It’s mostly normal

2013-09-19 00:00

ONE of the most common mistakes made with regards to canine aggression is to label natural dominant or submissive behaviour as disorders. Dogs do not argue, squabble, debate or hold competitions to achieve higher pack status. Seniority can only be determined via the mental and physical skills they possess. Growling, snarling or jumping on each other do not necessarily indicate excessive or abnormal aggression. On their own, dogs with solid social skills will behave normally with each other, but what is normal or abnormal and how does one determine the difference?

When our pets growl loudly, or display teeth, especially the large and giant breeds, people become anxious, or panic far quicker than, let’s say, when two miniature pinschers are involved. When messages indicating higher rank are sent to a lower-ranking dog, these are not a precursor to an all-out attack. The lower-ranking pack member may also respond with growling and bared teeth, and these are not the only body parts utilised. Tail movements and ear positions also play a role and this is the key to determining normal from abnormal behaviour. Furthermore, a lower-ranking pet may emit a high-pitched yelp, and this will automatically appease the senior pack member. What we cannot see, are the odours or scents that are released from various glands in the bodies.

It is thus a combination of noise, actions and pheromones that control pack hierarchies. If visible processes are ignored by owners, the likelihood of aggressive fighting is virtually impossible. Again, it must be emphasised that I am referring to stable dogs with sufficient social skills.

Unfortunately, even though dogs may have all the abilities required for harmonious coexistence, once growling and yelping commence, people will quite often become anxious or panic, believing they are witnessing an all-out fight. Almost immediately, everything possible will be done to separate the combatants, accompanied by screaming and shouting. Understandably, these actions may be amplified due to past traumatic experiences. Ironically, in trying to become peacemakers, it is this very interference that actually increases the likelihood of more incidents.

Pets can utilise many different behaviours in various situations to dominate their owners. They may begin at a very low intensity and when all else has failed, the one that will virtually always achieve results, is antagonistic behaviour. Even though dogs have reached the point of inflicting injury, the problem can virtually always be rectified, but requires specialist intervention.

I have personally achieved success in some of the most severe canine aggression cases. It does not take five minutes to achieve, but also not months and months. Although each case is unique and multidimensional, there is a pattern, and most situations can be resolved in about two weeks. I have come to realise that in order to resolve aggression issues, the most powerful tool is not only to understand a dog’s body language, but also that of people.

During consultations, pet owners are shown how they have inadvertently contributed to unwanted behaviour. That in itself is pretty straight forward to resolve. However, one of the most frustrating contributing factors to a history of stressful relationships, is bad or dishonest advice from so-called experts. Unfortunately, when dealing with canine behaviour disorders, instead of admitting to a lack of knowledge, people are told there is no solution and the only option is to rehome, or worse, put the patient dog to sleep.

• Steve van Staden is a canine behaviour specialist and can be contacted via his website at www.dogtorsteve. Advice is only dispensed in face-to-face meetings with owners and their pets.

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