S.A., via email
Answer: The joy of owning a pet is replaced by fear and worry when your pet is aggressive. Some 70 percent of dogs that present to veterinary behaviorists have a diagnosis of aggression. Aggression is also one of the top reasons for the euthanasia of healthy dogs. The majority of dogs given up to rescue centers and shelters are reported to have some form of aggression-related problem.
Aggression is regarded as 'abnormal' behavior by some people. But while aggression in humans is socially unacceptable, for many dogs it is normal, especially considering their background, genetic predisposition, environment, management and what the dog has learned previously.
The good news is that canine aggression can be prevented in most cases—and prevention is always much better than cure. Proper selection of the right dog for a particular family or person is very important. Vets should discuss prevention and identify early signs of aggression to stop it from escalating into a major public health risk.
I believe that with an integrated approach combining humane behavior-modification techniques and relaxation techniques to help you build trust, and by feeding the right diet, it's possible in most cases to improve a dog's behavior and reduce the aggression significantly.
What causes aggression in dogs?
A knowledge of when the aggressive behavior started can help in identifying the motivation for it, although this isn't always possible, especially if you did not own the dog as a puppy. But if you can, try to work out when the dog first displayed this behavior, as this can help with a treatment plan. Here are some common causes of aggressive behavior in dogs.
Owner behavior. Owners and other humans can play a very key role in an aggressive dog's behavior, for better or worse. Harsh training techniques, abuse, miscommunication between human handler and dog, and inconsistent rewards and punishments can all confuse a dog. It is difficult for a dog to differentiate between a thief, a window cleaner or a postal worker, so if you want your dog to guard your property, then it is more likely that he or she will become aggressive.
Biological factors. An important biological relationship seems to exist between aggressive behavior and serotonin levels in the brain. A study looking at the serum levels of this neurotransmitter found that aggressive dogs had lower serotonin levels compared to non-aggressive ones.1
Home environment and management. Kennel-raised pups tend to show more aggressive behavior toward unfamiliar people, especially vets. Moreover, it has been proven that poor socialization of puppies between three to 14 weeks of age can make them more aggressive or fearful.
Breed. Certain dog breeds, such as Rottweiler, Chow Chow and German Shepherd, rank higher for territorial aggression because they were historically bred for this behavior. However, there are large variations between individual dogs within breeds, so your pet need not be aggressive just because of its breed.
Gender. Male dogs tend to be more aggressive than females. This is where castration is usually recommended. It may not get rid of the aggression entirely, but it should decrease it. And research has shown that there is no correlation between a dog's age at castration and the outcome of decreased aggression post-castration.
Common signs of canine aggression
Most people can easily identify aggressive behavior in dogs. The following are classic signs, although not all dogs will show all of them.
• Staring down
• Growling at you or a stranger
• Standing in the doorway like an obstruction and daring you to get past
• Rough play with you and other members of the family that gets out of hand easily and turns into an angry battle
• Territorial aggression, displayed by chasing people or other animals away from the garden or house, barking incessantly when strangers or other animals approach your home and, worst-case scenario, attacking and/or biting people or other animals.
Getting a diagnosis
You've done the right thing by taking Minsky to her vet—this should be the first port of call. Your vet must have examined Minsky and ruled out obvious and not-so-obvious medical conditions that may have caused her to become aggressive. Painful orthopedic conditions, gastrointestinal disorders, sensory deficits and neurological abnormalities can all predispose a dog to display aggression.
Your vet has done the right thing by referring you to a vet colleague who specializes in behavior, or a behaviorist or a trainer who can then start the process of diagnosis. It is important to have an accurate diagnosis so that an appropriate prognosis and treatment plan can be formulated.
A note of caution though: be careful when you decide on a dog trainer, as some of them can make matters worse. Not all behaviorists are the same, and not all of their techniques will be suited to your pet. It's a good idea to do your research and find a recommended trainer if possible.
The vet or the behaviorist who is dealing with a case of aggression needs to make a risk assessment. Not only does this evaluation deal with the particular dog in question, but it also has to determine what risks are present when considering other dogs and people who might be affected by this dog's behavior. Physical injury to this dog and others (dogs and people), emotional injury and potential liability must all be evaluated. Once this is done, treatment can be initiated.
No assurance can be given that aggression will be 'cured,' since
this is a normal part of the behavioral repertoire of a dog. Treatment focuses on managing the dog and sufficiently changing the underlying motivation for the aggressive behavior. Hopefully there will be a significant reduction in the frequency and intensity of the aggressive behavior, and the associated risks will be minimized.
One or a combination of the following strategies can be adopted, as advised by your vet, behaviorist or dog trainer, but only your compliance and strict adherence can bring about a reasonable change in your dog's behavior. It is vital that you remain centered, stable, calm, present and relaxed. This is the foundation for your preparation work to enable your dog to understand what you wish to change.
Avoidance. Simply avoiding the situation that triggers the aggression is one of the most commonly used methods. Confining your dog is part of this, but it may not always work for you and your pet. Blocking your dog's view can be useful too, especially in dogs that watch out for animals trespassing on what they deem to be their territory. Use your own body to block the line of vision between your dog and the other animal.
Interruption. Aggression gets worse if you do not stop or interrupt problem behavior. When your dog barks at the mailman, interrupt her by giving a command like 'sit' and reward her when she complies. This not only reminds her that you are in control but also alters her mood. It is difficult to get into an aggressive mode while you are enjoying a treat for obedience. Do this consistently.
Reinforcement and reassurance. This involves keeping the dog on an appropriate leash when outside. You may also have to be trained to change the way you interact with your dog. Many dogs exhibit leash aggression, especially when they are confronted by a dog that is not on a leash. It is their fear of being attacked when they are being restrained, when interacting with another dog that they assume as being free to attack them. Feeding a treat to your dog every time it confronts a novel situation, person or dog can be reassuring and make them look forward to meeting new people and dogs.
Use of control and restraint aids. Head collars or muzzles that allow your dog to pant, drink and safely vomit may need to be used. Halti head collars and harnesses fall into this category and can be extremely effective.
Desensitizing and counter-conditioning. These strategies are the main techniques used to change your dog's response to strangers. The main goal here is to replace unwanted behavior with positive behavior (for example, from being aggressive to being calm and focused). I have found them very successful.
Pheromone therapy. Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) is supposed to be beneficial in decreasing anxiety and consequently aggression. It is available as a slow-release collar or can be plugged in the house, sprayed on a bandana or on furniture, etc. These products are considered safe, but their efficacy in reducing aggression is yet to be proven, and I haven't had great feedback about them from pet owners.
Medication. I strongly believe that this should never be the first line of treatment. In my experience, most owners tend to rely on medication rather heavily and do not take the behavior-modification training programs advised seriously enough. There's also the problem of disinhibition, which means that as the drugs alleviate anxiety, your dog may
actually show more aggression as he or she starts feeling less fear.
Side-effects are another disadvantage. These can range from anxiety and aggression to anorexia and hallucinations, depending on the drug used. The most commonly used medications for aggression are SSRIs like Prozac, tricyclic antidepressants like amitriptyline and clomipramine, and finally benzodiazepines like alprozolam and diazepam, which may reduce anxiety. It usually takes at least four to six weeks before their full effects are seen.
Surgery. Castration of male dogs is the main procedure recommended. There is evidence that this can bring about a 50 percent reduction in territorial aggression in some dogs.2 It is not a cure-all, but it may help to show that the owner is proactive. Some behaviorists now advise that dogs who exhibit nervous aggression, as compared to those that are dominant aggressive, should not be castrated, as they need their testosterone confidence to deal with stressful situations.
Bergamot essential oil has been found to be effective in helping fractious and wild animals. Apply three to five drops of the oil on a bandana and tie it around your dog's neck. The scent lasts for four to six hours and helps to calm the emotions.
Bach flower remedies
Many holistic vets recommend using Bach Rescue Remedy to calm aggression. In fact, there's a nonalcoholic version of Rescue Remedy available for pets. One of the ingredients, cherry plum, is recommended for vicious animals who can be dangerous.
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM)
The herbs Shou Wu Pian and Xiao Yao are recommended for aggressive animals. They are available as pills from holistic vets and TCM centers. It is best to see a vet trained in traditional Chinese veterinary medicine before trying them.
Acupressure may also be beneficial. Stimulating certain acupressure points on the body may help address energy imbalances, according to TCM. LI 4 is an acupoint that is located on the front paw, where the thumb and the index finger meet.
LIV 2 is located in a dip on the second toe of the rear leg, on the inside at the second joint.
Just stroking these points for half a minute once a day can be helpful. (Warning: some pets hate having their feet touched, so please start off by just touching the feet before proceeding to acupressure.)
Successful adjustment of misaligned vertebrae or bones can alleviate aggression caused
Linda Tellington-Jones developed the TTouch technique, a type of massage focusing on the limbic system. By tracing circles with your fingertips on the tail, ears and mouth for a few minutes each day, it is possible to calm anxious and aggressive dogs. (See www.ttouch.com for
Wearing your dog out by increasing the amount of exercise she does can be effective. Play therapy is also good as it can distract a dog from showing negative, aggressive behavior. Avoiding aggressive games can also go a long way in treating aggression.
Feeding natural, chemical-free foods can really help aggressive dogs. Commercial pet foods may contain chemical preservatives such as ethoxyquin, which can make dogs irritable and cranky. Dogs fed too much protein in their diets can also become jealous and aggressive. Switching to a low-protein diet containing no more than 22-23 percent protein may help.
Feeding your dog more carbohydrates is another good idea as it can increase serotonin levels, altering her mood. Try feeding Minsky pasta or rice half an hour after a main, protein-rich meal. Food enriched with serotonin can also be beneficial.
Many holistic vets believe in the work of Dr Jean Dodds, who demonstrated that young dogs with aggression problems may actually be suffering from a condition called autoimmune thyroiditis, caused by vaccinations and other environmental stressors. Using thyroid supplements—natural ones like Armour or Canine Thyroid Support from Standard Process—can help correct the thyroid imbalance and consequently the aggression. But it is important to get your dog's thyroid hormone levels tested first and consult with an experienced vet.
Sepia has been reported to be effective in female dogs who are aggressive due to a hormonal state such as pseudopregnancy or postpartum, or when they are suffering from endometritis. It is unlikely to work in spayed females.
Pet reiki or animal healing
Hands-on healing and distant healing, which aim to reinstate dynamic equilibrium, or energy balance, can be helpful for aggressive dogs. For dogs aggressive toward people, distant healing is the better option. See my book You Can Heal Your Pet for how to give reiki healing to your pet.
Valerian is an excellent herb for reducing hyperexcitabilty and hysterical states. It is available as a tincture or capsules, or you can try valerian-infused toys. Chamomile and lavender are also effective calming herbs as well as potent sedatives. Applying a few drops of lavender essential oil behind Minsky's ears may help reduce anxiety. You can also hang a bit of cotton scented with lavender in your dog's hiding place.
Rohini Sathish, DVM, MSC, MRCVS, MHAO, MCIVT
Dr Sathish is an award-winning holistic vet with 22 years of experience. After training in acupuncture, acupressure, energy healing, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), animal communication and herbal medicine, she now actively integrates conventional veterinary treatments with complementary therapies and is co-author of You Can Heal Your Pet (Hay House, 2015). You can contact Dr Sathish at her website: www.rohinisholisticvetcare.com