Canine Conflict Aggression

Commonly referred to as Dominance Aggression, it had become an overly used term in behavior circles. Dominance is a very normal, useful behavior in dogs. Without a clear hierarchal pattern in a social group of dogs, there will be a constant conflict over resources. A dominance pattern allows effective distribution of valued resources (food, shelter, territory and access to reproductive rights) among the members of the group. The higher ranking individuals dictate this distribution through the use of cues and signals that fall short of aggression. Only when individuals challenge the social order do aggressive displays arise. Rarely do challenges result in death to either member. This would not be productive for the overall survival of the group.

The thought was that the pet owner became the replacement social group for the dog. Conflict aggression is a newer term used in some cases where aggression is directed toward family members. It is a learned set of behaviors in which the dog has learned to use aggression as a means of achieving desired goals. This can be cessation of certain activities (petting, movement, brushing, etc.) performed by owners or to obtain resources (food, resting areas, etc.). Punishment tends to create conflict in that the dog becomes more anxious in not being certain how various encounters will turn out with owners. At times the dog may receive attention and at others, punishment. Inconsistency makes this situation worse. The key is maintaining consistency in interactions. This does not mean physical, verbal or emotional abuse in the name of assuming the "alpha position". Punishment only results in temporary control of a situation or can result in increasing aggression. There are better ways.
You control access to valued items and you can demand compliance with requests (commands) from the dog in exchange for delivery of these valued resources from you to the dog. For example:

  • All dogs should be made to assume a sit-stay or a lie-stay before receiving ANYTHING from you. This includes food, petting, attention, being taken out for a walk, play, etc. The request to sit should be reinforced initially with a food treat but later the reward will be the resource the dog is requesting.
  • Not responding to demands made by the dog. If the dog solicits attention from you inappropriately (jumps up at you, barks at you, etc.), your response should be to ignore the animal and walk away until he/she is calm. At the moment they are calm, request one time that they sit-stay and reward with a food treat. Upon complying, grant the dog the request they had made initially.
  • Consider the use of a head collar (Gentle Leader, Halti) to help gain better control of your dog's behavior and provide a more humane way of correcting inappropriate behaviors.
  • Increase exercise with increased leash walking and plenty of opportunity to utilize command-response-reward training.
  • Canine Fear Based Aggression

    Socialization is a critical aspect of canine development. Without appropriate positive exposure to a wide variety of potential stimuli, most dogs will mature with innate timidity to these situations. It is critical that during this sensitive period in puppies (4-16 weeks of age) repeated, reinforced exposure to various personality types, age groups, vehicles, environments, etc. must occur. This calm, controlled exposures should be consistently and immediately followed by positive rewards such as tasty treats and praise.

    Failure to do this will often result in an animal which shows fear in these situations and will often shy away from people approaching. Often these dogs are assumed to have been "abused" if the dog's background is unknown. Once the window of opportunity that is the sensitive period is closed, it becomes very difficult to train a dog to not be as fearfully reactive in these circumstances. Over time, these dogs may resort to using aggression to manage those situations in which they experience fear or anxiety. Treatment involves:

    • Initially avoiding access to fear invoking stimuli
    • Teaching and rewarding calm relaxed behavior in the absence of the fearful stimuli
    • Gradually reintroducing the fear provoking stimulus and rewarding calm behavior

    Canine Predatory Aggression

    Aggression characterized by the dog pursuing and attacking a moving object. This can be other animals (dogs, cats, squirrels, rabbits, etc.), toys or people (particularly small children).The attack can be from a single dog or in a pack situation. It can be extremely damaging to the victim.
    It is important to realize that predation is a very normal activity in dogs. After all, without being predatory, it would be difficult for the canine species to survive. Food must be acquired, threats to the pack must be eliminated. The key to addressing predation in our pet dogs is recognizing the tendency in the individual and then provide an outlet for this instinct.

    • Provide sufficient exercise in the form of regular leash walks and, in addition, play activity.
    • Engage the dog in games which simulate predatory activity. Examples are fetch and retrieve type games, hide and seek (placing treats somewhere in the home and having the dog search them out), and dissecting games (hiding treats in a loosely wrapped cloth for the dog to try to dig it out)
    • Formalized activities like fly ball, luring, utility trials, field trials, etc.
    • Never allow a dog with a history of Predatory Aggression to be unsupervised with young children or small pets. Use of a muzzle in these circumstances may be warranted.

    Canine Territorial Aggression

    Aggression which occurs in the context of a familiar environment. These environments can be a home (esp. surrounding activity at the front door), fenced yard or while on leash. It is important to understand that territorial activity is a NORMAL behavior is dogs. Protection of a resource such as territory is necessary for survival of the individual and the species. It is this normal behavior taking place in an inappropriate location and context which results on the behavior becoming a "problem". 

    Territorial displays do not have to involve bites. Barking, Growling, baring of teeth and snapping can all precede an actual bite. Also, "unprovoked" biting can occur. Often what is termed unprovoked is actually the misinterpretation of clear signals of aggression and/or fear that the dog was displaying prior to the bite. Territorial aggression can often occur in conjunction with a fear based response. The typical history of a bite as the person is walking away from the dog is a good example of a dog wanting to protect territory but not feeling confident enough to do so until they are no longer directly confronted by the individual. Treatment includes:

    • Avoiding uncontrolled access to a fenced yard
    • Avoiding uncontrolled displays at the front door
    • Avoiding uncontrolled greetings of strangers on walks.
    • Training the dog to be relaxed
    • Gradually introducing the provoking stimulus