It’s the last day of our series on myths about canine aggression. Let’s examine our final myths together!
DOG AGGRESSION MYTH #19: AGGRESSION IS “UNPREDICTABLE”
People often assume or say that dogs “bite without warning.” There are two factors which influence the predictability of dog aggression – the ability to read escalation of stress signals via canine body language and the precision with which triggers can be identified.
In my experience, the dogs that truly don’t give any warning are few and far between. Slightly more common are dogs for whom triggers have not yet been isolated – the dog may seem unpredictable because it’s hard to tell what it is that “sets him off.” Triggers may be experienced through any sense – touch, taste, sight, hearing, and smell.
The bite is often the last step in the aggression sequence – too frequently, precursor or indicator behaviors are missed. I would argue that the ability to read canine body language is the single most important skill for individuals living with aggressive or reactive dogs. Your dog will tell you when he is overwhelmed and overstressed, but you must be able to read his language. When you are able to do so, you will be much better prepared to put the environment to work for you through manipulating exposure levels to keep your dog under threshold. If you are skilled in reading canine body language, you are halfway to achieving your goal of making sure your dog never feels the need to use his teeth in self-defense again.
There are a lot of great resources available to those wanting to learn more about canine body language. Here are a few of my favorites:
Doggone Safe: Signs of Anxiety
Doggone Safe: Signs of Arousal
Doggone Safe: Signs of Aggression
Doggone Safe: Signs of Imminent Bite
Body Language in Dogs by Stacy Braslau-Schneck
Dog Body Language from Diamonds in the Ruff
Sue Sternberg’s Dog Ethogram
On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals (Turid Rugaas)
Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide (Brenda Aloff)
Dog Language: An Encyclopedia of Dog Behavior (Roger Abrantes)
Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook (Barbara Handelman)
The Language of Dogs (Sarah Kalnajs)
Am I Safe? (Sarah Kalnajs)
What is my dog saying? (CD – Carol Byrnes, Diamonds in the Ruff)
While this list is certainly not exhaustive, it should be enough to give anyone great foundation skills in reading canine body language. There’s a reason that professionals who work extensively with even severe aggression and reactivity cases never get bit – it’s because they are good at reading canine body language and responding appropriately!
As mentioned, the second component which contributes to the predictability of dog aggression is the handler’s ability to detect and classify those situations, events, or individuals which elicit the aggressive or reactive response (the “triggers”). When identifying triggers, owners are encouraged to be as specific as possible. Many owners are shocked when they first meet with a behavior consultant at the number of questions they’re asked – if your dog is reactive to dogs, what kind of dogs? Males? Females? Intact, neutered, spayed? Bigger dogs? Smaller dogs? Fluffy ones? Black dogs? Yappy dogs? On leash? Off? How far away from another dog does she have to be for the response to be elicited? What have you done about the behavior in the past? What is her socialization history? Does she ever play with other dogs? What type of dogs does she play with? What is her play style like? How many fights has she been in? What were the extent of injuries for each fight? These are just a few of the many questions an owner may be asked. The same type of questioning would be used in evaluating a dog who is reactive or aggressive to humans.
As mentioned, triggers may be perceived through any of the senses and certain senses are far more acute in our canine companions than they are for us (especially scent!). I believe there’s virtually always a trigger for aggression, but often it can be difficult to isolate exactly what that trigger may be. Nonetheless, most triggers can be identified and your behavior consultant’s line of questioning is intended to bring them to light.
Another big aggression myth is that “good dogs don’t bite.” The fact is that all dogs have triggers and all dogs bite. Some dogs have a very high bite threshold – you can “push” these dogs boundaries relatively far and they will hold their tongue – erm, teeth. Other dogs have a very low bite threshold – it takes relatively little to push them over the edge. In the latter group of dogs, even limited (brief, at a distance, etc.) exposure to a single trigger can provoke a reaction. But even our relatively “bomb proof” dogs can be pushed over the edge by a phenomena called “trigger stacking” (explained in How Are Dog Bites Like Tetris?).
Understanding your dog’s triggers and being able to read her body language will remove the unpredictability of her reactions. I think the belief that “aggression is unpredictable” often creates a barrier which prevents keeping pet owners from getting the professional behavioral assistance they seek. In exceptionally rare cases, aggression may actually be unpredictable – in these cases, there are frequently medical issues contributing to the aggression. If you seek assistance from a behavior consultant or trainer and you are unable to accurately identify the trigger set, she may refer you to a board certified behaviorist for further assistance.
Wow, that was a lot of chatting about aggression! There may be spontaneous additional myths in the future, but until then, if you need more aggression resources, you may enjoy these…
Click to Calm (Emma Parsons)
Stress in Dogs (Martina Scholz and Clarissa von Reinhardt)
Fight! A Practical Guide to Dog-Dog Aggression (Jean Donaldson)
Aggression in Dogs: Practical Management, Prevention, and Behavior Modification (Brenda Aloff)
Help for Your Fearful Dog (Nicole Wilde)
How to Right a Dog Gone Wrong: A Roadmap for Rehabilitating Aggressive Dogs (Pamela Dennison)
Civilizing the City Dog: A Guide to Rehabilitating Aggressive Dogs in an Urban Environment (Pamela Dennison)
Scaredy Dog! (Ali Brown)
Organic Socialization DVD: BAT for Aggression and Fear in Dogs (Grisha Stewart)
Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) for Fear and Aggression (Grisha Stewart)
Treating Dog-Dog Reactivity (Patricia McConnell)
Cujo Meets Pavlov! Classical Conditioning for On-Leash Aggression Seminar (Kathy Sdao)
Canine Fear, Aggression, and Play (Jean Donaldson)
And don’t forget to check out Debbie Jacob’s wonderful website, www.fearfuldogs.com!
While these resources are fantastic, nothing buts the assistance of a qualified behavior professional to guide you through the process and give you support as you work through your dog’s rehabilitation.