by Barry B. Burtis
A discussion about canine aggression and how to prevent its development in puppies was begun in my last column. After focusing on some things to keep in mind, in this regard, when selecting a puppy, the topic this time is how owners can impact aggressive behaviour in their pet after it is adopted.
Some aggression may be normal and as previously discussed early experience and inherited tendencies may work against the best efforts of some owners. However, socialization is critically important to the behavioural health of a dog and socialization is an ongoing process. Fortunately, most pups are adopted into their new homes sometime between 3-12 weeks, considered the most sensitive socialization period. This means owners who act promptly when they acquire their new pup have some time when they can significantly effect their pup's developing behaviour.
Here comes the commercial for puppy socialization classes. Attendance at such classes is probably the single most important thing owners can do to influence the behaviour of their puppy. Studies have shown that enrolling 7-12 week old pups in socialization classes leads to significantly higher retention in the home than do puppies who do not attend. The goal of these classes is to expose puppies in a safe and non-threatening way to a variety of stimuli including people and other dogs. If these stimuli are introduced in a proper manner and the puppy is rewarded (praise, treats, play) for appropriate behaviour to the exposed stimuli then a positive association is established. Positive reinforcement techniques of training are taught. Such methods have been shown to be much more effective than punishment based techniques. Owners learn commands that provide them with effective means of communication with their pet. An obedient pet is one who is much more likely to remain in the home.
After graduation from puppy classes owners must remember it is important to continue with the socialization of their pet. It is a continuous job and is particularly important through the dog's adolescence - up to 2-3 years of age. In general owners should focus on providing: structure/routine in the dog's environment, adequate exercise, socialization, praise for desired behaviours and efforts to prevent continuance of undesirable behaviours. Owners should avoid putting their pup in situations that evoke profound fearful behaviour.
Dogs have rather an instinctual tendency to protect their food from threats. In some dogs aggression is triggered when an owner approaches their dog who is eating. Owners are sometimes advised to randomly remove food items from puppies as a preventive or treatment technique for food related aggression. However, in fact, this may be teaching the pup that aggression is necessary to prevent the removal of food. It is probably better to reward the pup as you approach a food item. Approach the food bowl when the pup is eating and add a tasty treat. This teaches the approach of a human when eating is not a threat.
Owners should be able to physically handle their dog, whether it be for routine grooming purposes, management around the house or caring for an ill or injured pet. When introducing this kind of handling, it is important that it should not be confrontational or forceful since that is more likely to create a fearful or defensive dog. Instead handling should be introduced gradually and paired with positive experiences for the pup. Perhaps when the puppy is tired, after play or exercise and more likely to be compliant is the best time for the owner to do some gentle handling. Lifting the pup's lips, examining the teeth, looking in the ears, handling the feet and holding the pup gently down on its side are all good exercises to perform. Provide a reward for gentle handling and gradually intensify the level to allow for routine care and management.
Puppies are at a very impressionable stage of their lives. They are good candidates for preventing development of aggression but also are very susceptible to damage that can result in problem behaviour.