300 E. Courtland
9809 St. Route 91
Dr. J. Michelle Posage and Dr. Amy Marder
If you have ever been bitten by a dog, you are certainly not alone. More than 2 percent of people in the United States are bitten each year - that's more than 4.3 million people! But what causes aggression and how should an owner handle it in dogs?
Aggression in dogs is defined as a threatening or harmful behavior directed toward another living creature. This includes snarling, growling, snapping, nipping, biting and lunging. Dogs that show such behavior are not abnormal; they are merely exhibiting normal species-typical behavior that is incompatible with human lifestyle (and safety). There are many reasons why a dog will act aggressively toward strangers or even his owner.
The first step, when attempting to find out why your dog is being aggressive, is to take him to your veterinarian. Some veterinarians will visit you at your home - but dogs tend to be more aggressive on "their" territory. If there's no medical cause for the aggression, your veterinarian may refer you to a behaviorist, who will then obtain a full behavioral history and recommend therapy.
Even if treatment appears to be successful, you should always be on guard. The frequency and severity of aggression may be reduced but, in most cases, aggression cannot be eliminated completely. You must weigh the risks of keeping an aggressive dog against the benefits. Remember, safety for yourself and people around you is the primary concern!
In the course of a veterinary examination, your veterinarian will determine if there is a medical reason underlying your dog's aggressiveness. For instance, a dog with neck pain may show aggression when pulled by the collar.
Once medical causes have been ruled out, your veterinarian will refer you to a behaviorist. At the behaviorist's, you'll be asked to answer many detailed questions regarding your dog's behavior. The session may last a couple of hours. An accurate description of your dog's behavior is necessary. Keeping a journal is helpful. You should note:
Videotaping your dog's behavior is helpful for the behaviorist, but don't get hurt while making the video. Answers to the many questions asked can lead the behaviorist to establish the cause of the aggression, and then outline an individualized approach to its treatment. The behaviorist will also provide a professional opinion of the risk involved.
Aggression is influenced by several factors, including: genetic predisposition, early experience, maturation, sex, age, size, hormonal status, physiological state and external stimuli. Behaviorists use a classification system based on patterns of behavior and the circumstances in which they occur. This is done to determine the dog's motivation and the cause of the behavior. The classification is as follows:
Treating aggressive behavior may involve a combination of behavior modification techniques (habituation, counterconditioning and desensitization), drug therapy, surgery (such as neutering/spaying), avoidance and management (such as leash or head halter). Each case is unique, and the success of treatment varies depending on the diagnosis and in accord with your capability, motivation and schedule.
Even with successful treatment, however, there is no guarantee that the aggressive behavior won't return. In most cases, the frequency and severity of aggressive behavior can be reduced but the aggressive behavior cannot be eliminated completely. The best that may be hoped for is to reduce the probability of aggression. You must weigh the risks of keeping an aggressive dog against the benefits.
If your dog is unpredictable, consider using a comfortable basket-style muzzle until you can get professional help. Until you receive professional help, avoid all interactions that trigger your dog's aggression. Do not attempt physical punishment. This can increase the intensity of your dog's aggression and may result in serious injury. Avoiding problems may involve:
Do not allow children to have unsupervised access to your dog. Children should be taught to avoid interacting with dogs that are eating, chewing on a bone, or resting. They should not be allowed to tease or hurt dogs.
Keep your dog on a leash at all times. In the home, you may want to attach a thin nylon leash on a buckle collar, which your dog can drag comfortably. This will give you safer control over him. Indoor leashes can be attached to head collars for even greater control. If your dogs are fighting, do not get in the middle. Interrupt the aggression using water, a loud noise, blanket or spray.
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