Dog on the Couch

2016-05-19 06:00

THIS week I am dealing with a very serious and yet not uncommon question that has arisen in many emails and calls to me. It has also been the focus of many of the bad cases brought to me in desperation. It concerns the dangers and causes of unchecked aggression in powerful breeds.

Dogs may develop aggressive behaviour patterns due to many and varied causes, including innate tendencies, illness, pain, imbalances in the brain, boredom and frustration, and fear. I have found that a great many cases coming to me are traceable back to forceful and harsh training methods. For instance, statistics show that even the act of throwing or shaking a bottle containing pebbles, intended as a distraction from some undesirable behaviour, can actually escalate aggression in dogs.

Unfortunately, most aggression cases are brought to me as a last resort when the behaviour has been allowed to become deeply rooted. In many cases where no training and socialising has been done, or the training has been very bad and has worsened if not caused the problems, attempting to rehabilitate the dogs is very dangerous, difficult and time consuming.

Like humans, all dogs have the potential to be aggressive. The most potentially dangerous of these are the more powerful ones in whom aggressive tendencies have been selectively bred. But all will have inherited certain selected genes which will bear strongly on their innate behaviour. The motor-pattern for the various breeds of dogs are selected from - orient – eye, stalk – chase, grab – bite, kill – dissect – consume.

A Border collie, for example, will inherit the orient – eye; stalk – chase part of the motor pattern, and the other behaviours will have been bred out. We can expect a safe dog from this breed which has a long history of controlling livestock without violence. But we need to guard against faults usually arising out of boredom, such as herding the family cats, children or senile parents, or nipping at the heels of a substitute for errant, obstinate sheep.

On the other hand, the breeds selected to execute a killing bite most effectively will share the physical attributes necessary for the task of killing, such as exaggerated jaw muscles, strong muscular necks and shoulders and a high body mass, all of which also make them more resistant to the defences of a victim under attack.

To perform well in a fighting ring, the fighting dog has been bred to attack without provocation and without warning and to see the battle through to the end regardless of any response from the other animal, external stimuli or even concern for self.

In present-day situations there is no opportunity for such a dog to perform adaptive responses such as fighting bulls or pursuing escaped slaves. Such dogs are liable to become pathological due to the selection for impulsive aggression. I can’t stress enough how important it is to beware that this aggression may appear suddenly and unpredictably in such a dog.

The selected genes in aggressive dogs will make certain postures and behaviours satisfying. So learning and socialising cannot alone prevent the appearance of innate behaviours; additionally, such a dog needs an avenue for the safe, controlled release of these inherited response mechanisms, because his inclination will be to seek opportunities to follow the ingrained patterns and perform the inbred functions.

To steer away from violence for a moment and again use the Border collie to illustrate a point, one can redirect unwanted innate behaviours by ensuring that the dog’s intelligence, problem solving and energy-needs are met. One would make sure that the dog gets enough proper physical and mental stimulation. In the absence of this input, the dog will naturally be inclined to find his own means of dealing with these inherent needs.

Most critically, for the potentially dangerous breeds I implore you not to delay proper training and impulse control skills until the dog is physically mature enough to inflict serious harm or cause a death.

Don’t wait for bad behaviour to set in more and more deeply. You can hardly start training early enough. Unfortunately, many people seek help only when the dog has exhibited the most overt threat or harmed a family member, visitor or another pet. It should go without saying that this is extremely irresponsible. To attempt the massive remedial work required at this late stage will put your trainer at risk and, of necessity, be very extensive and time-consuming, most probably requiring two trainers working together, at least one of whom should be an educated, experienced behaviourist.

It may also require the example of more than one well-trained assistant dog, depending on the problem-behaviours that have manifested, and it may take many sessions per day for a long time.

Please, never underestimate the potential dangers of allowing bad behaviour patterns to develop. So many of the most serious problems that I see regularly could be avoided if an informed choice of dog were made in the first place and if proper training were introduced early as a matter of course.

Research your chosen breed to ensure that you will be able to cope with his needs, and do not delay in starting the training that will give him the best foundation from which to grow into a safe and happy dog. Do not get a puppy if you do not have the time, energy and means to look after it properly.

Susan Henderson© (accredited animal behaviourist)

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