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Aggression in dogs: recognizing the problem

I recently read an article in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association on dog bites in the United States and it is estimated that approximately 370,000 people are bitten by dogs every year. How can we avoid this?

Aggression

Aggression is never appropriate and should not be condoned. However, there are times when even good dogs bite given the appropriate circumstances. Recognizing aggression and problem situations is the key to avoiding them:

• Territorial aggression, the need to protect its territory, is hardwired in dogs long before they were domesticated. Most times the territory consists of a yard or portion of the yard. It could also consist of the house or certain rooms in the house. If a dog senses (or perceives) that someone or something — whether it be another animal or a person — has violated its territory it will feel the need to defend itself. This can be dangerous in situations where territorial dogs are allowed to roam the block or neighborhood off-leash.

Dogs do not differentiate property lines and will soon consider any portion of the block their territory. When the neighbor returns to their house they are at risk of being bitten by the dog. This also refers to the dog that is barking and snarling at the fence. There is no way in which you are going to make friends with that dog so don't even try. Hopefully the owner of the dog understands the potential danger of this situation and will take precautions to avoid conflict

• Fear-related aggression is the type of aggression in which I am usually the victim. This is where the normally friendly dog becomes so fearful that any type of interaction is taken as a threat and they respond with aggression to "defend themselves." It doesn't help that in my case I am always poking, prodding and coming at my patients with needles. Fear aggression can also happen at home when new people come over.

• Food aggression involves growling and snapping if a person comes near the dog when they have a treat, near the food bowl, etc, is inappropriate and intervention is needed. In some cases it can be as straightforward as avoiding any conflict (feed the dog in a separate area away from other pets and people, do not give treats that will elicit an aggressive response, etc.) or may need the intervention of an animal behaviorist.

• Dominance aggression is the type of aggression that can be directed against other pets in the household or family members and will manifest itself when the dominant dog is challenged. Many veterinary behaviorists believe that dominance aggression starts out as a defensive-type aggression (food-related aggression, fear aggression) and as the owner or other members of the family back off the dog becomes more confident and then starts to challenge the owner on a more regular basis. This is called negative reinforcement. Whether we realize it or not we reinforce an unwanted behavior. This type of aggression can become very dangerous and should also be handled by both the family and an animal behaviorist.

Avoiding the problem

Just a few tips on avoiding potentially dangerous problem situations:

• Always approach a dog you have never met before with your palm up below their muzzle. This is an act of deference or neutrality, whereas approaching a dog with your palm down and above the head — as if to pet the dog — is an act of dominance or aggression.

• If a dog is growling, barking or snarling but still is wagging its tail believe the growl/bark/snarl. I have seen many a dog attack another dog — or person — while still wagging its tail

• Beware of dogs roaming the neighborhood. Although most have just escaped the yard and are no threat, approach with caution and have an escape route for yourself.

Aggression in dogs

Continued from page B3

• If a dog is growling and hiding in a corner do not try to engage them, but rather ignore the behavior and let them come to you.

• If you notice any signs of aggression as a puppy bring them to the attention of your veterinarian and consider one-on-one training with a behavioralist

I hope this helps to recognize aggressive behavior to either avoid dangerous situations or intervene early on so that we can all enjoy our barking, furry family members safely.

Dr. Kearns is a veterinarian with a special interest in emergency and critical care. He has been in practice for eight years. Dr. Kearns is pictured here with his son Matthew and his cat, The One Eyed Guy.

Author: 
Matthew Kearns, DVM