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What do we mean by aggression?
When people see someone shouting, screaming or otherwise acting aggressively, rarely do they assume that that person must be feeling fearful. Therefore, it can seem a little counter-intuitive when a dog trainer labels your dog who is barking, lunging, growling and even biting other people or dogs as ‘fearful’ or lacking in confidence.
Firstly let’s have a think about what behaviours we might see a dog engage in that we would label as ‘aggressive’:
- Snarling or air-snapping
- Lunging towards the other dog or person
These behaviours can be alarming. They are also the constituent parts of a preprogrammed ‘fight’ response, controlled by a part of the brain whose job is to ‘act now and think later’. The ultimate end goal of behaving in this way? To escape danger and stay alive. Simple as that. If your dog is still alive by the end of that interaction, the behaviour has worked. Doesn’t matter if they feel exhausted, stressed, drained or unhappy afterwards. They survived. And their brain will definitely remember that as a victory for next time!
Give me space!
It’s important to recognise that acting ‘aggressively’ is an incredibly effective way of getting other people or dogs to move out of our dog’s space.
Why might your dog want to get a dog or person out of their space?
- They haven’t met that many dogs or people in the past and are nervous and unsure of them
- They have had a bad experience in the past and are anticipating something scary happening again
- They are in pain and worried about being hurt
All of these reasons indicate a dog who is scared, worried or unsure and is using displays of aggression to meet their needs. These dogs are lacking confidence in their ability to navigate social situations and diffuse tension without resorting to aggression.
If our dog’s aim is to get away from something scary, then more often than not, acting aggressively has a very high success rate. ‘The best defence is a good offence’. Over time and with practice, our dogs become more and more confident that strategy works. They may jump to that suite of behaviours more quickly next time and learn to do so at earlier signs of perceived danger. As an example, instead of waiting until they are face to face with another dog, they might begin to show this behaviour when the dog is on the other side of the street. This is especially true if their nervous systems aren’t given enough time to recover in between scary events, which can so often be the case for our dogs living in busy urban environments. They begin to operate on a hairline trigger.
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How we make it worse
We may feel scared, embarrassed or even angry when our dogs behave this way and our focus quickly becomes to STOP the behaviour. We may go on to label these dogs as ‘aggressive’, ‘dominant’, ‘naughty’ or ‘bad’ which overlooks the fact that these behaviours are coming from a place of fear. These labels matter because they influence how we handle it. If we think the dog is naughty, then we will focus on teaching the dog that behaviour is completely unacceptable and to be suppressed, corrected or punished. Bad dog!
This approach is problematic for a number of reasons, and is counter-productive to increasing confidence in our dogs.
Fighting is a terrible way of trying to survive, it’s exhausting and may risk injury through conflict. Dogs don’t resort to it lightly and when we see dogs doing it often, we are seeing a dog that really is in a very low state, both mentally and emotionally. Our fearful dogs are defaulting to acts of aggression because historically it has worked where other behaviours have failed. Therefore, it’s not so much that our dogs have learned that aggression works to keep them alive, it's that they have learned that nothing else does.
A complex combination of genetics, learning history, early socialisation and internal physiology will likely be contributing to this. Given how much of that is outside our dog’s control, it seems a big ask to then hold them personally accountable for it. If we proceed to punish this behaviour then all we are doing is further limiting our dog’s choices. We merely teach them that NOTHING you do works to keep you safe. We rob our dogs of their voice simply because we disagree with it. None of which lends itself to an increase in confidence!
Understanding the behaviour is critical, and as we have seen, the labels we assign to behaviours influence how we handle it. Recognising that our dog’s behaviour typically stems from a place of insecurity and fear is the first step in helping your fear-aggressive dog build confidence.
The second step is to apply that knowledge in a practical way. Ultimately, we want to help our dogs re-learn how to navigate situations that they find scary and to feel confident and secure in our presence. To effectively do so, we have to be able to recognise their earlier micro-signals of discomfort and help them out before they feel compelled to use aggression.
Study Your Dog
Dogs are social creatures, with an astonishing repertoire of signals and gestures at their disposal. These early patterns of communication can often go unnoticed and include:
- Turning their head away
- Suddenly scratching or grooming (when not itchy)
- Sniffing the ground
- Lifting their paw
- Slow or soft blinking
- Curving their body
- Licking their lips/nose
- Shifting body weight away from trigger
It’s important to observe these behaviours and then take a moment to look around at what’s going on in the environment. Is someone approaching them on the sidewalk? Are we approaching a narrowing in the path?
The behaviours listed above can either be used in a voluntary and deliberate way by the dog, to either communicate their intent to another person or dog (e.g. ‘I mean no harm’, ‘please calm down’, or ‘I’m uncomfortable’) or behaviours that the dog has learned helps them feel better after a stressful event (e.g rolling over in the grass or grooming). Equally, these behaviours can be the result of an involuntary stress response, indicating an increase in the dog’s internal stress levels (also known as fiddle behaviours).
If we recognise that these changes in behaviour are our dog’s way of expressing that they are beginning to feel uneasy, we are in a great position to help them gain the time, space and distance they are asking for and prevent any explosive behaviour. If we routinely step in at these earlier signs, we will develop healthy communication patterns with our dogs and build a foundation based on trust and reciprocity.
Each dog will behave slightly differently so it's important to observe your individual dog. Remember our dogs are communicating all of the time and not just when we are paying close attention! Confidence is earned through trust, and trust is earned through listening, and feeling heard.
Once our dogs are confident that we are listening to them, it’s important we show them that other people and dogs are listening too. We begin to gradually and systematically introduce the stressor at a level that the dog can cope with. And to do so, we need to ensure our dogs are in a healthy frame of mind.
Healthy frame of mind for learning
Just like us, there is an optimal state within which dogs learn best. Take a moment to think back to your school days. Remember the last time you were very bored in class, and your mind kept wandering. You probably weren’t learning a whole lot. Conversely, remember when you were trying to cram at 2am the night before a really big and important exam, you probably weren’t retaining a whole lot of information then either! There is a sweet spot somewhere in the middle where you were interested enough to be quietly writing notes, retaining information and listening without feeling overwhelmed. This is your optimal learning zone.
The same principle applies for dogs, and it is often referred to as being ‘under’ or ‘over’ threshold. If our dog is over-threshold, they will be flooded with stress hormones and much more likely to resort to automated responses that have worked in the past (i.e. aggression). The more they practise this behaviour, the more ingrained it becomes, and the harder it is for us to help them build confidence trying something else. Similarly, if our dogs are experiencing a big emotional response and their cortisol levels are too high this can actually inhibit the formation of new memories.
Therefore, when building our dog’s confidence around certain people or dogs, we have three main goals:
- Prevent them from rehearsing the aggressive behaviour
- Teach them that they are safe by giving them the time and space to learn about others without triggering big feelings!
- Teach them alternative coping strategies (such as checking in with the hander or simply walking away) to alleviate stress without resorting to aggression and conflict
To achieve this, we always want our dogs to be ‘under-threshold’. We can usually achieve this by carefully setting up the environment just right to allow our dogs to look and learn about other people and dogs without feeling the need to aggress. A qualified positive-reinforcement based trainer can help you with these set-ups.
We can determine how our dogs are feeling internally by again observing their body language and communication with us. Ideally our dogs are able to:
- Listen to us and respond to known cues
- Play or freely explore their environment
- Eat food or take treats
- Have soft and relaxed body language (take a look at their mouth, ears, tail, posture)
- Look at something (i.e. a dog or a person) but disengage, turn away or move away from them with ease
We don’t want to be seeing overt behaviours like aggression or too much rigidity through the dog’s body. Remember our goal is to teach our dog that they are safe and in control, not to put them in situations where we show them how NOT to behave. Have a read here about how to socialise a fearful dog
We want our fearful dogs to routinely practise being self-sufficient and calm when around other dogs and people. Therefore, good training often looks really boring but we promise you that your dog is learning all the right things! Practised behaviours become habits and habits become automated responses even in moments of increased stress.
Remember, with all aggression cases, our end goal is not about suppressing our dog’s communication. Suppressing behaviour through reprimand, punishment, fear, or coercion reduces confidence and is counter-productive to what we are trying to achieve. Our focus should always be on expanding the multitude of ways our dogs can express themselves. Helping a dog learn that they can use subtler means of communication to meet their desired outcomes (i.e. diffuse the stress, move away, take a break) is empowering and naturally builds confidence and social skills.
Behavioural Adjustment Training by Grisha Stewart Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas