TAKING THE BITE OUT OF
STRESS RELATED AGGRESSION
Understanding your dog’s emotional needs is just as important as nutrition and training
True canine aggression is rarer than you think. More often it’s caused by stressors in your dog’s life (or yours), that have gone unrecognised.
• Fear is an emotional response that happens when an animal feels they are in danger.
• Anxiety is the anticipation of future danger, whether it’s real or not. Fear and anxiety both lead to stress and cause the release of stress hormones.
• Stress is mental or emotional strain resulting from tense circumstances. It can happen as a result of a single event or it can develop over a period of time when a dog is subject to several continual background stressors.
• Phobias are recurring fears of certain objects or situations, out of proportion to the actual threat. Like us dogs have phobias too. Most fears, phobias and anxieties in dogs develop at the onset of social maturity (1 to 3 years). And, like us, some dogs are more prone to fear and anxiety due to their genetic makeup.
• Reactivity is a state of high arousal usually leading to aggression. Dogs will challenge one another for a number of reasons, one reason is that while on leash they are not able to initiate the normal canine greeting protocols, specific to their own species. Unfixed adolescent dogs are also more likely to challenge one another. As fully functioning reproductive creatures their hormones drive them to set out from home, find a mate and defend their territory.
Do the checklist. How much is your dog coping with on a daily basis?
- Too much play and the inability to avoid the stimulation
- Too much boredom
- Grief (loss of companion, human or canine)
- Discord in the home, where arguing or yelling occurs
- Too many dogs in a small space
- New home and/or a change of schedule
- Harsh and severe training methods
- Lack of social time with family
- Loud noises
- Lack of a predictable routine
- Separation anxiety - not accustomed to being on their own for a short period of time
Pay particular attention when your dog is exposed to negative experiences that occur repeatedly
Trigger stacking is an emotional response that happens when a dog is exposed to a single stressor he can’t get away from or when he’s exposed to continual low level, background stressors which eventually lead him to suddenly act out. Trigger stacking causes the build up of cortisol in a dog’s blood which is a stress hormone playing a key role in aggression. Cortisol lasts at least two days in a dogs system after a stressful event so if the dog is under continual levels of stress, even low levels of stress, it will be more prone to aggression.
Understand the “Red and Yellow Zones” so you can avoid them
Dr. Ian Dunbar’s bite hierarchy - identifying the severity of dog’s bite history
(Beware of the Dog - Positive Solutions for Aggressive Behavior in Dogs, Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA)
Level 1: Barking and growling but no skin contact
Level 2: Tooth contact on skin but no puncture
Level 3: Skin punctures; one to four holes from a single bite (shallow in depth)
Level 4: One to four holes, deep black bruising with punctures deeper than length of dog’s canine teeth (dog bit and clamped down), or slashes in both directions from puncture (dog bit and shook head)
Level 5: Multiple bite attack with deep punctures, or multiple attack incident
Level 6: Killed victim and/or consumed flesh
Other reasons why dogs bite and how to deal with the warning signs
Startle Response: A dog may bite if you wake him suddenly, causing him to react defensively before he’s fully aware of what’s happening.
Not heeding a dog’s warning: Dog’s will usually give clear warning that they’re uncomfortable with a situation. Don’t punish the dog for growling. It will only make him worse in future situations. Respect his warning. Give him the space he needs and/or remove him from the area. If you punish a dog for growling, you're actually teaching him to skip the growling and go right to bite mode the next time.
Resource guarding: Though not pleasant, resource guarding is normal dog behavior. The best way to minimize it is to allow the dog some space. Allow the dog some privacy while eating or enjoying a chew treat. If the dog has claimed your sock or shoe as her own, offer an object or treat she’s allowed to have, while verbalizing the “leave it” command. Try to make it a win/win situation so the dog will be trusting in the future when it comes to what she can and can’t have. Power struggles with your dog over an object only teaches her that she cannot trust you and she will guard objects even more the next time.
Barking or growling: Don’t attempt to hold a dog’s mouth closed if they bark or growl. This only adds to the dog’s stress level. You may have stopped the dog in that moment but you’ve created a more intense stress response for future situations. Distance and redirection is the best solution, get some distance between your dog and what causing his arousal reaction.
Sometimes biting is not aggression
Puppy nipping: Between the ages of three and six months, puppies rely heavily on their mouths to experience the world. At four months they start losing their baby teeth and chewing also becomes a way to sooth their gums. By the time all the puppy’s adult teeth come in, usually by six months, this behavior greatly diminishes. Until then practice a lot of redirection and ensure your puppy is not getting overstimulated during play.
Survival tips for getting through this phase
- Always provide plenty of chewing items puppy can have and offer if they start using you as a pacifier.
- Putting some of their rubber toys in the freezer and then providing to them, will help sooth irritated gums.
- If they are getting too rambunctious, crate them for 5 or 10 minutes, to allow them to settle down.
- A firm “Ahhh-Ahhh” and removing yourself from the area, should be your warning that enough’s enough, so use it.
- Do not allow children to run in the house. It triggers jumping and nipping in puppies.
A quick note about herding breeds
Herding breeds are genetically wired to herd. They have little patience for sitting and affection and would much prefer to spend their time on the move. They’re more likely to nip at heels and the backs of your legs due to their genetic tendency to herd movement. They are also triggered by movement so you need to watch them around running children, cyclists and joggers. When this kind of nipping occurs work on redirecting them with a toy and/or removing them from an overstimulating situation. Herding breeds require a high level of cognitive stimulation so boredom can be a big stressor if not remedied, often leading to excessive barking and obsessive behaviors.
Canine stress busters
- Effectively coping with your own stress
- Increasing your dog's daily exercise
- Ensuring her daily routine is consistent and highly predictable
- Relieving her boredom by putting her to work, especially herding or hunting breeds
Check THE DOG BLOG once a month for more tips on training and canine well being.