Aggressive Behavior: In Honor of AVMA’s Dog Bite Prevention Week

(Originally publish May 17, 2014) – This column is a special interview in honor of AVMA’s Dog Bite Prevention Week from Decoding Your Dog, a new book by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists on dog behavior. The column is an interview with Ilana Reisner, DVM, PhD, DACVB, one of the authors of the Aggression Unleashed: Do Dogs Mean to Be Mean?“ chapter.

Can you tell us how you decided to become veterinary behaviorists?

I’ve always been interested in our relationships with dogs and cats. I realized in my first job as a general practitioner in Boston that behavior problems were almost universal, but that more time was needed to thoroughly address these problems and their solutions. After four years in general practice I decided to pursue the specialty, with a particular interest in canine aggression.

Why do dogs behave aggressively in the first place?

Most aggressive behavior can be attributed to either self-defense (such as fear-related aggression) or defense of resources. The purpose of aggression is to make the “target” go away – when initial signs of fear, tension or threat are not acknowledged, aggression may follows. They are protecting themselves or something important to them.

What are some of the incorrect assumptions about aggressive behavior?

Unfortunately, there are many incorrect assumptions about aggressive behavior. Probably the most common misunderstanding is that dogs are aggressive to people because they (dogs) are trying to dominate them. It’s also often assumed that dogs bite because of spite, anger, tough love and other uniquely human motivations.

What is aggressive signaling?

Dogs do not “want” to be injured themselves and will avoid fighting with another dog (or with a human) as much as possible. They might do this by leaving (escape), but when there is no option to escape – for example when they’re cornered or on leash – dogs display “sub-threshold” signals that indicate they are tense or would like the other to leave them alone. Such signaling might include stiffening, staring or slowly looking away, lifting a front leg, tongue-flicking, lowering their bodies or rolling onto their backs. Growling, lunging, snapping or biting may follow if the more subtle signals are not effective (or they’re directed to humans who may not speak that language).

What is the most important reason force-free training important?

I wouldn’t say there is a single reason, but instead I consider two: first, because dominance-based or harsh methods can lead to worsened defensive aggression – dogs will often bite people who scare or hurt them. Second, and equally important, force-free training is more humane and kind. We have an ethical responsibility to treat animals without cruelty.

What’s the difference between normal aggression and abnormal aggression?

“Normal” aggression should be understandable once the motivation and behavioral circumstances are identified. Abnormal aggression might be aggression that occurs spontaneously (without provocation), or is disproportionately severe, involving extreme arousal. Normal aggression is often inhibited, but would not be inhibited, necessarily, in the case of disease. This can be a nebulous distinction, though.

Almost all bites are provoked; the problem is that the trigger may not be obvious (for example, simply reaching to pet a nervous dog can trigger a bite). Many bites are also based in anxiety, which might be categorized as abnormal behavior.

Why should a pet parent start with a veterinary visit?

Behavior problems may be manifestations of disease. Any change in behavior should be addressed first with a primary care veterinary visit to rule out pain or other causes of irritability. The primary care veterinarian may also offer recommendations for managing the problem, or may refer to a veterinary behaviorist.

What are some situations a pet parent should avoid at all times with a particularly aggressive dog?

Most important, the pet parent should carefully avoid any situations which led to aggression in the past. It’s also advisable to avoid any situation in which the pet parent cannot control both the dog and the environment – the latter would include pet supply stores, dog parks, and public farmers ’ markets and so on.

Of course, the dog should never be left unattended with young children. Finally, electric, underground fencing is not recommended for dogs with a history of aggression because they are not reliable barriers, and because children can wander onto the property.

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The information provided in the Goodnewsforpets ACVB Helping People Help Their Pets columns is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to replace the services of a veterinary behaviorist. The information should also not be construed as a recommendation by the ACVB or for any course of action regarding veterinary medical or behavioral advice. The editors, authors and publisher disclaim any responsibility for adverse effects resulting directly or indirectly from information in this column.



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