Preventing dog attacks and aggression:
Many people believe that it is the owner’s fault and not the dog’s if or when it attacks or behaves aggressively. This is because, while some breeds are more dangerous than others, many behavioural problems stem from the fact that the dog has not been properly trained and has not been set any boundaries. For example fighting dogs such as the pit bull terrier (which are illegal to own in the UK) may appeal to young men who use them as accessories to make them appear tough and powerful. However, they also train or breed them to develop fighting or aggressive tendencies by encouraging barking or biting and by isolating them so that the dogs become aggressive around strangers and other dogs in order for the man to look tough himself.
Dogs are usually very good family pets because they are used to living in packs so they treat their family as a pack. However, as well as being good for belonging to a family it can also produce problems if the dog is allowed too much importance in the family. Sadly around 30% of dogs in rescue centres are there through incidence of aggression which in many cases could have been avoided.
Reasons for aggressive behaviour:
- Medical reasons: There are many health problems in dogs that can show themselves through aggression and this should always be checked out if your dog begins to behave aggressively. (Especially if the aggression developed suddenly without obvious reasons)
- Fear: This is one of the primary causes of aggression. Encountering unfamiliar places, people, dogs or objects can be stressful especially if the dog feels that it can’t escape: if it’s on a lead. Therefore it may revert to aggressive behaviour to escape the situation and, if this works, it will behave the same way each time it encounters a similar situation.
- Territory: Dogs have an instinct to defend what is theirs and this can be towards humans, places or object. Normally if they feel that a trespasser is a threat then their primary objective is to chase them away and this can be through aggression. Again if the dog finds that this works then it will continue to behave in this manner.
- Dominance: In 90% of cases this occurs in males. Dogs are pack animals that live in a hierarchical order. The highest member is in control and it may assert this through aggression. If your dog acts aggressively and gets what it wants it may think it is in control. If you punish it then the aggression will be worse as it feels threatened and feels that it must be more aggressive to get what it wants. If the hierarchy is unstable they may become aggressive. Also if they feel that a member of the family is weaker than them, such as a younger child, they may act aggressively towards this member in an attempt to take their rank in the hierarchy.
- Protective aggression: This often occurs in the absence of the dog’s owner or when the dog is in a strange place. It feels vulnerable and protects what it has, such as a toy or food. (It can be stimulated by sudden movements which attract the dog’s attention and also mimic the movements or indicate the presence of prey.)
Reducing the risk:
1. Be a responsible owner:
This is essential. Owning a dog is not something that should be undertaken lightly but requires time, consideration and preparation. Firstly you should make yourself familiar with laws concerning dogs, such as which breeds are illegal to own, the control you will need to exercise over your dog and penalties or fines for certain behaviour such as not clearing up after your dog. It is your responsibility to provide your dog with the required vaccinations at the appropriate time and keep them up to date, both for the health and protection of your dog and also for other people or dogs who may suffer injuries caused by your dog; at least they will not pass on any diseases such as rabies. You should also ensure that your dog is provided with regular veterinary care to make sure it is healthy and fit.
Dogs must wear identification tags on their collars with name, address (including postcode) and where possible a telephone number. As a responsible owner you should not allow your dog to roam alone. Firstly it might get lost, or it could be found and if its tag is missing it could be treated as a stray. Secondly it might injure itself and you would not be able to help it. Also it might find other dogs and mate with them producing unwanted puppies. More importantly, however, lost or injured dogs can be frightened and feel threatened so behave unpredictably or aggressively. Loose dogs can intimidate other dogs or people and can be a serious threat.
You are also responsible for making the dog a part of your family. If you isolate your dog or leave it chained up for long periods of time then the dog will not only feel neglected but it may become dangerous simply because it is not used to dealing with people and will feel threatened.
2. Train and socialise your dog properly:
This helps to produce a happy, safe relationship for you, the dog and the public in general and it helps to avoid any nasty circumstances that could potentially find you in court and your dog being euthanized. The whole family should be involved in training your dog so that you all know how to control it and to make sure you are all giving the same commands. This ensures that the dog’s training is consistent and stops it getting confused. Set clear boundaries for your dog by rewarding good behaviour and acting on, (not ignoring), bad behaviour. Dogs are pack animals with a social hierarchy where the highest ranked member demands attention from the lower ranks. If you give your dog attention on demand, like stroking your dog when it nudges you, it will think that it is the pack leader and will therefore become confused if you then make demands in the form of commands such as “sit”. Dogs can become aggressive if they think that the hierarchy is unstable. If a dog thinks its rank is being challenged then it will become aggressive; this can happen if a new baby or puppy is brought into the family and receives more attention than the dog.
Socialising your dog is just as important as training it. This involves introducing your dog to many different types of people, dogs and situations. By doing this from an early age dogs will be less nervous when they are in an unfamiliar situation and as I mentioned above, fear and anxiety are one of the main causes for aggression. Taking a dog to training classes is a good way to socialise your dog as well as training it as it meets other dogs and their owners. Another reason why socialising is good, is because dogs can learn appropriate behaviour by watching other dogs, such as how to greet other people or dogs.
3. Spay or neuter your dog:
This involved removing a dog’s reproductive organs. Although this may sound an extreme measure it is effective, because it reduces your dog’s desire to roam and fight other dogs and it also makes confining it easier.
4. Stay on the safe side:
If you are unsure how your dog will react in certain situations, like crowds, then leave them at home. If they don’t like strangers then put them in another room when people are visiting. Introduce a dog slowly to new situations and if possible, from an early age. Make sure they know whether their behaviour is appropriate. Then gradually begin to introduce more people (if that is the problem). This allows the dog to become accustomed to the circumstances and makes them less nervous.
Combating aggressive behaviour:
Dogs learn through reinforcement and observation. Therefore if you encourage rough play the dog may think that this is acceptable behaviour and, while people can differentiate play from real life, dogs can’t and may behave similarly in other situations. For example when you meet another dog on a walk, your dog might injure them by playful biting because it thinks that rough play is acceptable behaviour. Also, dogs learn how to act by watching other dogs in similar situations like how to greet each other, and this can be achieved through properly socialising your dog from an early age.
However, if you punish bad behaviour such as barking or growling you may actually make the situation worse. By telling the dog that barking is not appropriate by punishing it, it will learn not to bark and you may feel that you have resolved the situation. This is not the case: you have eliminated the warning signs. Therefore your dog may go straight to more aggressive behaviour such as biting, without any warning making the situation much more dangerous and difficult to control. You must try to work out why the dog is barking (or otherwise behaving badly); is it due to people trespassing on “its” territory, fear, or other causes.
Many owners don’t like to admit (either to themselves or to other people) that their dog has aggressive tendencies so they prefer to ignore it. However this usually makes the situation worse as the dog thinks that this behaviour is appropriate and continues acting aggressively. If your dog ever exhibits dangerous behaviour you should seek help before the situation escalates and causes any accidents or injuries. You can normally get help from a qualified dog trainer, or ask your vet for recommendations.
Dealing with some aggressive behaviour:
Attention on demand: This is effectively attention seeking and if the dog is successful then it will think that it is the leader of the pack. If you challenge his status by then giving commands it will get confused and also become aggressive in order to defend its position. Therefore make sure that you are the one in control and hence at the top of the hierarchy. To do this you should effectively employ a “naughty step” similar to teaching children how to behave. If the dog demands attention, either by barking, nudging you or other behaviour, then you should isolate it for a short period of time: a small room such as a down stairs toilet is good, other wise trap the lead in the door so that the dog cannot move very far. If the behaviour continues while it is isolated then tell it no and ignore it. Don’t ignore bad behaviour, and don’t give rewards when you let the dog out as this is also praising the earlier bad behaviour and the dog will think that it will be rewarded if it repeats the process. As “top dog” you should control everything including the good things. This means that you are effectively being the one getting attention on demand. You can control good things such as treats, play time or toys by making the dog earn them through commands.
Fear aggression: Dogs may be frightened of other dogs, people or even objects through lack of socialising or due to a negative experience in the past. If you comfort your dog when it is frightened then you are reinforcing the idea that it is an appropriate reaction (although in some situations this may be an appropriate reaction to a genuinely frightening situation). As we have established frightened dogs may behave aggressively in an attempt to chase away whatever it is they are frightened of or to try and escape the situation. If your dog is scared of other people or dogs you can diffuse the situation by behaving calmly and providing the dog with visual signals that this situation is fine. If you behave relaxed and unconcerned then the dog will be reassured and follow your example. Therefore yawning, licking your lips, or looking away from the thing that the dog is scared of demonstrates to your dog that its fear is irrational. In the long term if you introduce your dog slowly and safely to the thing it is afraid of in happy situations such as on a walk or playing a game then the dog will become accustomed to the situation and should lose its fear. Keeping your dog on a lead while meeting other dogs can make your dog feel trapped and vulnerable so that it tries to escape, therefore it is more likely to be aggressive; it is better to allow the dog off the lead but keep it close to you using commands.
As I mentioned above, most aggression in dogs is due to a lack of training and proper socialising. Every dog has the potential to be aggressive, it is not just down to breed (although some breeds have a greater tendency towards aggression because they were originally bred for aggressive purposes such as fighting). On the other hand though, every dog has the potential to be a safe, happy companion for you and your family. Therefore if you are planning to get a dog make sure you put aside the time to train and socialise your dog and to give it the attention it deserves. If your dog does show signs of aggression you should seek help as soon as possible before the situation gets out of hand. Either find a dog trainer who should be able to help or ask your vet for recommendations or advice.