First, a word on aggression
Many owners experience difficulties with the concept that their faithful family pet may be displaying aggressive tendencies. Unaware of the signs of anxiety and aggression, they defend their dogs’ inappropriate behaviour at the beach or park by saying: “He’s not being unfriendly, he just likes to play rough,” or: “Oh, she always barks at big dogs” or “… at the postman,” or “… at strangers” etc.
Sometimes, when faced with a diagnosis of aggressive or anxiety-based problem behaviours, owners exclaim: “My dog isn’t aggressive!” or “Fido isn’t anxious! He’s a happy little boy!” as if a judgment has been made against them personally. This is very unfortunate because anxiety and aggression are relatively common, and are almost never the result of abuse or mistreatment in any way. These behaviours are most commonly related to a lack of socialisation as a puppy, or continuing socialisation into adulthood. The resulting anxiety in the animal’s life escalates with each encounter with the unfamiliar, until the sum total of new fearful experiences creates overwhelming anxiety, leading to aggression. All animals have the potential to bite when faced by a threatening situation, invariably when they are completely overwhelmed by anxiety or fear.
The ‘fight or flight’ instinct is hard-wired into the animal kingdom, and this includes our beloved domesticated canine and feline species. The vast majority of aggressive episodes are in animals who experience an episode of extreme anxiety, to the extent that they believe their best protection is to defend themselves by attacking (the ‘fight’ instinct). Often this is because they feel unable to take flight – they may be in a confined area or restricted by being on a leash. This is why on-lead aggression is extremely common in dogs that are otherwise relaxed and friendly. The tendency to be aggressive when faced by a need to defend themselves is called ‘defensive aggression’. Animals succumb to their emotional state, induced by fear of the unknown, or fear of a known or perceived threat and become aggressive as an instinctive defence mechanism. On the other hand, overtly aggressive animals – those who attack through pure aggression rather than through fear – are much less common, and can be more dangerous because they give little or no warning of attack.
Aggressive animals need to be fully assessed by a very experienced behaviourist as to their potential for retraining. Many – but sadly not all – aggressive animals can be retrained to develop different coping strategies which will help them deal with perceived threats, other than to resort to aggression. These animals need to be taught to adopt alternative behaviours when facing fearful situations – we need to change their emotional state, through confident and supportive handling.
The only way to absolutely guarantee zero aggression in the very anxious animal is by euthanasia, but this is an extremely undesirable method of prevention or control. It is far better to establish the cause of the anxiety and help the animal overcome it. Overtly aggressive animals are very difficult to retrain, because their aggression is based on the instinctive drive of the predator. Overt aggression is not as uncommon in cats as it is in dogs.
Happily, however, the retraining of fear-based defensive-aggressive and anxious animals has a much higher success rate, because we are able to help them overcome their anxiety or fear in the majority of cases, through desensitisation and counter conditioning (see Desensitisation and Counter Conditioning fact sheet), which is really just a process of positive reinforcement of targeted desirable behaviours.
Safety Risks and the Role of the Handler
Safety is the most important consideration when handling an aggressive animal. The need to prevent injury far exceeds the need to ‘do something’ about the ‘bad behaviour.’
Aggressive animals are highly aroused and will be in an extremely unstable emotional state. Even when the aggression is directed at a particular animal, person or object, the aggressive animal can be so lost in their fear response that they can redirect their aggression to unintended targets. This means they can be so distressed at seeing a fear source, such as a large dog coming towards them, they can turn and attack their beloved owner or canine housemate – this is called ‘redirected aggression,’ and is an extremely distressing experience for loving owners who cannot comprehend that their dog could bite them, or attack its canine playmate. Therefore, aggressive and extremely anxious animals can be very dangerous, even when the perceived threat is still some distance away.
Handlers of aggressive animals therefore need to be calm, in control, and confident enough to provide that support. Not all owners of aggressive animals are sufficiently skilled or have the confidence required to deal with such volatile animals and can end up being victims themselves, particularly in the case of an overtly aggressive animal.
For this reason, sending aggressive animals away to be retrained is not a complete solution – the owners also need to be trained, and the animal needs to experience the normal home environment to overcome its anxiety and fear. While it is important to understand that there can never be an iron-clad guarantee that the animal will not resort to aggression again in the future, most owners can be given the necessary skills to succeed in retraining an animal with fear-based aggression. There is no quick fix, however. It is a long road of recovery, so dedication and determination are two of the first qualities required in handlers taking on the retraining of this most difficult of problem behaviours.
What to do if an animal is aggressive or becomes severely anxious
It is an essential skill of all animal handlers to be able to identify the signs of anxiety and aggression. Aggressive animals usually give preliminary warnings, through behaviour and postures, prior to an actual bite. These can be extremely subtle and all warning signs should be heeded for the safety of both handler/s and the animal.
If any of the following signs are exhibited, all interaction with the animal must be immediately discontinued:
• Dog aggression warnings may or may not include: initially, retreating and avoidance, lip licking, yawning, body tensing/stiffening, forward set of posture, low slowly wagging tail or tail held high and erect over the rump, intense stare, pupils dilated, barking, growling, snarling (lifting lips and showing teeth), lunging, snapping and/or biting
• Cat aggression warnings may or may not include: retreating, arching of the back with fuzzy tail, rapidly flicking tail, ears pinned back, pupils dilated, eyelids narrowed, hissing, growling, swatting and/or biting.
An aggressively aroused animal is in no frame of mind to take in new information, so there is absolutely no point in trying to train an animal in this state. Avoid all discipline and physical or verbal reprimands, as these are likely to increase rather than decrease aggressive responses.
The aggressively aroused pet should be handled very carefully by a responsible adult and segregated in a secure location with all necessary resources (such as water, litter tray) and given time to recover from whatever caused the aggression (see Acute Management of Problem Behaviours fact sheet). It must receive minimal stimulation until calm again. Brief, periodic and low-key visits to the containment area may allow the owner to assess the animal’s reactivity and readiness to rejoin the household. Interaction with the animal should only be resumed again when the animal is no longer aggressively aroused or showing any signs of anxiety. This may be difficult to determine and can take many hours or sometimes days (especially in cats), so caution is needed. Following reintegration, aggressive animals must be monitored closely to prevent further episodes.
To decrease aggressive episodes, avoid all known situations that trigger aggression and seek urgent qualified behavioural advice. Some of the following tips may help with this:
• If your pet exhibits warning signals or actually bites when you physically interact with them, then this interaction must be avoided. This may include petting, hugging, pushing, stepping over them, grabbing by the collar, picking them up, wiping their feet, cleaning their ears, clipping their nails etc.
• If your pet exhibits warning signals or actually bites when you approach his/her food or when in possession of a toy, chew bone, or stolen item, this must be avoided. Distract the pet and remove the item when safe.
• If your animal is aggressive around human food, they should not be in the room while food is being prepared and consumed. Children must not walk around the home eating food if the animal is in the house.
• If your pet is aggressive around their pet food then one should:
Prepare the pet’s food when the pet is outside or contained in another area of the house.
Place the prepared food in a room that can be closed/locked.
Let the pet into the room with the food.
Close and lock the door, allowing the pet to eat without any contact.
Once the food is consumed, let the pet out and put it outside or contain it in another area of the house.
Once the pet is contained away from the feeding room, go into the room and retrieve the food bowl and put it away.
• If a pet shows any signs of anxiety or fear, no matter how subtle, in the presence of children, extreme caution must be maintained, as these animals can be like a time-bomb waiting to explode. Such pets must NEVER be left alone with any children – a responsible adult must closely supervise all interactions. Muzzles may be appropriate in these situations. If close supervision is not possible, the pet needs to be confined away from the children. Do NOT be complacent about this – ‘family’ dogs kill children.
• If your pet aggresses toward visitors to your home, the pet must be confined before visitors are allowed in the house.
The pet should be placed in confinement by an adult.
The confinement must be a secure place, such as a room with a lock, a kennel or crate, or a fenced back yard.
• If your pet exhibits aggression when outside in the yard, they must not be outside alone. They should be supervised by an adult and preferably on a leash for additional control. They must never be left outside when no one is home.
The yard should be securely locked at all times so that people cannot get in and dogs cannot get out.
Do not tether aggressive dogs in the yard or any public place.
Electronic containment systems should not be used with aggressive animals, as they can exacerbate aggression.
• If your dog shows aggressive behaviour to other dogs or people/objects in public, avoid walks in high traffic areas or anywhere you are likely to encounter the trigger/s. If an encounter occurs, quickly change direction and create space between the dog and the perceived threat, even if it means walking quickly back the way you have just come.
• If your cat shows aggressive behaviour to other cats in the neighborhood, outdoor access is not advised.
In the case of aggressive and anxious animals, it is imperative to seek immediate and urgent assistance from an experienced trainer to establish a behaviour modification program.