Posts tagged ‘Aggression’

Telling Tails of Aggression

This week’s Misguided Science Award goes to researchers at the University of Victoria who used a robotic dog to study how long versus short or docked tails affect canine behavior. 

The study concluded that dogs approach a dog with a docked tail more cautiously than they do a dog with a ‘complete’ tail.  According to one researcher, this could make a dog with a docked tail more aggressive. 

Their findings were based on a series of observations regarding how dogs at a dog park approached the robotic dog when it was fitted with a long or short tail.  The robotic tail wagged on some trials and stood up stiff in others. 

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First, I am absolutely flabbergasted that anyone would consider that dogs’ reactions to an obviously fake, robotic dog represent valid data on dog-dog behavior.  I am certain that even the most sheltered, apartment-dwelling city dogs innately understand the difference between real and robotic dogs.  And in most cases they’re not going to react the same way to a robotic dog that they will to a real one. 

Second, it does not appear that the group conducted an initial study of how dogs with long and short tails (remember, not all short tails are artificially docked) wag them in different situations.

I’ve spent a lot of time watching dogs interact with each other.  In my experience, short-tailed dogs don’t just wag their stubby little tails when they’re happy and excited.  They typically wiggle the whole rear half of their bodies. 

Tail-wagging doesn’t always indicate happiness or friendliness.  Generally speaking, it indicates arousal.  The soft, slow wag of a lowered tail can indicate calm interest.  The rapid, loose wagging of a tail held at mid level (combined with a butt wiggle in a short-tailed dog) may indicate excited, friendly anticipation.  Rapid, stiff, wagging of an erect tail generally indicates intent arousal – and may precede an aggressive response. 

So, when robo-dog wagged what was very likely a short, stiff, erect, electronic tail he may have been communicating a weird, artificial kind of aggressive intent.  I don’t find it the least bit strange that dogs avoided robo-dog or behaved in an antisocial manner toward him if that was the situation. 

When robo-dog wagged a long tail at mid-height (especially if that long tail was constructed in a way that allowed it to flex as it wagged) he communicated an odd but friendly demeanor.  I would expect confident, social dogs to approach a ‘thing’ that behaved that way to investigate it.

In neither case do I believe that the dogs studied mistook robo-dog for a real dog.

As you can probably guess based on what I’ve written here, I don’t for a minute believe that having a short or docked tail predisposes a dog toward behaving aggressively toward other dogs. 

I have a different theory.  Check out the video below for frightening footage of a short-tailed dog demonstrating some extremely aggressive behavior:

Did docking his tail make this Airedale wire-haired fox terrier violently aggressive – or was it an owner who forced the poor beast to listen to death metal music that sent him over the edge?

Studies have indicated that listening to classical music, panpipes and whale songs may have a calming effect on dogs.  Is it then a stretch to suggest that exposure to gangsta rap, death metal and the music of Richard Wagner could turn them to violence?

Are the vicious pibbles and rockwilders we hear so much about in the media innately hostile beasts – or have they been ruined because their owners exposed them to too much teevee violence and musical mayhem?

It’s food for thought…. 

March 24, 2008 at 9:48 pm 9 comments

The Most Dangerous Dogs

Despite the media’s current obsession with stories about packs of aggressive dogs running loose and attacking strangers – the vast majority of dogs who bite belong to the victim’s family or friends. Yes, believe it or not, contrary to what you’ve read in the news, most dog bites come where and when we least expect them.  From good dogs. In our own homes.

People who report dog bites often say that the bite was ‘completely unexpected’. When they describe the dog that bit them (or their child or their friend) the first thing they’ll do is tell you what a great dog he is.

And most of the time their description of that good dog includes a long list of aggravations that good dog has endured. 

“The kids chased him around all the time and it never bothered him before.” 
“He never used to care when we grabbed him.”
“We always encouraged him to bark at the door, we never imagined he’d actually bite someone.”
“But we didn’t know he was injured and it hurt when we touched him there.”

We live in a culture that endows dogs with human virtues and denyies them our vices, and that twisted ideal leaves us with good dogs that unexpectedly do bad things.  People love their dogs for the good things they do and excuse them for the not-so-good. This gives them a false sense of security and leads to a lack of supervision and training. 

After all, a good dog doesn’t need to be trained or supervised, does he?

What our society seems to have forgotten is that the goodness of a dog won’t stop him from biting. Responsibility on the part of the people who own and interact with him does.

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How to keep a good dog from going bad:

Supervise ALL interactions between preschool children and dogs.

Teach children to respect dogs. Set aside a ‘time out’ location (like a crate or laundry room) that the dog can go to when it doesn’t want to be with the kids. Enforce a ‘leave the dog alone’ rule when the dog is there. Don’t allow children to tease or harass the dog and discourage rough play.

Obey leash laws.  Keep your dog safely in your home, on your property or under your supervision at all times.

Pay attention to your dog’s health.  If he seems crabby or lethargic, take him in for a checkup even if nothing obvious is wrong with him.

Don’t force your dog to accept the attention of strangers (including the four-legged ones). Not all dogs are social butterflies. You don’t let every person you meet hug you or paw at you – why should your dog?

Train your dog. Training creates a common language and strengthens the bond between you and your dog. It does NOT turn a dog into a mindless robot. Rules and boundaries create predictability in a dog’s world. Predictability reduces anxiety, and reducing anxiety decreases aggression.

Don’t let your dog fence fight.  Don’t let him lunge and bark at people or dogs when you go for a walk.  Don’t let him charge the door, windows or gate when visitors approach. When your dog does these things he’s not protecting you, he’s expressing his own insecurity.

Don’t let your good dog go bad.

February 11, 2008 at 7:15 am 7 comments

“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.

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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.

January 28, 2008 at 5:59 am 4 comments

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