In today’s post, I want to talk to you about dog aggression. Specifically, I want to address one of the questions I receive a lot. This is a topic that makes a lot of people frustrated, and come to me saying: “I’m sure I’ve done something wrong, I feel like such a bad dog owner.”
I’m describing owners who have dogs with aggression and have been hearing things from people about where that aggression comes from. There’s this weird and strange myth going around that says dogs are only aggressive if people have abused them or trained them to be aggressive.
This is crazy, because aggression comes from so many different places. At its root, the majority of the aggression that I see comes from fear, insecurity, and anxiety. When a dog is presented with something that makes it feel fear or anxiety, the dog has three available options: fight, flight, and avoidance.
A lot of people are familiar with fight or flight. Watch National Geographic for a little bit and you’ll hear the commentator talk about it. Dogs definitely use both of these strategies, but they also use something that we use a lot: avoidance. Many people get confused and say, “My dog couldn’t be afraid. He runs up to people and other dogs and attacks them. If he were afraid, he wouldn’t do that.”
Not so! In fact, fighting is many dogs’ coping mechanism for fear. They realize that if they are feeling stressed, showing aggression might help them win. A dog usually wants to be the first guy to throw a punch. If you think about it, people do this all the time. Insecure people are constantly starting emotional, physical, and mental fights because of their fears. When stress and anxiety are present, both dogs and people often chose to fight.
Flight is running away, while avoidance is looking away from something and pretending it’s not there. The fight response, however, tends to manifest itself through growling, barking, lunging, biting, and attacking.
Other things, some of them related to fear or insecurity, can also cause aggression—for example, resource guarding. A good example of this situation is the dog who bites anything that gets close to its food. At the root of this behavior is a lot of fear about losing a resource, whether it’s food or a toy. Fear of loss is a different than fear of physical harm, but it’s at the heart of most resource guarding. Probably 95% of the aggression I see is rooted in anxiety.
A small percentage of dogs are aggressive without being fearful. Their motivation comes from a desire to battle, hurt, and kill. They’re not coming from a place of fear, but of domination and embattling. However, this is very rare. I don’t see these dogs too often, mostly because not many of them exist. They are put down frequently and their genes don’t spread. What I see far more often is fear-based aggression. I want to dispel this notion that dogs are only aggressive if they’ve been trained to be or abused.
The real question, then, is this: where does fear come from? Fear tends to come from genes and upbringing. Genetics are what they are. When you’re born, you have certain DNA that determines certain things about you. To a degree, your genes will determine how tall you are. Now, the environment or upbringing has something to do with this as well. If you don’t get good nutrition, you’ll probably be shorter; if you do eat well, you’ll probably be taller. Maybe you were supposed to be six feet tall, but you only ended up five eleven, but at the end of the day that genetic component still exists. Nature and nurture are both very important.
I see people ignore this all the time, saying that any dog will be fine if you just “love it enough” or give it the right cookies. That’s just not true. Genetics are a big deal, a big component of behavior and physique and health.
Let me give another example. Now, it’s been a while since I read this study—in fact, more than a decade—so don’t quote me on the exact number. But German Shepherds have been bred very differently in Europe versus America. Any German Shepherd that you see who is a police, military, or protection dog has probably come from European lines. They’ve bred them a certain way, and that affects their behavior. You can’t get a police dog from American-Line Shepherds. I know that’s a definitive, but I’ve never seen or even heard of it.
If you look at American-Bred German Shepherd, about 35-40% of them get hip dysplasia. Among Shepherds from Europe, that number is only two or three percents. Genetics determine a great deal of behavior and who and what we are.
Upbringing is also very important. Some people will say “It’s all in how you raise them,” and that’s partially true. The way you raise your dog matters. If a dog has negative social experiences or lack of experiences or inappropriate e, that makes a difference. A genetically sound dog that’s been beaten up by other dogs when he was a puppy is far more likely to show aggression as he gets older, even if his owner raises him well. “Nurture” can play a very big role in a dog’s aggression issues.
Is there room for pointing the finger at yourself when your dog has aggression problems? Yes. This goes for anyone, both dog owners and dog trainers. Is there room for looking at the genetics of the dog and realizing that the dog has its own genetic