The most common and serious behavior problems of dogs are associated with aggression. Canine aggression includes any behavior associated with a threat or attack (e.g., growling, biting). Aggressive dogs usually exhibit some part of the following sequence of increasingly intense behaviors:
Dogs don’t always follow the above sequence, and they often engage in several of the behaviors simultaneously. Owners often don’t recognize the warning signs before a dog bite, so they think that their dog has suddenly become aggressive for no apparent reason. However, dogs rarely bite without warning.
If your dog has become aggressive, it is crucial to take him or her to your veterinarian in order to rule out medical issues before you do anything else. Some dogs are aggressive because of a medical condition (e.g., any type of pain, an orthopedic [bone or joint] problem, a thyroid gland abnormality, adrenal gland dysfunction, cognitive [brain] dysfunction, a seizure disorder, loss or decrease of senses such as vision or hearing). Geriatric dogs that feel confused or insecure may become aggressive. In addition, certain medications can alter your dog’s mood, possibly causing your dog to become aggressive.
If a medical cause of your dog’s aggression has been ruled out by your veterinarian, think about the situations that upset your dog. Who or what was the target of your dog’s aggression? When and where did it happen? What else was occurring at the time? What had just happened or was about to happen to your dog? What seemed to stop your dog’s aggression? Answering these questions can clarify the circumstances that trigger your dog’s aggression and can help you and your veterinarian understand the reasons for your dog’s behavior. Understanding the various types of aggression in dogs can also help you determine why your dog is aggressive.
Types of Aggression
Aggression can be a complicated condition to evaluate. Some dogs may exhibit a single form of aggression, while others may exhibit several types of aggression at the same time. Understanding the different types of aggression can help get to the root of the problem:
Play Versus Aggression
It can be difficult to tell the difference between nonaggressive and aggressive nipping and mouthing by dogs. Some dogs use their mouths out of fear or frustration, which can indicate a problem with aggression. In most cases, playful dogs have a relaxed body and face. During play, your dog’s muzzle might look wrinkled, but the facial muscles shouldn’t look tense. Playful nipping or mouthing is usually not painful. However, an aggressive dog often has a stiff body, a wrinkled muzzle, and exposed teeth. Aggressive bites are usually quicker and more painful than playful nipping or mouthing.
You are ultimately responsible for your dog’s behavior. If you are deciding whether to keep and treat your aggressive dog, consider the following factors:
Treating canine aggression is usually complex and can be dangerous, so a treatment plan should be designed and supervised by a behavior specialist. Look for a certified applied animal behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB), a veterinary behaviorist (DACVB), or a certified professional dog trainer (CPDT) in your area. If you choose a CPDT, be sure that he or she has training and experience in treating canine aggression.
Helping your dog avoid situations that cause him or her to become aggressive can reduce the risk of your dog biting someone. Physical punishment, including the use of prong collars and electric shock collars, can worsen a dog’s aggression. Therefore, punishment of aggression is not recommended.
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