Exploring Owner-directed Aggression


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Nothing is so distressing for an owner as having a seemingly ungrateful dog who metaphorically or literally bites the hand that feeds. Why on earth would a dog joyously receive a delicious treat from his owner, say a rawhide chew, and then protect that morsel from his owner with every last ounce of strength?

Simply walking past the bad players when they have such a highly emotive item is enough to trigger a display of growling, lip lifts, snaps or even biting. And as for touching this food item, forget about it. Or trying to take it away, well, that is just plain dangerous.

If protecting valued food objects is the only area in which the dog expresses aggression, the solution is easy. Simply don’t give the dog those things in the first place. The philosophy here is the same as if you gave a child a penknife and he stabbed you in the leg with it. Your reaction should be to confiscate the penknife for good.

Unfortunately, the protection of valued food or quasi-food-like items is often not where the syndrome of owner-directed aggression ends.

There are several typical situations in which dogs of this apparently mean-spirited disposition erupt into threats or violence. General categories include:

• Guarding food and objects.
• Resistance to certain postural interventions like petting the dog on head.
• In response to admonishments or physical punishment.

Owner-directed aggressive behavior was for a long time labeled dominance aggression, implying that the dog regarded its owner as a subordinate. I never thoroughly bought this theory because truly dominant dogs are rarely aggressive. They respond if pushed to the limit, but don’t sweat the small stuff and, paradoxically, often defer. I always believed owner-directed aggression involved an element of angst, somehow integrated with a willful streak.

Now, perhaps reasonably, the terminology has changed and the behavior formerly known as dominance has been renamed conflict aggression. Conflict implies tension, inconsistency and discord, as often seems to be the case. Some proponents of this updated interpretation believe pack theory is dead and any explanation of domestic dog behavior based on the concept of a pack mentality is passé.

They believe there is no such thing as alpha status (or beta status) and that dogs do not regard themselves or their owners as the boss. Instead, it is argued that an element of angst–even frank fear–underlies these dogs’ aggressive responding.

I’m not sure I agree fear per se is a factor, but I do agree that most dogs displaying owner-directed aggression are not super dominant, in-charge individuals who  throw their weight around from time to time, but rather that they are somewhat insecure, mistrusting and confused by their owners’ actions.

That said, the fact that these dogs are often regarded by their owners as model, loving pets for 98 percent of the time indicates to me that they are certainly not fearful of their owners. The fact that owner-directed aggression is more common in males than females is another strike against owner-directed aggression being a purely fear-based phenomenon, as all other fear-related behaviors distribute evenly between the two sexes. Also, the fact that gentler, more kindly people are often the target of such aggression seems also to speak against fear as a primary motivation.

Domination on Display

My view is that dominance, which I equate with a pushy, willful, more independent character, is alive and well in the dog psyche. You only have to watch dogs interact in an off-leash dog park to see it in action. But, on its own, dominance does not constitute the reason for the majority of cases of owner-directed aggression.

It seems to me that an independent comorbid trait of anxiety/insecurity must co-exist with a degree of pushy willfulness in order for owner-directed aggression to be frequently expressed in response to trivial provocation. Extreme anxiety alone results in a cringing, shrinking violet of a dog.

High levels of confidence, however, are characterized by deference. Neither of these personality extremes is likely to be expressed as routine owner-directed aggression.

Some dogs displaying owner-directed aggression seem more confident than anxious, with perhaps merely a soupçon of anxiety fueling occasional aggressive reactions toward their owners. Dogs that are far more fearful than dominant may display fear aggression to strangers or other dogs without expressing any aggression to their owners.

Anxiety and Fear

Square in the middle is a group of dogs with fairly even components of dominance and anxiety/fear (the conflict aggression group). These dogs seem to be the ones displaying the bulk of owner-directed aggression. The reason for their displaying aggression to their owners is they are relatively comfortable with their owners most of the time but have situational mistrust, or anxiety, bordering on paranoia, regarding chattels, personal space or perceived threats or challenges.

One way of looking at this composite is that the dominant side of these dogs’ personality is contaminated with anxiety or fear. An alternative way of viewing it is that their anxiety/fearfulness is accompanied by an element of willfulness or dominance. These dogs sometimes also exhibit other fear-related conditions such as separation anxiety and storm phobia.
It follows that some dogs with assessable levels of both dominance and fear should have a bit more dominance than fear, and vice versa.

These are what I call the hybrids—dogs with personalities that are between the extremes of dominance and fearfulness and yet have significant, but not equal, quotas of each trait. I believe I see all varieties in my clinic and grade them out of 10 for both dominance and anxiety/fearfulness.

Some dogs with owner-directed aggression are, as predicted by this paradigm, quite pushy and independent and have very little discernable fearfulness. With these dogs, there is no remorse or lip licking after an aggressive incident and incidents are less frequent and, from my perspective, reasonably provoked.

Hair-Trigger Personality

At the other end of the hybrid spectrum, I see dogs displaying owner-directed aggression who are clearly much more anxious or fearful than dominant and whom I would never regard as dominant by any stretch of the imagination. That said, they have sufficient willfulness, coupled with a mistrust of their owners’ motives, to react aggressively even when provocation is slight.

Aggressive responding by these dogs seems more frequent and is often followed by the dog showing deferent or submissive postures with aversion of eyes and licking of lips.

So the argument rages. Are dogs displaying owner-directed aggression dominant, anxious, fearful, or do they simply not trust their owners? Is pack theory a thing of the past?

There is room for all explanations, but no one accounts for the behavior of all dogs. Whatever the explanation for owner-directed aggression in any particular dog, the treatment is always the same and involves, first of all, avoiding further aggressive encounters. For example, this means not giving the dog emotive food items or toys, not staring at the dog, not petting it on the head or disturbing it while resting, not yelling at the dog or hitting it with a rolled-up newspaper, and so on.

At the same time, the dog is required to respond quickly to a command, such as “sit,” or better, “down,” before it is given any valued asset. (Having the dog wait and then saying “OK” is not that effective; immediate reward for a job well done works better.)

This program is the so-called “Working for a Living” or “Nothing in Life is Free” program and has been shown to turn around from 70 to 90 percent of these dogs in as soon as two months. That is the good news.

But for owners of dogs who bite them or simply growl or snap, the relief they seek is eminently achievable as long as they follow the yellow brick road of treatment advice.

An author and researcher, Dr. Dodman is a professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University and is founder and director of Tufts’ Animal Behavior Clinic.

Night and Day

Dogs who display owner-directed aggression most often behave aggressively in the evening hours. They are better tempered, less likely to be aggressive, in the morning.

This may be because brain serotonin is highest in the morning and falls over the course of the day, reaching low levels in the evening as serotonin has metabolized to melatonin.

So the supposedly dominant or conflicted dog is much less dominant or conflicted when he first wakes up and much more irritable or less sure of himself as dinner time approaches.

This roller-coaster ride can be evened out by increased exercise, diet changes and various pharmacological strategies such as the use of serotonin-enhancing drugs, especially of the selective serotonin reuptake inhibiting variety.

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