understanding dog aggressiveness and when to see a professional

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Basically there are five types of aggression exhibited by dogs - dominance aggression, fear-motivated aggression, protective or territorial aggression, possessive aggression, and redirected aggression.

Owners seldom understand them, but there are reasons behind dogs' aggression.

A dog isn't necessarily mentally ill or vicious.

Basically there are five types of aggression – dominance aggression, fear- motivated aggression, protective or territorial aggression, possessive aggression, and redirected aggression.

Dominance of Aggression

Dogs live in the pack order.  Some dogs are alpha or dominant while others are more submissive or omega.  They see our families as part of their pack, and they try to fit in by challenging the more submissive family members, often the children.

If a dog feels you have challenged his alpha position, he will react aggressively.  For example, he may growl if disturbed as he rests comfortably on the couch or on his favorite chair.  He may even respond aggressively if you try to give him a friendly hug or reach over his head, a gesture of dominance, to pet him.

In every other situation, he may be friendly and co-operative, but he interprets these actions as a challenge to his alpha role in the pack.

Such dominance aggressive dogs are often purebred and self-confident.  They stand tall with their ears up and forward.  Their tails are also held high and wagged slowly back and forth.  Frequently, they growl and expose their teeth.  Owners have a difficult time with this type as they mount people’s legs, a gesture of dominance, and urinate everywhere in the house marking their territory.  They will not obey commands, and they are possessive of their sleeping areas.

Fear-Motivated Aggression

A dog on the defensive is fear motivated and usually omega.  For example, a dog who has been hit may bite you if you raise your arm to throw a ball.  His motivation is the fear of being hurt.

Fear-motivated aggression exhibits itself in a submissive body language.  Ears back and tail tucked between the legs is a common stance.  These dogs may lick their owners’ hands, a gesture of respect for older members of the pack.  They roll over to expose their bellies, resist human handling and grooming, and hate to have their feet touched.  They bite out of fear, and they will frequently come after their victims from the rear.

Protective or Territorial Aggression

Alpha dogs are usually dominant, protective, or territorially aggressive because all of these three types involve defending territory or possessions.  Many dogs are protective or territorially aggressive:  They bark when the mailman, delivery men, other dogs, or anyone else who enters their territory poses a threat, real or imagined, to their pack.  Unfortunately, if you take your dog for walks in the neighborhood and allow him to urinate as you walk, he has marked the entire area as his property.  Now, he feels he must protect it.

Possessive Aggression

Protecting food and toys comes under this category.  Usually, possessive aggression results in the outcome of abuse or even past starvation.  But it can result in combination with dominance aggression – protecting food from omega family dogs and small children to remain in the alpha position.

Redirected Aggression

The most common aggressive behavior of them all is redirected aggression which can affect any dog.  Imagine two dogs held in by a fence watching a third dog who is urinating on their territory:  These dogs get so frustrated because they are unable to attack the intruder that they attack each other.  The situation sounds almost human as we often take a bad day at work out on our loved ones.

Consulting a Professional and Taking Precautions

The first step is to have the dog thoroughly examined to rule out any medical cause.  One owner’s dog had a thyroid problem and, within weeks, with medication the aggressiveness declined.  Spaying or neutering can also help.  Spayed and neutered dogs are less likely to present dominance, territorial, and protective aggression.

Your veterinarian may suggest a drug like Prozac.  It has been known to work in some cases, but it has side effects, like dizziness, nausea, and sleeplessness that your dog will be unable to communicate to you.  Use the drug only as a last resort.

The next step is contacting a good animal behaviorist or trainer.  The potential for a serious attack is always present in an aggressive dog, and you shouldn’t try to recondition him yourself.  Choose a trainer who uses humane methods, not cruel, severe punishment, like cattle prods and shock collars.

Until your dog is reconditioned and desensitized take precautions.  Use a cage-like muzzle to take him out in public and keep him away from other people.  Remember punishment won’t help:  It will only escalate the aggressiveness.  This is one time that a professional must be utilized.