Plays well with others, understanding and working with dog on dog aggressive behavior

By Frania Shelley-Grielen. All rights reserved

What exactly is dog on dog aggression? We know dog play is not like human play but how do we know when it crosses the line from play to aggression? Dog owners want their dogs to get along well with other dogs but what about the times when we worry that our dog gets a little bonkers when they see another dog, is not playing so nicely or that the other dogs are being a little too rough? Or are they? Is it possible that a hard stare, growling, snarling, snapping or more at another dog in the dog park or on the street is OK? How do we tell the difference from dog warnings, threats and impending danger? What should we be doing to make sure everyone gets along? And what do we do when they don’t? To understand and work with aggression in dogs towards other dogs we first need to recognize that what we are often seeing are effective communication strategies for dogs to increase distance or decrease another’s behavior and not aggression. For example, a dog growling at another dog who is eyeing a favorite toy, a dog growling at another dog who has him pinned to the ground and a dog biting another dog’s flank and breaking skin, all have different motivations with the first being a warning, the second of a threat and the third aggression.

Once we learn the content (or what they are “saying”) in dog on dog adversarial communications, we can determine whether or not we should step in or let the canines work it out on their own. To begin, we need to be able to tell the difference between warnings, threats and aggression. We tend to overuse “aggression,” especially when talking about animals, to the point where the word has become a catchall for every behavior we may think is negative or are not comfortable with. This sort of thinking can lead owners to overreact as a result.

The most widely accepted definition of “aggression” is action with intent to cause harm with “violence” being a form of aggression where the intended harm is severe or fatal. When it comes to human beings, we can further define aggressive behavior into “physical aggression” or “verbal aggression.” For all animals, threats and warnings are not aggression as they actually serve to prevent action intended to cause harm from happening if they are communicated effectively, that is “heard” and responded to. How we parse out our own warnings, threats and aggressive behaviors for humans comes from research and from our own direct understanding of human behavior as humans. With animals, who experience the world in different ways than our own we have no direct experience to draw from and have to rely more on careful observations of both behavior, context and studied conclusions of what those behaviors most probably mean. In a conflict scenario where dogs are involved, we can more effectively describe behaviors in these situations as “agonistic behaviors,” which removes the motivation from either the actor or recipient in a struggle. Animal behavior experts, Camille Ward and Barbara Smuts do an excellent job in the following depiction of agonistic behaviors, possible motivations and contexts as follows:

“Examples of agonistic behaviors in dogs include threats like muzzle- puckering and growling submissive behaviors like crouching, lowering the head and tucking the tail offensive behaviors like lunging and snapping defensive behaviors like retracting the commissure (lips) while showing the teeth and attacking behaviors like biting. With the exception of biting that results in punctures or tears, none of these behaviors necessarily indicates intent to do harm. They simply reveal emotion (e.g., anger or fear), communicate intention (e.g., to maintain control of a resource or to avoid an interaction) or function as a normal part of play fighting (e.g., growling, snapping or inhibited biting). To determine if an interaction meets the criteria for “agonistic behavior,” an observer must focus on an objective description of the communicative patterns displayed rather than automatically jumping to judgments associated with the use of the term “aggression.”

If signals such as bared teeth and growling are not typically preludes to fighting, why do they exist? Paradoxically, such behaviors are usually about how to avoid fighting.”

A perhaps more useful way to look at animal behaviors is in the context they occur in (what is happening and where it is happening) as “distance increasing behaviors” or “distance reducing behaviors.” In other words, what is the desired effect being communicated? The dog that is squared off, feet firmly planted, lip raised and snarling is asking for increased distance from whatever it is in the environment that is threatening, while the dog that initiates a play bow towards another is asking for reduced distance (and more interaction). Looking at the behaviors this way allows for the request, whether of more or less distance by a change in the environment to be addressed. So, if the squared off dog is asking for space from the person or dog approaching than the person or dog can back off and if the play bow is seen play can begin if the other dog agrees. All animals have in common the desire to avoid conflict and the ability to accomplish that through communication. Physical fights are biologically costly for any species. Injury impacts the ability to gather food, interact with others and when extreme can be fatal. To avoid actual fighting animals have developed highly ritualized bluffs and threat displays, which means they look the same and follow the same pattern no matter which individual in the species performs them. That squared off dog, whether Bassett Hound or Basenji assumes a warning posture with the same rigid body tension,weight forward on both front legs signaling intent to move forward if they have to. (Continue Reading Below)