I originally wrote this post in July 2012:

Few things threaten the relationship between dogs and humans more than your dog showing aggressive behavior. We can feel so conflicted and vulnerable when a potentially dangerous problem emerges. It damages the trust bond between you and you’re your dog and can expose your family to several risks. It is a significant behavioral reason why physically healthy dogs are euthanized.

Knowing a few basics about aggressive behavior can help you better define what is happening and seek appropriate help to address the problem.

What is Aggression?

First, it is important to know that aggression is normal canine behavior. All dogs are capable of aggressive behavior. Thankfully, most rarely or never find the need to use it. Picking fights is the tool of last resort. How long would a species survive if its members were constantly warring with each other? I will skip the obvious debate here on human behavior.

Aggression is actually a series of escalating behaviors that humans lump together in a single behavior. While the calls I get about aggressive behavior typically describe growls and bites, the process starts well before the dog got around to growling or biting. Think of aggression as a ladder. Each rung is a behavior the dog demonstrates that carries a clue. British animal behaviorist and veterinarian, Kendal Shepherd, developed the “Ladder of Aggression” that shows the 11 behaviors most dogs will run through before they ever reach the point of snapping or biting. We just have to know what to look for in the dog’s body language.

Causes of Aggressive Behavior

Nearly all aggressive behavior is caused by stress. The dog is feeling pressure from one or more stressors. If the stress builds to a point where the dog feels she has no other choice, she will use aggressive behavior to relieve that stress. Stress accumulates in layers. The dog may be able to tolerate one type of stressor, let’s say construction noise in the neighborhood on a walk. But if she then encounters a group of running and laughing kids, followed by an off-leash dog running into her space, she may start to demonstrate some stress signs and maybe begin pulling on the leash to get out of there. Her owner delivers a harsh leash correction to stop the pulling, and that final stressor tips her over-threshold to start growling, lunging and snapping at people or dogs. When that happens, dogs and people back off or the owner takes the dog home and the big threat display has been reinforced because it was effective in getting the dog away from the stress.

Because it has been reinforced, you may start to see a regular pattern of the aggressive behavior. Maybe the initial signs start as soon as you leave the house, or turn on to a particular street. Maybe your dog starts reacting to a particular type of human or dog – despite no evident threat. Maybe a certain sound “sets your dog off.” Dogs are remarkable at forming associations between two things we may see as completely unrelated.

If an incident of aggressive behavior occurs with your dog, ask yourself: what is going on when I see this behavior in my dog? Is there a common theme (types of dogs, humans, sounds, environments, objects, etc.)? Write down anything you observe. It will provide great information when you seek help.

Addressing Aggressive Behavior

This subject alone can fill a column, and will be the topic of next month’s Pet Passions column. If you are currently dealing with aggressive behavior in your dog, observe and record what your dog’s triggers are and avoid exposure to them, if you can.

Resources at your fingertips

Kendal Shepherd’s Ladder of Aggression: www.angleseypetclinic.co.uk/pdf/dogs/aggression.pdf

Book on Body Language: “Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide”, Brenda Aloff, Dogwise Publishing, 2005

Carol Peter is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and owner of Cold Nose Companions, LLC Dog Training. She offers private training and group classes for people and their dogs throughout Geauga County. Carol focuses on resolving problem behaviors and teaching good household manners using positive reinforcement training and behavior modification methods. She can be reached at carol@coldnosecompanions.com.

©2012, Carol Peter, Cold Nose Companions, LLC