Owner-Directed Aggression

Last month I reviewed a case in which a dog was biting and nipping at his owner because this behavior produced attention from her. The owner at first feared her dog was being truly aggressive and was comforted to learn that the behavior, while inappropriate and bothersome, was not vicious or especially difficult to fix. Once we were able to find a way to reward appropriate behavior while ensuring that the nipping and biting no longer produced any response from the owner, the issue was soon resolved.

There are other cases, however, where a dog’s nipping and biting at the owner are not designed to get attention – quite the contrary, in fact. In these cases, which strike me as more appropriately labeled aggression, I meet dogs who have learned to use aggression to get out of situations that make them nervous or uncomfortable. Common scenarios include dogs who bite when their owners try to clip their nails, take off or put on a body harness or collar, move them off a bed or lap, or restrain them in some way. While the owners are not hurting their dogs in these situations (save for the occasional, accidental clipping of the nail’s quick or pinching of an ear while clipping a collar), they are requiring their dogs to do something that temporarily makes the dog less comfortable than he or she was before. If a dog is snuggled in a soft couch cushion and an owner scoops her up, the dog may feel momentarily put off and respond with a growl or snap. A dog’s individual disposition combines with her learning experiences to create some cases where the growl escalates over time to snapping or biting and may generalize to other circumstances as well.

These are instances of aggression we might call escape-maintained. In other words, the dog uses aggression as a way to try to escape from, delay, or minimize the intrusion or discomfort of the moment. In these cases, to use a timeout (saying “No” and walking away, as we discussed in last month’s column) might only reward the behavior further – after all, the dog wants the owner to stop and walk away in that moment! And yet, to push through with the nail clipping or scooping off the couch even after the dog has snapped or growled might lead the dog to escalate his aggression, resulting in a bite to the owner. Therefore, we must find a better way to reduce this aggression while also keeping owners’ fingers safe from sharp canine teeth!

To do this successfully and with behavioral improvements that will persist over time, we must teach the dog what we want her to do and reward her for doing it. Let’s take the example of the dog who snaps when her owner tries to move her from a comfortable resting place on the couch. In this case, the couch was already warm, cozy, and rewarding for the dog. Being scooped up and set on the floor or even into an owner’s lap requires a brief loss of that cozy resting place. We must teach the dog that getting up from her resting place when she is called by her owner results in other advantages that can compete with the loss of that warmth and comfort. Thus, I would teach the owner to call her dog to her whenever she walks into a room and the dog is on the couch. The dog would earn a treat each time she comes and sometimes also a walk, a meal, or a squeaky toy. Then I would have the owner sit down on the couch and call the dog back to her to sit in her lap or next to her on the couch. In this way, the owner has made the dog move using her words instead of needing to physically move the dog (therefore showing even better control over the dog’s behavior), and the dog is happy to hop down and never thinks about using aggression in the first place because getting down produces a reliable positive consequence!

In the case of putting a harness on or nail clipping, I have owners practice similar strategies – rather than just expecting their dog to naturally enjoy or simply tolerate these routines, owners are taught to reward their dogs each time these things are done at first. When we see that the aggression drops away and the dog begins to look happy and relaxed during these routines, we then work on moving the reward to an intermittent schedule – one where we might not reward every time but continue to reward often enough that the dog remains happy and motivated to go along with the routine forever after.