Aggression is a regulator in coexistence. It is a vital behaviour that has both advantages and disadvantages for the individual, as well as for the whole population of a species. Basically, it is used alongside other communicative elements in order to define the structures within a social group. If the structures are clear, it is not necessary to constantly call them into question, which means there will be less aggressive conflicts within the group. In this case, the group functions solidly.
In regard to the genetic material, breeding should not be neglected. What breed am I dealing with? What purpose has the dog originally been bred for: guarding the house and yard or even fighting? The different environmental factors determine in what way the information resulting from the genetic material will be realised in individual cases. Thus, aggressive behaviour is a constant interaction between environmental factors and genetic material. It is always dependent on action and reaction of the actors, even if there are different breed specific characteristics. That means that the extent of the individual willingness to show aggressive behaviour is heavily influenced by the learning process of each dog during the course of his life – depending on his interactions with the living environment.
Does aggression depend on its cause and what motivations and corresponding interactions are there regarding aggressive behaviour?
In every social group (including the human-canine cohabitation) certain structures are established, e.g. social roles are emerging within the social fabric. According to this distribution of roles within the group and the way of living together, every individual forms an idea of itself. This self-image in turn influences the thoughts, feelings and behaviour of each individual.
How we communicate….
… within the human-canine relationship; or rather: How do we communicate with the dog within the human-canine social fabric? What kind of experiences has the dog made? Did he make the experience – in relation to humans or other dogs – that he is allowed to do everything and thereby to always be able to prevail?
Firstly, such a dog will exhibit behaviours of social expansion, which means he will conquer resources on his own and e.g. occupy space in order to restrict the other in his/hers. This behaviour serves social advancement. Secondly, he will secure his high status.
One should not mistake this debate about social relationship structures for social aggression.
However, due to his ego-growth, the social communication of such a dog
can be exaggerated and turn into aggression against the human. If needed, the dog will show his high status in the social structure by means of aggressive behaviour, e.g. by defending resources.
This happens every time he beliefs the other person is trying to take his status. The dog will not let the other person restrict him, especially not physically. For example, if a person wants to limit the dog’s movement by grabbing the collar and leading him somewhere. In this case, the dog will start to exhibit restricting behaviour himself. This can be the cause of dog bites within the family.
The body language of a dog that exhibits status-bound aggression is offensive, which means it happens in a forward direction and in direct view of the “enemy”. The threatening is confident, facing forward (ears are erected forward, the nose is wrinkled with bare teeth and short forward-drawn corners of the mouth). The body is tense and erect with stretched legs (to seem larger). The tail is fixed to the tip and wagging (as far as possible for the specific breed).
This is about the defence of resources. The defence of the resource is not necessarily linked to the status of the dog. Motives vary. It could be food, prey, territory, sexual partners or social partners.
Actual resource-related aggression occurs in street dogs. They use it to survive in certain circumstances. In order to stay alive, they have to apply a certain cost-benefit balance to decide how far they are willing to go in defending the resource – is it worth to risk an injury or even pay with their life?
In most cases, this indecision is clear in their body language, as well. It is displayed by
a mixed expression. Quick switches between defensive and offensive behaviour. The rapid change in terms of body expression is due to the fact that – in addition to the resource defence – self-protection is always activated, as well.
However, the motives of stray dogs have taken a backseat in our house and family dogs. Our dogs are physically fit. They are not suffering from hunger and even struggles for sexual partners are a rare exceptions. In short, they are not facing any fundamental problems.
Why are our house and family dogs still exhibiting resource-related aggression?
The answer is, that they use the defence of resources as an excuse to renegotiate the social relationship structure. They are asserting their claims. For example, in regard to a territory, a social partner, prey, food etc. Everything that is a resource for the dog, everything that is of use to him, can trigger or intensify aggressive behaviour. Often this subject is visible on a leash in form of the so called “leash aggression”. On the one hand, the social partner – the human – is a defendable resource. On the other hand, the human holding the leash gives the dog the necessary confidence to behave aggressively.
Through aggressive behaviour, such as obstructing the way, pushing aside or even threatening to attack, dogs try to keep their opponent at a distance in order to defend their resource. The body language of such a dog appears rather mixed-motivated (except when it is on a leash). This means that there is often a quick switch between offensive-defensive behaviour (defensive behaviour to protect the resource, offensive behaviour tells the opponent “do not come closer, this is mine”) or even between offensive and defensive behaviour (forward-back, forward-back).
However, there is also the case that the resource is used for self-expression in general to tell the opponent “I dare you to do this…” or “try to take the resource from me…”. This behaviour usually is shown by dogs that have a high self-image. This is then reflected in another body expression. The threatening gestures are more offensive (see status-related aggression) in this case.
Self-Protection and Defence
However, aggressive behaviour can also serve as self-protection. For example, if the dog has made a bad experience and now has a fear of punishment, injury or pain. In terms of body language, this dog will then present himself as defensive. In the case of excessive distress with no chance to escape, he will choose his way out forward by “attacking”. Defensive threatening means the ears are pulled back, wrinkled nose with bare teeth and long (backwards pulled) corners of the mouth. The forehead is smooth. The body is tense; but rather in a backwards direction, ready to retreat. The legs are slightly buckled (which makes the dog look smaller). The tail is tucked between his legs (if possible for the specific breed).
There is also a learned form of aggression, which means that people taught the dog to behave aggressively (e.g. the owner displays uncertain behaviour when encountering another dog) or the dog copied the behaviour of other dogs (learning through observation) or the combination of certain cues in specific situations. Later the cue alone is enough to trigger the aggression.
Let us use leash aggression as an example: The owner is uncertain when encountering other dogs. He always shortens the leash whenever another dog is in sight. In doing so, the owner gives the situation a meaning. However, the dog is going to interpret it in his own way. The dog learns that whenever his owner shortens the leash, something happens – e.g. his arch-enemy shows up.
“Short leash” becomes a signal / start command for the dog. The dog prepares accordingly.
This is communication. The interplay of action and reaction. Two hypotheses by Watzlawik fit very well, here:
- First, one cannot not communicate, that is, even the (uncertain) behaviour of the human is communicated (if not verbally, then through body language…and dogs are true experts in detecting physical signals) and
- second, there is no beginning or end to communication (communication is circular), which means that even if there has been a motive for the dog initially, by now the behaviour of the owner has become the reason for maintaining or reinforcing the problem.
If the owner now tries to distract the dog with food or with his favourite toy, in most cases the aggressive behaviour of the dog is intensified even further, as the resource defence (see above) is added as a motive for the aggression.
Another form of aggression is frustration. The dog is frustrated about things that he could not complete or is not allowed to do/ could not enforce. For example, the dog wants to reach another dog but cannot because he is on a leash. He is frustrated. This can manifest itself in aggressive behaviour.
The frustration of being unable to enforce what the dog wants, can be redirected to the owner. In this case, the aggressive response is directed towards the owner. Here, the relationship component is playing a role, as well: The dog is ill-bred! The owner has to work on the frustration tolerance of the dog, e.g. the dog has to learn to wait and to restrain himself.
Obtrusive behaviour of the dog should not lead to the goal, etc. Everything in small steps.