By- Nidhi, Doggiversity
Generally, a dog never becomes “aggressive” out of the blue! Aggression is never a sudden event, unless if it’s due to pain or an underlying medical condition. There’s a process to a dog becoming aggressive, and in most cases, the seeds are sown during puppyhood, and surprisingly enough, unknowingly taught by the pet parents when certain things are done in an incorrect way.
However, with the right kind of exposure and puppy training, one can surely ensure that the puppy grows up into a balanced dog with lesser chances of aggression/ reactivity. Few forms of aggression and other unwanted dog behaviour are definitely avoidable in the long run if recognized and addressed at the right time.
How can you say your puppy is in the initial stage of aggression?
As a pet parent, it is very essential to understand what your pup is trying to communicate and express. When you miss listening to your pup time and again, it can lead the pup to get frustrated/reactive and when these reactions are not addressed appropriately, then it pushes the pup to take the path of aggression over a period of time (note that it can vary from breed to breed and pup to pup, may also lead to submission, if not aggression in few cases).
So, when we say communication, we need to understand the dog behaviour by body language signals- a dog is constantly communicating through his body, i.e his ears, mouth, eyes, tail and the entire body posture… it’s constantly changing and trying to indicate some or the other information.
Usually, when a dog starts growling in certain situations, pet parents do get a bit alert about the dog behaviour, since it’s a loud and clear form of communication. However, before a dog growls there are several forms of communication that we tend to miss out on since they are very subtle. These are body language signals like lip-licking, yawning, hard stare, avoidance, whale eyes, crouching, shivering, looking away, turning the body away, sniffing the ground, tightening the mouth, etc.
A puppy uses this form of communication since the day it arrives home. Say there’s a situation that the pup is totally not comfortable about, and he/she is trying to express it by giving the body language signs – however since the pet parent is not aware of this form of communication, it easily gets neglected. Now the pup constantly keeps using these signs in several ways in desperation to let the pet parent know that he/she wants to avoid the situation, however the pet parents are not listening to him/her then the pup gets pushed upward on the ladder, to use a louder form – i.e a growl – and well it’s still not bad stuff- the pup is only giving a warning, that it doesn’t like what is being done and generally stops here because now the pet parent has started hearing out. However, in some cases the pet parent feels that it’s just a pup, what harm may it even do, then the pup gets pushed upward on the ladder even faster and may lead to aggression
eventually. And now, the pet parent will try to avoid repeating this situation so that there are lesser conflicts – amazingly, the pup feels safer to use the form of aggression since he/she gets what they want – avoidance and distance from the situation that causes discomfort! Hence over a period of time while the you are puppy training, he/she may learn to resort to aggression to keep things and situations under control.
Probable forms of aggression/reactivity that can seep into your puppies at an early stage:
1. Resource Guarding
This is the easiest form of aggression a pup picks up at a very young age. It starts out very cutely, when the puppy wants something and doesn’t want to leave. Then as and when he/she is growing and starts picking expensive stuff/delicate stuff/ stuff not meant for the pup/harmful stuff, a pet parent would panic and immediately want to take it out of the mouth. The pup can only retaliate as much as it can, however as and when it grows and gets more powerful, the puppy starts learning to keep the things to him/herself, because he/she wants it. Also, that’s what his/her role model (the pawrent) has taught – to keep things you like use power – pull it back and reprimand.
Also, remember, at this stage most likely your pup is undergoing hormonal changes since he/she is turning an adolescent – hence is on the edge all the time, and so can be snappier. These are all perfect ingredients to make the pup frustrated and irritated, and over a period it learns that to keep things you want, show teeth or snap and this keeps the humans at bay! Worse is when the pup grows into an adult dog who would bite (since snapping and growling didn’t keep the human away) if you even come in close when he/she has his/her favourite thing in the mouth.
How to avoid this dog behaviour:
– Teach a pup to share things at a very young age.
– To take things back from the pup, teach him/her the Drop command during puppy training. Avoid snatching stuffs and scolding the pup for picking up things.
– Puppy proof the house wherever possible so that you don’t give rise to unnecessary situations until the pup has learnt drop it commands.
2. Food Aggression
Many a time we are under an impression that being around a dog’s food and putting in our hand or even by putting in more food while he’s having a meal may help him/her to come out of the zone of protecting his/her food. Worse is when you try to pull your pup’s food away time and again so that he/she realize you are the boss! This only teaches the puppy to be even more protective of his/her food
While doing the above, if you keep seeing various levels of body language signals then you should know it’s time to step back from what you’re doing – they are red flags and this practice should not be encouraged further else the pup may grow up to become food aggressive and hate to have people around.
How to improvise:
– If your pup is showing escalated stress signals/ growling when you’re around him during mealtimes, it only means the pup wants to eat in peace. It is best to let the pup eat in peace and they’ll be thankful to you for life!
– In case it has not escalated much, you may try by being at a distance adding some more food in an additional bowl, and calling the pup to you, not going close to where he/she is eating. They may get very excited to have more food being involved in the process. (Always take the help of the behaviourist if you’re trying this method.)
3. Touch sensitivity
If the pup is not exposed to being handled thoroughly, i.e. being touched on the belly, ear cleansing, checking/cleaning the paws post walk, cleaning the bum area, etc. then he/she may try to rebel the touch in specific area where they are not comfortable being touched at.
If he/she shows several stress signals on being handled, and it only increases over a period of time, then chances are less likely that the pup is ever going to be habituated by the process. In the long run, the pup may start detesting the touch and in case the pet parent doesn’t understand the stress signals, the pup generally resorts to growling, to keep this process of being touched at bay. That’s the base to a pup going forward to becoming aggressive when being touched at a specific point. This behaviour will be more elaborate and visible when the pup is undergoing hormonal changes and picking up on muscular growth.
How to improvise:
– If your pup is showing the above behaviour, then it’s time to step back and introduce positive touch to the puppy.
– For the slightest touch give loads of positive rewards(treats/toys/praise) and reinforcement. You need to build up trust and need to go very slow with the process.
4. Reactivity towards grooming process (nail clipping, hair drying, bathing, ear cleansing, etc.) If the pup has not been introduced to the grooming regime meticulously and in a positive manner, there are chances the pup may despise a part/whole process of grooming.
However, when that is combined with loads of stress signals, and compulsive grooming process , the pup may feel the need to resort to aggression or react to being tackled, since that’s what helps him/her keep the grooming tools/ dryer/water/shampoo/nail clipper etc. away.
With time, as he grows, he sure knows to use more power to keep everyone at bay. Aggression against nail clipping is the most common form seen in a dog, that could have been avoided as a pup.
How to improvise:
– Figure out what is it that the pup despises.
– Gradually introduce it to the pup with loads of positive reinforcement and rewards – toys/treats/petting.
– Don’t aim at making the puppy accept it all at a go – you have to take baby steps and enjoy the process. Make the pup accept only one thing at a time and take your own sweet time for the puppy to be absolutely okay around objects he hates.
5. People/Dog Reactivity
This can be due to several factors, however common most reason is forced socialization of fearful dogs with people and dogs.
Socialization is a misguided term, and due to lack of awareness pet parents do take it literally and force their pups to interact with people and other dogs. However, socialization literally doesn’t mean randomly meeting new dogs and people. It means to give the pup a variety of experiences and exposure to different objects and situation in early phase of puppyhood. Introduce the puppy to as many different places, environments, people and animals but all in a controlled manner under pleasant circumstances and with positive consequences. It must be processed meticulously and gradually – not to make the puppy nervous or unhappy.
Now, when a pup is fearful of people/dogs, pet parents under the pretext of socialization force the puppies to meet new people and dogs so that they can get acquainted with strangers and not be scared. However, it does worse leave alone good. The puppy is not learning to accept new people, he/she is just learning ways to deal with the situation and how to keep them at bay. Such situations produce more fear in already anxious pups, and eventually, when left with no option, they resort to means of aggression, only to keep people/dogs away. They’ve learnt now that the only way to be safe is to retaliate.
How to avoid this behaviour:
– Allow the pup to meet one stranger at a time. Don’t call in a pool of people. And the let the pup only accept the presence of the stranger – no need for him/her to play with the pup.
– If the pup is really scared, then simply give him time and space – giving distance will help the pup to build trust and confidence. Don’t allow strangers to allow petting your pup even on a walk if the puppy is showing a number of stress signs.
– Similarly, follow the same for other dogs too, otherwise, it can lead to a dog reactive dog in the long run.
6. Space/Den Reactivity
With a new pup in the house, we love to constantly keep picking up and cuddling all the time. As much as it’s fun for us, many dogs hate it to be disturbed when they are asleep. And while growing up, if the puppies are seen being bothered and cuddled every now and then even while sleeping, they are actually learning to keep people at bay when they want to sleep/ rest otherwise, then they will keep disturbing you.
Puppies do tend to give out warnings for this behaviour of humans, however, it’s the most neglected since our want to cuddle puppy all the time is much more. Many pups get used to this behaviour and are not deeply disturbed. However, few dogs (especially seen frequently in indie breeds) are not comfortable being disturbed. This can go on to such an extent, that even if you pass by, the dog will react with rowdy growls and snappy behaviour.
How to avoid this behaviour:
– Stop picking up your pup all the time.
– In case you badly want to just hug, make a sound from a distance, make your pup aware that you’re around, and try calling him/her to you, instead of startling the pup when it’s in deep sleep and giving a tight hug!
– In case the pup has grown up to be a very snappy dog because he/she hates to be disturbed, allow him/her to have a secluded space, away from noise and movements. Let him/her build on the trust that no one is there to harm him or disturb him.
*At any point of time, you see your puppy on the path of aggression do consult a certified behaviourist and address the behaviour at the earliest. It’s always good to start at an early stage rather than wait for a bite to occur!
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