CVC Highlight: Rethinking the causes of canine aggression
Owners and practitioners had observed that aggressive behavior most often occurred when owners attempted to take food or valuable items away from their dogs. Aggression might also be exhibited when a dog was booted out of bed or when it had been harshly reprimanded, particularly after a prior confrontation. Small children were frequently targeted and might be bitten for climbing into a bed or onto a parent's lap when a dog was nearby.
WHAT SIGNALS REALLY SUGGEST
Instead, aggressive dogs often exhibit an assortment of postures that can be difficult to interpret but that suggest a dog in conflict. A dog might have one ear forward and one ear back. Or a dog's ears might point forward assertively while its tail is tightly tucked, indicating fear. Owners routinely report that their dogs tremble after a bite and often slink away or "look sorry."
Furthermore, some aggressive dogs do not exhibit noticeable warning signals at all. Without attempting to communicate intent, they react by biting. But is biting a successful strategy for attaining a respected leadership position in a social group? Impulsive aggressive behavior instead may suggest an underlying pathology such as anxiety.
CONFRONTATIONAL TREATMENT STRATEGIES
When aggression was considered secondary to a dog's motivation to dominate people, it made sense for therapy to focus on helping owners regain control. Unfortunately, underlying fear or anxiety often was not addressed.
More disheartening was the way some trainers and even veterinarians interpreted the dominance theory. Owners were told that they must fight to win, whatever the cost. Confrontational treatment strategies were routinely adopted, with corrections applied until there was evidence of submission. Mechanical devices might be used to increase the intensity of corrections, thereby enabling meek owners to more successfully punish their dogs' aggressive responses.
Of course, whenever any therapy is implemented, some patients will respond. But corrections were often poorly timed, and the intensity of the punishment might be too high or too low. These factors often served to increase the frequency and intensity of aggressive behaviors in dogs. With confrontational techniques, both people and dogs are at risk of being injured.
And when all the fighting was over, the dog's motivation for biting remained unchanged. Aggression began because of confusion, and aggression continued because of confusion. Moreover, the bond between the owner and dog was further damaged.