Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Aggression & Reactivity

I have been doing a lot of thinking about the different definitions of aggression, reactivity, and fear-based behaviors.  I am, of course, trying to categorize Dolce's issues, but I also think of it in terms of what my clients experience as well.

Dolce's demeanor when he has outbursts appears to be one of a confident, excited, over-aroused dog.  He may be interpreted as aggressive when he's lunging, barking, and growling, but these are signs of discomfort and insecurity.  Here's my thoughts on each of those behaviors:

Lunging - When he lunges, I truly think he wants to get to the other dog.  Why does he want to get to them?  I'm not quite sure, but I know he doesn't want to kill them or harm them.  We've seen that at dog parks many times.  What does he do when he actually gets to the dog?  He barks a lot, and sometimes he play bows.  He nips their tails or rears, and has often pulled out undercoat.  He invites them to chase him, or else he chases them.  I think I'm catching onto a pattern here -- these are ALL play or herding behaviors.  Which misplaced instinct is driving his reactivity?  PLAY & HERDING.

Barking - He alerts me to the presence of the other dog, and alerts the other dog to his/our presence.  I've noticed that if the other dog doesn't bark back, Dolce is able to calm down much sooner.  I'm wondering if the barking is a test...  Does he need to worry about this dog's attitude?  Let's give 'em a hardy bark and find out if they're friendly or foe.

Growling - He generally growls if he's not sure what to make of things.  I think the growling is pure insecurity.  He growls at people he doesn't care to meet as well.  Generally, they totally deserve it, giving him a hard stare or even a frown.  If he has already lunged and barked and the dog has proven unworthy, he growls at the rude invader occasionally.  The growling also lets me know how Dolce feels about another dog once he has ascertained their personality profile.

We've gotten really far pretty quickly these last few weeks.  Dolce was wonderful on the pack walk on Sunday with Angel, a long-haired dachshund/corgi? mix.  He did his overly excited chitter chatter initially, but settled into her presence within 10 minutes with some LAT and treats.  When we're on walks, I can throw treats on the ground, and he will look at dogs with alertness but no negative reaction.  Even up close and personal now -- we can approach strange dogs to within about 6-feet so long as the treats are frequent and the other dog isn't rude.

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I would like to offer my own definitions of reactivity and aggression.

Reactivity - a dog who acts out in some way to any trigger (other dog, person, skateboard, stroller, person with a hat or beard, etc.) and is unable to maintain composure without intervention from the handler.

Reactivity Categories:
  • Arousal - the sight or sound of the trigger causes an extreme state of arousal.
  • Frustration - continued inability to greet or get to a trigger leads to overwhelming frustration.
  • Excitement -  an overly happy and exuberant dog who is excited by a trigger.
  • Fear - exposure to trigger causes the dog to withdraw, hide, and run away.

Aggression - a desire to kill or at least harm a trigger (other dog, person, rollerblades, bike, etc.) that has not provoked an attack at a close distance indicating a reasonable need to survive an impending attack.  (This excludes instinctual predatory hunting behaviors.)

Aggression Categories:
  • Offense - the dog actively looks for the trigger, hyper-vigilant.
  • Defense - the dog only acts aggressively if the trigger is happened upon.
  • Fear - simply the survival instinct.
Furthermore, it is important to keep in mind the dog's breed's instincts.  Greyhounds are a peaceful breed by nature, but many cannot coexist with small dogs or cats because it engages their prey drive -- a valuable necessity to a successful racer at the track.  Similarly, a terrier who kills a bunny or squirrel is not aggressive.

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