Social deprivation can make your dog behave aggressively

2012-09-27 00:00

I WAS contacted recently by a couple with concerns about their pet’s abnormal aggressive behaviour towards people. As always, before starting with a behaviour modification process, I asked them to come for an assessment. Because this is multidimensional, the following criteria must be checked, if applicable:

• social skills;

• trauma;

• status creation;

• age (maybe the pet is too old to be a pack leader);

• owner abilities, especially temperament compatibility and maturity; and

• seasonal (I have noticed female dogs (not all) become less tolerant towards each other at the onset of spring. I must emphasise that this is based on my perception over the years and not conclusive scientific research.

During the initial telephone conversation, I already had an idea of the contributing factors to the behaviour, but needed to see the puppy and confirm my suspicions. What concerned me was the breed and age. A six-month-old, female St Bernard puppy.

Upon arrival,I asked the owners to keep their pet leashed because of the slight lunging and barking displayed in my direction. During the assessment, it came for me three times, barking and growling, to “mouth” my right knee. There were no injuries, but I could feel teeth squeezing my kneecap through the trouser leg. Apparently, this behaviour began after a visit to the grooming parlour. I suspected that something unpleasant had occurred during the grooming process, causing a reflex growl-yelp and a nip. The recipient of this aggression probably recoiled in fright as a consequence of the puppy’s size. The overall behaviour was indicative of a premature litter departure age of probably five weeks or less. The owners could not corroborate this since the pup came from a pet shop.

On completion of the assessment, I diagnosed social deprivation, but not enough to cause excessive aggression. Prior to the parlour visit, the pet behaved fairly normally. Due to the arrest of its mental development though, the puppy’s ability to deal with stressful situations was inadequate. As a result, its survival instincts would activate inappropriately. To compound the issue, I also established that, from its adaptive intelligence, the behaviour had become attention seeking (status creation). This means that even though there was nothing to be concerned about, the puppy would automatically resort to confrontation because of owner responses, which was then perceived as submissive behaviour. This was circumstance specific and not location dependent.

The social deprivation aspect of a puppy’s mental development is something which cannot be stressed enough. Although domesticated canine instinctive intelligence is the same as that of the wild wolf, there is enough that we can do to provide for stable companion animals in the home environment. However, if critical information is withheld from the fast-developing puppy’s mind, it goes without saying, that behavioural deviations will occur at an early age and especially, in adulthood. The canine mind is designed to function normally and at optimum efficiency, if we allow natural processes to run their course. That means we must subject and expose our puppies to critically necessary stimuli which will have a positive impact on their minds, and ultimately, behaviour. Sadly, many pets eventually pay with their lives because humans interfere with these processes due to ignorance, or poor decision-making which, unfortunately, is sometimes based on good intentions.

If a puppy has already left the litter prematurely, it is imperative that everything possible be done to influence behavioural patterns positively. This is especially applicable with breeds which are bred to be more aggressive.

Please contact me or your vet’s practice should you have any behavioural concerns.

• Steve van Staden is a canine behaviour specialist and can be contacted on his website at

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