Dog Aggression – Is it predictable? How do humans’ contribute to dog aggression? Are we responsible? Part Two

Joyce Kesling CDBC

Dog Aggression – Is it predictable?  How do humans’ contribute to dog aggression?  Are we responsible? Part Two

Lindsay’s alternative hypothesis

Classifying aggression

Lindsay (2007) classifies aggression in general terms as “proactive control-related or instrumental” (learned) both offensively and defensively used to achieve specific goals that may otherwise be unavailable.  Both types have specific characteristics as follows.

  • Dogs under normal threat use appropriate signals beginning with the most benign e.g. freezing, to full blown aggressive attack depending on increasing threat levels, conflict resolution styles and appeasement in the form of reconciliation.
  • The dog demonstrates an ability to control/manage escalating agonistic behavior, ability to lower the level of aggression and/or canceling it entirely.
  • The aggression is context appropriate to the provoking stimulus, magnitude of arousal and severity and duration of the attack.
  • There is a functional reason for the dogs aggressiveness e.g. offensive aggression might be a “get and keep incentive” a defensive response might be a “bite or die” incentive and outcomes previously learned.
  • Rarity

These forms of learned aggression may become more threatening, providing little warning in the “context of social code violations” e.g. disturbing a sleeping dog or taking a prized object away.  The intensity of the dog’s response to these social code violations will directly depend on the negative stimulus.  The dog described here has some control over their aggressive response and those responses are in direct correlation to the invoking stimulus.

Auto-protective aggression

The opposite of control related aggression is “reactive or impulsive autoprotective aggression.”  This type of aggressive response generally shows lack of organization, normal agonistic ritualistic signals are bypassed, attacks are often severe, lacking inhibition, abnormal for the context, and the magnitude of attack is disproportionate to the negative stimulus.  This type of aggression often escalates, in both frequency and severity.  Twelve prominent independent variables should be considered for evaluating “reactive/impulsive autoprotective aggression” (Lindsay, 2007).

  • Genetics
  • Developmental adversity
  • Interactive disturbances influencing loss of executive attention and impulse control
  • Lack of coping skills and play
  • Constant interactive conflict
  • Social ambivalence, distrust, unfairness associated with anxiety, irritability and intolerance
  • Mismanaged competition, proactive aggression
  • Triggering stimuli is associated with loss or risk
  • Insecure, nervous toward social and place attachments
  • Loss of trust, autonomic attunement
  • Deprived environment
  • Entrapment

The result of any one of these variables or combination might lead someone to describe a dog as inattentive, resisting owner control, lacking playfulness, arbitrary threats, and attacks and labeling the dog as dominant.  Contrary to labeling the dog dominant, Lindsay suggests, the dog is going through a gradual process of social disengagement, followed by reduced impulse control, social repulsion, and intolerance toward what should be objects of attachment (Lindsay, 2007).

When dogs find themselves in dysfunctional environments that include overindulgence, conflicting interaction between species, social deprivation, clear rules and boundaries, non-provision of basic biological needs causes dog’s emotional stress and anxiety leading to socially withdraw from the object of attachment [owner/family] due to conflicting emotional biases.

Dogs cope with adverse and inescapable environmental conditions in three basic ways (Lindsay, 2007).

  1. Uncontrollable and deprived conditions create reactive coping styles and generally nervous attachments
  2. Controllable environments, but generally unfair, enabling, coercing dependency through indulgence and/or forceful submission tend toward insecure attachments
  3. When the environment is perceived as uncontrollable, deprived of resources and unfair, the ambivalent attachment object can become a target of reactive or impulsive autoprotective aggression (anger)

Summarizing, the dog described views their environment as uncontrollable resulting in establishing a distrustful and intolerant relationship with the ambivalent attachment object [owner/caregiver].  Dogs that appear incompetent, reactive, and impulsive are more likely responding to human owners with conflicting mixed emotions.  These dogs tend to view social exchanges as risky with threat of loss.  Contrarily confident dogs with secure attachments view mixed messages with confidence and general expectancy of fairness and reward (Lindsay, 2007).

The alternative hypothesis (canine perspective) for canine dominance aggression

I hope to illustrate in this following section that “anti-predatory and/or “auto-protective” aggression stems from our long history and often exploitive relationship with dogs.  We all recognize millions of dogs are relinquished and euthanized yearly; this history has remained constant for some time.  Lindsay (2007) compares what is occurring with our pets today to an old Roman practice of relinquishing unwanted infants in public squares with the hope that someone will take an interest in the unwanted child adopting them as their own.

This same practice today is easily applied to the plight of unwanted pets.  Owners are allowed to dispose of pets if they do not adapt or satisfy an owner’s whim or need at any particular time.  According to Lindsay (2007), the harsh truth is as follows.

“The pattern of taking an infant puppy away from its biological family subjugating it by force and restraint, abandoning or relinquishing it, and destroying the dog when it is no longer wanted represents a pattern of exploitation that infuses the human-dog relationship with an inherent paradox” (Tuan, 1984).

Additionally, “the predatory exploitation of the dog for its fur and flesh is sublimated and institutionalized into a less obvious predatory preoccupation with the exploitation of its capacity to provide affection, submission, and utility” transforming the dog into a “prey object whose ability to gratify human needs depends on it staying healthy and alive, at least during times of plenty” (Lindsay, 2007).

Humans have unnaturally selected dogs for traits such as tameness, submission, and utility while at the same time suppressing canine predatory proclivities and behavior.  Under these conditions, the dog’s life demands their ability to adapt according to our expectations.  Based on these conclusions, Lindsay (2007) proposes dogs have evolved “complimentary anti-stress and anti-predatory coping strategies” that help reduce human exploitive behavior and abuse.

Additionally, dogs have evolved the ability to form secure attachments to humans.  The emotional and behavioral effects dogs have on humans, coupled with neotonic characteristics and [perceived] unconditional love may actually be anti-predatory adaptations.  Dogs living with ambivalent owners coupled with the inability to escape the dysfunctional environment compensate by activating an anti-predatory survival mode lowering autoprotective flight-fight thresholds.  As stated earlier millions of dogs are euthanized every year, continuing at an alarming pace, and historically when times are tough, dogs can become an inconvenience.  According to Lindsay (2007), dogs are sensitive to “social and environmental quality-of-life changes” based on human affiliative behavior.  The dogs’ ability to sense these changes appears consistent with the lowering of flight-fight thresholds activating an “encoded survival” mode related to human predatory risk.

In spite of dogs having a “specialized anti-stress system” to cope with environmental changes, especially those related to their owner, appear especially vulnerable resulting in dogs reactive responses to owners selective attention changes.  Because of domestication, dogs have lost most of their predatory behavior.  We have literally transformed a predatory animal into a “predatory object dependent on the subjugating predator [man] for care and protection” (Lindsay, 2007).

Based on this notion, Lindsay (2007) presents a persuasive hypothesis suggesting dogs have developed compensatory “antithetical antisocial and anti-predatory” tactics to compensate for the risks associated aligning with another predator!  Therefore, accepting dogs have developed an “anti-predatory coping strategy” seems more appropriate than suggesting dogs attack people to “enhance their social status or defend their territory” behavior acceptable among dogs, but does not correlate with human directed dog domestication and selective breeding processes.

What can we expect from human directed inappropriate behavior and training?

  1. An intolerance for handling and restraint
  2. Interference i.e. attempting to remove a dog from a resting and/or secure location
  3. Feelings of entrapment and frustration leading to intolerance of family members
  4. Negative responses to grooming, clipping nails, touching the dogs paws
  5. Perceived threats resulting from avoidance learning and panic
  6. The ambivalent owner may be bitten when attempting to hug or kiss their dog
  7. Sleep related disturbances and related attacks and/or bites
  8. Dogs who have been allowed to sleep in the owners bed, specific circumstances are applicable

Lindsay’s (2007) “notion of an autoprotective phenotype activated in response to social conflict and entrapment” offers a more useful construct when evaluating motivation and social conditions associated with aggression.

Essentially, you can expect your dog’s behavior to mirror your knowledge concerning natural dog behavior, training ability and understanding what dogs are communicating.  Whether it concerns you or not, you can believe whatever you choose and/or what any other dog trainer and/or behavior consultant has to say, but it’s difficult to understand on the condition that one considers their dog a family member choosing to train using a foundation built on punishment seems contradictory in terms of raising children successfully.

The alternative is cynopraxic theory that suggests interactions taking place between friends should stimulate feelings of comfort, safety, mutual understanding, and acceptance perpetuating the human-dog bond.


Gazzano et al.  2008.  The prevention of undesirable behaviors in dogs: effectiveness of veterinary behaviorists’ advice given puppy owners.  J. Vet. Behav.  3, 125-133.

Lindsay, Steven R.  Handbook of applied dog behavior and training.  3 Vols.  Iowa:  Blackwell.  2005.  Vol. 3.

Miklosi, Adam.  2007.  Dog Behaviour, Evolution, and Cognition.  Oxford University Press.  Oxford, NY

Yamamoto et al. 2009.  Influence of delayed timing of owners’ actions on the behaviors of their dogs, Canis familiaris Vet. Behav. 4, 11-18.

Dog Aggression – Is it predictable?  How do humans’ contribute to dog aggression?  Are we responsible? Part One

Dominance – is it appropriate to explain social relationships between dogs and humans?

Joyce Kesling CDBC

Responsible Dog and Cat

Behavior and Training, LLC

Sarasota FL

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