The reaction to an endangering situation

Aggression is the reaction to an endangering situation. Is a defence reflex, serving as a warning, before escalates to attack.
It is important to remember that a vast majority of behaviours we humans classify as aggressive, are perfectly normal social-behaviours and rituals in the canine world.
Aggressiveness results when all communication attempts, between the threatened individual and his trigger, have failed to diffuse the encounter.
Dogs have a natural instinct to try to avoid, or resolve conflicts, rather than creating them.
There is a lot of ritualised behaviours that may look like “aggressive” to us – but they serve a purpose to them.
By vocalising and body-language displays, they reach to an understanding, hence avoiding escalation of aggression and the risk of being harmed.
If we prohibit these series of “demonstrations”, we actually “amputate” their means of communication.

Stress, fear and aggression are closely related, a dog demonstrating aggression, he tells us that he is stressed and uncomfortable.

Aggression is basically a combination of factors and almost always originates from fear – excluding medical and health related issues.
When living or working with an aggressive dog, labelling the exact type of aggression isn’t as important, as correctly identifying the underlying reasons that triggers it.

Dogs can exhibit aggressive behaviours towards other dogs, people, objects or even situations.
Punishment, traumatic experiences, territorial rivalries, resource-guarding, pain, frustration, medical issues and genetics, they are all plausible reasons for aggression.
A recent study at the University Of Pensylvania, supported the relationship between coercive training methods and aggression.
Repeatedly exposing the dog in a situation he can’t cope with, hence being over threshold, it will eventually lead to aggressive responses.

Humans often view the act of self-defence and self-preservation, as an aggressive one.
For some owners, aggressive displays cause embarrassment, frustration, even fear, whilst for others is a reason to be proud of their “dominant” dog.
It is sad the fact they ignore the underlying reason of this supposedly “dominant” display.
And because of this ignorance, their dog will remain, scary and stressed of everyday’s life stimuli.
All dogs can get to the point of biting and for different reasons: inadequate socialization, a traumatic experience, a predisposition to fear, irritation, a very “dominant” owner, a bad diet, a medical problem etc.

In the UK, approximately 6,000 dog bites, annually, are serious enough to require hospital treatment. The 20% of those bites are addressed to children under the age of 9 years old.
In the US, approximately 4.5 million dog bites occur each year. 80% of those, cause little to no injury and require no medical treatment.

Prevent aggression, by proactively remove the dog away from his stressors


A survey, addressed to pet-owners utilising aversive training methods, concluded:
20% of persons who hit or kicked their dog – cclaiming undesirable behaviour – in 43% of these cases this method elicited aggressive response.
16% of persons who yelled or intimidated verbally their dog – in 26% of these cases this method elicited aggressive response.
39% of persons who physically forced their dog to release something from his mouth – in 28% of these cases this method elicited aggressive response.
Many of these instances could have been avoided, with a basic education of canine body language and behaviour.
Beaver (1999) says:

“Clinically aggression is described as one or more distance-increasing behaviours, expressed in an agonistic way, as the dog asserted itself at the expense of someone else”.

Accurately evaluate a dog’s emotional state, can be really challenging. Some signs of aggression can be very subtle and easily missed.
For instance, a dog eating and freezes the moment you walk by, this “freeze” is a display of discomfort with your proximity.
Other signs may be ambiguous, therefore we have to consider in what context they are displayed.
For example when barking, but not necessarily to a threat but to greet others, or a growl could be due to a threat and also an invitation while playing.
You can prevent and avoid aggression, by observing your dog and what he tries to communicate.
In this picture, we clearly see agonistic behaviour, but these dogs (Iris & Locky) are having fun, on their own special way…😉

it may looks like aggression...but they actually play

Signs - The Precursor of Aggression


Each dog displays some of the following signs and not necessarily all of them. What he chooses to do is idiosyncratic and dependent to many factors.
But all dogs will start with the calming signals, in order to appease the stressor and difuse the situation. Remember, dogs are social creatures, they will always try to avoid, rather than create a conflict.
Their self-preservation instict, dictates to stay away from harm, thus they will utilise all means of body language to communicate to others, they come in peace.
If the peaceful approach fails, only then he will either fly or fight.

Starting by the appeasement signs, that dogs usually offer to their conspecifics or other threats:
• Yawning
• Lip/nose licking
• Scratching them selves
• Sniffing the ground
• Head dipping and/or turning away
• Tail tucked between the hind legs
• Paw lift

If the previous signals are overlooked, he may do the following:
• Cowering
• Hiding
• Whining
• Panting
• Pacing
• Trembling
• Height sicking behaviour

The latter stage of aggression before an attack
• Staring
• Stiff body posture
• Tail high and stiff
• Piloerrection
• Eyes narrowed
• Teeth display
• Nose wrinkled
• Growling
• Drooling
• Ears pulled back
• Freeze posture, just for a second before he decides whether he attacks or leaves
• Snapping
• Biting

For most people, when they hear their dog growl, they think of it as a bad thing. The dog “misbehaves” and they reprimand him strongly.
He thought she should accept and like other animals, mostly because he felt too embarrassed of his “unsociable” dog.
Many times i tried to warn him and stop him from inflicting fear to his dog. I advised him against the use of aversive training and reprimands, he insisted on yelling at her and tugging firmly on her leash, every time another dog was at her range. She was making unpleasant associations with approaching animals and the punishment inflicted by her human, but he was refusing to understand and accept my warnings about her mental state.
His young female grown to become reactive to dogs and she will not growl anymore in presence of others, instead she will lunge directly and without warning.

When people says “the dog attacked out of nowhere” is rarely true. And when it does happen, is because their humans have overlooked or punished their dog’s efforts to warn them.
In other words, the growl is just a form of communication. If you punish a dog because he tries to communicate you his internal-state, one day he will eventually stop.
Ceasing expressing his emotions, doesn’t mean that he is not afraid or stressed anymore. He is just aware that you will ignore or punish him for it, therefore he will go directly to action.
This is the reason why dog-guardians are instructed to never “correct” the growl, or any other means of communication for that matter.

Aggression is the n°1 reason why dogs are re-homed or euthanised in USA.

6.500.000 companion animals enter animal shelters every year.
1 to 2.000.000 dogs are euthanised every year in U.S Human Societies & Shelters.
Unfortunately, over 20% of domestic dogs suffer from continual, unsupportable fears, OCD and phobias at levels that are deemed clinically maladaptive.

Dogs are not obligated to like all other dogs.
Same way as we humans have our “favourite” people, so do dogs.
They form friendships, by choosing some individuals amongst others. We just need to teach them to tolerate other dogs, in a safe distance and let them choose whom they prefer to be close with.
At dog parks and daycares, you have all sorts of dogs with different temperaments and play styles like, chasing, wrestling, body slamming, biting etc.
Not all these styles are compatible to your dog’s individuality, therefore you have dogs that are highly aroused and very likely to annoy each other.
And if they are restrained together in the same room or area, with no route of escape, decompressing becomes difficult and fights may break out.

You cannot force your dog to love all other dogs, animals or humans. It would be unfair and inhumane.

If you see him uncomfortable around strangers, increase the distance, give him time to accept or not, being with them.
Avoid stressful encounters that put the dog over threshold and in survival mode.
Chronic stress will debilitate his mental health and the aggressive reactions will be inevitable.
Keep in mind that a repeated behaviour that provides the desirable results for the dog, will become his default reaction.
If his means of communication is lunging towards the scary trigger and the trigger goes away, this is how he will deal at every encounter.
This is why our observation and take action, is of paramount importance.
We should show him that we are present and he can trusts us, because we can show him the alternatives to fight with his fears.
Desensitisation and socialisation can be done again, with slow, careful steps.

Medical Problems


It is true though, there are well socialised dogs and properly raised, that may act aggressively, for no apparent reason.
This could be then due to a genetic deficiency, an hormonal imbalance, bad diet or health problems.
There are several medical conditions that can also cause aggression: Rabies and Tick-born illnesses top the list.
Hyperadrenocorticism (Cushing’s disease), hypothyroidism, diabetes mellitus, brain tumours, cognitive dysfunction, even seizure disorders are all also known to have an aggressive component.
This, thankfully rare disease, is very serious and can often be misdiagnosed.
Hypothyroidism can be the reason of “mood swings” and unexplained aggression. Idiopathic Aggression (known as “rage syndrome”), severe phobias, and cognitive disorders, are also part of a low-functionning thyroid.
If you suspect that your dog shows an aggression for no apparent reason, you better check with your Vet for all the possible causes mentioned above.

Genetic Predisposition


Genetic inheritence can be a very important reason for aggression.
We do know from latest researche, that humans – and dogs – may have a variant of the 5-HTT gene, which promotes the secretion of serotonine.
Consequently, the individuals with this alteration, are more relaxed and calm during stressful events.
On the antipodes of this gene, is the variant of 2-adrenoreceptor, which is responsible for excessive secretion of adrenaline, thus the individual will overeact to stressful stimuli.

Recent studies conducted by the assistant professor of anthropology and director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center, proove that Vasopressin hormone (involved in water retention in the body) is linked to aggression in humans.
For the current study, MacLean and his collaborators recruited pet dogs of varying ages, breeds and sexes, whose owners reported problems with leash aggression.
For each aggressive dog recruited, the researchers found a non-aggressive dog of the same sex, age and breed to serve as a comparison.
The dogs were held by their guardians while exposed to a “barking dog” sound, behind a curtain.
For this study they were presented in the same way with everyday noises and three common objects – a cardboard box, trash bag and an inflated yoga ball.
The dogs’ responses and hormone levels were measured before and after the interaction.
While none of the dogs in the study reacted aggressively toward the box, bag or ball, many of the dogs in the “leash-aggression” group had aggressive responses to the model dog, including barking, growling and lunging.
The dogs that reacted aggressively showed higher levels of total vasopressin in their systems, suggesting a link between vasopressin and aggression.
Another sad fact – especially for male dogs – is that testosterone also acts like a stress hormone. The chemical effect of testosterone is similar to cortisol.
This is a plausible reason why intact males display more competitive and perhaps agonistic behaviours, towards potential rivals over female dogs.
Although that may justify partially the castration of a male, we should be very sceptical before we decide it as a mean of reducing aggression.
The psychologist Anders Hallgren states:

When it comes to problems of aggression, castration only helps in around 50% of cases.

Removing testicles will reduce the 90% of testosterone production, but there is a 10% formed in the adrenal glands and according to a theory, there is a risk of possible increase of testosterone levels, in order to compensate the loss due to castration.

Medication Related Aggression


Some medications interfere with the dog’s ability to process thought and feelings, which result in a display of aggression.
Some common medications that can contribute to aggression: Prednisone, Phenobarbital, Tramadol and Corticosteroids.
Many dogs are sensitive to medication and show signs of behavioural change, any time they are medicated.

Humans find easier to punish than educate, it is indeed faster to reprimand or punish the dog, than take the time and patience to instruct a new or alternative behaviour.
Karen Pryor cited:

“Learning a new skill frequently involves making mistakes, trainers using punishment will often simultaneously create behaviour problems, they will later need to fix”.

If you take the time to build a relationship of trust and understanding and practice observation and response, you will eventually achieve to help a scared dog to overcome his fears.

Hereditary Aggression

This book describes how genetic deficiencies are responsible for prompting aggressive responses.
It explains the undeniable link between stress, fear and aggression and how inheritance can exacerbate them even more. The author indicates the possible ways for controlling it, with the help of holistic treatments and counter-conditioning.
The book is now available to buy.


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