Sezan Oxgunay Bsc(hons), Msc, CCAB from the Dog’s Trust led last week’s excellent webinar on owner directed aggression in dogs and was quick to state that a fifty minute CPD session was too short a time to go into any great depth on this vast subject area. Sezan explained the main aim of this webinar was to deliver enough knowledge to enable first opinion vets to offer basic advice within a consult to keep both the owner and pet safe whilst the necessary time is taken to seek more indepth advice from a behaviourist.
So what do we do when an owner presents us with their dog who after many happy years is starting to show aggression? Sezan explained we have to ask ourselves three key questions, what was the trigger, how did the dog react, and what happened afterwards? There are several reasons as to why a dog may show aggression to their owner which includes pain, fear, frustration, play related excitement and past learning. By asking these key questions we should get closer to finding out the underlying trigger and emotion for this aggression. For example pain is thought to significantly reduce the threshold to aggression with studies showing that 50% of dogs which had bitten a child had an underlying medical condition thought to be a factor. Usually the medical condition was either dermatological or orthopaedic. So for the older dog whose aggressive behaviour is uncharacteristic, is usually triggered by handling when at rest and usually occurs the evening, then pain related aggression should be top of the list of differentials. Fear and frustration aggression can sometimes be related as fear is more likely to occur when options to stop the fearful situation they find themselves in are unavailable or ineffective. This can also often be related to frustration. Both these behaviours can be reinforced by learning which means eventually this learnt aggression starts to become detached from the original underlying emotion which makes getting to the original root of the problem difficult.
Sezan, however, understood that trying to get to the emotional root of a dog’s aggression may be very challenging for a first opinion vet within a standard 15 minute consult. Sezan explained that our role is to offer ‘band aid’ advice to the owner so, whilst ensuring the welfare of the dog is not compromised, the situation can be safely managed and the advice of a behaviourist can be sought. When initially seeing these cases, medical conditions and/or pain need to be ruled out. This is particularly important as cases of aggression occurring secondary to pain usually have a good prognosis when treated. The triggers for the dog’s aggression then need to be identified and if possible these triggers need to be avoided. However in some cases, avoiding the trigger may not be possible. For example where a dog is biting the owner when they leave their house, a method needs to be identified which either prevents escalation or diffuses conflict. In this case, offering a treat stuffed Kong whilst the owner leaves the house seems the optimal solution. It is also important for vets to ensure there is no punishment based training technique being implemented with only reward based training being encouraged. Finally it must also be ascertained that the dog’s core needs are being met such as adequate stimulation, exercise, water, food comfort etc with any environmental stressors being identified. From this point specialist help can be sought with many useful resources being shared by Sezan within this webinar.
Prevention of aggressive behaviour through the education of clients is also key. This starts with ensuring that responsible breeding takes place given that genetics strongly influence aggressive behaviour in dogs. We all know that puppy socialisation between the ages of 2-14 weeks is also vital although Sezan advises caution when trying to socialise the more nervous puppy. It is important with these personality types not to ‘overdo it’ and to take it slowly. Rapid socialisation in these sensitive puppies could over face them and actually make their behaviour worse as adults. Finally socialisation in the juvenile phase which ends in sexual maturity is also important. It has been shown that a diagnosis of aggression is more likely to occur around this time as dogs reaching this stage of their lives will have an increased sensitivity to stressful experiences. So does neutering help in these cases? Sezan explained this is a difficult question to answer as there have been conflicting results in studies. In fear based aggression neutering is likely to be detrimental whereas in frustration based aggression centred around sexual activity, neutering is likely to be helpful. There has however been a recent study by Farhoody in 2018 which demonstrates there is not strong enough evidence to support blanket castration to reduce or prevent aggression in male dogs.
This webinar has given me the confidence to address owners when they do attend the practice with concerns about their dog’s aggressive behaviour. Behaviour was not an area that was ever covered in any great depth whilst I was at university so this webinar has been invaluable to me. It has also shown me that, with the right advice, these cases can end positively and for this reason when I do see another case of owner directed aggression I will not only ensure that the dog in question has no obvious underlying medical condition, I will also ensure they get referred to a fully qualified canine behaviourist.