To answer this question we need to first look at the different types of aggression and define them. In this article I will take each individual type and discuss how to manage it and re-train the behaviour of the dog.
It is important to remember that aggression is a normal occurrence for all species; it keeps them alive and safe in perceived dangerous situations. Every species has a specific way to avoid the aggression before it goes too far and becomes a “fight to the death.” There are many types of aggression with many different triggers, and it is important to recognise and differentiate between them. The different types of aggression are:
Dominance aggression – Dogs have evolved from wolves and exhibit the same social behaviour. This structure involves the leader being above all the other members if the pack. This status is maintained by dominant and submissive behaviour.
Fear Aggression – Sometimes referred to as defensive aggression. This is normally displayed when the dog feels threatened, punished, or even when someone or something approaches the dog in an unfriendly way.
Pain aggression – Something which you would normally see when your dog is in severe/acute pain.
Play aggression – Also known as “Playing Rough”. Normally shows itself while playing with the dog; they become over excited, jumping up, nipping and barking.
Possessive Aggression – The dog becomes aggressive over a particular item, i.e. food, toys, bones or their bed.
Territorial Aggression – Also known as “Protective aggression”. This type of aggression is directed towards a person or another animal which the dog does not consider as part of it’s own pack. It is also used to tell anyone or anything that they are crossing over the dog’s boundaries.
Food related aggression – This is quite common, it can stem from an early age, with the dog having to fight for the food whilst in the litter. It can also mean the dog has not had to share its’ food and also the dog could also have spent periods of time within it’s life without a regular food source.
Maternal Aggression – This is usually short term; only lasting a few weeks whilst the puppies are very young and unable to fend for themselves.
Lead Aggression – This basically means the dog will show aggression whilst on the lead towards people or other dogs, but is generally fine once it is let off the lead.
Idiopathic Aggression – This means that the aggression does not follow any of the above normal patterns.
With all these types of aggression things can become confusing, especially if you think that the dog suffers from more than one type of aggression at the same time, which is unusual but possible.
To manage any type of aggression successfully you need to know which one you are dealing with. Once identified you will know what action to take to deal with it, then re-train the behaviour of the dog. I will now discuss how to manage each of these defined aggression behaviours in turn:
Dominance Aggression – The way to manage this is to re-instate the most dominant family member back into the leadership role in relation to the dog. If the family member is not able to do this, then it must be the professional dog trainer to start with; this eliminates any risk of injury to the other family members as the training may involve major changes. In your initial assessment you need to identify the factors within the household that have given way to the dog taking hold of the leadership position, i.e.
- Being fed before the human family members.
- Being allowed to sit on the furniture.
- Being allowed to sleep upstairs on the owner’s bed.
- Being allowed to leave the room/house before them.
- Walking in front of the owner on the lead.
- Never being asked to sit/down/stand or other basic obedience commands.
The next step is to gradually eliminate and counter-condition the behaviour by using treat-based or lure-reward as a motivation to modify the dog’s behaviour.
Fear Aggression – This is best managed by using gradual exposure techniques; this involves de-sensitisation of the particular things the dog is fearful of. It is important to remember to replace the dogs fear response with another response; like anticipation of a food treat or play. Identify the fear that the dog has and take the appropriate steps to control them; Obedience training and positive re-enforcement. Use a muzzle or head harness if necessary to avoid any injury to the dog or the owner.
Pain Aggression – This depends on the individual situation, i.e. acute pain caused by an accident or chronic pain caused by a long term medical condition. In either of these situations establish where the pain is originating, avoid touching this area if possible and seek medical assistance to manage it.
Play Aggression – This can be managed by obedience training and exercise. The more exercise the dog receives the less energy it has to focus on undesirable behaviour. Long walks and games, including fetch, two to three times a day should be a part of your re-training program. It is also advisable to contact a local professional dog trainer, and book into a class where the dog will learn to play in a controlled environment, and gentle manner.
Possessive Aggression – This can be managed by a simple verbal correction, i.e. “Leave” if it is repeated consistently. You need to identify the situations that aggression might occur and avoid them until the dog understands why he/or she is being verbally corrected. It is advisable in many cases if the aggression is severe to contact a dog trainer/behaviourist to help you in the early stages.
Territorial Aggression – This can effectively be managed and controlled with firm commands and appropriate reward-based training. A bark-activated citronella spray collar is an effective tool, or a simple shaker bottle filled with stones also, used at the right time, can be very effective. This problem is best managed by de-sensitisation and by watching the behaviour of the dog, and counteracting it before the situation arises.
Food Aggression – This is one type of aggression you have to be very careful with during re-training. One way is to use a kong toy, or biscuit ball when feeding the dog; this will stop the dog from rushing it’s food, and being aggressive over it’s bowl. Feeding the dog by hand using dry food, gets the dog used to it handling it’s food. Another way is to put your dogs food in a bowl, and leaving your hand in there while the dog eats; do not move your hand until the dog is finished. A professional dog trainer should be the only person to do this, and even then they need to be sure the dog will accept them.
Maternal Aggression – This will only occur shortly after the bitch has given birth. It is best not to handle the pups in the early stages to minimise the chances of aggression. A well trained bitch, which has been bred before, will allow a trusted member of the family unit to handle the pups after the first few days. If it’s the dog’s first litter it would be wise to leave the pups alone for a little longer.
Lead Aggression – This can be managed in a few different ways, depending on the severity of the aggression. The first way is to use treats or a toy to attract the dogs attention when encountering a situation. Another option is to use a shaker bottle, or water bottle to gain the dog’s attention, enabling you to take control of the situation. Because this type of aggression is a lack of socialisation at a young age, another way to manage it is to gently, in a controlled manner, walk towards the dog or person, and allow the dog to interact. This should only be done if the dog is in the early stages of lead aggression, and not if the dog is showing signs of full blown aggression, i.e teeth bared and hackles up.
Idiopathic Aggression – Fortunately, few dogs are diagnosed with this type of aggression. Incidences that do happen are sudden and seemingly unprovoked. They are vicious and sometimes fatal. Research described by Dr Bonnie Beaver in 1980*, suggests that dogs affected exhibit more of a wild animal behaviour, rather than a domestic dog behaviour. There is no known way to manage this type of aggression; other than have the dog on the lead at all times and it should be muzzled to avoid injury to the general public.
In conclusion, to answer the question “Can we change/re-train the behaviour of an aggressive dog?” in most cases the answer is yes; by pinpointing what triggers it, and what type of aggression it is. Aggression managed correctly and controlled in the proper manner can allow the family pet to live out a normal life within the family structure. I hope this has given you more of an understanding of aggression. If your dog is exhibiting any signs of aggression then contact a professional o help you do not try to solve it on your own.