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Social/conflict aggression in dogs.

Many clients come to me due to this issue occurring in the household and are rightly concerned

Aggression from your pet dog towards family members is a serious situation that needs to be resolved asap.

Until this is resolved then the dog must be managed carefully via physical barriers such as crates, pens, gates, leash, muzzle etc. What also needs to occur is that all resources that are triggering the dog are removed/blocked from access so that the work can begin more safely.

Resource based aggression:

The baseline issue to this resource aggression is that the dog feels entitled to have the resource, values it highly and is quite OK with using aggression to aquire or maintain possession of the resource.

Social/spatial based aggression:

Sometimes the trigger is spatial pressure or when the dog is asked to comply, such as fitting of equipment, grooming, lifting, vetting etc. A collar grab can then become an explosive event.

Again the dog feels entitled to use aggression as this pathway is a winner for them.

See below for an excerpt from a published article from Michigan State University:

......."Episodes of aggression tend to be related to predictable triggers over resources, invasion of the dog’s personal space, and grooming or handling. Dogs with this diagnosis often learn that aggression is an effective tool for ceasing uncomfortable interactions. These dogs are not dominant but are emotionally torn during moments of confrontation or discomfort."

  • "Avoid punishment. Confrontational training techniques, including verbal scolding and physical corrections, will likely escalate aggression in the moment and worsen long-term outcomes.

  • Consider an SSRI. Serotonin levels are abnormally low in cases with pathologic aggression, and boosting serotonin is beneficial for cases involving underlying fear, anxiety, and/or impulse control issues.

  • Avoid triggers for aggression. Without behavior modification, response to triggers will be unchanged. Avoidance of triggers enhances safety and gives the dog’s brain a break from previous response pathways. Triggers may be avoided long-term if necessary and feasible or reintroduced in the context of behavior modification."

Posted April 02, 2019

So why does this happen in the first place?

How does a dog get to this point where they feel that aggression is the way forward to 'win'?

How does the relationship between the dog and humans in the household degrade to this point?

Labelling of canine behaviours change according to what is the current political correctness of the time as well as what research paper has replaced the last current trending one. Labels are just that, look past this and look at the actual signs/symptoms and the causal factors behind the behaviours themselves.

One theory is that a dog only shows aggression if it has been abused/mistreated in some way.

Simplistic at best, misleading at worst. Yes dogs will learn that to relieve 'pressure' by using aggression and poor handling can be a part of that pathway to that belief system for dogs.

Another more relevant/common reason is that the dog has not had the opportunity to learn to earn it's resources, has not been conditioned to pressure and has never had clear feedback that it's behaviour may be inappropriate.

The advent of the 'furbaby' model of dog ownership has enabled dogs to develop an entitled attitude to resources as well as to listening to direction. In essence dogs that were bred for work are now free loaders with little to challenge them or direct drive into. They have not had boundaries of safe behaviour set in that developmental stage when they are open to change and can adapt more easily before more 'dog preferred' patterns are set.

A simple 'NO" and consequence to action such as a 'time out' at that critical moment that the behaviour is first test driven changes the course of that dog's life...and the owners.

If the dog decides to use aggression and it is successful then this will become a learned response. Sometimes this pathway is only associated with certain family members if the dog has tested it's theory and have varied responses.

Example: Mum gave me time out, dad took my fave things away and time out, Daughter shut me out of her room and ignored me for hours but young Jimmy dropped the sandwich and ran so I scored and put the wind up him. Win win! So now what happens? Jimmy will be a target for further events. If a behaviour is successful then it is reinforced and strengthened, it will happen again given the right trigger or opportunity.

So what happens when that mindset decides that it will take what it wants when it wants?

What happens when the dog feels trapped or forced to comply at moments such as vetting?

You get aggression, simple.

Research why:

Initially you need to look at the house rules model for the dog, are there any? are they enforced if so? By who? Everybody? or just some members?

Resources, does the dog actually earn what it gets? Food? touch? play? social contact? Or does it just get all this lavished on it due to it's attention seeking behaviours? Maybe due to spatial pressure and low level thug tactics?

Has the dog been taught markers of YES and NO? Does the dog actually have clear communication with it's humans or is it continually confused and in conflict? Are there discrepancies in direction from the owners? He said she said?

One allows the behaviour and the other gets cranky?

Are there protocols in place such as a 'rubbish' cue that precedes a time out for the dog where all social contact is blocked for a period of decompression time. Does the dog actually have a clear understanding of appropriate behaviours? Have they been taught or are the humans just expecting the dog to magically 'know' what is OK?


1: Install markers: yes, no, good, nup, UT!, Rubbish!, Finish.

2: Install cues of direction: place commands, sit, stand, drop, come, crate, inside, outside, paws up, off, play, leave, mine, yours, eat, drink, toilet.

3: Install markers for handling: collar, lead, harness, brush, feet, teeth, ears, eyes, etc to let the dog know what is about to happen instead of just grabbing at them. Condition them calmly to all handling via their food intake.

4: Teach pressure/release via collar, slip lead etc so that the dog can cope and understand to move to pressure instead of panic/conflict.

5: Create decompression zones that the dog can take itself to instead of feeling the need to use aggression to reset.

6: Advocate for your dog out in environment so that it does not need to practise aggression as a pathway to feel safe.

7: Create an earn program for your dog: Food is earned via practise of all of the above, play is earned via an obedience position then release cue. The mine/yours game is brilliant for play sessions and this can give a solid foundation for giving up a valued resource with calm mindset.

8: Practice the 'leave' cue at every opportunity across all triggers. Food, prey, social interactions etc. Then swap to 'leave' then 'yours' on an article/food item. Teach the dog that a resource is accessed via cue not opportunity and certainly not via aggression. With social interactions I have a 'say hello' cue where the dog is allowed to offer interaction calmly. If the dog becomes over aroused then 'leave' turn away and access denied for poor behaviour.

9: Scatter feed or even better lay a track in deep grass for a dog that suffers an over arousal issue with food bowls etc. This flips the mindset from guard to seek and find. Opposite emotional pathway that then flips them from aggression to work mode instead. Much healthier mindset.

10: Be very self aware of inadvertent reinforcement for the humans as far as allowing a poor behaviour to win. It can be difficult to change behavioural patterns in dogs, near on impossible in humans. Coach each other, be supportive and have empathy.

11: Look at the dogs overall health and diet. If you feed rubbish then the result will be rubbish behaviour as well as poor health. Mental health is linked to gut via Vagus nerve. If the gut is in distress due to toxins, poor diet, malnutrition issues then the dogs headspace will not be clear and it will not be making good life choices.

There is plenty of info out there on appropriate dog diet, research outside of the food manufacturers that make billions from pet owners.

Another critical factor in diet is the simple fact that if the dog is lacking in meat based proteins that it requires for muscle/nerve development then you will no doubt be having aggression based behaviours from protein triggers. Change the diet by adding species appropriate foods, this takes away the over arousal issue and the aggression subsides then stops. A vegan based dog diet will create a monster once an opportunity for animal protein is on offer. The old adage of "Raw Meat makes a dog aggressive" is actually only half the picture. The initial starving the dog of protein creates the aggression which is then triggered by the availablity. Gradually swap out the diet until the dogs dietary needs are being met. Make protein an everyday occurence instead of a 'Christmas' type event and the emotional response will flip from "oh my god I will kill for that " to "Meh".

In summary: If a dog is in conflict and using aggression then the underlying foundations of the relationship are very unstable. Work from the ground up instead of just looking at the surface issue, this is just red flags for what is a much deeper/complex issue. Ask for help and do the work required.

Pic below is of Pepper showing pretend aggression on cue. This is a skill that was required for some of her wrangling jobs. Pepp has 'inside voice', 'speak', 'growl' and 'angry face' (see below)


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