What is aggression? Why do dogs bite? What is a normal level of aggression you could safely live with and what is abnormal and dangerous? What are factors to consider?
What is aggression?
Why do dogs bite?
What is a normal level of aggression and what is abnormal?
What can we live safely with?
What can’t we live with safely?
Things to consider when choosing a dog
What is aggression?
The domestic dog is by nature a conflict avoider. A lot of the signals we think are aggressive are really signals a dog is giving off to tell us we’re making it feel uncomfortable. The signals are intended to give us a chance to back off – an attempt by the dog to avoid a conflict.
The dog might give us these signals because it’s feeling apprehensive about what we are going to do. An abused dog might be worried more abuse is coming. A dog with a bone or food might be worried we want to take the edible item away. A dog on a resting spot might be worried we’re going to chase it off that spot; an old dog might object to being told to move because it’s painful to stand up.
In a dog’s mind, these warnings (growling, lifting a lip, air-snapping, an open-jawed bat at some body part, grabbing your arm without applying any pressure) aren’t aggression, because the dog is still being careful not to do any damage. In a dog’s mind, it’s not aggression until the dog delivers an uninhibited bite – a bite that chomps down hard and is intended to do damage.
The warning signals wouldn’t damage another dog, and the dog isn’t intending them to damage us. The dog doesn’t know how much more vulnerable we are than another dog is. A child’s face or our adult hand can be scratched or punctured by something that would not have put a mark on another dog (eg, the open-mouthed jaw bat, the soft grab of a body part).
However, these warning signals must always be taken seriously to mean that a dog will bite if we push it – if we continue to approach and (in the dog’s mind) refuse to cooperate in avoiding a conflict. Some dogs will only use enough violence with us to open up a flight route, so they can dodge us and our approach. Other dogs will not want to budge and will escalate in order to make the human go away instead of leaving itself. All of the signals a dog uses are still an attempt to negotiate with us…
…Until the dog delivers an uninhibited bite. This is aggression.
Why do dogs bite?
Since Alexandra Semyonova first circulated her paper in 20001,2, a lot of dog gurus have picked up on the idea that dogs only bite out of fear. This is confusing what Semyonova said. There are several reasons that dogs bite. Fear is only one of them.
1) Anxiety or apprehension. This is not fear. This is just worry that something bad – but not life-threatening – is going to happen. This is usually what’s behind strongly inhibited bites that do no damage or very little damage.
2) Fear. This is worry that the dog’s physical integrity or even its life will be damaged or taken. This fear can lead to a dog frantically defending itself.
3) Learning. Some dogs learn by experience that biting is an easy way to get what they want and avoid what they don’t want. Bites from these dogs can vary from minimal to severe.
a) Some types of dogs have been bred through the centuries for jobs that involved killing. These dogs can bite simply because biting feels good – it’s what they were created to do. These dogs tend to go into full attack rather than delivering one or two bites. There is some disagreement among dog gurus as to whether training can eradicate genetically determined behavior patterns. In fact, science says it can’t3.
b) Some dogs of types that were not bred for killing tasks carry genes that lead to abnormally disinhibited behavior. This abnormally disinhibited behavior can include biting or suddenly attacking. This genetic problem has been variously named: the Warrior Gene4, Rage Syndrome5,6, Idiopathic Aggression7,8, and most recently Impulsive Aggression9,10. These dogs can also suddenly go into full attack without any discernable reason. All agree that there is no cure for this type of aggression – neither training nor medication will solve the problem.
What is a normal level of aggression you could safely live with and what is abnormal and dangerous?
What can we safely live with?
As long as a dog sticks to non-damaging warning signals, it means the dog doesn’t really want to hurt anyone – so there is hope. Because the dog is doing its best not to hurt anyone, this is not always an immediately dangerous situation. Training, most of all trust-building exercises, can solve the problem. The exception here is when there are small children in the home.
Small children can be hurt by something a dog doesn’t intend to be damaging. Even if they aren’t physically badly hurt, a growl, air-snap or softly intended tooth-grab by a dog can traumatize small children. Keeping a dog in the home that has traumatized a child sends the child the message that it is less important than a dog. It forces the child to live in fear every day in the one place where most of us believe a child should feel safe.
In addition to this, small children can’t participate in a training or trust-building program. This is because small children can’t always understand and follow instructions; because they are too young to exercise self-control at all times; and because they won’t always understand the dog’s signals that it feels cornered and worried.
It isn’t necessarily dangerous to rehome a dog that sticks to non-damaging warning signals, though such a dog should always go to a home without small children.
What can’t we live with safely?
Once a dog has delivered an uninhibited, damaging bite, it has become unsafe to live with. The dog shows by its uninhibited biting that it is willing to inflict serious damage – sometimes maximal damage.
It doesn’t matter why the dog resorted to uninhibited biting – no matter what, it means the dog is dangerous to live with:
1) If a dog did it because it feared for its life, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad dog. It does mean that the dog has learned to fear humans so much that it will seriously bite (or attack) as the favored way to deal with its fear.
2) If a dog did it because it learned that biting is a great way to get its way, then the dog will continue to use this tactic.
3) If a dog did it because it’s in the dog’s genes, be it breeding for killing tasks or the genetic accident of impulsive aggression, there is no cure for this.
In the first two cases, both of which are a result of learning experiences, a training program consisting of trust-building exercises can make the dog somewhat safe for trusted adults to live with. The dog is not safe interacting with children any more. The reason for this is that the dog might go back to the old behavior if someone does something that reminds it of the old situation – something that makes the dog frightened again, or that triggers the old ‘get my way’ tactic. These are simply the laws of behavior operating:
- Behavior that has been successful in the past has an increased likelihood of occurring in the future.
- Old behavior can sometimes suddenly occur again without any visible reason – spontaneous recovery11.
If the dog has seriously bitten but not gone into full attack, it’s perhaps reasonable for an adult to choose to take the risk of making a mistake and being bitten again, or of the behavior recurring without any visible cause or human error. It seems unreasonable to subject children, who can’t choose and who are much more vulnerable, to this risk.
If a dog has gone into full attack, then it is risky even for an adult to continue to live with the dog. Subjecting a child (or anyone) to this risk has, in some cases, been found to constitute criminal negligence and worse12. Rehoming the dog without informing the new owners of the behavior has also been found to be punishable negligence13.
Things to consider when choosing a dog
1) The historical background of the type of dog you choose. Take a good look at the original task it was bred for. The traits needed for that task will still be present in the dog, no matter how long ago the breed or type stopped being a real working-bred dog.
2) Whether the breed or type is prone to, or specifically developed for, aggression towards other animals. While aggression toward other animals can be a result of deficient socialization or of learning (eg, a traumatic experience), it can also be genetically anchored. In dogs developed for aggression towards other animals (eg, some hounds, the fighting / baiting types), the aggression involves a complex of inbred reflexes and motor patterns that the dog often executes reflexively and without thinking. The patterns can be triggered by a sudden stimulus, or by a mere state of excitement in the dog. Training cannot change genetically anchored patterns14.
In many cases, the dog will be reliably able to keep itself from directing this aggression towards adult humans – but the dogs will not always distinguish between human children and non-human animals. Children differ greatly from adults in size, in how they sound, and in how they move. Dogs developed to bring down hare, foxes, wild swine, other dogs, or even larger animals have increased risk of reacting to children the same way.
3) With breeds or types in which impulsive aggression has surfaced, be it frequently or infrequently, take care to get a dog from a breeder whose line has never produced a dog with this genetic problem.
4) Consider the size of any dog, because size matters. The larger the dog, the more damage it can inflict if things go wrong for any reason – and no matter whether the dog intends to do damage or not. This is especially important if you have children in the home.
A soft grab from a very small dog will likely make a scratch or tiny puncture on a child’s hand or ankle. The same soft grab from a big dog is more likely to scratch or puncture a child’s face, because the dog’s mouth is at face height. This applies all the more if the dog really bites: a bruised wrist is not the same as a bruised or torn face (and faces tear much more easily than wrists do).
[Please note that there are some dog breeds / types that were (and are) bred to go for the face and neck. These breeds / types inflict this kind of damage on both adults and children, not because the face is closest to their mouths, but because it’s an inbred motor pattern to jump up and bite.]
A tiny dog, or even a twenty-five pounder, that goes into full attack will be easier to stop without risking your life. If a dog that weighs half as much as or more than an adult human decides to attack, it becomes life-threatening to try to stop the attack, even for an adult.
The dog should also be small enough that it can’t drag you where it wants to go when out on a leashed walk. You should be able to restrain the dog, and not have its sheer size and weight mean it takes you places.
5) Some breeds are described as being ‘reserved’. Some adult shelter dogs will show reservation or even caution around people. If you have children in the home, these dogs will be less safe with them, since children often exuberantly approach a dog without noticing whether the dog feels good about it. These dogs can also be dangerous with adults they don’t know.
6) The dog goes into a high state of arousal very quickly and is unable (or unwilling) to self-calm or to self-dampen. This means the dog lacks impulse control. These can be the same dogs that do non-stop affectionate licking on humans, can’t be stopped from jumping again and again as they joyfully greet humans, can’t be interrupted in excited mouthy play, don’t just get excited but go over the top when the doorbell rings (and can’t be quieted), or that react with immediate high excitement to various noises or other stimuli in the surroundings. These dogs may be quicker to bite (unable to control the impulse), and if they go into attack they may be unable or unwilling to interrupt the attack once it has begun15,16.
Impulse control and the ability to self-dampen are essential safety mechanisms in a dog – especially if you have children in the home.
7) Deafness. Some breeds (for example Dalmatians) are prone to deafness. Some coat colors are genetically linked to deafness – all white, double merle, double dappled in the dachshund, and some other exotic coat colors. If you buy a pup or get an adult dog of a breed or color that is prone to deafness, check for this.
A deaf dog can be a wonderful and safe companion, as long as you know it’s deaf and train it accordingly (ie, using reward-based methods and building extremely strong trust in the dog that humans always mean good things will happen, never bad or painful things). The exception to this is if there are small children in the home. Small children can inadvertently teach a deaf dog that the sudden appearance of a child means something painful or bad will happen – eg, the sleeping dog didn’t hear the child coming until the toddler toppled from its unsteady legs onto the sleeping dog; the dog didn’t know the child was near until it suddenly pulled on the dog’s ear or tried to take the dog’s bone. The child doesn’t mean ill and neither does the dog, but this can still lead to accidents or even tragedies.
1. Semyonova, ‘The Social Organization of the Domestic Dog’, version 2000. Later version accessible at http://nonlineardogs.com/socialorganisation.html (accessed March 2014)
2. Semyonova, The 100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs, The Hastings Press, England, 2009. Myth 11, pages 45 – 54. Accessible at http://nonlineardogs.com/100MostSillyPart1-3.html (accessed March 2014)
3. Breland, K and Breland, M, ‘The Misbehavior of Organisms’, 1961, American Psychologist, 16, 681-684. Accessible at http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Breland/misbehavior.htm (accessed March 2014)
5. Larocco, N, 25 November 2013, The Truth About Rage Syndrome, accessible at http://www.gopetplan.com/blogpost/the-truth-about-canine-rage-syndrome (accessed March 2014)
6. Miller, P, Rage Syndrome in Dogs, The Whole Dog Journal, June 2004. Accessible at http://www.whole-dog-journal.com/issues/7_6/features/Rage-Syndrome-In-Dogs_5639-1.html (accessed March 2014)
7. see footnote 5
8. see footnote 6
9. Peremans, K, Functional brain imaging of the dog; single photon emission tomography as a research and clinical tool for the investigation of canine brain physiology and pathophysiology, Universiteit Gent, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Gent, 2002, Chapter 8, pages 171 – 203.
Accessible at https://biblio.ugent.be/input/download?func=downloadFile&recordOId=506217&fileOId=1873642 (accessed March 2014)
10. Semyonova, A, ‘Heritability of behavior in the abnormally aggressive dog’, November 2006. Accessible at http://www.scribd.com/doc/14810086/Heritability-of-Behavior-in-the-Abnormally-Aggressive-Dog-by-A-Semyonova (accessed March 2014) or in condensed version at http://www.animalpeoplenews.org/anp/2013/07/30/the-science-of-how-behavior-is-inherited-in-aggressive-dogs/ (accessed February 2014)
11. Skinner, BF, The Behavior of Organisms, Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc, NY, 1938.
14. Breland, K and Breland, M, op cit.
15. Sternberg, S, Successful Dog Adoption, Howell Book House, Wiley Publishing Inc, IN, 2003. See in particular the section Safety Scan, pages 76 – 82.
16. Semyonova, A, The 100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs, The Hastings Press, 2009. See for example Myths 28, 30.
Accessible at http://www.nonlineardogs.com/100MostSillyPart2-3.html (28) and at http://www.nonlineardogs.com/100MostSillyPart3-2.html (30)
(accessed February 2014)