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Dog Aggression Towards Family Members

Jul 26, 2008
There are two common reasons why a dog is aggressive towards members of his own human family. He is trying to defend something he thinks of as his from a perceived threat (you).

This is known as resource guarding, and though it may sound innocuous, there's actually a lot more going on here than your dog simply trying to keep his kibble to himself. He is not comfortable with the treatment/handling he is getting from you or other members of the family.

What is resource guarding? Resource guarding is pretty common among dogs. The term refers to overly-possessive behavior on behalf of your dog: for instance, snarling at you if you approach him when he's eating, or giving you "the eye" (a flinty-eyed, direct stare) if you reach your hand out to take a toy away from him.

All dogs can be possessive from time to time as it is in their natures. Sometimes they are possessive over things with no conceivable value, inedible trash, balled up pieces of paper or tissue, old socks. More frequently, however, resource-guarding becomes an issue over items with a very real and understandable value such as food and toys.

Why does it happen?

It all boils down to the issue of dominance. Let me take a moment to explain this concept. Dogs are pack animals. This means that they are used to a very structured environment. In a dog-pack, each individual animal is ranked in a hierarchy of position and power (or "dominance") in relation to every other animal.

Each animal is aware of the rank of every other animal, which means he knows specifically how to act in any given situation (whether to back down, whether to push the issue, whether to muscle in or not on somebody else's turf, etc etc).

To your dog, the family environment is no different to the dog-pack environment. Your dog has ranked each member of the family, and has his own perception of where he ranks in that environment as well. This is where it gets interesting: if your dog perceives himself as higher up on the social totem-pole than other family members, he is going to get cheeky.

If he's really got an over inflated sense of his own importance, he'll start to act aggressively. Why? Because dominance and aggression are the exclusive rights of a superior-ranked animal. No underdog would ever show aggression or act dominantly to a higher-ranked animal (the consequences would be dire, and he knows it!)

Resource guarding is a classic example of dominant behavior. Only a higher-ranked dog (a "dominant" dog) would act aggressively in defense of resources. To put it plainly, if it was clear to your dog that he is not, in fact, the leader of the family, he'd never even dream of trying to prevent you from taking his food or toys because a lower-ranking dog (him) will always go along with what the higher-ranking dogs (you and your family) say.

So what can I do about it? The best treatment for dominant, aggressive behavior is consistent, frequent obedience work, which will underline your authority over your dog. Just two fifteen-minute sessions a day will make it perfectly clear to your dog that you are the boss, and that it pays to do what you say.

You can make this fact clear to him by rewarding him (with treats and lavish praise) for obeying a command, and isolating him (putting him in "time-out", either outside the house or in a room by himself) for misbehavior.

- If you are not entirely confident doing this yourself, you may wish to consider enlisting the assistance of a qualified dog-trainer.

Brush up on your understanding of canine psychology and communication, so that you understand what he's trying to say this will help you to nip any dominant behaviors in the bud, and to communicate your own authority more effectively.

Train regularly and keep obedience sessions short and productive (no more than fifteen minutes and maybe two or three of these per day).

Why doesn't my dog like to be handled?

All dogs have different handling thresholds. Some dogs like lots of cuddles, and are perfectly content to be hugged, kissed, and have arms slung over their shoulders (this is the ultimate "I'm the boss" gesture to a dog, which is why a lot of them won't tolerate it.)

Others are usually the ones not accustomed to a great deal of physical contact from a very young age and aren't comfortable with too much full-body contact and will get nervy and agitated if someone persists in trying to hug them.

Another common cause of handling-induced aggression is a bad grooming experience such nail-clipping and bathing which are the two common culprits.

When you clip a dog's nails, it's very easy to "quick" him and that is, cut the blood vessel that runs inside the nail. This is extremely painful to a dog, and is a sure-fire way to cause a long-lasting aversion to those clippers.

Being washed is something that a great many dogs have difficulty dealing with and a lot of owners, when confronted with a wild-eyed, half-washed, upset dog, feel that in order to complete the wash they have to forcibly restrain him.

This only adds to the dog's sense of panic, and reinforces his impression of a wash as something to be avoided at all costs and if necessary, to defend himself from it with a display of teeth and hackles.
Can I "retrain" him to enjoy being handled and groomed?
In a word, yes.

It's a lot easier if you start from a young age and handle your puppy a lot, get him used to being touched and rubbed all over. Young dogs generally enjoy being handled and it's only older ones who haven't had a lot of physical contact throughout their lives that sometimes find physical affection difficult to accept.

Practice picking up his paws and touching them with the clipper; practice taking him into the bath (or outside, under the faucet or whatever works for you, but warm water is much more pleasant for a dog than a freezing spray of ice-water!), and augment the process throughout with lots of praise and the occasional small treat.

For an older dog that may already have had several unpleasant handling/grooming experiences, things are a little more difficult. You need to undo the damage already caused by those bad experiences, which you can do by taking things very slowly and with an emphasis on keeping your dog calm.

The instant he starts to show signs of stress stop immediately and let him relax. Try to make the whole thing into a game: give him lots of praise, pats, and treats.

Take things slowly. Don't push it too far and if you get nervous, stop.

Dogs show aggression for a reason. They're warning you to back off, or else! If your dog just can't seem to accept being groomed, no matter how much practice you put in, it's best to hand the job over to the professionals.

Your vet will clip his nails for you (make sure you tell him first that he gets aggressive when the clippers come out, so your vet can take the necessary precautions!). As far as washing and brushing goes, the dog-grooming business is a flourishing industry. For a small fee, you can get your dog washed, clipped, brushed, and whatever else you require by experienced professionals (again, make sure you tell them about your dog's reaction to the experience first!)
About the Author
Dennis Hampton is the creator, editor and author of http://abusinessmadeeasy.net
You can visit the SitStayFetch site by clicking on the this link - http://abme4-llc.com
Check out my youtube channel for more great information
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