Help! My White Shepherd is aggressive!

Why does a dog show aggressive reactions?

"I never ever saw him acting like this usually he is friendly towards everybody". You may know these or similar comments from your daily walks when the beloved doggy behaves like Rambo personally. He barks, tries to bite and looks as when he would love to eat up his "enemy" at once. Luckily he is at the leash .... really?

Only a few dog owners really try to observe and to analyse their dogs' reactions. if they did they could realize unusual forms of aggressiveness in the beginning and try to help their dog with a special education. In our human eyes, aggressiveness is except of some parts of dog sports said to be dangerous and has a very negative touch. On the other hand in dog sports people take profit from the natural aggressive reactions and tries to force it. As soon as the dog is on the street or in a park, people close their eyes and do not even try to explain the same behaviour. Of course, it is not easy to excuse a rowdy at the leash. If one gets the chance, usually you are kept busy by your dog. The dog has to keep quiet and nobody asks about the "why he is that upset".

Aggressiveness is a very wide subject and they belong to the normal and natural "language" of our dogs. A dog becomes aggressive for various reasons and unfortunately, the dog owner does not want to learn the details and reasons. The following are some forms of aggressiveness - I think I got the most important ones but there might be some more:

- Suppressed actions and conflicts
- Reactions of overcharge
- Reactions of dominance
- Territory defence
- Reactions of fear
- Pack defence
- other reasons for aggressiveness

1. Suppressed actions and conflicts

Dogs are belonging to the group of animals who are living in well-socialised packs. In these packs some movements developed. These movements are completing the "language" as signals. For example a dogs turns away the head. This means for the attacking dog that his level of aggression will get lower. Eyes and face, that are mainly expressing menace, are turned away, the conflict is over.

A dog who is attacked by another is in a conflict between fear and aggression. The aggression might be transferred to something else as soon as the enemy seems to be stronger than the attacked dog. The attacked dog himself might attack somebody completely uninvolved, this can be a third dog or even his owner who usually is not dangerous in the dogs' eyes.

Such a redirected behaviour does not necessarily mean aggression, it can also be expressed in another form of reaction. A dog who feels frightened as the enemy seems too strong, might look for even more contact to his owner.

2. Reactions of overcharge

A side of conflict turning up completely unmotivated and unexplicable is a reaction of overcharge. A dog being in conflict between fear and aggression starts licking his nose, scratching himself, yawning or stretching himself. These are the most common signs that the situation is a problem for the dog. If you observe your dog and his reactions carefully enough you will soon discover the critical situations and you can help him in these moments.

3. Reactions of dominance

As soon as a new pack is formed, new members come into a consisting pack or the pack starts to attack the alpha-dogs position threatening situations and even fights are occurring. The starts to these conflicts can you see during your daily walks with your dog and the dogs have the chance to run without leash. (A pack is formed as soon as two dogs meet each other even if it is only for a few minutes) Some dogs are very sensible when a pack is formed, others do not have any problems to come along.

On principle well socialized animals will come along sooner or later even if it looks dangerous for the human spectator. Not each dog is satisfied with the position he has in the pack so that there are fights sometimes. Usually these fights are short and nothing serious will happen. Dogs do not have a problem with forming a pack, the problem are the "frightening" owners. Especially when a big and a small dog are meeting each other the owners have more problems with the situation than the dogs. Unfortunately, the owner never knows whether the dog at the other side is socialised or not. (For example small and young dogs are often kept on the arm when they meet a bigger dog - they will never learn "natural" behaviour and will have problems in such meetings for lifetime) Sometimes taking the leash can be wise.

Also within the family there may occur dominance aggressions. For the dog, the family is his "pack". It is absolutely necessary that you show him his - low - position as soon and as clear as possible. If it is not clear or consequent enough, the situation can become frustration for all members. When a dog (usually males cause more problems with rang positions than females) has already taken over the leadership it is quite difficult to change the positions again. In this case each member of the family has to act very consequent and correct. And as the dog has already taken over leadership it is doubtful whether the family is able to act like this. It may be wise to contact somebody who is used to these kind of problems. You can realize that a dominance aggression is given when your dog does not leave his place but growls at you or even tries to bite you instead of leaving your bed or wherever you do not want him to stay. It is important to fight his position at this moment. It is not necessary and wise to mistreat the dog - you need an action the dog UNDERSTANDS. A dog is not born as a leader he only takes over this position when he feels that other members of the pack are too weak.

Unfortunately, if the dog has taken over "control", it is the dogs' fault and he has to leave the family, he often ends in an animal shelter as he is a danger for the family. A disastrous situation: the family will have the same problem with the next dog.

4. Territory defence

The territory is the area the dog will defend against anybody who tries to get in. The dog barks at the door, at the fence. This natural behaviour of aggressiveness is seen as desirable in many cases. Some races were bred just to keep and to force this quality. The best example are dogs who are running free on factory areas at night time.

But even in this part there are dangers you have to ban by correct education. The dog might reinforce his defence quality that much that you have a real problem. Without educational correction the situation will be as follows: Somebody passes by at the fence, he does not have the intention to enter. The dog barks, the person disappears. The next time, the dog will bark even louder and more aggressive. The more people pass the more self confidence your dog will get. The dog learns that barking are effective actions as he always reaches his target: the people are leaving because of this barking.

5. Reactions of fear

This form of aggrgressions of Fearession is very difficult and hard to correct by education. When a dog is afraid, he will try to run away. This is the natural behaviour of his wolf ancestors. He will run as far as he thinks he is safe. When his escape is impossible, he has only one chance: to attack his enemy.

One example: On a dog show two dogs met, both at the leash. One of them attacked the other and then disappeared between the legs of his owner. A typical case of fear and aggression. The attacking dog was afraid of the other dog, he could not escape because of the leash, so he attacked and then tried to get into a safe position. In this case it was astonishing that so many dog people saw it. They were owners and breeders. Nobody tried to help the frightening dog, to give him self confidence. The only comment was "look, the fearful dog".

Another example for this kind of aggression is a dog, hiding growling under the table and attacking as soon as you are turning backwards to him.

These dogs, who are biting as a result of aggressiveness, are dogs with a very bad nerve constitution. It is very difficult to help a dog to get a normal behaviour. The treatment can mean that the dog gets more self confidence by confrontation with unknown people and dogs. In this situation it is your task to take away the dogs' fear by turning him aside, by praising him or even by giving him easy orders.

6. Pack defence

A combination of fear, unsteadiness and dominance may lead to a dogs' defence of owner, family and children. He feels responsible for his pack and he is not allowed to run away as he would never leave the members alone with the "danger". So he attacks.

A pack defence can also be a sign of dominance. In this case it is important to try to reduce the dogs' fear and to make him clear that the position of the other family members is higher. So THEY are responsible for guard and defence of the pack. When the dog attacks when a "higher" member of the family is present you are confronted with a dominance reaction that urgently needs a correction.

7. Other reasons of aggressiveness

Aggressions can also be given for other reasons. It is always difficult to come along with an aggressive behaviour. In any case it is important to perceive aggression and to ask for help in an early stadium. However, aggression can also be caused by pain. When your dog tries to bite you who never ever before showed such a behaviour first of all you should check his health. An aching tooth for example could be the only reason for this reaction. The treatment is easy in this case. All other forms of aggressiveness are much more difficult to treat.

However, you can see that many reactions of our dogs that are looking dangerous or not explainable are caused by instincts only. And you will understand them better when you try to understand your dog as a dog and not try to make him "human" . Of course I could only give you a short summary of the behaviour which is a big subject in science. Hopefully, many dog owners will take this advice:

Observe your dog - it is worth it!

copyright Gaby von Döllen, Worpswede, 2000