorial aggression, it is not limited to the dog’s territory. Simply put, this dog is fearful of new people regardless of where he meets them because he is afraid he will be harmed by them. A fearful dog can become aggressive (i.e., bite) if he feels he cannot escape the interaction (i.e., if the dog is on a leash or in a crate). For this reason, many fearful dogs will try to avoid interaction with strangers.

Basic Outline of Treatment
1. Implement all the re-ranking exercises immediately as outlined in the ABC curriculum. These exercises will give a fearful dog a sense of security as the household rules will be clear and consistent. This will actually make the dog more confident and less fearful.
2. Begin obedience training using only positive reinforcement-based techniques because
punishment will only make a fearful dog more afraid.
3. Begin desensitization exercises directed at meeting strangers on and off the dog’s property.
Make sure to go at the dog’s pace. Do not push the dog.

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