Aggression – a big WHY?

Feb 28, 2017 |

“Help, I can’t figure out what makes my dog so aggressive…” – questions of this type I get asked a lot, even though it is not really a problem that the potential students are having.

So why does that dog, or this dog, your own lap-loving, couch-adoring cuddly pooch demonstrated the signs of the aggression, even though we know well that there’s never been a reason for them to act in this way?

Well, talking about dogs’ aggression, and this is the cause of almost 70% of my trainees’ worries, dogs behave in this way because… they are dogs. Dogs eat, run, play, chew, poop, growl, bite, chase, dig, jump, scratch and roll… If you go through the whole list, you will see that it is not endless, and talking about the most well-behaved dog you will be able to confirm that they all have tried pretty much every little behaviour from the list above.

They have a set of behaviours, a repertoire, that they all go through during their life, just trying some of the things out, but sticking with the other threads for the rest of their lives. (Pavlov)

So, aggression

Commonly known either as affective (emotional), hostile or retaliatory aggression, and the instrumental, goal-oriented or predatory aggression, the list just begins here: fear-based, nervous aggression, frustration, redirected (or misdirected) aggression, sexual, territorial, dominant aggression, chase or competitive aggression, possessive and food- and resource- related aggression, punishment aggression, pain aggression, maternal, paternal and play aggression, relational and occupational aggression, and when you thought you were coming to an end of this list, there’s an Idiopathic aggression (an unprovoked, unpredictable form of aggression with no known cause. Otherwise described as “rage” syndrome)…

Well, and I will tell you that your dog probably has all of those within. Concealed, camouflaged, but they are all there. Because they are dogs! Acting on it – is a different matter, so don’t get me wrong – this does not justify the fact that he / she just pounced on a passer-by or chased a school-girl down the alley…

Well, you equipped yourself with all of the theories available, and put your dog to the most serious test of his / hers life. Of course it is a big deal – the behaviourist invited to judge you two on it has probably charged you a mere 3-4 hundred quid just to sit and talk to you over a table and later on present you with a massive report telling you that you do have a dog and your dog is xxx- aggressive and a bit less yyy-aggressive, but not zzz-aggressive at all! Money well spent, you think, just to go home and realise that the dog-guru has not taken the problem away… So what now? After you have gone through that mean verdict over and over again… “Keep working on it” – just does not do it for you after days and days of practice.

Do not despair – I have seen just the solution in “Back to the Future” recently: You get yourself one of those, a time-machine, I mean, and – go back to the day and time when your dogs snarled at you for the first time or nicked a sausage from your other dog and run off with it. Change that, remove the initial cause – and – back home, to find your dog well and happy with himself and not indicating to any of the dangers you were so concerned about. Yes, knowing where your dog’s aggression had originated is extremely important!

But then – I have had an offended trainee turning all unhappy when I held this talk at one of my recent “growlers” class. And I understand why. I make the same old hole even deeper by contributing to the shame and embarrassment of having a “problem” dog. So it is actually all that bad?

Identifying the cause of the dog’s behaviour is of a paramount value, I will confirm. But what actually spoils the rehabilitation of that hound is identifying it wrongly. And I will try to explain why.

A dog snaps at another animal. It gives him a short-term benefit of, say, gaining a comfort, safety or resource (This is your Operant Conditioning, or Instrumental Learning, practical application). There’s always a reason why it happens on the first place, we’ve just been through it all. There are plenty of those. Then it happens again, and the hesitation and uncertainty of what to do in similar circumstances disappears fairly quickly (Thorndike). “If I do that, the problem goes away!” – your pet might conclude and continue acting in this manner. And soon they just do it not because they are hungry, frightened of bothered by an intruder, but because they did it last time, and the time before that. Please read this bit again. We are about to discover something major here!

Sexually frustrated dog feels rather uneasy in presence of another male competing for the loyalty of the same bitch. It is hormonal and instinctive. But having this done once, and twice the whole behaviour quickly becomes associated with the subject of the aggression – another male (Pavlov). And there you go – you will soon have a dog-hating canine budging to “sort out” any potential threat in site, be it with, or without a female present to guard. Just because I did it yesterday…

This is called a “Learnt Behaviour”, or “Learnt Adaptive Behaviour”. This is what creates a problem for all of those dogs in trouble. And this is the most common reason they end up where they do.

Lets talk about this in a bit more detail.

Learning does not necessarily lead to a change in behaviour. Some learning processes lead to a permanent change in behaviour, this goes not only to the problem patterns’ description. But some – do not. Not every dog, frightened to death by a dog-attack turns offensive in future. Practice demonstrates that most animals can learn new information without demonstrating new behaviours. Good in most scenarios, but bad when it comes to teaching a badly-behaved dog to act better. Knowing what to do and how does not necessarily makes them re-think their repertoire or change anything in the way they act. Attention and Retention of information is what influences this process. They can be individually present there, or might not be – every dog and every situation is highly individual.


“But I had never rewarded my dog when he tried to defend his bone, so why is he so protective over them now?” – some might ask. And this is what makes dog training so exciting and thrilling. It does not have to have an outside stimuli to reinforce the behaviour. It could become self-rewarding, such as scooping a piece of chicken off the floor in front of another person, but it could also be based on what they call an Intrinsic Reinforcement. According to Bandura, external, environmental reinforcement is not the only factor to influence learning and behaviour. He described intrinsic reinforcement as a form of internal reward, such as pride, satisfaction, and a sense of accomplishment. Too much? Well, and that is not the end of it also.

Lets talk about ourselves for a second. Most of our behaviours are very automatic, we do things without thinking too deeply about the consequences, most of the time. We are animals, just like the rest of nature, and we respond in the same way they do. Like Pavlov’s famous dogs – if you show us something that we’ve seen before, we often respond to it in a pre-programmed or learnt way. You will also probably think certain thoughts as a result, again often automatically (though they might not feel automatic). Some of these thoughts are so subtle and you have them so often, you might not even notice them. But believe you me – you did in the beginning, this is why you are where you are.

But the answer to that original question still remains So why is my dog behaves aggressively? Because they did the same last time, and the time before that. Because this is what you have conditioned them to be, or let them develop the behaviour you are talking about. How many aggression types are there that our dogs get affected by? My suggestion is – One! Learnt Behaviour…

But what do we do to help them to get out of acting this way – is a subject for another discussion. D.Y.

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