What is an Aggressive Dog?

I have been reviewing You tube video during the week of dogs labelled as aggressive by shelters in the US and it got me to thinking about what the label “aggressive” really means. It is a word that is thrown around all the time in regard to animals. That dog is aggressive or that dog was aggressive towards me. Does it mean that the dog will injury a person or another animal? Why is the dog being labelled as aggressive?  Are cats ever labelled aggressive? What causes aggression and is it treatable, I.e. can the animal be rehabilitated so as to no longer be considered aggressive?

Many dogs end up in shelters labelled aggressive, many of these end up dead because of that label and a perception that they are unable to be rehabilitated. There is considerable confusion between aggression and fearfulness and aggression as a consequence of being in pain.

As a groomer working in a country area for the last ten years I have regularly groomed heavily matted,  small white fluffy dogs who were only too happy to take off a few fingers during the process of de-matting their horribly neglected coats. These dogs are aggressive due to pain and often fear. The grooming process can be scary for small dogs, add to that the fact that they are already in pain before the procedure starts and it is a recipe for danger for the dog and the groomer. These dogs should only be groomed by professionals with considerable experience. Some should only be groomed after sedation prescribed by a veterinarian or in extreme cases full anaesthetic. Pulling on mats that have compacted under the front legs, around the genitals or on the face is an unpleasant and painful process. Often, once the bad mats are removed the dog has an instant personality transplant. These are clearly dogs that are aggressive due to being in severe pain and because they are being asked to endure a process that is scary to them. To put this in human terms imagine being aged about 30,  having no understanding or experience of dental work and then being asked to have a root canal without anaesthetic.  Sadly so many of these dogs are brought to groomers by clients who have no understanding that the process many be traumatic.

We regularly hear comments such as “it’s fine he never bites me, well only when I am brushing him” or “it’s OK he has no teeth left so he can’t hurt you” then there is the classic “what do you mean I should have been brushing my three year old entire male Maltese/Shih Tzu who has never been near a groomer or a brush”

The next group of dogs labelled as aggressive are actually not aggressive just scared out of their wits. Is this fearfulness genetic or learned? When I have the answer to that question you won’t find me as I will be travelling the world experiencing the delights of Antarctica, the North West Passage and the sunny climes of the Maldives. Are these dogs born that way or do they end up this way due to poor socialization and upbringing by the breeder and the owner or is it a mixture of nature versus nurture? One of the videos I watched today showed the capture of dogs living at a tip somewhere in the USA. One of the dogs who was born there was clearly extremely scared of humans due to fact that he had never interacted with them. These feral domesticated dogs are seen widely in poorer areas of the world with multi generations now living in these circumstances. Can they be rehabilitated? Yes is the answer but only by carefully trained owners. They will  never be the dog for everyday households.

Dogs that are put into a position that they don’t like have three choices; they can fight, flee or freeze. Fight is obvious these are dogs that come out teeth bared and often with a very menacing look. Get out of their way or else. Flee is also very obvious, given the opportunity they take off and if cornered will be forced to either freeze or fight. Freeze is less well understood and is often miss-interrupted as dogs who want humans to help them or are happy about being caught. In fact it is a dog that is pretending to not be there. Hard to describe in writing but think of a picture of an animal literally hiding its eyes under its paws thinking ” if I can’t see them they can’t see me and if I play dead they will go away and leave me alone”. Their muscles are rigid, eyes often closed or rolled back. Dogs placed in this position are severely psychologically damaged by being forced to interact. This is often know as flooding.

The last group dogs that are called “native aggressive”. These are the only group for whom aggression is a true label. They are dangerous and aggression is hard wired into them. Luckily I have only ever seen one in my career as an Animal Behaviourist. There is no explanation for their aggression they always are and always will answer every situation with out and out aggression. These dogs are scary and have no place in a domesticated situation. The only one I have seen was a 6 month old Great Dane cross I was called in to evaluate. It was not a case of if it was going to kill or hurt a human or other animal but when. Again is this nature or nurture?  I think in these cases it is probably more genetic but the wrong breeder and the wrong owner can help these tenancies to appear. Luckily cases of native aggression are few and far between. The military love these type of dogs, they have a great role to play as chase dogs, so long as the aggression can be harnessed. In rare cases this native aggression is due to brain irregularities or tumours. Native aggression appearing out of the blue in dogs not normally so can also indicate a thyroid problem.

Most cases of aggression in dogs is caused due to dogs being in pain or fearful. For dogs in pain the solution is easy, you find out what is causing the pain and you fix it, a dog that is fearful is harder but still fixable. Fearful dogs need a patient caring owner who understands that there are some situations their dog finds to had to handle and they are happy to engage a qualified professional who can help them design a program that will help their dog cope with the issues that are scaring them. The fearful dog thrives on a solid routine that ensure there are no unexpected situations in their lives.

As to aggression in cats, that is an entirely separate topic that can wait until another post. A cat is a totally different creature to a dog.

Until next week……….
    Stay safe and remember to Kiss the dog, hug the cat and tell your goldfish you love them.


Louise Kerr 
The Pet Care Magician

Louise Kerr (aka The Pet Care Magician) is the owner of Elite Pet Care & Education based in the Nambucca Valley NSW Australia. She consults and writes widely on a range of pet care issues including feeding, training and grooming dogs and cats. Her online pet care magic subscription program  deals with common pet behaviour, training, feeding and grooming issues such as barking, escaping, scratching, aggression and fleas. Pet care professionals are trained to handle customer issues by the provision of up to date programs to differentiate their pet care business from other competitors


Posted on February 4, 2012, in Dog Training, Training and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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