Aggression is simply communication. The burning question is where acceptable communication crosses the line into unwanted aggression. For perspective let’s take a look at CCS' Canine Communications Continuum.
Social and confident dogs exist in Zone-A. Under-socialized and fearful dogs live in Zone-B. On a best day scenario when anxiety is low, B dogs live in the center of the continuum and are more likely to start communicating their discomfort with deterrent behaviour. (See CCS' Canine Deterrent Behaviour Model) This is why they’re perceived as “reactive” or dogs with a low threshold.
A dog can change its communication according to the situation by sliding up and down on the continuum with the intent of preventing conflict. The dog may communicate its discomfort with calming signals (R1) in Zone-A, but if those signals are not respected, the dog’s behaviour will move toward Zone-B into deterrent behaviour. The line between A and B is where the dog flips from mild to more severe deterrent behaviour leaning toward aggression.
While Zone-A dogs tend to warn approaching stimuli utilizing calming signals, B dogs use deterrent behaviour. If forced into closer proximity anxiety levels rise. While A dogs will use more calming signals and possibly mild deterrent behaviour, B dogs quickly slide up the continuum into severe deterrent behaviour ultimately boiling over into aggression.
If a dog is punished for communicating, it stops communicating. This is on par with taking the batteries out of a smoke detector. Reprimands cripple communication causing a dog to jump quickly to severe deterrent behaviour in order to protect itself while avoiding the admonishment. Punishing communication can create a highly reactive dog and allowing unwarranted deterrent behaviour can create an aggressive bully that picks fights. When communication is repeatedly punished it creates a learned helplessness and can trigger a primordial survival instinct that manifests in easily triggered self-defense behaviours.
To prevent or mitigate aggression and shape a confident dog that’s a master communicator you need to do the following.
- Provide an early, careful, thorough and guided socialization.
- Learn how to interpret canine communication and body language.
- Encourage natural communication.
- Teach acceptable deterrent limits.
- Teach the dog to remove itself from unpleasant situations whenever possible.
- Learn when to step in and how to do so without the use of punishment and in a productive manner.
- Use cause and effect consequences for unwarranted deterrent behaviour. (The temporary loss of something of value such as off leash privilege or play time)
The secret to solid communication is socialization and because it’s a skill, the “use it or lose it” rule applies. Dogs should be carefully and thoroughly socialized before four months of age and supervised socialization should continue throughout their lives to keep their skills fine-tuned and to prevent aggression.
Copyright October 2010 - Greg Ceci * Norma Jeanne Laurette, CCS - Canine Correspondence Studies, ACTT - Applied Canine Therapy & Training
R1 – Turid Rugaas – http://en.turid-rugaas.no/calming-signals---the-art-of-survival.html