What is ritualized aggression in dogs? First, one must consider what true aggression really is. When dogs encounter other dogs, there are always chances that the encounter may not go well and it's important to be prepared for this. While dogs often develop amicable relationships with other dogs, the onset of aggression is always a possibility. Not always though does the aggressive display result in true harm. Often there is just noise and both parties return to a state of normalcy. Hence, it's important to distinguish aggressive displays meant to harm, from ritualized aggression in dogs.
Symbolic Gestures at Play
In order to live well in a social group dogs must rely on several body signals. True fighting is often a waste of energy and can result in real harm and even death. The use of ritualized aggression offers a symbolic way to resolve conflicts without serious harm.
The dog therefore barks, growls, lunges and even snaps to make a point but without bodily contact. Even dramatic display of teeth, and inhibited bites allow the dog to express itself without causing serious harm to the receiving party. Ritualized aggression is likely to reduce the risk of potential injury and death.
But what exactly are some examples of ritualized aggression among dogs and other animals? Even among two roosters, in nature, generally their "discussions" are nothing more than ritualistic displays. They puff up their feathers during their confrontations and have a noisy squabble, but nobody gets seriously hurt. Often, everything ends with one of the two roosters surrendering and leaving. In dogs, there may be barking, lunging, snapping the air and the inhibited bite with no puncture wounds. The altercation may often end with one dog blocking the aggression.
"Ritualized aggression is noisy, with lots of vocalizing including growling, screaming, huffing etc. All-out battles are relatively quiet, especially among wolves, but between some dogs as well." ~Barbara Handelman
Blocking the Aggression
As a species specializing in body language, it is also possible for dogs to block aggression through the use of signals meant to calm down the other dog. The signals are perceived by the other dog as a pacifying effort and the aggressive display often stops there.
The signals may include a variety of gestures which may vary based on several factors such as distance, breed, age etc. Such gestures may include lip licking, yawning, sniffing the ground, a lowered tail, ears folded back and a lowered body posture. Blocking the aggression also involves looking away to avoid direct eye contact.
It may happen that the dog being attacked at some point will turn the head away, exposing the vulnerable neck and jugular vein while the attacking dog may accept such pacifying gesture or may just end the interaction with a symbolic lunge and "bite" with no intent to do real harm.
"Humans also appreciate the difference between filing a lawsuit and brandishing a machine gun. It is no different with animals, because aggression is so expensive, and yet, so necessary, all kinds of rituals have evolved."~Jean Donaldson
Exceptions to Consider
As effective as it may be to use body language to block aggression, not always does this work. Every now and then in nature, some variance may pop out and it can happen that a dog is produced that isn't sensitive to such pacifying gestures.
This can be due to lack of socialization or some genetic flaw. The "illiterate" members therefore are a step behind, closer to non-social behavior. In this cases, severe injuries and even death may arise.
At other times, the "artificial" environment we expose our dogs to can interfere with these animals' ability to effectively communicate.
Among dogs, keeping the dog on leash may interfere with this "natural language." It may therefore happen that a dog is attacked while on leash, and with the leash tight, the attacked dog is unable to block the aggression by turning the head away. On the contrary, with the tight leash, the dog may appear as if challenging the other dog.
Even among roosters, things may go sour. Secluded in close quarters, one rooster is unable to leave during an altercation and the two are forced to battle and injuries may result. By the way, this is how cockfighting became a popular blood sport. Secluded in a small arena, the enclosure made withdrawing not an option as it would have happened in nature, explains the late ethologist Danilo Mainardi.
- Danilo Mainardi: Del Cane, Del Gatto e Di Altri Animali
- Barbara Handelman: Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook
- Jean Donaldson: Fight