Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Aggression Question, Part 3: Social Aggression

The third prong of our working definition of aggression is behavior used as a means to secure or change social standing in the dog’s environment. This is a touchy subject that has led to a huge level of distraction and many misguided training methods over the years.

Dogs are presented as pack animals. The traditional human perception of a canine pack is very male-oriented and hierarchical. There is a clear “alpha” male that rules all from on top. He is expected to make all the decisions and get the benefits of being King; the best food, the best female, the best place to sleep. He is expected to make all the pack’s decisions. The “alpha female” is the next in the pecking order.  She is expected to be his best girl, get the best cast offs from her King, and to keep the others in line. Sooner or later, as one of the upcoming males matures, or if another better male enters the pack’s territory, there may be a showdown. The males face off and, a la “The Lion King” or any spaghetti Western movie, the dust clears with one male on top and the other either dead in the street or slinking off in shame.  There can be Only One.

But reality is not so clear. This male-dominated, strictly hierarchical pack concept was developed in the 19th and 20th centuries by observing wolves, many in captive situations. Much of this observation was done by male scientists, themselves a product of a male dominated, hierarchical society and set of disciplines.

Current research, even in wolves, is not necessarily so clear. There does appear to be a generalized “alpha male” in wolf social groups. In the wild, however, the day to day decisions regarding hunting, travel, and activity seem to be much more loosely made. The “alpha” male does seem to have preferential breeding access to females, but the strict, cast-in-concrete rule of a single King does not reflect reality.

The male-dominated hierarchical stratification of command has been overlaid by some on domestic dogs in our homes.  They see dogs as set into rigid rankings, only overturned by fight, deference by an aging “alpha” dog, or death. They also see dogs as needing a clear, physically dominant human “ruling” over the pack as the subordinates quietly plot the leader’s overthrow.

Progressive trainers, behaviorists and animal psychologists are now applying the newer assessments of wolf behavior and pack structure as a more fluid, democratic process into our practices with our companion dogs. It no longer appears that your pet is waiting a sign of weakness to overthrow your “rule” and challenge the social order in your home. Rather than seeing the place of a human as the forcible, physical dominator of a submissive pack, a more cooperative relationship is developing. This less authoritarian relationship is based on clear communication, limits taught by reinforcement and repetition, and consistency in permitting behaviors.

Based on this new data, past appraisals of attacks as “dominant” must be reexamined. In my research I have yet to see a single fatal dog attack that was clearly a result of a dog and a human facing off for “dominance”. More common is a dog that attacks from fear or lack of socialization. This is a reaction to a perceived threat. A lesser number of dogs have attacked due to resource guarding behavior. Either way, the attacks are not the result of “dominance aggression” or an attempted coup.

This does not mean that dominance and dominance aggression do not exist. There is, particularly between breeding age intact animals, a matter of social standing and some of this is sorted out through aggression. After all, our definition of aggression includes using aggressive behavior as a means to adjust or establish social order. It is just not the driving force in canine/human interactions that some believe. Dogs clearly know that humans are not dogs. Our relationship is more complex and more a result of cooperative social evolution over time.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Resource Guarding Aggression

The Aggression Question, Part 2: Resource Aggression

We are discussing aggression, and aggressive display, as a response to environmental stimuli. But we need to remember, as a refresher, that we must address the reaction to the stimulus as seen by the dog, not a human observer.

We must remember is that the dog is responding to the perception of the stimulus. Perception is dependant on a number of factors, including the dog’s past experience, training, socialization, physical limitations (hearing, sight, etc.), reproductive status, and nutrition level. The dog’s perceptions may not be grounded in objective reality. 

We have defined aggression as a behavior pattern that allows a dog to change or alter its environment in some fashion.  We have listed three specific incidences in which aggression has value; response to perceived threats, protection of resources, and altering of social status.  We have discussed perceived threats, so let us move on to protecting resources.

Protecting resources is easy for humans to understand. All animals need certain basic resources; food, water, shelter from adverse environmental factors, and reproductive access (if the species is going to survive).  In times of plenty resource protection may be relaxed somewhat.  In times of scarcity, resource protection is vital and can be a life and death struggle.

Our pets generally operate in an atmosphere of plenty.  Except in rare cases (post-Hurricane Katrina for instance) our domesticated pets do not have to fight for food access.  Begging at the table works fine.  But these drives still exist, and can affect our day to day interactions.  We have all seen the dog that growls when someone approaches while they have a favorite toy or food item.  This favored item is a resource, and the dog in question is guarding that resource.

The drive to protect resources is powerful and hardwired into animals.  Some dogs react to the presence of a resource as if they are likely to be in a scarcity situation and therefore, to protect that resource, use an aggressive display.  Audible signals such as growling combined with visible cues such as raised hackles and bared teeth serve to warn an approaching animal (even a human one) that the resource is not for sharing.  This warning may not be dependant on a true likelihood of scarcity or pending removal of the resource; the key here, as always, is the perception of the dog at the time of the incident.

Ideally these cues progress from a low level warning (audible growl followed or accompanied by initial level visual cues) through a forceful audible warning (bark and loud, overt growl/snarl) to a full frontal bare teeth snap and lunge, ultimately culminating in contact and a bite. If the initial bite does not deter the perceived resource threat then a full fight may ensue, depending on how attached the initial possessor is to the resource.

This sequence may be interrupted by several occurrences.  The possessor may, depending on the size and status of the offender and the perceived value of the resource, decide that the resource is not worth defending and withdraw the defense. The offender may similarly evaluate the size and status of the possessor and decide the resource isn’t worth fighting for. Withdrawal of either party may occur after an exchange of communication signals that result in a mutual appraisal and agreement over this particular resource. After all, the survival of a species is not served by every conflict devolving into a fight over every resource. That would result in a population of injured and dead animals that would not be viable long term.

We usually teach our dogs not to blatantly guard resources.  Many training books over the years have strongly suggested that we, as owners, teach puppies to “share” by taking food and toys away from them at will, and then returning them, so the puppy does not develop resource guarding behavior.  This is a good safety measure. But not all dogs are adequately socialized and trained to recognize humans as non-threatening to resources.  In fact some humans are valid threats to resources. A dog that has been habitually short of nutrition may have perfectly valid reasons not to surrender a treat or bowl of food to a human.

This gets us into trouble when a child, or a person unable to perceive these warning cues, persists in the perceived removal of the resource. In the case of a person that fails to recognize such cues and continues with a behavior the dog perceives as interfering with his resource, the dog follows a predictable sequence of protective moves. The sequence of warnings and escalation may happen very quickly; dogs interact rapidly and this progression may, in normal dog-dog interactions, flow through in a flash. Dogs perceive interspecies signals very quickly and can evaluate the sometimes subtle nuances in rapid sequence.

The sequence of negotiations and postures make sense to the dog and are part of its hardwired behavior. The human target of the dog’s warnings may not be able to respond quickly enough to avoid escalation, or the human may not understand dog signals, and fails to either redirect his or her behavior or adequately negotiate with the dog. The dog follows the (to him) logical “use of force matrix” and a bite, perhaps even a serious attack, follows.

Resource protection goes beyond simple food and toys. Protection of territory is a version of this, as the animal’s territory is often the source of food, water, shelter, and in some cases his/her breeding stock. Humans may not perceive the limits of a dog’s territory. Many times physical boundaries, such as fences and brush lines define a territory visibly, but that is not an absolute indicator.  An individual dog may regard a smaller area inside an otherwise physically delineated area as his actually territory worth defending-or may consider an area outside the physically defined space as territory. This is one of the ways humans such as utility workers, meter readers, and others get bitten; the particular dog may let them into the fenced yard, but when the worker violates the dog’s personal territory the dog’s demeanor changes and a confrontation ensues.

Is an attack or confrontation in such a resource guarding situation aggression? Yes, as we have defined it-aggression is a strategy to affect its environment for survival by protecting resources. To adequately evaluate the aggression the investigator must consider the potential of resource protection from the dog’s point of view. Was the bite victim within the dog’s perceived resource territory? Was the human perceived to be threatening the dog’s access to one of the key resources? In such a situation the aggressive response may well be understandable, and even a logical response. Should this response have been anticipated and guarded against by the owner through training, socialization, and even management? That determination is a central portion of the investigator’s job.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Earned Bite

I have to throw this out and give a comment here....According to Examiner reporter Penny Eims, this fresh out of New Zealand. Seems a dog bit the guy who was yanking on his (the dog's) tongue.

From the article:

"According to one report, the injured man was drinking at a party when he decided to wrestle a dog to the ground and yank on his tongue. After the dog maneuvered his way out of the partygoer’s hands, he lunged at the man’s face, inflicting serious wounds."

This should be unbelievable, but after all the bites I have seen, I can believe it. Fortunately the Kiwis seem to have enough sense to NOT label this a Dangerous Dog. Is this aggression? NO. This is a dog that was the victim of a stupid human trick. The guy bought and paid for this.
Next post on the nature of aggression: "Territorial Aggression and Resource Guarding" coming shortly. I have been a bit busy but promise it will be in soon. Meanwhile, here is the link to the full story on the Examiner: http://www.examiner.com/dogs-in-national/dog-bites-man-that-yanked-his-tongue

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Update-back on line after too long

Good morning all:

First, I have been off this blog for too long. While employed in my previous job I had to reduce my public output due to rules, etc. So the blog kind of languished. I have not stopped working on the issues of dog related fatalities and digging out the facts behind these cases. I am still dedicated to finding out what happens when the human-canine bond goes so wrong that a fatality occurs, and to preventing these tragedies by educating and informing dog owners and the public alike.
In light of that, here is part 1 of my examination of dog aggression;what it is, and isn't, and how it applies to our interactions with our companions.

The Aggression Question, Part 1: What is Aggression?

Aggression is an adaptive behavior that allows a dog to alter his environment in order to increase its chances of survival. Aggression is defined in textbooks as behavior that 1) establishes access to or protects resources, 2)establishes or alters social standing, or 3) defends against perceived threats.

Defense against perceived threats is probably the most common of these three factors in aggressive displays toward humans. Animals have three basic responses to perceived threats; freeze (stand still and hope the threat passes), flee (RUN AWAY!) or fight. This applies to dogs, horses, or humans.

The perception of threat is affected by a number of factors; experience, training, environment, and adaptability to novel situations. Dogs, horses and humans perceive threats differently. One’s place on the food chain has a lot to do with that perception; as prey animals, horses tend to perceive threats in plenty of innocuous situations. For now let’s look at the dog’s perceptions as we understand them.

The world of a dog is split along some very general lines: Scary Things and Not Scary Things. Scary Things are the things that initiate the freeze/flee/fight response. Scary Things are basically, in survival terms, Things That May Eat or Hurt Me.

When a dog is presented with a Scary Thing, a perceived threat, he chooses a response based on his perception of the level of threat and the potential avenues to relieve that threat. Dogs that simply run from a threat don’t present a concern to investigators-they are absent from the conflict. Freezing is likewise a benign response. The choice to fight, however, brings conflict with humans, and the involvement of the investigator.

A dog that chooses the fight response is not limited to an all out fight to the death. Fight, as a response to a perceived threat, is moderated based on the level of threat perceived. Social behavior has evolved to produce a range of postures, vocalizations and actions that other animals perceive as defensive and help avert actual contact.

The initial level of fight is an aggressive display. For dogs this includes body position, raised hackles, eye focus, exposing teeth, growling, and making initial lunges toward a target. If this display mitigates the threat, makes it go away, then the dog deescalates and the situation returns to neutral. If the simple display does not effect a solution, then the conflict can proceed to contact. The dog chooses to escalate, or not, based on the continuing presence of the perceived threat.

Aggressive displays are reinforced by success-if they result in the departure of a Scary Thing then the dog will try them again for another Scary Thing. Continued success means that the behavior will be repeated. But success is strongly based on trial and error. Success is based on a dog’s perception of the chain of cause and effect, a perception that may not reflect human reality.

A classic case of perception reinforcing an aggressive display is a dog’s interaction with a Postal or delivery person. A dog is at home and sees a potential Scary Thing (unfamiliar person) approaching up the walk. The dog starts to bark, posture, and in general show an aggressive display. The delivery person comes to the door and deposits their item. The delivery person walks away, ignoring the dog. The dog, however, is not aware that the delivery person was leaving anyway, and finds that their aggressive display made the Scary Thing go away. Success! The behavior worked.

The next time the delivery person comes up, the dog tries the previously successful behavior. The delivery person leaves, and the dog perceives that it works again! Now we have a successful behavior that has been reinforced by repetition. With enough successes it starts to become a default response to the approach of an unfamiliar person.

Later, the same house is approached by a child selling cookies. The front door is ajar. The dog sees unfamiliar person approach and begins an aggressive display. This time dog is not restrained by the closed door. The approaching child sees the aggressive display and runs. The dog reacts, the dog’s prey/pursuit drive adds in, and we end up with a bitten child.

Preventing this chain of events is a separate topic involving socialization and training, but the end result is that the dog is labeled aggressive. But is it, in the sense of being a dangerous, mean, vicious animal? Not really. Dangerous, mean and vicious are human terms, placing human values on an animal’s behavior, or more exactly, a dog’s response to a perceived threat. In our example we have a dog that has been set up for failure by the combination of a lack of human guidance and misapplication of a survival oriented behavior.

A similar series of events seems to be magnified in dogs that are habitually chained. If a dog feels threatened, their first response is usually to try and flee the Scary Thing. The chain leaves the dog out in the open, with no place to hide, and no place to run. Freezing may work-the dog cowers down and doesn’t respond and the perceived threat may just go away. But the Scary Thing may keep coming-for instance it may be a passing person who has to come close, but not necessarily all the way up to the dog. The dog, fearing that the freezing isn’t working, goes to Plan B: an aggressive display. Sure enough, the Scary Thing goes away. The fact that the Scary Thing (stranger) had no intention of approaching or harming the dog never enters into the equation. Dogs perceive situations as immediate cause and effect. The aggressive display worked.

Constant reinforcement of this success results in a typical fearful chained dog. The person feeding them may be able to approach easily, but others are repelled by the aggressive display. Now, add someone without the ability to recognize the warning signs or who’s recognition abilities are impaired by drugs, alcohol, or a lack of knowledge, and you have an attack.

If the same habitually chained dog gets loose it may be confronted by a Scary Thing while not restrained by the chain. The dog has few tools to handle novel situations due to a lack of socialization, so he defaults to the successful behavior strategy from before-an aggressive display. In this situation the dog is much more likely to attack and the result is a bite. Is this a vicious dog? We may perceive it as such, but the behavior is the result of a series of events that has its roots in the human behind the chain. In both cases there has been a human cost and the result is a need for control, management, and responsibility.