Reactivity & Aggression
The Ying & Yang of Aggression ~Brigitte Deitz
Inevitably, our adorable puppies, like children, grow up, just some faster than others. Physical development is clearly seen and easily measurable, but internal maturation is not. Despite our best efforts of providing a nurturing environment filled with a plethora of positive social experiences, unwanted predispositions may surface, or worse, surprise you. Aggression can fly under the radar for months, sometimes years, for pet owners. Herein lies the problem, if it goes unnoticed, ignored, and not addressed properly, it can get ahead of you, with potentially dire consequences.
All dogs, like people, are born with aggression to some degree. What matters is how you manage it. A wise friend once told me "No one is made up of all good or all bad." Neither is aggression.
Aggression is a genetic and fundamental aspect of all living mammals. Aggression serves a purpose. As children, we learn from our parents, mentors, teachers, or coaches to be productively aggressive in many aspects of our lives. I can still recall clapping to one of the first cheers I was taught for football games, "Be Aggressive, B E Aggressive!" A young, easily distracted, 3 year old may learn to channel her sudden surges of energy into chasing or attacking a soccer ball fast enough to beat her opponent to the goal. The goalie may find social situations challenging due to being reactive, but those same reflexes may help her defensive moves. Those same aggressive strengths may afford them spots someday on the US National Team. Consider the high school freshman, who is too smart for his own good and constantly argumentative. He may drive his parents and teachers crazy, but be an asset to the debate team. With proper training, he may learn to exercise his aggressive fight drive through word choice. With a proper education, that young man may end up a successful lawyer. My point is, aggression should not evoke shame or wrongfulness, but rather appreciation for its potential in everyone's life, including our pets'.
In puppies and children alike, aggression manifests itself in many forms at various stages of development. Have you ever seen a toddler resist a seatbelt? A teenager revolt a curfew? These (albeit obnoxious) displays of displeasure don't define their character, but rather demonstrate a need for guidance as they navigate through one of the many phases of development. Rebellion is related to maturational changes in the brain. When there is a will for independence, authority will be tested. Inappropriate behavior must be addressed and redirected into productive behavior. We must set clear boundaries and be consistent with our expectations so they are equipped to handle challenges appropriately, tools they can utilize throughout their life. Don't just tell them what they shouldn't do, show them what they can. Most importantly, don't deny it and don't avoid it.
Hiding your inappropriate pup/dog from the world won't help him improve. Seeking professional help from a trainer experienced in aggression to support you through difficulties will. Understand that chasing a ball is as much aggressive behavior as barking at the mailman. Both can lead to unwanted biting without proper control. Both can also be shaped into wanted biting for productive activities such as fly ball, police work, or Schutzhund. It’s all in what you do with it. Learn about the various types of drives and the role they play in behavior like prey and defensive drive. It's always wise to work with a trainer regularly throughout a dog's first year of life so problematic signs aren't missed. If you're not sure, schedule an evaluation with an experienced professional. Aggression is never a surprise to the trained eye and ear. Situational barking, which is often perceived as benign, can be a very telling sign that bigger problems lie ahead. Remember, it is our responsibility not only to our pet, but to our community, our vets, our groomers, and our caretakers to teach our pets how to behave