areas of potential aggression

  1. Social/Dominance (Directed towards individuals when authority is in question and/or not accepted such as when trying to get the dog off the couch)
  2. Resource/Object Guarding (beds, couches, people, toys, and even affection)
  3. Protective (Includes territory such as the house, property, neighborhood, crate, and vehicles. This can also include specific individuals regardless of location)
  4. Barrier (Happens when the dog is behind a fence, window, in the crate, or on leash)
  5. Health (Caused by chronic conditions such as an ongoing ear infection or skin condition)
  6. Medical (Conditions can exist such as hypothyroidism, neurological, or genetic)
  7. Pain Elicited (The cause can be acute such as a tail being closed in a door, or the prick of a needle)
  8. Prey/Predatory (Begins with intense staring and scanning in anticipation of where “prey” may be present or is triggered by quick moving objects/animals. Predatory behavior takes place without signals of intent, and the engagement has one purpose…to destroy the opponent/object. This behavior is seen disproportionately higher within particular breeds.)
  9. Fear Induced (Reacting when scared, nervous or unsure of stimuli or specific situations. Examples: moving objects such as bikes, runners, cars, children, or when cornered and can’t escape)
  10. Food (Includes meals, high value consumable items such as marrow bones, and/or treats)
  11. Redirected (It is a result from when the dog can’t get to, or is unclear who the target is/should be)
  12. Maternal (centering around a female dog’s pregnancy or as displaced aggression when a human is pregnant)
  13. Insecurity (The acting out when the dog does not have enough experience with the given situation and is defaulting to the influence of Mother Nature. This is a natural part of "puberty" and is disproportionately higher in guardian and Shepherd breeds.)


prey/predatory

Often begins with intense staring and scanning in anticipation of where "prey" may be present or triggered by quick moving objects/animals.

From a strictly scientific, and behavioral point of view, predatory behavior is not categorized as aggression even though functionally it is looked at as part of the aggression cycle. The public perceives it as such so we will talk about it in those terms because at the end of the day, it can potentially cause harm to humans and/or other animals. Predatory behavior can be very dangerous because it takes place without signals of intent, and the engagement has one purpose…to destroy the opponent/object.

Predatory behavior is seen disproportionately higher within the bully breeds, modern bloodlines of Malinois/Shepherds, and guardian breeds such as the Rottweiler.

Prey IS NOT a barking/screaming dog at the end of a leash trying to get to a squirrel, or a personal protection dog or police K9 trying to get to a person. This is a side effect of not being able to act out the prey cycle of Mother Nature and turns into Barrier Frustration. Prey is when the dog goes silent with a single focused intent of engaging and then destroying the object. Prey is a complex cycle which is very instinctual and part of a dog at a very primal level. It isn’t readily understood in modern dogs because humans have manipulated the sequence of behaviors within this aggression cycle to include only part of the steps most of the time, and to varying degrees of intensity.

We must take a step back for a moment and briefly talk about aggression before we talk about predatory behavior. I talk about aggression in full detail in other articles, but for this comparison, aggression is: a series of escalating displays towards an individual with the intent of driving them away (create space) through growling, barking, hackles, tail position and movement, etc. So, the true intent of aggression within any species is to settle a “disagreement” and create space between individuals with the least amount of harm/damage done to either individual. An example of this within the human species is when two people yell and scream at each other, threaten, call names, puff out chests, etc. At an instinctual/genetic level, we do this to potentially defuse the situation without having to actually fight. In a perfect scenario things would be settled without ever needing to physically contact one another. Aggression is a form of communication that has evolved over time within social networks to communicate intent and settle issues without getting hurt. The success of this relies on the fact that there is an established social construct that has accepted hierarchies and those involved are willing to compromise. The idea of compromise is very important to understand when one is working with fighting breeds like Pitbulls. (I am using the word Pitbull to classify all bully breeds)

Now that we have a reference point for aggression, we can now compare that to the mental state of predatory behavior and its function. Simplified, predatory behavior is the direct opposite of aggression from a functional point of view. Where aggression’s intent is to create distance with minimal harm, predatory intent is to close the gap as quickly and efficiently as possible with the intent of killing/destroying the opponent. Where aggression is about being very visible and clear on intention and mental state, predatory is about stealth and in some cases giving false intention. This is a throwback to Mother Nature when dogs hunted for their food (prey). They needed to sneak up on the intended target and kill it before they even knew what happened. We have taken this behavior and manipulated it to serve specific purposes within the domesticated dog.

Within Shepherd breeds we have taken these genetics and created dogs that will engage in a very confident manner for police work and personal protection. These dogs see humans as any other prey item and have no taboo of biting us. Within fighting breeds like Pitbulls, we have pushed predatory behavior to the extreme. Because of our desire to create an extreme dog, we began adding other traits to the recipe (no different than the creation of any breed/type of dog) until we got the modern Pitbull. All this tweaking of Mother Nature came at a cost. These type of dogs (there are individuals and exceptions within every group) lost their ability to compromise and be flexible. This makes a great fighting dog that will never back down or quit (I by no means condone dog fighting), but not so good when dealing with the nuances of a complex, social construct. As more scientific studies are being conducted on dogs, we are gaining more insight, especially in psychology. One very relevant attribute that is being looked at in greater detail is the disproportionate amount of “out of nowhere” aggressive behavior within fighting breeds. (This perception of “out of nowhere” needs its own focused explanation which I will do at another time.) If we look at this behavior not as unpredictable, “out of nowhere”, aggressive behavior, but instead as predatory behavior, this gives us insight that sheds light on what is truly happening in those situations. It is being postulated that we have cross wired some behaviors at a genetic level. Where a Pitbull should communicate in an aggressive manner, they instead deal with the situation in a predatory manner. In situations where they are supposed to growl or give warning, they don’t. Why? Because they aren’t trying to settle the situation with the least amount of damage. They deal with issues as basically everything is cool, or they should quickly and efficiently destroy their opponent. To some degree there is no grey area, it’s all or nothing. Once again, these are great genetics to have if your primary interaction with others is to fight and win at all costs, but can be very dangerous if not understood when trying to navigate the complexities of social networks. The more complex the social network, the more compromise and flexibility there must be between the individuals to maintain harmony.

This explanation is not a calling out of Pitbulls or other fighting breeds as being bad dogs, I own and work with these types of dogs daily and absolutely love them. They do come with a different level of responsibility than other breeds. It’s about understanding that there are breed differences and there are higher percentages of certain behaviors that can/will come out when dealing with these breeds.

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insecurity

The acting out when the dog does not have enough experience with the given situation and is defaulting to the influence of Mother Nature. This is a natural part of "puberty" and is disproportionately higher in guardian and Shepherd breeds.

DETAILED EXPLANATION COMING SOON

protective

Includes territory such as the house, property, neighborhood, crate, and vehicles. This can also include specific individuals regardless of location.

DETAILED EXPLANATION COMING SOON

barrier

Can manifest when behind a fence, a window, on leash or being held by an individual.

This category is often called Barrier Frustration because even though it can look very intense, it does not mean that the dog will, if given the opportunity, engage in an aggressive manner. This type of “aggression” simply put, happens when a dog cannot get to what they want and that frustration builds which causes the dog to get even more ramped up and the behavior intensifies. It is often seen paired with Redirected Aggression. Some dogs may display this when wanting to greet other dogs or people on leash and when restrained, throw a tantrum by barking, pulling to the point of choking, looking like a hooked fish on a line, and/or nipping or fully biting the handler or leash (there are also usually underlying issues of entitlement and Leadership/Pack Structure issues).

In certain high drive breeds, this ramped up mental state, even though wasn’t started because of aggression, it can often turn into aggression quickly because of genetics (predisposition to aggression).

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health

Chronic conditions such as ongoing ear infections, poor hygiene, hip dysplasia, or a torn CCL

Health should always be a consideration when looking at behavioral issues such as aggression. Something as simple as an ear infection can look like social aggression or depending on severity, could look like fear aggression because when someone goes to pet the dog they are aggressive. It could simply be that the dog has enough chronic pain that it’s easier to just keep people away from their head. This behavior can also apply to feet (nails being too long), or even something more subtle such as hip dysplasia.

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Medical

Conditions such as hypothyroidism, neurological, or genetic

From a percentage point of view, most aggression issues do not stem from medical issues, but they do exist. Hypothyroidism is one such medical condition that can cause aggressive behaviors. When diagnosed properly, it can be treated fairly successfully, but usually there is still other issues that have to be addressed through a training and management plan. The biggest issue when dealing with hypothyroidism is getting a proper diagnosis. The tests that the average veterinarian runs for this, is not sufficient to pick up on the markers unless there are other clinical signs when the issue becomes more advanced after years of cumulative damage. If one feels this may be a possible reason their dog is aggressive, I encourage you to look into HEMOPET and Dr. Jean Dobbs and have your blood work sent there. They are one of the only facilities capable of running an in-depth test.

From my experience when dealing with this as a potential cause, we are looking into it because, we have done training and/or an assessment and variables such as Leadership/Pack Structure, entitlement, breed variables (Dobermans are predisposed to this), cohabitation, etc. have all been addressed and we are still having aggressive episodes. The reason I say episodes, because a lot of times that is what it is, episodes of aggression and not a constant state of mind or personality. They are often seen/described as their ramp up is being very manic and is triggered by normal interactions that may not have been an issue when done for years. The “snapping” out of it is usually just as quick and manic as if nothing happened. There is of course varying degrees to the behaviors depending on how long the medical condition has been affecting the dog.

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Resource/Object

Beds, couches, people, toys, and even affection

Resource guarding a lot of times is the final straw for people to seek help. Resource guarding can take on many different triggers, but they all stem from the same state of mind, ENTITLEMENT and an unclear understanding of what the rules, boundaries as structure are for that particular situation. Reshaping the relationship to reflect one of mutual respect and that the owner/handler is a fair leader who will PROVIDE life’s essentials instead of the dog being ENTITLED to them, is where a lot of understanding is needed in order to address this type, or other aggression. In order to address this issue properly, one needs to understand dog culture and how that shapes a dog’s understanding of their interactions with us unless we put in the time to teach them otherwise.

Resource guarding areas of rest such as human furniture (chairs, couches) and beds, is one of the leading causes of children getting a bite by the family dog. The damage done goes up depending on the breed. Too often people look into this area of aggression after the fact instead of putting in steps to minimize it from ever happening from day one.

Resource guarding of food is a separate issue discussed in Food Aggression.

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fear induced

Reacting when scared, nervous or unsure of stimuli or specific situations. Examples: moving objects such as bikes, runners, cars, children, or when cornered and can’t escape

DETAILED EXPLANATION COMING SOON

FOOD

Includes meals, high value consumable items such as marrow bones, and/or treats

DETAILED EXPLANATION COMING SOON

redirected

It is a result from when the dog can’t get to, or is unclear who the target is/should be

DETAILED EXPLANATION COMING SOON

maternal

centering around a female dog’s pregnancy or as displaced aggression when a human is pregnant

DETAILED EXPLANATION COMING SOON

pain elicited

The cause can be acute such as a tail being closed in a door, or the prick of a needle

DETAILED EXPLANATION COMING SOON

social/dominance

Directed towards individuals when authority is in question and/or not accepted such as when trying to get the dog off the couch

DETAILED EXPLANATION COMING SOON