Looking at the Causes of Aggression

Aggressive behavior can be hereditary, can be caused by poor health, or can be the result of the dog's environment. Hereditary aggression, unless selectively bred for, is relatively rare, because it contradicts the whole concept of domestication. Aggressive behavior is more frequently the result of the dog feeling bad or being in discomfort, or even pain (see Chapter 19). In these cases, the dog's action isn't a behavior problem, but a health problem. The most common cause for dog bites is environmental — the result of a misunderstanding or outright mismanagement.

A misunderstanding can occur when the puppy nips at the owner's hand during play or when the puppy/dog is playing retrieve and accidentally bites the hand when he tries to get the stick. And some dogs, like our Newfoundlands for example, gently take our arms and try to guide us to the play area when they want to play. Most dog owners can recognize when a bite occurred due to a misunderstanding — the dog will be as horrified as the owner.

Bites occurring because of mismanagement are a different matter. For example, the kids are playing with Buddy, when Buddy has had enough and retreats under the bed. When one of the children crawls after Buddy and tries to drag him out, Buddy snaps at the child's hand and may even make contact. Not an uncommon scenario and certainly not aggression, even though there was no warning. Or was there? The fact that Buddy retreated should've told the children he'd had enough.

Aggression is a natural and even necessary phenomenon. In the case of unwanted aggression, human mistakes or misunderstandings are the usual cause. The owner may be unintentionally rewarding the undesired behavior, causing it to occur again and again, or the owner may not have socialized the dog properly. Only when you're unable to manage aggression, or don't understand its origin, does it become a problem.

A few years ago, it was brought to our attention that a number of Rottweilers had bitten the veterinarian when taken for their six-month checkups. Apparently, the situation had gotten so bad that many vets didn't want these dogs as clients anymore. At that point, the Rottweiler Club of England consulted us. We found that the same veterinary community that didn't want these dogs as clients anymore had advised the dogs' owners not to let the dogs out in public before they had all their vaccinations — that is, until they were 6 months of age. Those owners who followed this advice ended up with completely unsocialized dogs.

This example is a classic case of aggression on a grand scale caused by a lack of understanding of behavior. Socialization is a continuing necessity throughout your dog's life. If you don't socialize Buddy, you will have problems as he

grows up. Take this advice seriously, and get Buddy into a good puppy class as soon as you can. And continue to take him out so that he can mix with other dogs as he continues to mature. (Check out Chapter 3 for more about puppies.)

Keeping your dog at home until he has had all his vaccinations at 6 months of age prevents proper socialization with people and other dogs, which can be a cause for aggression.

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