Hines DVM PhD
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most common non-medical problem that dog owners ask me about is
aggression toward people and other dogs. There is enormous variation
in aggressiveness or assertiveness among dogs. Certain breeds such
as chows are famous for this quality; but there is wide variation
within any breed as well. Experiences in puppyhood influence aggressiveness
as adults but genetics also plays a key role in this problem. Owner
temperament is also a very important factor. The size of the dog
involved determines the seriousness of this problem. Toy dogs can
be almost cute when they growl and posture but large dogs are quite
dynamics of dog bites is not well understood by the public. Few
people realize that the dogs involved tend to be family pets and
not strays. Also, more than two-thirds of dog bites happen to people
who are acquainted with the dog. More than half the dog bites occur
to the very young and the very old and almost half of all bites
to children are on areas of the face. Almost half of the claims
made against homeowner’s insurance policies are due to dog
mature dogs do not normally become aggressive. I can detect predisposition
to aggressiveness in puppies as early as seven weeks of age. When
I do detect signs that a pup will be an aggressive biter or a fear
biter I caution the breeder or new owner that this particular puppy
will need special care and training.
The Early Window Of Socialization
To understand canine dysfunctional aggression you need to understand
factors in play when the dog was a puppy. Beginning at three weeks,
when their eyes open, and lasting until fourteen weeks of age, puppies
develop bonds and sensitivity to the people and animals in their
life. If a puppy is not exposed to positive interaction with dogs
during this period they may grow up without the skills they need
to deal with other dogs. If they are not exposed to people in a
positive way during this period they may never be comfortable with
people. The middle of this learning window (8 weeks) is the best
time to purchase a puppy.
brought to their new home at ten to twelve weeks of age may be more
fearful and slower to bond with their new family. If the socialization
process is delayed until the puppy is twelve weeks old or older
the dog may never be relaxed or interactive with people or other
This is particularly true if the puppy has a natural shyness and
fearfulness or if it is very aggressive by nature. If you do accept
a puppy of this age be sure that you and your children handle it
frequently and gently and not scold or speak to it harshly to it.
Holding the puppy firmly and resisting the temptation to let go
of it when it squirms to be released minimizes later aggression
and dominant behavior.
A puppy’s teenage years begin with it is sixteen weeks old
and end when the pup is twelve to sixteen month old. Near the end
of this period a hormonal surge causes dogs become protective and
territorial. Males begin to lift their leg to urinate and females
enter their first heat period. This will be the time that a normal
dog begins to bark at strangers and guard the family and your property.
This is also the time that some dogs begin to show objectionable
Besides age at socialization, individual genetics and breed are
major factors in determining aggression. Guard dogs such as Rottweilers,
German Shepherds and Akitas were bred to be more aggressive than
the hunting and companion breeds. Terriers were bred as ratters
and still retain their urge to snap. Hormones at play in intact
male dogs and in females nursing puppies both increase aggressive
behavior. Excessive punishment, teasing, chaining in the yard can
all contribute to problem behavior. Too much undeserved praise also
confuse dogs and lead to frustration and aggression.
There are a number of types of aggression. The most common forms
are dominant and territorial aggression. Some dogs show fearful,
possessive or intra-sexual (male to male and female to female) aggression
while others have a predatory form of this trait. Some dogs have
more than one type of aggression.
aggressive dogs are overly protective of their possessions and status.
This is the most common form of aggression. These dogs tend to snarl
and growl or snap when a family member approaches them near their
food bowl. They attack other dogs as well as cats and farm yard
animals. They often attempt to sexually mount people’s legs.
When petted, groomed or detained in any way they will growl and
snap. They often chase cars and bicycles. They love to wander and
escape and will ignore commands that they return or heel.
The first warning you will have that you have a dog prone to dominant
aggression is when, as a small puppy, it growls when you approach
it at its food dish or toy. This is the earliest sign of dominance.
As this type of dog personality grows it will attempt to take charge
of the house and the decision making process. Dogs that have dominant
type aggression are very confident in new situations. Dominant aggressive
dogs have very distinctive body language. They stand with their
heads erect and their ears bent forward. They carry their tails
proudly and stare intently at strange people and pets. They stand
still facing the new individual and emit a low steady growl while
they curl their lips and expose their teeth. These dogs will mount
other dogs until the second dog assumes a submissive posture. They
demand to be the center of attention in all situations and must
make the decision as to who does what and when. They are oblivious
to commands from their owner and never heal or look to their owner
for advice or reassurance. They often urine mark new areas such
as my veterinary office walls. Most of these dogs are unneutered
as part of the family see humans as members of their pack and attempt
to establish their place in the social hierarchy by challenging
more submissive family members, especially children. When dogs show
dominant gestures like growling while guarding their food dish,
and they aren’t scolded for this behavior, they inch up in
dominance surpassing certain family members. Subtle signs of dominance
can go unnoticed. Because we love them we explained these faults
away until the dog finally bites a human who infringed on its alpha
position. Owners often do not realize what occurred and think the
dog bit for no reason." These dogs are often surrendered to
animal shelters and are killed because their owners did not understand
how aggressive behavior comes about.
Passive, submissive family members often have insurmountable problems
correcting aggressive dogs. Obedience school is very helpful with
this form of aggression but you must be willing and able to dominate
the pet. The first thing to do when trying to correct this problem
is to change the peck order of the pack – in this case the
hierarchy within your family. Dogs are always happier not to have
to be pack leaders. The dog needs to be at the bottom of the pack.
You must become the pack leader. Husbands are often more assertive
than their wives that is why many dogs that I see in my practice
obey the husband and not the wife. To gain control of your dog you
need to dominate every aspect of the dog’s life. When you
play tug of war with the pup or dog; do not let it end up with the
ball or rope when you are finished. When you feed the dog do not
let it eat until you command it to come. Do not let dominant-prone
dogs sleep in your bed or in the bedroom. Reserve that space for
your family. Purchase a muzzle. Put it on just after you feed dog
and take it off and give treats. Do not feed these dogs from the
table. Instead, crate them during meals and feed them last. Neutering
a young male dog significantly decreases aggression. Neutering them
later in life is much less effective. If the dog has already begun
to bite owners hiring a professional dog trainer is a good idea.
You need to realize that not all dogs can be cured of aggression
and that a trained dog may revert to its previous bad habits once
the trainer has left.
Rules For Preventing Aggression
Aggression ceases to be a problem when the pup becomes the lowest
ranking member of the family. Once a dog accepts this social status
he is well on his way to becoming a welcome addition to the family.
dog bite agressive behavior
first step goes back to before you purchase or accept a pup. Be
sure that the breed and the individual puppy you choose are the
right for your family. Sit alone in a room with the entire litter
and observe them for a while. The more dominant pups will soon take
charge of play activities and seek out strangers in the room. The
fearful pups will be the ones that sit by themselves in the corner
looking downcast. If you want a well behaved pet, do not choose
the most dominant or the most fearful puppy. Breeds such as German
Shepherds, Akitas and Rottweilers are not good breeds for timid
owners. They need a family in which all members are willing to exert
their authority. Lap dogs are wonderful pets but they do not like
rowdy active children. If you choose a shy puppy you must be willing
to spend extra time coaxing its courage in new situations. Realize
that it will never become a confident dog.
puppies need to be handled gently, firmly and frequently between
the ages of six and eighteen weeks. They should be hand-fed by all
members of the family and taught to accept food slowly and daintily
without snapping or lunging. They should be verbally scolded or
affection denied when they jump up on people, chase running joggers
and children, ride legs or growl for any reason. Aggression-prone
dogs should not be rough housed with, wrestled with or engaged in
tug of war. Instead of physically punishing them one should speak
to with a sharp “No” when they break the rules and then
deny them affection and interaction for ten minutes. When they begin
to understand what you consider objectionable actions reward them
with a food treat.
learn good behavior from other dogs. It is good to expose them to
well trained, people-friendly, non-aggressive dogs as playmates.
It is amazing how quickly good behavior rubs off on misbehaving
Once a dog has assumed a dominance aggressive temperament it can
be very difficult and sometimes impossible to change his outlook.
Through fear, he may allow one or two members of the family to dominate
him but he may never be fully trustworthy around lower ranking members
of the family and children. I personally think these dogs are unhappy
in their roles and long to have more assertive owners.
Adult dogs should always receive rewards for good behavior and be
denied rewards for bad behavior. Normal dogs love to be petted and
have their heads patted.. If you have a dog that is prone to aggression
or bad behavior of any kind always have your dog sit and heel before
petting, going outside, or entering and exiting the car. Dogs should
be taught to sit calmly when you snap on their leash. These may
not seem like important things but they help define the rules that
apply to all activities that you and your pet will share. They also
teach the dog that you set the rules. You must be totally consistent
in your praise or criticisms. The dog will quickly learn that a
given behavior always illicits a given positive or negative response
from you. Never let him win a showdown or take charge. If you give
an inch they will take a mile.
Praising and loving a dog spontaneously out of the blue confuses
the dog. It also elevates the dog’s social status and can
lead to dominance aggression. It is much better to have him shake
hands, sit or fetch and then give him all the praise you want.
Neutering a dog in adolescence also decreases the likelihood that
dominance aggression will be a problem.
can try to alter triggers in your home that lead to outbursts of
dominance aggression. For instance, if a dog growls when you approach
it on the sofa make the sofa off limits to the dog.
Rather than limit the amount of contact that the family member(s)
who are having the biggest problem with the dog have, make that
person(s) the primary care giver for the dog. During this period
have other family members ignore the dog. Dogs do not dominate people
on whom they must rely.
reward these pets when they show signs of submission. These signs
include laying their ears back on their heads, licking their lips,
rolling over, sitting, avoiding eye contact and curling in their
tails. Once a dog is displaying some of these activities begin slowly
counter conditioning the dog to submission. This is done by getting
the dog to allow you to handle its paws, hold it in a sitting or
laying position and holding its head still. Make the dog lay down
before it is allowed to fetch. Praise him and give him a food treat
when he cooperates and gradually increase the length of his lessons.
that are severely dominant aggressive often stubbornly resist change
to their status in the family. There are professional dog trainers
who will attempt to modify your behavior toward the dog and the
dog’s behavior toward you. But they are not always successful
or they may only be moderately successful. Rather than martyr you
and your family to a long term, unhappy situation I suggest that
families in this situation find another home for their pet. It is
amazing how much better a dog’s behavior can be in a new home.
These dogs are very uncertain and tentative in their actions. They
are sometimes called defensive - aggressive dogs. When faced with
new situations with people or dogs they avoid direct eye contact
and assume a low submissive stance. They stand with their ears flat
against their heads and their tails tucked between their legs. They
bend their head and neck toward any individual that seeks their
attention while they lick their lips. They will often roll on their
backs exposing their belly. Their expression is one of profound
worry. They are very fearful about being touched and shy away from
being petted stroked or brushed. At any instant they may snap and
bite in fear. They strike out silently like a snake, never locking
their jaws on another person or pet. They will often urinate and
defecate in fear.
Most fear biting dogs were genetically born shy. It is highly unusual
for a shy puppy to be born from gregarious, confident parents. One
needs to do everything possible to build up these dog’s sense
of confidence. Do this with verbal praise, petting and treats. Enlist
your friends in this activity. In order not to get bitten, begin
this process with a muzzled dog. Just remove the muzzle for the
dog to eat. Only feed the dog from your hands. You can crate the
dog and let the neighbors feed it when it gets very hungry. If a
shy dog comes to you of its own free will it will not bit unless
a sudden movement or loud sound is made. Sometimes the pets are
so shy that the food treat needs to be put on a long stick at first.
With the dog muzzled take him wherever you go to expose him to new
people and situations. Begin slowly – no more than the mall
parking lot. Try to calm and stroke the dog as you go. Take dog
wherever you go. Keep the leash short and taut. Calm and stroke
the pet. Obedience training is very helpful for dogs that are not
too shy to go to class.
find that a small dose of Acepromazine tranquilizer is extremely
helpful in starting these dogs in their education. Valium seems
to have little effect on dogs. I give acepromazine at 0.38mg/pound.
You can pick it up at your veterinarians and give it in a food treat
thirty minutes before lessons.
Fiercely guarding their home is common characteristic of dogs. Dogs
have an innate need dominate their own real estate. As puppies grow
to dogs they begin to regard the yard, the home and their car as
their personal property. I live on Sarasota bay on the Gulf of Mexico
and here dogs guard their sailboat homes and the dock from strangers
just as fiercely. Territorial aggression is what gets the mailman
and the meter reader bitten.
aggression is a prized attribute in guard dog breeds such as German
Shepherds, Rottweilers and Akitas. If you do not want an aggressive
guard dog do not purchase these type of breeds. Some dogs readily
learn to differentiate between welcome guests and intruders but
others do not. They are very good at sensing your attitude toward
strangers. If you are fearful, these dogs know it and will become
To control a territorial dog you must first dominate the dog as
the leader of the pack. In wolf packs an alpha-type individual leads
the pack. In domestication you need to be that alpha individual.
Becoming the pack leader is the first step in making the dog obedient
to you. You set the rules and you decide who is friend and who is
foe. The dog should look at you for advice when a stranger approaches.
Enlist some friends to help you by approaching the house when the
dog is hungry and cautiously feeding it some treats. Let your friends
or willing strangers take the dog on short walks on a leash. Fence
your yard so the limits of its territory is clear to the dog.
Australian shepherds, healers, border collies and other herding
dogs have an instinctive drive to chase, worry and nip. It takes
a supreme effort on their part not to apply their herding talents
to children of the family as well.
training by every member of the family – especially the children
helps correct this problem. These dogs are basically loving. They
just have a very strong natural urge to boss and herd. This can
be overcome if you make the dog aware that it is a problem. A sharp
reprimand and a “no” is usually sufficient. You have
to occasionally remind them of the rules. Dogs will usually not
express this behavior when they are on a short leash.
recent issue of Veterinary Practice News mentions studies on aggression
in dogs that responded to suplementation with 5-hydroxytriptophan
or 5-HTP as well as to 5-HTP given in conjuction with a low protein
diet. . This ammino acid derivative of tryptophan is important in
the production of seritonin in the brain. Brain seritonin levels
have been linked to mood, agression and obsessive-compulsive behavior,
in humans, dogs and primates. Neutraceutical grade 5-HTP is available
online. A dose was not given.
You might also consider a trial period on a home cooked, all meat diet similar to this one.