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The Question of Aggression...

Over the last few weeks I have received a lot of questions about canine aggression, specifically when related to mongrels.

There seems to be misconceptions and confusion on many areas relating to canine reactivity and aggression: how to identify it, how it can be avoided and how to tackle it. And although I have previously written an article on this subject (which can be found here), I wanted to address some of the specific questions I have received.

1. Is dog aggression a learnt behaviour or are some dogs by nature aggressive?

It is not in a dog’s nature to be needlessly aggressive; that is a trait reserved for humans. Dogs have a drive to survive and attacking a human without cause is not a good method of staying unharmed. As such dogs never become aggressive ‘out of the blue’. When dogs have behavioural issues, including aggression, it is primarily due to one or a combination of three reasons: genetics, learned behaviour, or poor socialization. There are studies showing the influence of prenatal hormonal influences with regards to a dog’s behaviour. For example, a stressed mother in a puppy farm or an abusive home can produce puppies that will grow into stressed and anxious dogs. Although this effect could be attributed to genetics, it can also be seen as an environmental factor which would make it a socialisation and learned behavioural factor.

Genetics Sadly, humans have bred some dogs for aggression, most notably the Pitbull, which were bred for dogfights. Pitbulls were deliberately selected for breeding, based on their willingness to fight with their own kind. Over a number of generations, the quality that they call “gameness” was deeply instilled in the gene pool. However, this “gameness” does not mean that Pitbull’s are all aggressive. They can be raised and rehabilitated to live calmly and peacefully with other dogs.

Other breeds were bred for the exact opposite quality. The Beagle, Bloodhound, and Foxhound were bred to be exceptionally amenable to pack life. Other breeds fall on a continuum, from the relatively gregarious sporting breeds like Labrador and Golden Retrievers who are generally good with other dogs, to the guard-type dogs like Rottweilers and Chows, who have a greater tendency to be protective.

With mongrels, such as Singapore Specials, we have to play a guessing game as we have no definitive way of knowing exactly what breeds are mixed in there. However, due to the legality of scheduled dogs in Singapore, this does mean that the “gameness” which comes from breeding dogs to be aggressive, has a low chance of existing within Singapore Specials. And if it did, it would be at a low level which can be learned out of the dog.

Learned behaviour This looks at the argument of nature vs nurture, and is a very influential aspect when driving any behaviour. To some extent, the natural tendencies of a dog’s breed can be influenced by learning. Beagles can be made to be dog aggressive if the circumstances mould them to be so. A Pitbull can be raised peacefully with other dogs, providing care is taken to avoid exposing the individuals to incidents that might turn on their fighting “lightbulb.”

This is why it is critical to raise and train your dog in an environment that doesn’t show conflict and aggression. For example, shouting, striking or tying a dog up in a location where other dogs can agitate the confined one is a classic recipe for dog aggression. This is one of the most common root causes for dog aggression within a family pet environment. Aggression is learnt through the training performed (or indeed not performed) by the owner or trainer using punitive training methods.

Poor socialization By far the most common cause of dog aggression is lack of proper socialization. This is generally due to stressful early life experiences such as puppy mills or being kept in a pound. The fear and anxiety that these experiences create can be long lasting and must be rehabilitated to ensure the dog has a happier, healthier life. This is why early socialization as puppies with other puppies and well-adjusted dogs in a controlled environment is so important.

2. At what age should training start and why?

As with virtually all dog behaviour problems, prevention is a far better approach than rehabilitation. If you have the luxury training should start within your puppy’s critical learning window, (8 weeks to 11 weeks old). (The more your pup’s breed characteristics, learned behaviour from past experiences and individual personality predispose him to reactivity or aggression, the more critical it is that he be socialized during the critical learning period.)

In an ideal world dogs would have all of the care they need to grow into well-adjusted and happy dogs. However, as it stands, this only happens with quality breeders. In this world, desensitisation to noises which may cause anxiety and handling would start slowly within the month of the puppy’s life. Between weeks 4 to 14 the puppy would be introduced to social learning, handling and desensitisation to different people, animals and situations.

An 8-week-old puppy is capable of starting a fun structured training program. However, it is important to note that this 8 – 11-week window is the first of what is known as your puppies ‘fear impact’ period. This means that anything which creates a fear response can create a lasting effect. This is what makes socialisation during this period so paramount. A lack of socialisation can result in fear of other dogs or people. This fear may lead to or exacerbate reactivity in the form of aggression. As such, puppy training should be structured with an appropriate curve and in conjunction with behavioural and social aspects, as well as obedience training.

3. Should all dogs undergo training, including those under project adore? Why?

Yes, all dogs, and more importantly, all dog owners should undergo training.

Different owners want different experiences with their pets. Some want to have a dog who knows tricks and is always waiting for a chance to please the owner. Others, want a house and lap dog who wants to cuddle and walk, and not much else. And although the level of training they wish to bring their dog up to is the owner’s choice, all dogs and their owners should obtain a base level of safety and obedience training.

Training for owner and dog should include, but not be limited to:

1. Breed understanding (if applicable)

2. Grooming essentials (to ensure the safety of owner and dog)

3. Feeding essentials (to avoid food aggression and improve nutritional knowledge)

4. Fitness knowledge (to ensure that the owner understands the requirement of exercise for their dog)

5. Canine Environmental Requirements (to increase knowledge of what a dog needs to live comfortably and without anxiety. This would reduce unintentional abuse such as chaining and poor quality homing)

6. Canine Health (vaccinations, parasite prevention, teething, injury & basic dog 1st aid)

7. Socialisation & Interaction Skills (to reduce potential for reactivity which may lead to aggression)

8. Basic obedience training:

  • Focus This is the first fundamental requirement for your dog to learn. If they do not focus on you on cue, attempting a response on other commands/cues will be near impossible.

  • Stop-Sit-Stay-Down-Release These commands are particularly necessary; through these you are able to prevent bothersome or dangerous situations.

  • Leash Training The ability to walk safely on leash can keep both owner and dog safe. Should your dog see a distraction, the last thing desired is having your dog pull heavily on leash, potentially pulling the owner to the ground. Being trained to walk loose on a leash also reduces the potential for leash aggression and is a lot less stressful for both owner and dog.

  • Recall This command/cue can help keep a dog out of trouble, bringing him back to you if you lose grip on the leash, if you're at the dog park and need to re-leash, or if you accidentally leave the front door open. All dogs need a good run around, off-leash at least a few times a week to help them get fit and get rid of some of that excess energy that can lead to mischief. However, it's an owner's legal responsibility to ensure that their dog is safe, in a designated off-leash zone and under control at all times. Being able to get your dog to come back to you when you call is very important.

  • Leave it’ & avoidance training Curiosity gets the better of dogs every now and then. For example a dog smells something intriguing but possibly dangerous on the ground and/or tries to eat it. You will be able to prevent your dog from getting too close and if they grab it, easily take away from your dog. The goal is to teach your pup that he gets something even better for ignoring the other item. Getting this right also doubles as being able to teach your dog to stay away from potentially dangerous situations and objects, and prevents possessive behaviour over food, toys and even people.

Although the above may seem like a lot for basic training for an owner and a dog, it can and has saved the life of many a dog. One of the most heart-breaking situations I was aware of was a man whose dog had a high prey drive, poor recall and low focus towards the owner. This dog was off-leash and saw a Cobra. This triggered the dogs prey drive, resulting in the dog dashing for the snake. The end result was that the dog died due to the highly venomous bite. Had this owner and dog received the basic training, the dog would have known to avoid the snake, would have recalled, left the prey drive to go for the snake on command and would have been fully under control walking close by the owner on a loose leash. Most importantly, it would have saved the dog’s life.

The same application of the training detailed above would prevent many traffic incidents, dogs from escaping, dog on dog aggression and many other situations.

4. At what age should puppies be put up for adoption?

In general, between 8 – 10-weeks. However, with regards to dogs who have been rescued as puppies, such as Singapore Specials, it should be looked at on a case by case basis. A dog who has not had the opportunity to learn the social cues from its mother and siblings would be best situated in a new home with other dogs or kept with a fosterer along with other puppies to learn this behaviour prior to being homed. Dogs who have not learned these social rules and cues can become a danger around other dogs as they may develop anxiety and/ or become socially awkward. For example, becoming overly friendly or excitable, leading to other dogs reacting at no fault of their own.

5. How does a trainer assess whether a dog is aggressive or not?

Different trainers and behaviourists use different methods to assess reactivity (aggression). The assessment I use is BARC (Behavioural Assessment & Reactivity Check).

The methodology of assessing a dogs reactivity/ aggression level is controversial. The reason for this controversy is that historically, assessments result in a “pass or fail”. However, assessing a dog’s behaviour should not be gauged on a pass or fail; rather we should strive to define the dog’s behaviour.

Although the BARC assessment is designed to be as detailed as possible, it is important to understand that a dog is a living, breathing, ever-changing animal that may react one way during an assessment and differently once placed in a different environment. The assessment is designed to give us a snapshot of a dog’s personality, and as responsible people, we must use this information in the best interest of the dog being assessed.

It is my belief that few dogs, if any, should ever be euthanised due to behavioural or aggression issues. The vast majority of dogs who display reactivity/aggression can be rehabilitated through behaviour modification conducted by a qualified trainer or behaviourist.

Working with a dog that exhibits reactivity/aggression cannot be compared to performing an assessment on an unknown dog. Dogs may behave erratically or out of control during a behavioural assessment. There is an inherent risk of being bitten during an assessment, so extreme caution must be used.

It is paramount that the assessor is aware that there are several things that can sway a dog negatively in a behavioural assessment, as such the following points must be noted during any assessment:

  • A dog should not be assessed immediately upon entering a shelter or new home. The dog is in a highly stressed state and may react out of confusion. An assessment conducted on a dog within 12-24 hours of entering the shelter or new home should not be deemed as valid.

  • Dogs that are sick or have had surgery requiring anaesthesia should not be assessed until they are well or at least 48 hours after surgery. If recovery is required, the dog must be fully recovered before assessing.

  • If dogs have any medical issues, such as hip dysplasia, joint issues or pain related reactivity, this should be taken into account and disclosed on the assessment.

  • Assessments should not be performed immediately before or after feeding time and dogs should not be removed from feeding for an assessment. Furthermore, a dog should not be assessed in the proximity of other dogs that are eating.

  • Dogs should not be assessed in the immediate vicinity of kennel or house mates.

  • The environment that the assessment should be performed must have as little potential distractions and triggers as possible. The most appropriate location for an assessment should be away from the dogs kennel or home, preferably a field or yard.

  • The dogs experience immediately prior to the assessment can have a profound effect on the assessment. As such, the dog should not be stressed in any way on the way to the location. It is also advised to allow the dog time to settle at the location prior to the assessment.

There are 10 assessment stages which are performed during this assessment. Each of these assessment stages shall be performed to evaluate the reaction and calming signals displayed by the dog being assessed.

  1. Initial Approach: Approach the dog – wait – observe. Turn sideways and crouch. Talk to the dog in a calm voice. Observe dog’s behaviours.

  2. Closed Environment Assessment: This section can be done at the beginning or end of the interaction. I generally use the kennel for this or a corner of the field. The aim is to evaluate how the dog responds to small areas or confinement. Do not perform this assessment with dogs that have already displayed territorial issues.

  3. Possession Assessment: Use a toy with a rope attached to one end. Once the dog is engaged, attempt to remove the toy with the use of the rope. Offer the dog a treat in exchange for the toy.

  4. Touch / Handling Assessment: Gently touch head, body, backside and underbelly of the dog. Apply slight pressure to shoulders, back & hips. Stroke tail and hold for a brief moment. Rub ears & cover one eye. Approach dog from the rear.

  5. Food Reactivity Assessment: Offer the dog a treat (3-6” jerky strip), allow dog to take it. Offer another treat, as he begins to bite, gently remove/pull back treat. Drop a treat on ground, when dog sees it cover it with your foot. When dog is eating a treat, begin some mild general handling.

  6. Redirection Assessment: Walk the dog near other people and distractions. Let him sniff or become interested in something for a few moments and then guide along with the leash and a verbal cue. NB: This is not a correction for doing anything wrong. We are only looking for a reaction to the pressure on the leash.

  7. Startle Response: When the dog is focused on someone or something, a loud clap or other loud noise should be performed to assess the dog’s response.

  8. Dog to Dog Introduction: Walk dog being tested by a neutral dog a few times (giving praise/reward for good behaviour) then allow him to go and greet the other dog. Keep leash loose. Allow sniffing for 3-4 seconds, then separate and re-introduce.

  9. Dog to Dog Food Issues: Introduce another dog into the immediate (but not reachable) vicinity of test dog. Offer the other dog a treat while ignoring the test dog. Bring dogs closer together and drop treats for one dog and some for the other dog.

  10. Overall Behaviour: General overall observations. This is a general picture of your experience with the dog during your entire interaction with him/her.

6. What are the different categories of canine aggression?

Aggressive behaviour in dogs refers to any behaviour connected with an attack or an impending attack. This includes becoming still and rigid, growling, snarling, baring teeth, lunging, and nipping or biting. (With this in mind, you must be able to differentiate between rough play and genuine aggression.)

  • Territorial Aggression: The dog feels they are defending its space or your home from what it deems to be an intruder.

  • Protective Aggression: Protecting members of its pack against another animal or a person. Mother dogs have the potential to be extremely protective of their puppies and may become hostile toward anyone who goes near them.

  • Possessive Aggression: Protecting food, chew toys, bones, or another object the dog deems of value. (Otherwise known as resource guarding.)

  • Fear Aggression: The dog is fearful and tries to retreat in what they assume to be a scary situation. If cornered in this situation, the dog may attack in desperation.

  • Defensive Aggression: The dog attacks in defence of something rather than trying to retreat first. These dogs have generally given other, more subtle, indications that they want to be left alone before biting, such as turning their head away. (See the article on calming signals to find out more about that.)

  • Social Aggression: Reaction to other dogs in social situations. Dogs that are not socialised properly with other dogs and people may also exhibit aggression. This can be due to anxiety and confusion with the situation.

  • Frustration-elicited Aggression: When restricted (caged, penned up, behind a gate or on a leash), or when the dog becomes stimulated and cannot act on that stimulation, it may act out. Sometimes a dog may become overly excited, such as before a walk, and hence, nip its handler.

  • Redirected Aggression: The dog might become aggressive toward a person who attempts to break up a dog fight. It may also happen when the dog can't reach the target of its hostility, such as a neighbouring dog on the other side of a fence.

  • Pain-elicited Aggression: When injured, in pain or unwell, even a normally calm dog may act in an aggressive manner. (In this case a trip to the vet is a requirement.)

  • Sex-related Aggression: Two male dogs or two female dogs become aggressive when competing for the attention of a mate. (This can be avoided by spaying and neutering the dogs.)

  • Predatory Aggression: The dog behaves aggressively with little warning when exhibiting predatory behaviour, such as when chasing wildlife. This instinct may become a serious danger when a child is playing chase with the dog. It may start out as an innocent game, but dogs with predatory aggression may quickly turn on and possibly bite the child. It can also lead to dogs attacking dangerous wild life such as snakes.

7. What training methodology can be used to tackle aggression and what is the duration of training required for successful rehabilitation?

Aggression should never be tackled using punitive training methods. Punitive methods will only exacerbate the potential for reactivity to develop into full on aggression response. As such only science based positive training and behavioural rehabilitation methods should be used.

However, tackling aggression is not as simple as detailing one training method. It is important to understand that aggression is best tackled at the source and rehabilitated with the use of behavioural modification. Reactivity and aggression stems from the stress experienced by the dog. The most stressful situations for the dog generally dictate the categories of aggression the dog displays.

To plan a successful rehabilitation, programme an evaluation of the dog must be completed, detailing the genetic influences, learned behaviour, socialisation levels and the BARC assessment. The results of this evaluation will show the dogs energy levels, anxiety triggers, reactivity root causes and reward drivers. With this information the programme can be designed to suit the dog’s specific requirements.

For example, a high energy, food driven dog who has been evaluated and found to have possessive reactivity and anxiety due to a lack of confidence around other dogs would be best suited to start a programme using treat driven gamification exercises to build confidence and promote calmness. This in conjunction with passive calming tasks and appropriate environmental changes will set the dog up for progression to counter conditioning and desensitisation training for food aggression.

The duration required to rehabilitate reactivity and aggression is entirely dependent on the severity of the dog’s reactivity response, the learning speed and ability of the owners/ fosterers working with the dog, the consistency of the rehabilitation exercises and training, as well as the adherence to the rehabilitation programme.

In an ideal situation this rehabilitation can be completed within 3 to 6 months. However, this can be shortened or may need to be extended depending on the factors explained above.

8. “There are no bad dogs, only bad owners!” How true is this statement?

It is true that dogs are not naturally aggressive. This would suggest that the above statement is in fact true. However, this statement is an over simplification which is regularly applied to complicated situations. Although there are situations where there are simply bad owners, much of the time owners who could be labelled as “bad” owners are in fact owners who require further education on how to appropriately care for, read and train their dogs.

I do hope that many of the queries have been answered here. Do remember that these answers have been written from a canine behavioural specialist view point. If you have any additional questions surrounding this topic, please do reach out to me. I will do my best to answer them.

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