Understanding dog aggression
An aggressive dog is the one that is punished.
How do the dogs learn to show aggression

Many people consider that a dog's aggression is connected to its attempts to "dominate". However, nowadays more and more scientists agree that a dog's aggression towards humans has nothing to do with domination. Moreover, a dog's aggression is interesting in terms of learning. So how do dogs develop aggression towards people, owners in particular, and how do you avoid such an outcome?
How does a man teach the dog to be aggressive?

Let's take quite a common situation: a man does something unpleasant to the dog without prior training while ignoring the dog's discomfort signals at the same time. As a result, when a frightened dog fails to get through to its owner by peaceful methods, it bites him.
So what is the most typical owner's reaction? There are two most likely options:

1) The man stops the dog's unpleasant experience and therefore reinforces the dog negatively. It is not a big deal when it happens once and the owner makes the right conclusions and starts to accustom the dog to unpleasant procedures (such as ear cleaning or claw clipping) combining it with the correct management of the situation. But if the situation repeats, the owner teaches the dog that it can avoid discomfort by biting. And it is quite logical that the dog starts to use its teeth more and more often. This behavior has nothing to do with dominance, it is a matter of learning more.

2) The owner believes that his dog is trying to dominate and punishes it. The dog in turn can respond in two ways:

  • The dog demonstrates the signs of submission (hunches or tucks its tail). But the problem is that not everyone understands a dog's body language and knows how to respond to the signals correctly. And if a man doesn't stop and continues the punishment, a cornered and utterly frightened dog activates a "fight or die" mode and bites the owner again. The continuation of the punishment doubles the dog's fear and it bites even more desperately. This is a vicious circle which can be broken only by man and this behavior has nothing to do with so-called "domination". And because of this scenario many dogs are sent for adoption or are euthanized as their behavior gets worse and worse.
  • If the owner understands a dog's obedience signals and stops the punishment, it is very likely that the dog will show these signals more often rather than become tolerant towards procedures it doesn't like. The dog will bite and then show submission signals to avoid the continuation of aggression from the man.

  • The dog activates a "fight or die" mode immediately and responds to the punishment with biting. Recent studies* have shown that 25% percent of dogs respond with aggression to their owner's attempts to "establish a hierarchy". This research covered not only beating, but also "alpha rolling" and other methods so loved by the "dominance theory" proponents. All these methods lead to the vicious circle of aggression escalation proving that violence is always a bad idea.
So how NOT to teach a dog to be aggressive?

The dog should never bite its owner. But what do you do if violence makes the dog's behavior worse? The answer is obvious - use other methods.

The first one, is to create a situation where biting is impossible. For example, in case of emergency when you have to carry out some unpleasant situation immediately, you can use a muzzle. However, if the owner always does this in such a way, the dogs either gets used to it or does its best to hide from unpleasant procedures. And sometimes when you try to catch the dog for instance, to cut its claws, you can be faced with aggression again. That means that using a muzzle can help in emergency cases but may lead to additional problems from a long-term perspective.

So what is the best option? Many dog trainers will agree that it is to get the dog accustomed to unpleasant procedures. That can be done gradually with positive reinforcement by gradually intensifying the stimuli. As a result, the dog doesn't respond to unpleasant procedures with aggression. Instead, it patiently waits for treats.

This is a far more effective way as it changes the dog's motivation and attitude to the situation. Yes, it is a bit time-consuming but it will put an end to all the fights with your pet and make your friendship stronger.

* (Meghan E. Herron, Frances S. Shofer, Ilana R. Reisner, 2008)
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