“He Just Attacked Out of Nowhere!”
As a dog trainer I’m frequently called on to help people deal with aggressive dogs. It is some of the most difficult, rewarding and sometimes heartbreaking, work I do. Dogs evolved to be our companions in life – but they can also be very dangerous.
If you have an aggressive dog in your home, do not try to fix the problem yourself. Dogs can be very dangerous, even small dogs. Earlier this month a 6-month old child in Lexington, Kentucky was killed by a Jack Russell Terrier.
Don’t risk your life, or worse yet, a child’s life, by ignoring aggressive behavior or trying to trying to fix it on your own. And don’t make the dog someone else’s problem by dumping it with a rescue group without telling them the real reason you are getting rid of him. To fix a problem like this you need to hire a dog trainer who has experience working with aggression. We suggest you look for one who is a member of the International Association of Canine Professionals or the National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors.
Aggression is part of animal life and although there are many ways that animals express aggression, some features are common to most aggressive actions. One of these is escalation. Aggressive encounters usually start with a low risk, low intensity exchange of aggressive displays. If these initial displays don’t end the encounter, increasingly intense – and progressively more dangerous – patterns of behavior follow. If neither animal backs off, the encounter will eventually end with the most potentially damaging behaviors the animals are capable of. This progressive increase in the intensity of aggressive behavior is called escalation.
Emotional aggression arises from impulsive actions and is therefore less affected by weighing risk against reward than resource-based aggression is. Because of this, emotional aggression tends to escalate far more quickly. A dog that is reacting out of fear, frustration or other emotional triggers will typically escalate more quickly than one who is calmly defending his territory.
Dogs are masters at emitting and reading subtle contextual cues; most people are not. The first signals a dog emits when he is aroused are usually very subtle and can therefore be missed by an inexperienced or inattentive person (or dog). When those initial, subtle signals are not acknowledged, the dog’s actions will escalate, especially if he is emotionally aroused. I believe that this is why many people describe aggressive encounters with dogs as occurring without warning. The warning was there, but it was so subtle that the person missed it.
Escalation is a vital factor in canine aggression. The first step to curing problem aggression is being able to recognize key signals the dog exhibits early in the process. If we interrupt the dog at an early stage in arousal, it is usually easy to redirect him to more appropriate behavior. But if the dog has escalated to an overt threat stage by the time we try to intervene, we are far less likely to be successful – and far more likely to be bitten.
Another key factor to keep in mind when you are faced with an aggressive dog is changes in rates of behavior. When most people observe an aggressive dog, they look for specific reactions and postures (growling, bared teeth, stiff movement, etc.). These changes of the dog’s outward state are important, but we should also look for changes in rates of behaviors. Escalation to the next level of aggression is often indicated by changes in rate of behaviors like pacing, panting, blinking, wagging, or other repetitive actions. For example, you may see a dog suddenly start to pace more quickly right before he moves into the next, more intense stage of aggression.
When you observe a change in the rate of an action like pacing in an aroused dog, make a mental note of the postures, expressions and movements the dog displayed right before the change occurred. Some of these are likely subtle signals of aggression that you’ve missed in the past. If the dog is still in an early stage in the process, it may be possible to divert his attention and redirect his behavior to another outlet. If he is strongly aroused, there is more warning to avoid additional conflict or injury.
It is also important to realize that arousal happens quickly and calming down takes time. Aggressive reactions are physiological, not just psychological, reactions. Changes like increased respiration, heart rate, elevated adrenaline levels and other factors take more time to abate than they do to begin. To prevent an aroused dog from re-escalating, you should take him away from the source of his arousal and give him a chance to calm down.
And remember – UNLESS YOU ARE AN EXPERIENCED, PROFESSIONAL DOG TRAINER – do NOT try to work with an aggressive dog yourself. This article is purely informative. It is not intended as a guide to working with aggressive dogs.
Links to three photos illustrating increasing levels of aggressive display. In the first, Zorro is giving subtle signals (intent gaze, head positioned over Audie, tight lips) to young Audie to back off. The second photo shows Zip intent on taking a toy from Audie. The intense stare, prominent whites of her eyes, open mouth and ears aimed forward indicate she is in a higher state of arousal than Zorro was. The third photo shows Aussie Roo (RIP) telling three much larger dogs to back off in no uncertain terms. The completely bared teeth, tight forward-pressed lips, wide open (almost bulging) eyes and stiff forward posture are warning them that her next step will be to bite.