There are many types of aggression, but we see a few more often than others. Fear aggression happens because the dog is afraid. If a dog believes they are in danger, they react with aggression, even if they aren’t actually in harm’s way. Many bites happen because the dog thinks they need to protect themself.
We reduce the need for the dog to be aggressive by reducing the things that reduce fear. We have plenty of treats, safe peanut butter and cheese. We try not to smell like a dog hospital. We use dog appeasement pheromones (DAP diffusers) to make the dog think everything is okay and therefore not be afraid.
Yukon is a two year old Great Pyrenees that was prohibited from boarding at his last place for aggression issues. At 65 pounds, Yukon is big enough that he could be dangerous, but we really didn’t have a problem with him. We moved slowly, were careful not to startle him, used the lift table to not scare him when he would have been picked up, held him, but did not muzzle him and got the blood and vaccinations in him that he needed to board. We did choose to get the fecal sample the next day when he left it rather than take it. To be honest, I don’t like anyone probing there either.
Protective or territorial aggression is another reason for staff bites. Dogs protect their territory. This can mean their food, toys, owners, home or cage. They growl, snarl, and snap at those who they perceive as threats. Izzy, is a small terrier mix. When I checked on her, she lunged at the front of the cage as I went by. Out of the cage, she likes me. We have snappy snares which are leashes on a flexible stick. Once we can get dogs like Izzy out of the cage they are generally okay.
The third most common type of aggression is one we rarely see at Guardian Animal, but owners see at home. When a dog is upset or provoked by a person or animal that they cannot attack (think outside the fence or a higher ranking adult), they can get excited and bark, growl or attack because they can’t attack the intruder. (Sometimes we humans do this to our spouses because of work-related or other stressful things.)
We minimize the fear and the territorial aggression by minimizing the source, but we minimize the bites by reading dog language. An aggressive attack will usually escalate. First the dog will be very still and rigid. Sometimes they will lick their lips or the ears will be back. This is where we try to identify the stress to affect the behavior. If they progress to the low, guttural barking that sounds threatening, they will usually go on to lunging forward or charging at the person with no contact. By the time they are growling, showing teeth, snarling and snapping, the bite is almost always going to follow. Bites themselves are graded in severity. A bite and release is not as dangerous as a bite and chew and maul. I had my arm mauled once, but the dog was headed for my neck, so I was lucky that I was fast.
In all stages of aggression, you need to work to calm things down. The dog feels like it is a crisis, but you need to model relaxation. We teach staff members to take a deep breath, because it forces them to lose some of the anxiety that the aggressive dog feeds on. Sometimes it is not the day for that staff person to work with that animal. I have only come close to that with one animal. An Amazon parrot delighted in ripping hunks out of my hands. About the fourth or fifth time during his hospitalization that he got me for no good reason, while dripping blood, I placed him in his incubator and loudly stated “Not me! Not today!” As I left his room, there might have been a Coast Guard word or two.
If your dog is getting more aggressive, look for a cause. They may need more exercise or stimulation or something else. Thor is getting chemotherapy and as a large German Shepard, he can be a handful! We have anxiety-reducing drugs on board, but now that he is feeling better, I also asked the owners to take him on at least a thirty minute walk or jog the night before his chemo treatment. Ulysses misses the mind stimulation of his daycare and fought with his little dog sister during the time that COVID 19 closed daycare.
Although there are breeds that get blamed for aggression (think Pit bulls, rottweilers, and Dobermans), they are not the worst. Granted a Pit bull bite can do some serious damage to a human or another dog, but chihuahuas and dachshunds may be more aggressive. The worst ones I have seen are the dogs that are cute fluffy puppies. Owners adore them, but don’t take into account that the biting that is cute as an 8 pound puppy is not so cute as an 80 pound dog. I do not believe that there are ‘biting accidents.’ Each nip is a test. If they get by with that level, they will bite more later.
Your veterinarian can help. Vets are experts in identifying the medical conditions that can make biting and aggression worse. When dogs are in pain, they tend to lash out and exhibit signs of aggression. This is pain aggression. This is one reason that we will keep and use muzzles. A dog that is in pain deserves to have treatment, but without proper handling can be dangerous to their owners and my staff.
We do tend to have more problems with intact dogs. While I was writing this, I got a call from an alumni employee. She had been grooming a dog and nicked a toenail that would not stop bleeding. I was able to help her, but in the process of cleaning it up and cauterizing the toenail, she was bitten twice. I noted that the little fluffy dust mop dog was still intact. Fixed dogs are less likely to display dominance, territorial, protective, and sex-related aggressions.
A veterinarian or even a veterinary behaviourist can help. But do not punish your dog for aggression. It can escalate the situation. If your dog is fearful, punishing, hitting, or raising your voice will only make her more fearful and more aggressive. If they are dominantly-aggressive, punishing them will make them more dominant and want to overpower you as the leader.
Always evaluate the entire situation. Most cases of aggression can be fixed, but it is hard work and takes a lot of time. If you and your entire family cannot handle the behavior, it may need another home or being put permanently to sleep. You must be able to live safely with your dog and not put your family in danger. Behavioral euthanasia is one of the most difficult decisions that is made. It is one that haunts people for months to years, but sometimes it is necessary. We had a staff pet that attacked a child this week. It was a hard decision, but for the best.
We minimize the fears and train dogs from puppyhood and generally have few dogs that are issues. This week was challenging, but the only one to actually get bit and draw blood this week was the alumni employee. Well, a cockatoo got me, but that is different.