By: Sabrina Poggiagliolmi, DVM, MS
According to the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) 4,7 million people are bitten by dogs every year, and vulnerable people, such as children and elderly, are the most frequent victims of dogs attacks.
Canine aggression is the number one cause of relinquishment and euthanasia in pet dogs in the United States. The sad aspect about it is that these dogs are usually surrendered to shelters when they are not more than 2 years old. If we would put it in lay terms, this means a huge economical loss/damage to us as many of our patients will not be aging and as an immediate consequence we will face lower incomes. Another detrimental side effect would be the impairment of the human animal bond between the owner and the pet mostly due to our inability to advise them with the correct information. Behavioral advices should be part of any vet visit and when owners are not asking us directly we should be proactive and start asking questions targeted to see if the patient already is showing ongoing problems or not.
Is it possible to prevent this from happening or to reduce its incidence? Yes, this is possible, because, as in any other medical field, prevention is always better than cure. It is our duty, as veterinarians, to educate owners about their dogs normal behaviors and instruct them about dog's body language to be able to prevent future misunderstandings and problems. Teaching the owners not to focus on a canine's single body part, such as a wagging tail, but on the whole canine's body instead, to gain the correct information is basic. Dogs are always talking to us, it is up to us to interpret what messages they are conveying to us to develop a better relationship with them.
Prevention-wise puppies should be enrolled in puppy classes during the so called sensitive period for socialization (8-12 weeks old), where they will be exposed to conspecifics, to human beings of different ages, and any fearful inducing stimuli to get them used to it. The goal would be to have a well adjusted puppy that is prepared to face anything in the future in a proper way without showing signs of aggression or fear.
Ideally owners should consult with a behaviorist even before acquiring a puppy. A behaviorist is a professional figure that would have the knowledge to address the perspective owners' demands towards the right puppy to prevent unwanted mismatches and resulting problems. As we do not live in a perfect world, aggressive dogs are a daily encounter in our small animal practices, and, therefore, they should be treated accordingly to avoid regrettable accidents. For those who are just aggressive at the vet office, but normal in any other situation, gradual introductions to the office by associating it to a pleasant experience would be the correct way to address their fear (Fig. 1). Fear is the number one motivation for any type of aggression in dogs. Lack of socialization and traumatic experiences could contribute to the aggression as well. Medical reasons should always rule out as well, such as pain or metabolic diseases. Fearful dogs may show aggression to both protect themselves from a perceived or real threat and to keep bad things away.
Aggression is a normal behavior, unacceptable to us, that cannot be cured or erased, but only reduced and/or controlled. It will be unprofessional to guarantee a complete healing, because any dog can become aggressive if the opportunity would arise. Usually dogs show aggression when other mechanisms have failed, such as when nobody has ever read correctly their warning signals. This is when the dog attacks without growling anymore, but lunges and bites out of frustration. When dealing with aggressive patients, safety should be our main concern especially if vulnerable people are living in the dog's household. It means that the dog should be kept separated (i.e. in a locked room or in a crate) from them anytime an adult supervision is not available. If this will be impossible to do, that dog should be removed from that environment.
Owners should be instructed on how to prevent further aggression by knowing what the main triggers of the aggression are and avoiding them consequently. Aggressive dogs need clear directions from their owners to know what it is expected from them. This is where basic obedience commands come in handy: they will give directions, and they will help dogs to change their emotional state from aroused to relaxed by teaching them more acceptable behaviors. Once the dog will be reliable on the basic commands (i.e. sit, down, watch me, go to mat), s/he will be exposed in a gradual manner to the triggering stimulus/i in a way that the stimulus is not eliciting any fearful response. While doing so, the dog will be asked to perform a behavior that will be incompatible with the previous bad ones and s/he will get a reward for being compliant. This will teach the dog to associate the stimulus to a pleasant experience and to change is emotional state toward it.
Ancillary tools such as basket muzzles (Fig. 2), head halters, may be very helpful tools to gain better control over an aggressive dog and to prevent biting episodes. There is no magic pill or quick fix for an aggressive dog, but medications could be prescribed to decrease the dog's anxiety and fear and thus make him/her more responsive to the behavior modification treatment plan. Treating aggressive dogs is not an easy task to accomplish and it is extremely time consuming, but it can be pursued with the right directions and recommandations. Motivated and well educated clients can manage that under our strict supervision.
If you have any questions about this or any other behavioral topics, please do not hesitate to call Dr. Sabrina Poggiagliolmi at Long Island Veterinary Specialists.