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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.