On the surface treating dog aggression – if not a simple fix – can at least appear to be relatively straightforward. Teach your dog to do something that is incompatible with aggressive behavior. How hard can that be?

Well, after the initial cycle of excitement and enthusiasm, there is the inevitable wake-up call to reality. This is going to be a little harder than you thought. It is at this critical moment when you start to wonder if you have got what it takes; if your dog is beyond help; if whether you even want to keep your dog.

When you know what to expect, it’s easier to hang in there. In fact, the more you learn, the more interested you will probably become. With that in mind, here goes…

1. Dog Aggression is not simply a “behavior”.

Aggression includes a whole internal set of emotional and physiological responses each time it occurs as well. Many of these responses are involuntary.

Aggression is not just a behavior but also a reaction; a coping response of sorts. In addition there are certain neurochemical payoffs to behaving aggressively, such as the release of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. This neurochemical is associated with pleasurable feelings, and the release of it probably offsets the sense of dread anxiety and fear produces. These complications are why punishment-based techniques are usually not effective long term (if not outright dangerous) and why simply trying to give treats to a dog usually doesn’t work too well either.

It is not enough to teach your dog to sit. You will need to have some understanding of what is going on underneath the behavior in order to adjust their attitude. You need to understand that the dread produced as a result of anxiety is not a choice and that the anxiety makes them feel they need to do something about it – urgently.

Ask yourself: why does understanding your dog’s anxiety help?

2. Too Few Of You Take Prevention And Management of Your Dog’s Aggression Seriously.

Well, besides the obvious stress as I mentioned above, the harsh reality is that most of you do not take the prevention of your dog’s anxiety seriously enough, let alone avoiding those situations that cause your dog to be aggressive. Sure, it’s great that you are feeding your dog treats every time your dog spots the target of his or her aggression. It’s far better than using a prong collar, shock collar or choke chain to manage the aggression, absolutely.

But any time your dog practices anything, the neurons in the brain – the very cells that communicate with one another – fire faster and become more efficient. It doesn’t matter if it is a behavior or an internal response.  If your dog is getting anxious at these treat stuffing sessions, the neural network for that anxiety process is likely getting stronger and more efficient.

What is more concerning is that stronger neural networks dominate over other weaker neural networks in the brain. That’s right, stronger neural networks bully out those weaker ones. This is why it can be so hard to replace bad habits with alternative good behaviors!

The goal of management and prevention of anxiety and aggression is to weaken the neural network involved in the anxiety/aggression sequence. This is the only way other (practiced) alternative behaviors have a chance at becoming the dominant neural network in the brain.

Imagine there are less opportunities for your dog to behave aggressively.   What would the positive outcomes be for you?

3. Most People Don’t Act on Their Dog’s Stress

256px-Dog_body_language_licking_nose_(no_food)_drooped_earsIf your dog is being aggressive, your dog is stressed out (regardless of what neurotransmitter is being released to cope with it). Think of aggression as a coping response to the experience of stress and anxiety. But all the physiological responses that have occurred in response to the stress do not disappear right away. Some changes last for hours, others for days, and even weeks. Chronic stress can makes us unable to regulate and respond to future stressors.

Aggression can be a vicious circle, then. But most dogs can become stressed for other reasons, too. Like when:

  • People pet your dog when they don’t want to be petted. Do the Consent test.  Pet your dog (or have someone pet your dog) for a few seconds.  Move away.  What does your dog do?  Any dog that wants to be petted makes it really obvious.  If they stand there without approaching you, they are only tolerating it.  If they turn their head away, move away from the petter, lick their lips, etc. then they may be actively stressed by it.
  • Your dog is unable to predict when things happen – good or bad. Unpredictable occurrences can cause stress. Build in signals that prepare your dog for when things are going to happen as long as it does not cause anticipatory anxiety for your dog.
  • Your dog is exposed to anything that makes them feel anxious – not just the things that they are aggressive towards. Like nail trims or thunderstorms. Does your dog have a fear of thunderstorms? Help them. Talk to a vet. Seriously. Does your dog hate nail trims? Desensitize and counter condition them to make it easier for them.

How would a less reactive dog impact your life?

4. Just Because Your Dog Has Learned To Sit and Relax Does Not Mean That it Has Become Automatic.

You may have got to the point where you are starting to work with your dog and their triggers. You may be asking them to sit and be calm in the presence of their triggers and are rewarding them for doing so.  Excellent!

But there is a difference between something learned and something that has been overlearned. Overlearning is the process where something becomes habit. In other words, the behavior takes less conscious thought to perform and there for less self-control to accomplish. Sure, something new can be easily learned, and your dog can even perform it every time you ask. But it doesn’t mean that the behavior has become automatic. Just like when we have learned to tie our shoes or drive a car, we have to think about what we are doing at first. But in time we hardly need to think about it. That’s when it becomes automatic.

Why is this important? Because half the time when dog owners start trying to do desensitization and counter conditioning, their dog’s ability to sit calmly (calm being the key word here) is not even an automatic behavior in non-threatening situation.

Doing anything that requires conscious thought uses up resources in the brain. It uses up self-control. While self-control is like a muscle that can be developed, every time we do something that requires self-control or any kind of executive functioning in the brain, we use up brain resources. That means if your dog’s ability to sit calmly is learned but not yet automatic, they are using up resources processing what you want rather than using those resources toward keeping their cool instead.

So what would it mean to you if your dog automatically sat and looked to you calmly when you asked?

5. Fear is not Forgotten

120px-Killer_ChihuahuaYes, this is unfortunate. Trainers are familiar with the term extinction. Extinction is the gradual weakening and disappearance of a learned response. When we work with our dog and their triggers, we are trying to make the aggression response extinct.

But extinction is not the same as forgetting. It is a relearning process – what is defined as inhibitory learning. Unfortunately it takes longer and is more fragile than fear learning. A fear response that has thought to become extinct can re-appear under stress, over time, or if the part of the brain that is involved in inhibiting the fear response is otherwise occupied on another mental task.

That is why we need to continue to monitor our dogs for stress and anxiety even after significant improvement has been made in our dog’s aggression problem.

If you understood that under the right conditions you dog may become anxious or fearful under the right conditions, what would that change for you?

It’s easier to treat dog aggression when we know what to expect

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to improve dog aggression, but it does help if you know what is involved and where the traps can lie. Understanding these 5 realities about treating dog aggression can help you avoid some of the common mistakes people make with their dogs.