Dog aggression is an issue that no owner wants to have and fortunately, for those of us who live with dogs, most dogs choose not to bite. Almost all dogs, however, will show some form of aggression - a growl or a lunge - at some stage of their lives. Occasionally dogs appear to 'snap' with little warning. This may be because:
- Their owners have been unaware of subtle behavioural signals that their dog has been giving prior to the attack, sometimes for months or years.
- The dog has leaned that subtle behaviour signals such as growling have not worked and now they need to bite or attack to make their point.
- The dog has a medical condition.
If your dog has little history of aggression, the latter may be the cause.
Medically-related aggression problems
All dogs that demonstrate aggressive behaviour should be examined by a vet. Medical conditions such as thyroid disorders, neurological problems, brain tumours and seizures can all be responsible for aggressive behaviour in dogs. These conditions are impossible to diagnose at home, so must be diagnosed or ruled out at your vet clinic. If your dog is diagnosed with a medical condition, then an appropriate course of treatment can be implemented. Behavioural therapy may also be beneficial in reducing the frequency or intensity of your dog's aggressive behaviour.
Animals are experts at masking symptoms of pain and illness. It may be to a dog's disadvantage to alert enemies and even their compatriots to their illness, so by the time you see your dog exhibit obvious symptoms of illness, they may be very sick. Behavioural changes such as lethargy, hiding in quiet spots, not eating, vomiting and so on may be signs that your animal is unwell. Common ailments, such as hip dysplasia, may result in aggression from an otherwise placid canine companion.
There can be no doubt that pain or illness can cause stress. We can't explain to our dogs why they are feeling the way they do and so it stands to reason that if your dog cannot stop the pain, then they may become irritated, frustrated, and angry. Subsequently they will display aggressive behaviour towards anything they associate with the pain or discomfort.
Animals that are in discomfort or stressed through pain may be more likely to injure others when approached or touched. Your dog may not set out to bite you, but when you touch them and cause pain, their only method of preventing more pain is to use their teeth. Proceed with caution if your dog is stressed or in discomfort.
Your dog may only be temporarily stressed due to illness but the lifestyle impact can continue for a long time. For instance, a puppy that has spent time in a veterinary clinic due to disease or illness may come to dislike the veterinary staff whom they associate with their discomfort and with invasive, uncomfortable procedures. When they are old enough and strong enough, they may bite the veterinary staff.
Solutions for aggression problems
Treatment for the medically-related aggression problem will depend on the underlying physiological cause. Since conditions such as brain tumours and thyroid conditions can only be diagnosed and treated within a veterinary clinic, a trip to the vet is essential. Regular veterinary check-ups are the best prevention for all pet problems.
Aggressive behaviour in dogs needs to be managed safely and effectively. Dogs that display aggressive behaviour, whether due to medical or behavioural reasons, will benefit from training and expert supervision.
About Dr Joanne Righetti
Dr Joanne Righetti is an animal behaviourist, educating the public and professionals in all aspects of the human–animal relationship. Her background is in zoology, with a PhD in animal behaviour and a counselling diploma – qualifications which enable her to work with all sorts of animals – including the human variety! Joanne likes to help pet owners understand their pet's behaviour and solve any pet behaviour problems. She also consults to a variety of organisations including non-profit organisations, commercial companies and councils and is involved in a variety of media including regular spots on radio. Joanne is an honorary associate of the Faculty of Veterinary Sciences, University of Sydney. Find out more about Joanne at www.petproblemsolved.com.au