Is It Really Aggression?

With an increased number of dog attacks and horrifying bites reported in the news it has prompted me to take a closer look and aggressive behaviour in our dogs and why we might be seeing so much of it.

I fear in our efforts to control our dogs aggressive behaviours we may in fact be escalating the problem.

Just like people dogs can find certain situations uncomfortable, painful or frightening and they have a range of ways to inform us of this, but sometimes we just aren’t that good at listening. If a dog backs away from something that frightens it and we don’t manage the situation the dog is then forced to the next point of showing aggressive signals such as growling to show their feelings. Now this is the point we usually start paying attention and we know that growling is a sign of aggressive behaviour and we don’t want our dogs showing this type of behaviour so we correct it by discouraging it, telling them off for growling instead of understanding why they felt the need to growl in the first place. So as time goes on our dogs understand their early indicators such as backing away, lowered posture, low tail don’t work and are ignored. Then they learn they get in trouble for their early aggressive indicators such as growling and showing their teeth, these are usually the last indicators your dog will give before needing to resort to taking control of the situation themselves with attack. If we take away our dogs early indicators and punish them for telling us they’re uncomfortable or scared in a situation then we leave them with only one remaining option. To Bite!

So how do we prevent this? We need to stop taking away our dogs ability to express themselves. We need to start paying attention to the early signals our dogs give us and manage the situation. We need to stop expecting our dogs to forsake their natural behaviours and instincts to fit in with our lives, we shouldn’t expect them to just be happy with whatever situation we put them in.

Now it’s time to educate ourselves so we can respect our dogs fears and take control of these situations so our dogs don’t have to. To do this we need to take a look at canine body language, we need to understand the signs our dogs are giving us that they are unhappy long before they resort the growling and snarling.

Often when a dog is frightened or anxious we will typically see a low or tucked in tail, pinned back or flattened ears, a low set posture pulling back or turning away from the source of anxiety. If you notice your dog displaying any of these behaviours now is the time to act. Identify the source of the fear or anxiety and take control. In the immediate situation remove the trigger causing your dogs anxiety, following this you can work on building up a positive association with this trigger using cognitive behavioural therapy to teach your dog not to fear this situation. Depending on how fearful your dog is and how confident you are in training it is advisable to get an experienced behaviourist in to help with this.

I see these fear based behaviours in my work grooming. Some dogs are scared of the hair dryer or the clippers for example and it is part of my job to work with these dogs and their owners to teach them how to be happy and accept being groomed. Not every dog is going to love it because it just might not be in their nature too but it is important that they aren’t scared and can be groomed without fear. This can take time but it is important to put in the work for the safety of both groomer and dog.

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