Research indicates that hostile interactions between unfamiliar dogs are a universal problem.
Over the last 20 years, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Bristol and University of California, Davis have all published studies estimating that between 20 to 30 per cent of dogs are motivated to bark, growl, lunge or snap aggressively at other dogs that they encounter on walks.
Furthermore, a study published in the journal Anthrozoos (2005) suggested that 50 to 75 per cent of dogs entering some Canadian shelters were aggressive toward other canines.
Based on personal experience as both a behaviourist and walker of my own dogs, I find these statistics easy to believe.
Be mindful when socializing dogs since aggression can breed aggression
Inter-dog aggression, as it is termed in the textbooks, regularly makes up one third of my dog caseload. And, while walking my own dog, I anticipate being growled or snapped at by another dog at least weekly.
Why does a species as social as the domestic dog exhibit such anti-social behaviour on this wide scale? And, what can be done about it? Is it wise to let dogs fight it out, or is there a better way to resolve conflict?
Just like us, dogs are social and enjoy hanging out with their dog chums. But also, just like us, dogs can feel scared, threatened and subsequently defensive when they encounter an individual they do not like.
I once met a psychologist who spent his days resolving conflict between people in the workplace. We both quickly came to the realization that, whether it was people or dogs being the aggressors, usually we were both dealing with fear aggression.
Researchers looking into what predisposes dogs to develop inter-dog aggression are struggling to identify risk factors that account for its pervasiveness. At least two peer-reviewed studies have identified the Akita, chihuahua, dachshund, German shepherd and West Highland white terrier as breeds most likely to be aggressive toward other dogs. But still, the vast majority of individuals within these breeds get along with other dogs just fine.
Furthermore, there is not a single breed out there that doesn’t have its fear-aggressive constituents. While the problem is statistically more common in certain breeds, young dogs and male dogs, these factors predict very little when used in isolation.
So, why else are some dogs unable to get along — is there something else causing these dogs to be aggressive that isn’t predetermined by age, breed or sex?
Most dogs referred to behaviourists for displaying inter-dog aggression have been the victim of a dog attack. To be assaulted and hurt by another dog creates mistrust and anxiety for animals, much like it would do a person.
The abused dog can very quickly become the abuser — growling, barking and snapping allow the victim to keep other questionable dogs at bay. And, to a severely traumatized individual, this can mean all dogs, even the nice ones. Aggression breeds aggression, so to speak.
This is something that every dog owner needs to know. It is incumbent on the owners of aggressive dogs to ensure that their own dog’s fears and aggressive strategies are not passed on to other dogs.
And, for the owners of non-aggressive dogs, it is prudent to avoid any situation where there is a high chance of their own dog being attacked. Risk factors for a friendly dog being hurt, even inadvertently, include when puppies pester older dogs, during wildly rambunctious play, and when small dogs are permitted to play with much larger, assertive dogs.
Sometimes though, the victim dog might also just be minding their own business when they are unpredictably attacked.
Fortunately, most dog owners are responsible, and will take precautions to prevent their antagonistic pets from inflicting harm on others. These owners walk their dogs at unsociable hours when no one else is around, cross the street or skip the dog park to avoid interactions with other dogs, and may also muzzle their dogs if encounters are not reliably avoidable.
The Yellow Dog Project has provided another tool in the tool box when it comes to avoiding conflict. A dog that bears a yellow ribbon tied to his leash “needs space,” perhaps because he is old, sick, sore or possibly even aggressive toward other dogs.
While some owners of aggressive dogs rely solely on avoidance, others seek help from their veterinarian, behaviourist or trainer. Dietary changes, medications, supplements, conditioning techniques and competent handling can often help to manage the anxiety and fear that could be underlying a dog’s aggressive tendencies.
The alternative strategy — which is to let dogs “fight it out” — is counter-productive, and yet it is a stance that dog owners encounter on a regular basis.
The belief underlying this viewpoint is that fighting dogs will learn who is the strongest, most assertive dog and subsequently, who gets to call the shots at the dog park. It is speculated that, once the fittest dog emerges, then all dogs will know their place and all will be well.
Except, this is rarely the case. Allowing dogs to fight risks injury not only to the dogs, but also to any person who tries to intervene.
Also, dogs are rarely pleased to know their place as a result of a scuffle. Instead, one or both dogs are inevitably emotionally traumatized by the ordeal. And, crucially, it is the newly acquired fear and suspicion of other dogs that becomes instilled in the victim’s mind, leading to many years, if not a lifetime, of problems. These victimized dogs can become the next generation of aggressive dogs.
So, given these foreseeable consequences, dog owners would be wise to avoid aggressive conflicts with other dogs as far as possible.
Have fun at the dog park, but, also turn away from trouble if you can, and seek professional help if you need guidance to help your traumatized dog to recover from an attack.
By Rebecca Ledger, special to The Sun
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Rebecca Ledger is an animal behaviour scientist, and sees cats and dogs with behaviour problems on veterinary referral across the Lower Mainland. Read her blog at vancouversun.com/pets