Aggression: What Causes It? (Part 1)

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Natural Dog: What cause aggression in dogs?What is aggression?

Aggression occurs in dogs for a number of reasons which we will discuss in this article. It varies generally from dog to dog, but occurs most frequently in socially mature and intact male dogs, (Reisner, 1997). It is not limited to this group of course, as sometimes puppies will exhibite an inordinate amount of aggression. It is stated in behavior science that aggressive behaviour usually presents itself three ways: threat, defense, or attack. This is more correctly broken into two categories, Preservative and Protective: I tend to subscribe to this scheme, (Conceptulization of Reflexive Behavior, Konorski, 1967).

This is how it looks:

Preservative Reflexes – behaviour employed to satisfy basic needs like food, warmth, social contact, reproduction

Protective Reflexes- behaviour employed to move an animal away from aversive stimuli (flight), or move the animal to destroy that aversive stimuli (fight)

* Preservative reflexes are appetitive and elicited by attractive stimuli, whereas protective reflexes are defensive and elicited by aversive stimuli.

This scheme only describes aggression at its most basic level, but doesn’t necessarily explain other reasons (triggers) for aggression. The triggers of aggression will generally move the dog to one of the responses described above, but what causes that?

Aggression Triggers

In dog behaviour, triggers are things that elicit a specific response: these can be on based genetics, environmental factors, contextual, or learned behaviour (active or passive). If these behaviour take hold (habituate) they become a conditioned emotional responses (CER). These can be contextually appropriate or inappropriate responses. The triggers can also be real or imagined.

Here’s a great example in the human context: If you have a fear of spiders, then the spider is the trigger for the fear response. But, this can also extend to contextual triggers, i.e. if you were attacked by a random group of spiders in your basement, then both the spiders and the basement become the triggers that elicit the fear response. It is important to note that in both cases you are not ‘deciding’ to be afraid, you just are.

The genesis of that fear of spiders might be real or imagined but all agree that it is highly unreasonable, yet that doesn’t stop the fear response. My point, is that your response is based on a number of conditioned factors or ingredients that must be present for the fear to show up. It is the same in dogs: when all of the ingredients for the behaviour are present then the behaviour will show up on cue. More importantly, your dog isn’t making an intellectual decision to be aggressive, simply that part of the brain (limbic) is displaying aggressive behaviour as a means of mitigating that aversive stimuli. This process is normal, but not necessarily acceptable.

There is a concept in behaviour science called Thorndike’s Law of Effect. Very simply put, behaviour that is reinforced will stay and behaviour that isn’t reinforced will go away. This is how the aggressive (or any behaviour takes hold), in other words either directly or indirectly the aggressive response becomes reinforced then it habituates. If we understand Thorndike it teaches us how to change it. Remember, not doing anything about a behaviour, or not recognizing it as a problem is tacit approval of that behaviour.

So Now What?

To deal with problem behaviour we must discuss the stages of development. When shaping behaviour in dogs, we look at two critical imprint periods that are essential for the normal development of your puppy. These are the first critical imprint period (8-12 weeks) and the second critical imprint period (6-12 mos). It is during these times when most of the normal imprinting, bonding and conditioning will occur. Dogs can adapt to change after these periods of course, but these are the most important in normal growth and learning.

It is during these development periods that things can go well, or not. Sometimes, inappropriate responses learned early can lay dormant, showing up much later in the dogs development. This causes great confusion in owners. For example: a puppy who is cautious as part of his personality, and is startled or scared during this period can develop a number of associated reflexes as a means of dealing with that stimuli. This may lay dormant then show up later during adolescence when there is an environmental trigger.

We can cause a tremendous amount of stress in our puppies life by handling these critical imprint periods incorrectly. We start training too soon, we yell, jerk leashes and punish: all of which create very challenging situations for development. We must be aware and respectful of the fact that the dog is in the unique situation of having to learn and cooperate within two social systems: canine and human (as a result of domestication).

Critical Periods

Here are the critical periods in your puppy’s psychological growth:

0 to 7 Weeks – Neonatal, Transition, Awareness, and Canine Socialization

During this period your puppy learns about social interaction, play, and inhibiting aggression from mother and litter mates. It is crucial that a puppy stays with its mother (and litter) during this time. Early weaning can cause development problems, not in every case but it should be avoided.

7 to 14 Weeks Socialization Period

This period is when the most rapid learning occurs. This is the ideal time to introduce the puppy to things that will play an important part in his life. Introduce the puppy to different people, places, animals, and sounds in a positive, non-threatening way. During this period you should be teaching the following:

SocializationYour puppy should meet 100 dogs/humans during this critical period. NO exceptions! It must be noted here that early socialization runs contrary to instructions given by your vet. They instruct that puppies must be kept away from other dogs to allow vaccinations to take hold and cut down on the transmission of diseases like parvo etc. I disagree with this approach, I have seen more dogs die (put to death) because of low levels of socialization than I have ever seen die from parvo.

Bonding & Imprinting – You should be establishing intimacy during this time, which will evolve into deference, under no circumstance should you be dominating your puppy during this period. Simply being with your puppy and having him follow you around helps this process, you can also teach name recognition during this period. Your puppy is learning that EVERY interaction with you is positive.

Bite inhibition – Puppies (and dogs) explore and engage the world with their mouths as an extension of their senses. While it is important to allow this to naturally develop, we must also be teaching bite inhibition (soft mouth) and letting them understand that boundary.

House Training – Your puppy can learn very quickly to go outside. You should never punish your dog for peeing or pooping, you must always teach then re-teach when necessary. Come to terms with the fact that you are going to have accidents when you get a puppy.

6 – 12 Months 2nd Critical Imprint Period

During this period your dog is learning to interact with its environment in a different way. Some of the responses displayed during this time will have been learned during earlier periods: these can be either contextually appropriate or inappropriate responses. Your dog soon discovers that the world reacts differently to a dog than it does and puppy and will attempt to shape its environment through eliciting responses.

He will become more assertive in situations he previously avoided, he will challenge some of the structure within his environment and that includes you. He may bark more (remembering that barking is an information gathering display), he may become more possessive over his resources, using the examples we described above he is learning to categorize his responses to different sets of stimuli within his environment.

It is during these periods that I receive the most calls from bewildered owners wondering what happened to their lovely puppy. He is struggling to understand his place within his social hierarchy, and sometimes we don’t help him process this correctly. However, if you have done everything as mentioned earlier, these assertions become tiny problems that are instantly dealt with and order is restored. Does it sound a little like human teenagers?

So where do we fit in?

During these critical periods we are either fixing the behaviour or making it worse. Some of the problem solving techniques we use with dogs are counter-intuitive and often create the problem we are trying to solve. For example: we will associate his aggression in every case with dominance, and respond with our own dominance by introducing silliness like alpha-rolling, spray bottles, leash-jerking or worse hitting.

These techniques teach nothing and will create stress and anxiety rather than reducing it, which should be your primary objective. It also increase the probability of that aggression showing up again, or moving to a fear-based response cause by your poor handling of the initial outburst.

In Part 2, we will discuss the aggression categories and what triggers them.