Thoughts on dog aggressionMany who are bitten report that the dog gave no warning, but animals do give us warnings – often we are just not tuned into them.
By: Amy Miller, Duluth Budgeteer News
When I walk down the street with my handsome blue-eyed husky, I am often approached by a stranger who asks, “Can I pet him?” That one’s easy – he loves attention!
But sometimes I am asked, “Is he nice?” or “Does he bite?” Those questions always make me pause. The answer is more complex than “good dog versus bad dog.”
We can never fully predict the behavior of animals, as they have individual personalities, thoughts, and reactions. Behavior problems, which stem from these reactions, are often a source of distress in a household. With dogs, unwanted behaviors vary from excessive barking, car chasing, difficulties with housebreaking, and aggression.
The term “aggression” applies loosely to a set of actions that can occur for different reasons under a number of circumstances. To complicate things further, there are many different forms of aggression. Normal canine behavior involves protecting territory, offspring, resources, and themselves. While we understand that aggressive behavior is an adaptation that allows dogs to successfully survive in the wild, this instinct can cause behaviors that are less than desirable when we invite them into our home.
Further, many canines were bred to use their mouths for work; e.g., shepherds for guarding, and cattle dogs for herding. Pets also use their mouths the same way a child may throw a tantrum – as a way to show their frustration or anger. But pets, along with our children, must be taught that this is not an acceptable form of communication.
In 1994, the Centers for Disease Control reported that nearly 2 percent of the U.S. population is bitten by dogs each year. Many who are bitten report that the dog gave no warning, but animals do give us warnings – often we are just not tuned into them.
Dr. Mary Wictor, veterinarian for Animal Allies, explained that while humans rely largely on verbal language as their primary means of communication, animals rely on body language. Warning signs, which may escalate to biting, include the animal becoming very still, a low growl, or lifting a lip. She also explained that it is rare that a dog will bite without some sort of visible warning first, even though the warning can be subtle and therefore easily missed.
Understanding how animals communicate is important when addressing the “why” of aggression issues. While aggression comes in many forms and intensities, the good news is that behaviors can be modified.
The process for evaluating an animal for aggression and modifying the behavior is more complex than just giving a tasty reward. The exact form of aggression must be clear and the plan for each individual dog may require adjustment as progress is made. If an animal is misdiagnosed or the wrong techniques are applied, the pet can get worse.
If you have a dog with aggression issues, find a qualified professional to customize a plan for your pet and monitor the progress it is making. A phone call to your veterinarian is a great start to pointing you in the right direction.
The ASPCA website, www.aspcabehavior.org, is also a valuable resource. This website clearly explains the differences between the three main professionals who are trained to help with behavior issues (a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB), a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT), or a veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB)), and gives links addressing a number of behavior problems.
Correcting aggression can be frustrating, but the sooner an owner seeks help the better. We invite these amazing animals into our home and, as in any relationship, they require a commitment to healthy communication.
Amy Miller is the marketing and communications coordinator for Animal Allies. She lives in Duluth with her husband and three adopted pets: dogs Maverick and Goose, and a cat named Buddy Love.