In a recent study from the Center for Canine Behavior Studies, we found the second most reported behavior problem was aggression (30% of dogs with behavior problems). To put this finding in true context, 85% of 5,000 dogs in our study were reported to exhibit at least one behavior problem so 85% of all dogs show one or another form of aggression.
Of note, 91% of dogs with behavior problems had never bitten a person or another dog but merely displayed an aggressive warning (i.e., growling or baring teeth). The corollary is that 9% had bitten a person or other dog. Almost a third of the dogs that bit exhibited multiple bites per incident, and most of these dogs had bitten multiple different people or other dogs. Some bites involve little more than the laying on of teeth with slight pressure. At the other end of the scale are serious flesh-penetrating bites that require medical attention. Around a third of dogs in our study bit without penetrating the skin (sometimes referred to as level 1 or level 2 bites) while two thirds of bites broke through the skin of their target. These latter dogs are more difficult to deal with because treatment or prevention must be 100% compliant, if further physical injury is to be avoided. Many specialists do not want to work with these dogs, and you can see their point, though many serious biters have been successfully rehabilitated with appropriate advice, which includes heeding all warnings and proceeding with caution.
Most dog bites are directed toward children, perhaps due to children’s impulsive and sometimes invasive behavior. Male dogs tend to be the main culprits, especially uncastrated males, though female dogs are not exempt. There’s an old saying that if there are children in the house, there should not be testicles on the dog. There’s a lot of truth to that saying.
Aggression can be inwardly directed toward familiar people or other dogs or externally directed toward strangers or other dogs. The first type of aggression may be considered as “inclusive” – designed to restructure relationships and behavior within a group. Of course, if early signs of such restructuring attempts are ignored and do not achieve the desired response, aggression will escalate. The second type of aggression is “dispersive” – a purposeful attempt to intimidate and drive away unfamiliar people or dogs. The motivation for dispersive aggression is almost always fear, which arises largely from improper socialization in early life (first 3 -4 months), and/or bad experiences.
Inclusive aggression can be mitigated by understanding what is causing the dog to be aggressive. Avoidance of triggers of aggression, non-confrontation leadership, and restructuring of relationships to build trust and understanding is key to success. Good leadership is also vital to control dispersive aggression. We have found in a more recent study (in the final stages of preparation) that training tools like a head halter or a harness and muzzle can provide significant control and safety when dealing with dogs of this aggressive persuasion. Clicker training, counter-conditioning and desensitization are also extremely helpful though the list of helpful techniques to address this type of aggression does not stop here. We will broadcast the full list when we publish what we call “study 3” soon.
Last thoughts are that while dogs can be aggressive and may bite if not properly raised and managed, their propensity for aggression is considerably less than that of humans. If you are walking in an unfamiliar neighborhood at night, you’d be much safer running into a dog than a person. With 300 million (+) people and around 90 million dogs co-mingling, the incidence of serious aggression from dogs is surprisingly low. People are by far the more dangerous animals! That doesn’t mean you can throw caution to the wind and do as you please around all dogs. Dogs’ needs should be understood and given space, especially by children. The later falls on good parenting - understanding things from the dog’s point of view, being proactive, and by paying full attention to interactions between children and dogs.
Written by CCBS Co-Founder and Veterinary Behaviorist Dr. Nicholas Dodman and Donna Gleason, CCBS Research Associate and owner of TLC Dog Trainer