The Dog Who Hated Surprises
The Many Faces of Aggressive Behavior
Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.
—THE DALAI LAMA
The big dog lay on the floor in my office consulting room, as calm as could be. After a few minutes, he rolled onto his side, let out a huge sigh, and fell asleep. Once in a while he would open one eye when he heard another dog in the next room, but mostly Bailey seemed like the calmest dog in the world.
Sitting in two chairs in front of me, Jack and Sarah, Bailey’s two humans, described a very different dog. They lived in a suburb of Boston, where Bailey had free rein in their large house. Jack was a minister, with a gentle manner, fly-away hair, and large spectacles. Sarah was kindly and quiet with a ready smile. But despite their calm and warm demeanors, they were clearly in deep distress about the antics of their mixed-breed rescue, Bailey.
The stories were alarming. Recently, while outside the parsonage for his morning walk, Bailey had attacked a poodle that was innocently passing by. Even though the poodle was not harmed, his owner had reported the incident to the police, and was talking about filing a lawsuit. This would be bad enough for any dog owner, but a lawsuit could financially ruin Jack’s church.
Bailey had certain definite triggers. Oddly, blue jeans as well as anyone in his territory seemed to set him off. A few days before the poodle incident, Bailey and Jack were out for a walk when they had been surprised by a man turning a blind corner around a hedge. Bailey had lunged, teeth bared, and ripped the man’s jeans. Fortunately, the man was happy with Jack’s offer of a new pair of denims and did not take the matter any further.
Bailey also was puddling in the house and compelled to bark at anyone who walked past the parsonage’s large front bay window. He had even shown aggression to friends who visited. Bailey was not providing the welcome that visitors to their parson for counsel or comfort would normally expect. While Jack and Sarah loved their dog, they had to face the fact that Bailey was likely to injure someone else. They had been seriously considering giving Bailey up for adoption, a kindly euphemism for what we all knew would likely mean euthanasia.
Throughout Jack’s scary tale of Bailey’s attacks, the dog lazed around my consulting room at Tufts. I’d convinced Jack to let Bailey out of his harness when they arrived. Jack had been loath to do so, and he was surprised that Bailey seemed so calm once free of restraint. The dog had wandered around the room a bit before taking a nap. Bailey was hardly the most extreme case of fear-aggressive behavior that I had ever seen, though his owners’ stories clearly indicated that he was territorial and anxious. Away from his own territory, which he guarded too fiercely, Bailey was a sweetheart.
The dog’s behavior almost certainly stemmed from a bad start in life. Fear-aggressive dogs reach the high point of their belligerence at about two and a half years of age, the peak of their physical and social maturity. Bailey was a rescue, so his early environment was unknown. I would take bets that the first three months of Bailey’s life were far from ideal, with substandard socialization exacerbated by frightening experiences.
The first thing I told Jack and Sarah was that Bailey’s barking, which they had complained happened whenever someone passed their house, might be something they’d have to live with. As the old adage goes, if you don’t want a dog that barks, get a cat. Most dogs engage in some territorial alarm barking when people or other dogs pass the home. Mine certainly do, but the majority of dogs are perfectly well behaved, even affectionate, once people are welcomed into the home. I did suggest that they move the couch away from the window so that Bailey couldn’t jump up and see everyone passing by. We also discussed denying him access to the front room and getting blinds or curtains to cover the windows. As another old saying goes, what the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve. Sometimes simple changes in logistics can really help.
A tired dog is a good dog, or at least a better behaved one, and from what Jack and Sarah told me, Bailey didn’t get nearly enough exercise. Even though I’d rate more exercise as a basic “square one” change, it could still make a difference. Dogs generally need at least one hour of off-leash cardio exercise per day—that’s right, at least one hour.
Jack and Sarah seemed surprised by this, but even though they described themselves as “hardly spring chickens,” they thought they could manage. Clearly, Bailey had some issues about his territory, probably because he was anxious. There was plenty of work we could do to help Bailey, but first I figured that Jack and Sarah were the ones who needed the most help.
Dealing with stressed-out owners is a large part of what I do, and of course most people have plenty of other things going on in their lives besides their dog’s problem behavior. But they have to prioritize what to deal with on their plates—and sometimes what’s on their dog’s plate. High-protein diets can cause elevated levels of aggression, especially territorial aggression such as Bailey was showing. So Jack and Sarah needed to change Bailey’s diet.
Bailey needed only a limited, maintenance-level of protein. When I first saw him, he was ingesting about 30 percent protein in his regular dry food. My advice was to bring that down immediately—that very day—to around 18 percent. Protein doesn’t cause the aggression, but it will fan the flames, so reducing the protein in his rations would defuse at least some of the bad behavior.
With these measures in place, Bailey’s aggression waned. He never attacked another person. The threatened lawsuit did not materialize and Jack’s parsonage was safe. Bailey had a solid home with the good reverend and his wife and would not be rehomed, or worse, euthanized.
But there’s a coda to this story that points to the complex interactions between people and their pets. It turned out that at the time of Bailey’s “acting out,” Jack and Sarah had been having a terrible problem with a loved one, and that person had died in their home as a result of drug addiction. Bailey had been the first to discover the body, and the person had been wearing blue jeans.
Perhaps the pooch’s fear-based aggression was catalyzed by the troubled atmosphere in the home and the untimely death, which affected Jack and Sarah. When members of the household have changes in mood and behavior, this often affects their pet. Trainers often suggest that an owner’s anxiety is transmitted to his dog, and there is some scientific evidence to support that contention. The stress that people face has been found to increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the saliva of people and dogs. Other studies have shown that owners’ emotional states can be mirrored in their dogs. And not just negative moods—dog owners experience increased levels of oxytocin, the “love hormone,” when they look lovingly into their pup’s adoring eyes, and simultaneously the hormone is elevated in their pet. Following the psychological trauma of his owners, Bailey may have become overprotective of his “pack,” which could have caused him to behave in an unusually defensive way.
Aggression is not just a minor issue in animals. It is the number one behavioral problem in all species, including human beings. “Bad” dogs, dogs who bite, dogs who attack other dogs, dogs who tear into other animals or humans, are put down all the time. Learning how to deal with aggression is crucial for both veterinarians and for health professionals who treat people.
For all its negative associations, aggression is sometimes a reasonable course of action in a particular situation: Parents naturally protect their young, and we all defend ourselves whenever our personal safety is threatened. But in other instances, aggression can be an over-the-top response to a marginal threat, challenge, or minor annoyance. Sometimes aggression is truly aberrant and dysfunctional.
I remember a social worker who attempted to help a prison classroom full of gang members understand the social realities of aggression. He asked the gangbangers to make two lists. One list was all the things that they would kill for. That list was fairly long and included perceived slights such as being disrespected by a rival gang, if someone unintentionally damaged their vehicle, or even if a passerby happened to scuff a prized pair of sneakers. The other list was stuff for which they were willing to die. That list was shorter. They would die for their family and for fellow gang members. That was it.
The point the social worker made was that, for most people, these lists were very short. The vast majority of folks have just a couple items on their lists. They would die for their family and for their country, for example, and if pressed they would kill for their family and country. The normal inventory of acceptable aggression is extremely limited.
Well, it’s pretty much the same for animals, who have evolved a host of behavioral and other signals to show when they don’t mean to cause offense and don’t wish to fight. And even the aggressive signals of many animals are meant to tell others to back off—the Halloween cat whose back and tail are up is scared himself and telling you to give him space. He doesn’t necessarily want to attack—he wants to be left alone. Most dogs are the same way. After all they’re been bred for thousands of years to be domesticated and not aggressive.
Even fully “functional” animals will aggress if provoked to act in self-defense, and to protect their young or beloved family members. It is true that all dogs may bite, but the things functional animals would probably die for, if put to the test, is pretty much the same as the list for people—just substitute “territory” for “country” and “mates, close relatives, and offspring” for family and we’re on the same page. I don’t think animals would regard dying in defense of something precious as a form of self-sacrifice, though. It’s more that they are prepared to fight to the death when the chips are down.
It’s dysfunctional dogs who will attack for what seem—to us—to be trivial reasons. They have a hair trigger and are often described by their owners or handlers as being like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. With gang members, too, anxiety, mistrust, and insecurity underlie their dangerous reactions and outbursts to perceived provocations.
What was remarkable about the two lists that the gang members made is how disproportionate they were. When the social worker forced them to really confront the question, it turned out there really wasn’t too much the gangbangers were willing to die for. They were able to see that their level of aggression was totally unnatural and out of balance.
When I set out as a veterinary behaviorist in the mid-1980s, I felt I had a firm grasp of certain behaviors, especially compulsive disorders, but I also knew what I didn’t know. And, taking stock, I realized I didn’t know nearly enough about aggression. Sure, I knew how to sedate an aggressive dog. But sedating dogs doesn’t solve the problem when a dog is aggressive all the time. I had to bone up on this subject, so to speak, and quickly.
There is more than one type of aggression in humans and animals, and each type requires a different treatment. According to the most well-known classification system for aggression, described by Dr. Kenneth E. Moyer in the late 1960s, there are several distinct types of aggression. Today, even though clinicians think highly of Moyer’s taxonomy of aggression, we’ve learned about new types that simply do not fall neatly into any one of the categories he describes. For example, Moyer did not recognize medically catalyzed aggression, which we now identify as pathological aggression. Nonetheless, it’s important to understand the kinds of aggression that our pets can develop.
MALE AND INTERMALE AGGRESSION
Males of almost all species tend to be more aggressive than females and testosterone fuels much human aggression. Most violent human offenders are male. Intermale competitiveness is at the root of many aggressive incidents. Men with high testosterone levels are more likely to be arrested for violent offenses, to buy and sell stolen property, incur bad debts, and use weapons in a fight. Surprisingly, rapists do not have exceptionally high testosterone levels. But violent rapists do—that is, attackers who viciously batter their victims in the course of a sexual assault. Athletes who take testosterone or testosterone-like anabolic steroids to enhance their performance demonstrate increased aggression. Violence can be a side effect of doping.
Males are “masculinized” in the womb when a short burst of testosterone is released by their embryonic testes, which promotes structural and functional changes in the brain. At the onset of sexual maturity a tidal wave of testosterone activates full-blown male behaviors. Think of a dimmer switch. You crank it to increase a light’s brightness. That’s what testosterone does. When the switch is turned down, the light is not off, just dimmer. Maleness is like a constantly lit bulb, and testosterone activates the switch to increase its brightness. Testosterone encourages social dominance, competitiveness, and impulsiveness in male animals. Most dog bites to children are delivered by intact males. As the old saying goes, if there are children in the house, there should not be testicles on the dog. Castration of aggressive male dogs is highly recommended as part of any treatment. Castrated male dogs, cats, bovines, and horses exhibit less aggression because, without testosterone, the dimmer switch is turned down. There is not as much call for macho aggression when the hormonal lights are low!
So you see, a neutered male animal is not an “it.” He’s still a biological male. Though intermale aggression decreases following castration, castration is not an absolute fix. That said, neutered dogs and cats mount less, roam less, and are generally nicer to be around. They also are less susceptible to developing some cancers.
Castrating pets should be an open-and-shut case. It’s a simple operation, but in odd cases it can become complicated.
A cat owner named Gary brought in Smokey, his absolutely gorgeous male seal point Himalayan because of incessant urine marking. Smokey was also aggressive toward the other cats in the home and exhibited a bizarre habit of pawing at a glass-fronted fire screen in the family room. At night he would roam the hallways like Marley’s ghost, seemingly in search of something and caterwauling as he trod his lonely path.
Addressing the urine marking was Gary’s first priority. He lamented spending $30,000 cleaning up or replacing urine-soaked carpets and drapery. Smokey also urinated on and ruined various appliances, which rusted and had to be replaced if not immediately discovered, disassembled, and cleaned after targeting. Though he dearly loved Smokey, Gary was at his wit’s end.
“Is Smokey neutered?” I asked.
“Yes,” Gary replied, “but it was a real struggle.” His local vet had performed the operation, but Smokey only had one descended testicle. This was deftly removed, but the search for the inevitable second testicle was fruitless. The vet planned a second, more invasive surgery to search for the offending organ in Smokey’s abdomen and reportedly found and removed it. Afterward, he performed a blood test for testosterone and the result came back ultralow, comfortably in the properly neutered range.
Smokey passed all the tests I gave him, too, in order to triple-check that he had been successfully neutered. He did not display an unneutered male’s telltale facial appearance (he did not have protective cartilaginous plaques in the temple region of his head giving the head a wide appearance); he did not smell like a male (that acrid, ammoniacal, male cat pee odor); and he did not have pronounced barbs on his penis (unneutered males have obvious spiny protuberances on their penis).
Satisfied that he was indeed a successfully castrated male, I set about treating the urine marking with the standard treatment of Prozac, which is 90–100 percent effective for this purpose in an overwhelming majority of cats. Smokey improved considerably, though not quite as much as I’d expected.
A couple of months later, Gary called to tell me that Smokey had broken out with urine marking at a level at least as bad as before. I tried a different antianxiety medication, buspirone (trade name Buspar). Smokey improved again, but not for long. I then sequentially tried other more long-shot medications, but they met with limited or no success. Nothing I tried worked.
Finally, almost a year after our first consultation, Gary called me in tears and said he was afraid he would have to have Smokey put down. He couldn’t stand it anymore. I pleaded with him to give me one more chance. I wanted definitively to rule out the possibility that despite his surgeries and low-testosterone blood level, Smokey might still have a retained testicle. As the ultimate test, I would employ a prohormone that would boost testosterone if any testicular tissue remained in his body.
The test was done and the results nearly knocked me off my chair. Testosterone levels after the challenge test were sky-high. Whatever the vet removed during the abdominal surgery, it was not the missing testicle. Perhaps a lymph node?
I queried Rob, a surgeon colleague of mine at Tufts.
“How good are you at tracking down missing testicles in cats?” I asked.
“There’s never been a testicle I couldn’t find,” Rob replied with dignified solemnity.
A surgery was duly scheduled. As Smokey slept quietly under anesthesia, Rob searched for, discovered, and removed the lost testicle in less than three minutes. Smokey went home to recover. His improvement was gradual but steady. After two months, there was no more urine marking, no more aggression, and no more fire screen pawing. Smokey became the perfect cat and I learned not to trust testosterone levels. They fluctuate widely depending on the breeding season, which is why Smokey’s aggression and other habits waxed and waned, until his hidden stash of the forbidden hormone was confiscated.
MATERNAL AGGRESSION AND FEAR AGGRESSION
Maternal aggression evolved as a perfectly normal response to an outside threat against offspring. Mothers defend their young even to the point of being prepared to kill or die for them. At birth, moms of all mammalian species release prolactin, a pituitary hormone that promotes milk letdown and lactation.
But prolactin also facilitates maternal aggression. And the level of prolactin in the bloodstream after parturition exactly parallels the rise and fall of maternal aggression. Accordingly, one should be extremely careful not to appear to threaten the young of any mammalian species, especially when the mom is lactating. People who work around animals with young, whether pigs, cattle, horses, dogs, or grizzly bears, understand this. Unless they are really familiar with a mother and her brood, they stay as far away as possible and protect themselves against a sudden attack.
Prolactin is also found in male animals, having evolved partly to facilitate paternal care of the young. This is especially pronounced in species in which males have parenting responsibilities, including defense of their young. Perhaps women who want to know if a man will make a good father should have a prospective spouse’s prolactin levels checked before proceeding further!
Although testosterone and prolactin can play a role in aggression, another important factor is how animals—and humans—are raised. Social isolation, mistreatment, lack of proper nurture, and other environmental disadvantages damage young creatures. A deprived upbringing and adverse events occurring in the crucial early weeks of life can be terribly destructive and contribute to a defensive type of behavior in dogs and cats that is commonly referred to as “fear aggression.”
An incarcerated or abused puppy will often later manifest its mistrust as fear aggression, behavior that evolved to drive away the “scary monster.” Dogs in the grip of fear aggression can be intimidating by growling, barking, and lunging. If these actions don’t drive away the perceived threat, the dog may bite. At times, fear-crazed dogs will skip the growling and barking and attack right off the bat with teeth bared.
One such dog chose a very surprising target: me! I was walking my dog Rusty down a long curving path by the side of Lake Chauncy in Westborough, Massachusetts. I was heaving tennis balls ahead of us with a Chuckit! device, and Rusty was fetching and returning them. At one point he got too far in front, almost out of sight around a bend, so I called him to return.
To my surprise Rusty came charging back accompanied by another dog. The interloper hurtled toward me trailing its lead.
I was not quite sure I liked the look in the newcomer’s eye, so I made what I thought were soothing sounds. “Good boys! What are you doing? Want to chase the ball?”
I let fly with the Chuckit!, hurling the tennis ball away down the road. Rusty did a U-turn and went after the ball, but the other dog kept coming. He launched himself at me and bit me in the leg, ripping my pants. Then he stood a distance from me and kept growling ferociously. I saw his distraught owner, a middle-aged woman, half-running, half-shuffling from around the bend toward me.
“Oh, dear,” she said, as she approached. “I am so sorry. What happened?”
“He bit me in the leg,” I said calmly.
“I’ve only just adopted him! This is the first time he has been free to run. I’ve always kept him on leash, but this time I lost my grip.”
“No worries,” I said. It wasn’t a bad bite, I told her, barely a scratch, but he had ripped my pants.
“Can I buy you new ones?” she pleaded.
“No, no,” I responded. “These pants were on their last legs anyway.” My witticism earned a faint chuckle from the woman. Then she stopped and stared at me.
“You’re not Dr. Dodman, are you?”
“Why, yes I am,” I replied.
“I’m so ashamed! My dog bit Dr. Dodman, the behaviorist! How can you ever forgive me? I’ve read all your books and seen you on TV, and now this . . .”
I managed to convince her that I was not at all worried or offended. We actually had a brief “pets on the couch” conversation about canine behavior, how some dogs see certain people as scary, especially men, and especially those wearing specific clothes (like blue jeans or certain headgear) or carrying odd things (like a Chuckit!).
I walked home, the flap in my pants fluttering in the breeze. On the way, I meditated on the possibility that some dogs might maintain internal wish lists. “Bite mailman,” could be one, and “bite animal behaviorist” could well be another.
Cats can show fear aggression, too, with a set of behaviors we behaviorists call “feline affective defense display.” If they feel their territory has been encroached upon, or perceive some sort of outside threat, they will hiss, spit, snarl with open mouths, unsheathe their claws, and bite. They will also arch their backs and make their tail huge and puffy, like the Halloween cat in the popular holiday silhouette. This “piloerection” enlarges their profiles for maximum threatening effect. It is best not to approach cats who look like this! Wait until Halloween is over.
Preventing fear aggression is preferable to curing it. Actually, a totally effective cure is pretty much impossible to achieve, because psychological and pharmacological treatments have only limited success. To prevent it, you optimize a young animal’s life in the critical period of development, which is between three and twelve weeks in dogs, and between two and seven weeks in cats. Proper socialization is crucial during these brief windows of time. Animals should be protected as far as possible from any scary encounters or other negative experiences, from which they “learn” to be afraid. They need to be actively socialized with frequent exposure to all the living things they are likely to encounter in later life, the encounters conducted under the most pleasant, warm, and friendly circumstances.
Veterinarians used to advise new puppy owners to keep their dogs isolated until vaccination was complete at fourteen weeks of age. Though this was recommended so that common viral illnesses and diseases could be avoided, it just so happens to be the worst advice for fostering a well-behaved dog. The first three to four months of life are when a pup is most malleable, in a behavioral sense. Completely isolating it from people and the world at large is likely to lead to unwarranted mistrust of unfamiliar people, other dogs, or even some inanimate stimuli. Breeders and owners should make every effort to socialize pups and kittens safely, while still avoiding exposure to sick and unvaccinated animals.
Once fear aggression does rear its ugly head, you have a few options, which I used with Bailey, the aggressive dog owned by the parson. Increase exercise and alter the environment to reduce the opportunities for the dog to react. Try a low-protein diet for the dog. Use clear, one-word commands, proper leadership, and firm control.
Human babies, too, have a critical period of development. Children need to be properly socialized and shielded from adverse early experiences. If repeatedly traumatized or neglected, children may grow up angry, fearful, aggressive, and unable to trust. Confident animals and well-adjusted people are rarely aggressive. They have no need to be.
As we have learned repeatedly from the news, aggression is not always logically directed and innocent bystanders can be affected. Purposely redirected aggression, sometimes termed irritable aggression, may also occur. A prime example is two dogs who converge at the front door when a visitor is outside. In this situation, both dogs are highly aroused, and the primary object of their aggression is unattainable. One of the dogs, usually the most fearful one, turns and attacks the other in what can be described as a “cheap shot” attack.
When a cat sitting on a windowsill sees something scary outside, it might, in its aroused and aggressive state, attack another cat in the household or even its owner. One cat I treated had become enraged when it saw a baby for the first time. Though the baby was quickly whisked away, the cat then focused its attention on his owner, pinning her in the kitchen for several hours. The woman had to keep the enraged kitty at bay with a broom.
I once saw this redirected aggression exhibited by my own cats, Cinder and her daughter Monkey. The two were always thick as thieves, bonding and spending every moment of the day and night by each other’s side. They groomed each other, ate together, and curled up together like two inverted commas.
But on the summer night in question, a feline visitor came knocking on the screen door at the rear of the house. I heard some scary cat sounds, hissing, yowling, and spitting. I went into the dining room area to see what the fuss was all about and found Cinder and Monkey, backs arched and all puffed. By now the sounds were bloodcurdling. Their unwelcome visitor, which looked like an intact tomcat, had his nose pressed to the screen.
Suddenly, Monkey and Cinder tore into each other. It happened so fast that I could not see who attacked first. They were in full battle mode and it appeared as though they were going to get into a major league brawl. And these were two feline BFFs! Redirected aggression, collateral aggression, irritable aggression—a lot of aggression was in play.
I took one of the dining room chairs and, like a lion tamer, managed to back Monkey away from Cinder and then back into another room. Then I shut them off in separate rooms. This is what I had always preached to other owners of cats who acted out redirected aggression: harm would be limited as long as separation was immediate.
I kept the cats isolated overnight. It was with some trepidation the next day that I opened the door to Monkey’s makeshift confinement. But the daughter came out and nosed a good morning to her mom as if nothing had happened the night before. Great Scott, I thought, the strategy turns out to be correct. Now I teach that lesson with greater confidence and more understanding.
Another common scenario in which redirected aggression occurs is when a well-meaning owner, and one who would not normally be the object of aggression, tries to separate two fighting dogs. The effect is like putting one’s hands into a switched-on food blender. Apparently, even Queen Elizabeth II was once subjected to such aggression when she tried to separate dueling corgis.
In my time researching animal behavior, I have encountered unusual cases of redirected aggression. A farm dog I knew got shocked periodically by an electric fence. The jolt stirred up nascent aggression in the dog and he’d run some distance back to the farmhouse to attack the other dog in the household, who was often sleeping peacefully on a bed by the hearth. Another farm dog also redirected his aggression in an odd way: whenever someone approached down the long driveway to the residence, he would run to attack a nearby horse.
Irritable or redirected aggression also occurs in people. Think of an angry man punching a wall. The target of his aggression is not the source of his frustration. Sometimes irritable aggression is directed toward the source of the frustration. A person being physically restrained may strike out at the people restraining him, kicking, flailing, or even biting them. Exactly the same may occur in animals, for the same reasons.
People and animals showing this type of aggression tend to be more volatile than their more equable peers, which implies that the aggression is something of a personality trait rather than a chemical imbalance. For humans, a course in anger management is sometimes prescribed. In animals, the treatment is similar to that for fear aggression: increase cardio exercise, ensure an enriched and protected environment, proper nutrition that if necessary lowers protein intake, and sometimes mood-stabilizing medications. All help to level out mood swings.
Not all types of aggression are as seemingly weird or random as redirected aggression. Some forms of aggression help one animal to secure a selfish end at another animal’s expense, and thus are termed instrumental. The aggression is not an end in and of itself, but rather occurs incidentally en route to getting something. Human examples of this type of aggression are when a robber punches a store clerk to gain access to the cash till, or when a child injures another child while stealing something that he wants. When someone is hurt or injured by the action, this is a by-product of the aggression, not its point.
Some veterinarians are skeptical that animals act out of instrumental aggression, but I believe they do. Sometimes, especially willful dogs will steal something right in front of their owners, and they might bite if the owners try to retrieve it. They may also dictate whether or not they will allow a person near their food bowl. They decide, not the owners, when they want to be petted and when the petting should stop. It appears to me that a dog like this is using aggression as a means to an end—that is, instrumentally.
With pets it is important to avoid situations that lead to conflict and to demonstrate clear control so that this kind of aggression does not continue. One way is to elevate your leadership status in the eyes of your pet. You can do this by having the animal earn valued resources by first obeying a command. This program has been variously termed learn to earn, nothing in life is free, or no free lunch. You get the point. So do the pets.
Instrumental aggression can also occur between cohabiting dogs. Inter-dog housemate aggression is a treatable behavior. Because “inter-dog housemate aggression” is a mouthful, I choose to call it sibling rivalry, even though it may refer to two or more dogs in a house who are not actually related. Sibling rivalry usually occurs in the owner’s presence. When left alone, the dogs often sort things out among themselves.
Problems can escalate if owners don’t handle inter-dog conflicts correctly. Humans might inadvertently favor the underdog (“Oh, you poor thing!”), which snubs or shortchanges the true leader. It’s easy to do when a cute though pushy young pup is around. Supporting the wrong dog as “number one”—or the favorite—disrupts the hierarchy of the pack. The underdog then forms an “alliance” with the supportive owner and is only brave enough to cause trouble when the owner is around to protect him.
When two dogs run to greet an owner, the race is on. Who will be greeted first? It’s all about winners and losers. The dog that loses out should be the lower-ranking animal, but the “underdog” may attack and bite the other dog to get its own way. In this situation, owners often do exactly the wrong thing. Because they consider such a punishment to be logical and fair, the owners separate the dogs and give them both a time out. This impartial approach doesn’t work with dogs. Separation of the dogs emboldens the lower-ranking dog. There are no real repercussions for his assault. The top dog doesn’t get to make the point about his right to be first.
Dogs are not like us in respect to hierarchy. They don’t need to be number one, but they do need to know where they stand. The true top dog within the pack should always be supported as the alpha. Owners who sanction the pack’s naturally appropriate order can avoid sibling rivalry, ensuring that peace reigns between the dogs.
Just as in a wolf pack, in most cases the top dog is the older one. There comes a time when an aged or infirm dog can no longer defend his top-dog ranking, and at this point, he has to be protected from continual challenges from physically fitter, power-hungry peers.
Under normal circumstances, however, the older top dog should be first in everything, including being greeted first on the owner’s return. To this end, the lower-ranking dog can be sequestered before the owners leave the house. In addition, the top dog should be fed first, petted first, given treats first, allowed priority access to high places, such as the owner’s bed or sofa. The alpha should be allowed outside first, and should be allowed to ride farther forward in the car.
If there is a fight, the two dogs should be separated, of course. But the top dog should be petted after the fight while the lower-ranking dog is tethered or crated in the same room and forced to watch. This sends a powerful message about which dog actually is top dog. The owners, who are the true top dogs, support his position. Many people have a hard time with this process. It goes against our human sense of fair play. But without these measures dogs will continue to fight for supremacy.
Cats are not driven by hierarchy, rank order, and privilege as dogs and humans are. But housemate cats still sometimes get into serious tiffs with each other. There are several reasons why this happens. Cats are very territorial, so one of the most common issues that arises is a turf war. This type of inter-cat aggression—territorial aggression—can occur when a new cat is brought into the home. The treatment is separation and gradual reintroduction to allow the animals to slowly acclimate to each other. Sometimes the personalities of the feuding cats are so diametrically opposed that continued separation is the only solution.
Just as territoriality causes people to fight over land, territoriality in our pets explains many quirks of their behavior. Some dogs refuse to let other dogs anywhere in or near their yard, and some cats do not readily accept another cat into their home. Territory is where all creatures harbor their resources, their mates, and their progeny. Ethologically, territory is defined as an area that an animal will protect against intrusion by its own species. But dog and human lives are so entwined that dogs sometimes see both human strangers and other dogs as territorial invaders.
In South America, an advocate for the poor had to help establish the property lines in the crowded favelas and sprawling slums, where they had not been clearly established by authorities. How to decide where one family’s yard began and another ended? The distinction was vital in order to elevate the poor to the status of property-owning citizens. The advocate’s genius method of determining a property line was that a family’s land boundaries began where its dogs started barking at strangers.
A dog’s territory is not simply the house in which it lives. It is also the yard and the surrounding street frontage, areas that the dog frequently marks with urine. It often includes the car or truck in which it rides. I call the family vehicle the dog’s mobile territory.
Dogs are definitely territorial animals. Unless you take certain steps, your dog, not you, will decide who can and who cannot enter the home. With kingly hauteur, they will allow you to stay around in their territory simply because you feed them. To control a confident dog’s territorial aggression, owners need to be strong leaders and take care that no visitors are put at risk.
I once treated a hefty, fearless bulldog, Tank, whom I nicknamed Territorial Tank. One day, a friend of Territorial Tank’s owner found the front door open a crack and let himself in. Bad idea. Tank’s owner was in the shower. Tank was eating breakfast. Sensing territorial invasion, Tank left his meal and attacked the intruder. The friend got stitched up in a nearby hospital. Territorial Tank’s aggression arose from his confidence and ownership of his home space.
A different version of territorial aggression is linked to anxiety and uncertainty. Such dogs might be better classed as “fear biters,” but they only have enough confidence to come forward and attack perceived foes from the security of their own home, where they have the home field advantage. Treatment for such fear-based territorial aggression involves the same type of management as described above for fear aggression. You the owner need to assert unfailing control in such cases, especially at the front door but also inside the home when visitors are around.
A case of fear or anxiety-based territorial aggression I became involved with as an expert witness for the defense (yes, there was a lawsuit) concerned a pitbull terrier. A lining up of bad planets led to a whole load of trouble for all parties involved. The victim, a UPS delivery man, had all the traits of a person that an anxious dog might find concerning. The man was wearing a uniform; was six feet five inches tall; was frightened of dogs (particularly pitbulls); and started to move awkwardly, almost robotically, when he realized the dog was behind a desk at the place he was delivering the package. He hastened to leave the room but the dog pursued him and bit him in the leg. The result: a one-centimeter superficial skin-wound on the inside of one of his knees. The UPS man now claimed he had PTSD, couldn’t sleep, had to have numerous psychological and psychiatric consultations; and could not perform his work functions properly (he sat in the van and honked the horn waiting for people to come out and pick up packages). The lawsuit against the dog owners was for $350,000 to make up for lost salary, expenses, and suffering. I went to bat for the dog owners, whose dog had never done anything like this before and whom they had no reason to mistrust. It was just a bad moon on the rise for them. The case settled for less—$160,000 I seem to remember—a fair outcome for the unsuspecting owners and unsuspecting victim.
Our front doors and foyers are so often battlegrounds. Progressive, step-by-step training of dogs is helpful to demilitarize the situation. Owners can and should desensitize their pet to feared or mistrusted strangers. Desensitization is a systematic approach as usual, in this case to front door introductions. Slow and steady does the trick. Neither the dog nor the visitor is pressed beyond the limits of their acceptance of each other.
For another useful strategy, counterconditioning, calls for arming strangers with high-value treats. These might be superfun toys reserved exclusively for times when people are visiting. A hot dog—the canine equivalent of an olive branch—also goes a long way toward cementing a friendship. Uniformed visitors, whether workmen, postmen, or UPS delivery people could during the course of their travels equip themselves with dog biscuits when visiting regular customers. The dog learns that these visitors aren’t a threat. Rather, they come bearing gifts. A good mantra to bear in mind is that guests should “arrive as strangers and leave as friends.” Alternatively, dogs can be secured away from such visitors to ensure that accidents do not occur. It’s just not worth the risk with infrequent visitors, and, as you hear, the stakes are high.
If all else fails, antianxiety medication may help the behavioral methods succeed. One unusual and highly successful accidental treatment of territorial aggression in a dog occurred when the dog got hold of his owner’s supply of medical marijuana and scoffed the lot. Apparently, the dog welcomed all visitors that day with a virtual “high four” and became a veritable love bug. It was flower power from the sixties all over again. Some avant-garde companies are now making a form of medical marijuana for pets. One of these preparations that we have tried—with some success—to treat various anxious conditions in dogs contains mainly cannabidiol (CBD), one of the many active cannabinoids in cannabis. CBD is also an effective anticonvulsant, so I feel sure cannabinoids like CBD will soon find their way into mainstream veterinary behavioral practice. Peace and love, everyone!