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Understanding aggression in dogs

Like humans, dogs too have a personality of their own and their behaviour is often  determined by various internal and external factors and aggression is no exception. 

Out of the entire range of canine behavioural traits, aggression is one characteristic, which is by far the most misunderstood and mishandled by humans. For many ‘supposed’ animal lovers, signs of aggression or ferocity have often caused them to resort inhumane practices, such as abandonment, eliminating the incisors and even euthanasia. Then there are people who prefer to keep a distance from anything that looks dog-like. They mostly dread the idea of a dog getting close to them and commonly believe, that all dogs do, is chase and bite people. The fact is that dogs have better things to do in life than chase and bite people all day long. With relevance to the former case, it has to be learnt and recognized that there may be certain physical and psychological factors underlying aggressive behaviour in a dog.
Most people, unfortunately, remain unaware of the existence and outcomes of these factors due to the lack of appropriate education on dog psychology and behaviour. The knowledge of this would help a great deal in avoiding uncomfortable and unsafe situations for the family of the pet, for the animal herself and of course, a complaining neighbourhood.
The foremost thing to learn and understand about dogs is that, they too have personalities of their own. In this regard, it is also important to note that, each dog has a distinct personality, depending on the environment in which she has been allowed to mature. The conduciveness of this environment to the psychological and physical well being of the pooch, is what will determine the possibilities of her displaying varied forms of aggression. A proper recognition of these, go a long way in assisting a healthy co-existence between humans and their canine companions.
Protection: The sense of ‘protection’ is a very common instigator of aggressive behaviour. Dogs have a strong tendency to protect things that they find valuable, such as their food, toys, territory and even their human family members. This kind of aggression is in most cases directed towards strangers, (who, according to dogs, might snatch away or harm their valuable possessions) and normally protects houses from robbers or burglars. Dogs find growling or barking as their only protective weapons.
Fear or anxiety: Dogs and all other animals, are naturally fearful and apprehensive of things, environments and situations, which they are unfamiliar to. These unfamiliar things are often considered to have the potential of being threatening. For example, any dog who has grown up in a quiet and peaceful household, will feel startled and threatened amongst noisy, rowdy or overly active people. In such a case, a dog may bark or pounce to drive the chaos away and defend herself and her human family. From a dog’s point of view therefore, if the behaviour of an otherwise friendly passerby looks threatening or frightening, there is all the reason to act for the purpose of protection.
Ill-treatment: Closely associated with the above mentioned factor, is aggression deriving from ‘ill-treatment.’ In a case where the dog is frequently beaten or hit for varied reasons, the dog might one day begin retaliating through ferocious behaviour, due to the fear of being hurt again. It is, thus, common to see that people who are harsh with their pets usually have dogs who are aggressive in nature.
Maternal instinct: Maternal aggression is commonly observed in female dogs two to four weeks after they have given birth and derives again, from a sense of insecurity and fear. Even the most docile and friendly dog is most likely to display maternal aggression if she has the slightest intuition that her babies might be at risk. It is most advisable, therefore, to restrict any visitors to get a look at, let alone touching, those ‘Oh! So adorable!’ bundles of cuteness for the first few weeks. As far as stray mothers are concerned, it is best for doggy lovers to prepare a cosy and safe place for her and the babies in some corner in a lane, not forgetting to keep a safe distance.
Frustration: It can originate from various factors, prominent amongst them being long hours of confinement and chaining. Besides, certain ‘playing’ methods of pet parents also bother dogs. Imagine someone shaking you up while you are in deep sleep, or someone blowing air in your face, or tickling, poking or trying to stuff you in a pillowcase! One must realize that a dog too has ‘limits,’ a concept that people, mostly children, ignore when it comes to animals. This disregard is most likely to result in a rebellious response from the canine and the only way that she can express this defiance is through a show of aggression.
Play-fighting: As far as ‘play fighting’ between dogs and humans is concerned, it is symbolic of an affectionate exchange of fondness and trust. Here, we may slap and pull or grab our dogs playfully, while they playfully bite or tug our hands or clothes. ‘Play bites’ are extremely inhibited and harmless. Young dogs, however, who are still learning how to inhibit their bites while playing, might at times, unintentionally bite hard. This, by all means, must not be considered as an act of aggression, as it is nothing more than an innocent effort to return your affection.
Pain or sickness: A sick or injured dog often turns irritable and snappy. Snapping, showing of teeth or growling, however, are no more than warnings saying ‘do not touch!’ It is not surprising, therefore, for an otherwise gentle dog to bite a caring owner who is trying to examine, treat or soothe a wound or injury.
Old age: It is common for an aged dog to acquire certain age related medical problems such as impaired vision and hearing or a diminished sense of smell. As a result of confusion caused by these, a dog may not be quick in recognizing and accepting people or situations. Consequently, they tend to get startled and irritated quickly at being approached or handled too often. These reactions also have to do with another trait that is associated with the elderly, including those amongst humans, is the ‘lack of patience.’ We, therefore, see old dogs becoming snappy and less tolerant towards active puppies and ‘over-enthusiastic’ human lovers. Besides these factors, other age related problems such as arthritis also cause great discomfort and pain in old dogs, making a dog less friendly and intolerant.
Dominance: The victims here are usually the pet owners who, from the dog’s point of view, are the subordinates in the ‘pack.’ Obviously then, the dog considers herself to be the leader of the pack, or in literal terms, the leader or head of the family. The fact is that a dog is a pack animal and by natural instincts, will try to establish dominance within any pack that she belongs to. For pet dogs, the owning family, along with the other household pets, form the pack. What’s interesting, is that it is the owners’ behaviour towards the dog, which will determine the development of dominance aggression. If the owners have a habit of feeding the dog before they eat themselves, or allow him to sleep on their own beds, or submit at one bark of demand; the dog will establish a higher rank in the household and begin commanding wishes through a show of dominance aggression.
Redirected aggression: Here, a dog might attack his owner, a stranger or another animal because she is already enraged by another source or in another context. The most common example of this form of aggression is when a man, who is trying to break a fight between two dogs, grabs at the dogs’ collars, tails or legs in the process. The agitated dog will most probably throw a bite at the ‘interfering’ source, without realising who that source is and many times, even considering it a part of the other dog.
So, the next time you see your dog showing aggressive behaviour, try to understand the underlying cause, before labelling her as an aggressive dog. Remember, such behaviour can be controlled with the help of proper training.