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Common Aggressive Dog Myths

Updated on August 7, 2015
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Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

Is predatory drive a form of aggression?

Dog aggression myths
Dog aggression myths | Source

Aggressive dog myths are often promulgated through the Internet or among dog owners and trainers. Not only are myths promulgating false facts, but they are also harmful to the dog and owner relationship, especially when they encourage an adversarial relationship. Following are some common misconceptions about dog aggression. But let's discuss the term aggression first of all, shall we? In it's broadest sense, Wikipedia tells us it's "a behavior, or a disposition, that is forceful, hostile or attacking." It comes from the Latin word " aggressio," meaning attack. Alexandra Semyonova , author of the book "The 100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs" claims that "strictly speaking, aggression is some act that is intended to cause harm or pain." But this is mostly the definition used for aggression in humans. When it comes to dogs, she claims "aggression means delivering an uninhibited bite to the other in question, using the full and uninhibited strength of the jaws."

Fact is, for the most part when dog owners are claiming their dog is aggressive, in reality the dog is doing the opposite of what is considered aggressive. They are engaging in behaviors that are meant to avoid real aggression. They will stiffen, lunge, bark, growl and air snap, all behaviors that prevent them from delivering that inhibited bite. The term for this is ritualized aggression.The dog utilizing these non-bite messages is trying to resolve conflicts without resorting to actual violence. The dog perceiving them, will likely respect those displays and steer clear without second thoughts. The discussion therefore ends and nobody got hurt. Of course, from our perspective we are seeing behaviors that look fierce and even scary, while from Rover's perspective they are quite normal facets of canine communication.

Normal dogs will do all they can to avoid aggressive encounters. Alexandra Semoyonova claims ''the domestic dog by nature is anything but an aggressive species''.The use of ritualized aggression therefore helps prevent conflict in normal, well-socialized dogs, but when it's used towards other dogs that pose no threat, it may be a sign of insecurity, anxiety and lack of social skills. The following are some myths about dog aggression. Don't have time to read? Take the below quiz first and then come back for the answers.

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1) "My Dog is Aggressive"

We often say "my dog is aggressive" when this is far from true and an unfair statement to our dogs. "Aggression as it used to describe a dog's behavior, is not an adjective, it's a verb" explains dog trainer Sarah Hogdson. What a wonderful statement! Couldn't be worded better! It would be far more correct to say "My dogs acts aggressively in certain circumstances, or my dog uses aggression when he feels threatened." Labeling a dog as being aggressive is like saying that he is aggressive all the time and his behavior is unchangeable. It's correct to say "he is a dog, he is a neutered male, he is a mastiff" as those are certainties and subject to remain unchanged. There's also a beneficial caveat in using the word aggressive as a verb versus an adjective. Dog trainer Connie Cleveland explains: "Actions can be changed, DNA cannot. If you believe your dog IS shy, scared, soft, aggressive, etc., you will become crippled in your training of him by his personality. However, if you believe your dog is acting in a certain way, you will treat him very differently because you will believe you can change his behavior." Words of wisdom!

2) Dogs who Act Aggressively Need Training

You'll often hear people advise to go see a trainer to fix a dog's propensity for aggression. Dogs don't need training when they exhibit aggressive displays, they need behavior modification. Training a dog to sit, lie down or stay won't go to the root of the problem which is an issue stemming from an emotional issue. Saying "dogs who act aggressively need training" is like telling a person with a personality issue to go seek help from a teacher rather than a psychologist. Granted, a dog who is forced to sit when he faces a trigger may stay more composed, but this is unfair and his internal turmoil will still be there and will eventually pop up at the next opportunity. If all it took to solve aggression was some basic obedience, things would be quite easy. Casey LoMonaco further proves this by saying "For the record, it's possible (and not uncommon) to have a very obedient dog who is also very aggressive or reactive."

So who should owners of dogs who act aggressively consult with? The experts in the field for this are behavior consultants, veterinary behaviorists and certified applied animal behaviorists, but nowadays there are also many reputable trainers who offer behavior consultations and can offer assistance.

3) Aggressive Dogs Don't Wag Their Tail

You'll occasionally stumble on people who are shocked because they got bitten by a dog who was wagging its tail. Not all tail wags are friendly! You may be dealing with a dog who is in conflict about approaching you and may therefore engage in dog approach/avoidance behavior. One minute the dog may be wagging his tail happily in sweeping motions, the next when you stretch your arm to pet him, he's growling. Or the dog is wagging his tail, but it's not the typical, friendly tail wag we're used to, it's the nervous type where only the tip is moving and the dog appears tense. Those who aren't well-versed in reading doggy body language may confuse the two. For more on this read my hub on tail language in dogs.

4) Aggressive Dogs are Dominant

Cesar Millan is convinced that most dogs act out of dominance. The dog that pulls on the leash is dominant, the dog that protects his food bowl is dominant, the dog that gets out the door first is dominant. Not only is the term "dominant" greatly misused (dominance is not a personality trait, it's a relationship among pairs of individuals according to APDT ) but it's far from being true. Most dog behaviors stem from other reasons (lack of training, history of reinforcement) and most aggressive behaviors tend to stem from fear or anxiety. According to UC Davis Clinical Animal Behavior Services "True dominance aggression is very rare. Most often aggressive acts are based out of another type of motivation. Usually what is assumed to be dominance aggression is actually based out of fear or anxiety."

5) Aggressive Behavior Should be Punished

You'll often hear some trainers suggest that every time your dog reacts aggressively towards another dog you should deliver a strong leash jerk. "In Dog Training, Jerk Is A Noun, Not A Verb." Says Dr. Fetko. Truth is, by punishing the dog, problems exacerbate rather than getting better. Imagine disliking snakes and you seek a therapist to help you deal with your phobia. A snake comes slithering your way. Likely if you're cornered with no way to escape, you'll stomp your feet loud and yell to tell the snake to go away. How would you feel if your therapist would slap you every time you reacted this way? Would the fear of the snake disappear? Likely, you'll continue fearing snakes and will also develop a fear of being slapped on top of that!

Lunging, barking, snarling, are distance increasing signals, outward manifestations indicative of an internal turmoil. If you suppress them, you still would not have addressed the internal emotional turmoil. It's like dealing with the tip of the iceberg. Punishing a dog for growling can also be deleterious, because you are suppressing the dog's warning system and doing nothing about the internal turmoil. Worst of all, one day you'll end up with a dog who bites without warning. For more on this read "why growling should never be suppressed in dogs." Not to mention the fact that punishing a dog for acting aggressively using confrontational methods may lead to defensiveness. According to a study published in The Journal of Applied Animal Behavior (2009), if you're aggressive to your dog, your dog will be aggressive, too. For more on this, read Dr Sophia Yin's article "New Study Finds Popular “Alpha Dog” Training Techniques Can Cause More Harm than Good"

5) Dogs who are Aggressive to Dogs are Aggressive to People

This is something you'll hear quite a lot. Truth is, when many dogs who act aggressively towards other dogs are re-homed to a family with no other dogs, they do wonderfully. Why is that? It's because dogs who are aggressive towards dogs aren't necessarily aggressive towards people. Yes, you may occasionally stumble on the dog that resource guards against dogs and people coming near their chow, the dog who redirects on people when he is aroused, or the occasional under-socialized dog who acts fearful aggressive towards dogs and people, but for the most part dogs who are aggressive towards dogs aren't necessarily aggressive towards people. Why? Well, first of all, dogs know very well we are not dogs. And second, in most cases, aggression directed towards dogs and aggression directed towards people stems from different motivations and as such require different treatment protocols.

6) Dogs who Kill Cats/Squirrels/Rats are Aggressive

"Ralph owns a very vicious dog, he has killed already two squirrels and the neighbor's cat." What many people don't know is that Ralph's dog is acting out of predatory drive not aggression. Cats hunt and kill mice all the time, does that make them aggressive? Are we as humans aggressive beings if we enjoy hunting venison and making deer jerky? For many breeds hunting and killing are natural behaviors and several were selectively bred for that. Take the Yorkie for instance, these dogs were selectively bred to hunt ad kill vermin in mines and textile mills. Huskies may also act as predators a behavior perhaps stemming from the ancient habit of mushers letting the huskies run free and hunt in the long, cold winters. Indeed, according to the American Kennel Club "Predatory instincts are strong, so Siberians should be supervised around small animals in and around the home".

To us humans killing wildlife may look cruel, but it's natural behavior in certain dogs, and the underlying motivation is far distinct from acting aggressively. Indeed, according to Temple Grandin's book " Animals in Translation" ESB Electrical Stimulation of the Brain studies conducted by Jaak Panskepp have shown that the part of the brain meant to control predatory behavior is separate from the part meant to controls aggressive behavior. Predatory behavior feels good often because it anticipates dinner. The brain areas meant to trigger predatory behavior are the same brain areas of the "seeking circuit" associated with pleasurable emotional states of curiosity, interest and anticipation.

7) Certain Dogs Breeds Are More Likely to Engage in Aggression than Others

Because aggression is a behavior and not a state of being, a dog breed's tendency to become aggressive cannot be entirely shaped by genetics. As discussed earlier, a dog acts aggressively, and therefore, is not aggressive in the mere sense of the word. So your dog is a male, your dog is 5-years old, and your dog is a Rottweiler, but he is not aggressive; rather, he may behave aggressively in certain circumstances, but that doesn't make him aggressive all the time. Since aggression is a behavior, it's for the most part not genetic; rather, it's likely shaped by a combination of genetics and the environment. For the most part, a dog's behavior is shaped by the dog's socialization, training, health status, and the level of proper care–or lack thereof- he receives. This explains why in a litter of puppies of the same breed you may end up a year later with dogs with different behaviors despite sharing genetics. As Patricia McConnell states ""genes are written in pencil."

And this explains why it's unjust to label certain dog breeds as being more prone to aggression. There are countless pitbulls and Rottweilers who are service dogs, therapy dogs and even stories of them acting as heroes. And there are also countless Labs and retrievers who act aggressively in certain circumstances.

"No matter what the headlines say, no matter what one person's individual experience has been, breed is never a predictor of aggression. Breed, alone, is not enough to determine whether or not a dog will develop or display aggressive behavior. It is the individual dog, not the breed, that must be considered" claims Lisa Mullinax owner and trainer of 4 Paws University. To date, there is no scientific evidence to prove that certain breeds are more predisposed to react aggressively compared to others; there are just too many variables to consider in order to attain reliable statistics.

Alexadry@ all rights reserved do not copy.

You can't always trust a wagging tail!


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