Redirected aggression in dogs is a problematic behavior that requires management for safety purposes, and to prevent rehearsal of the troublesome behavior, along with behavior modification to treat the root cause. Although, redirected aggression is more common among cats, there are countless cases of redirected aggression among dogs. When dogs “redirect,” the targets of their aggression may involve other dogs sharing the same household, other pets or even dog owners. Due to unpredictability of these attacks, the utmost caution is needed, and therefore, a behavior professional should be consulted for safety and correct implementation of behavior modification.
Redirected Aggression in Dogs
Redirected aggression, as the name implies, refers to aggression that is directed to one stimulus in place of the original aggression or excitement-provoking stimulus.
In more simple words, a dog can be so wound up from seeing something or being in a situation that instills fear, pain, aggression, frustration or overexcitement, that he redirects his excitement, frustration, predatory arousal, aggression or fear onto whoever is closest.
This means that the dog may attack another dog who happens to nearby, another pet or even the owner.
Not always though is redirected aggression readily recognized. Perhaps the exact circumstances that precipitate it aren’t witnessed (owner comes home to dogs who are fighting from the excitement of his arrival) or perhaps it may appear to dog owners as if the dog just bites for no particular reason.
In some instances, the redirected aggression is confused with other vague forms of aggression such as owner-directed aggression, dog-to-dog aggression, etc. To help clarify, following are three examples of redirected aggression in dogs.
Example 1: Two dogs are in the yard when they notice a man walking his dog across the street. The dogs rush to the fence and start barking. Next thing you know, the dogs are barking intensely at each other and even start air snapping as the man with the dog walk away.
Example 2: a guest rings the doorbell and two dogs rush to the door barking excitedly. The dog owner rushes towards the door and lets the guest in. As the guest enters, one dogs attacks the other dog from the excitement and both end up having a loud “discussion.”
Example 3: a dog owner hears his dogs fighting and rushes out in the yard. He gets between them and grabs one dog by the collar. Next thing he knows, he feels the sharp teeth of the dog deliberately latching on and thrashing in response to the collar grab and interruption.
All these dogs in the above examples share two commonalities: they are overstimulated and they target their aggression to someone in lieu of the original target. It’s almost as if these dogs are looking for ways to defuse their excess excitement or anger just as a bolt of lightning discharges its static electricity.
Did you know? According to a study, electric fences have been found to potentially cause instances of redirected aggression in dogs. Five cases involved severe attacks on humans by dogs being trained or maintained on an electronic pet containment system. Most likely, in these cases, the pain caused by shock, may have caused the dog to react aggressively and redirect to a proximate target such as a person nearby.
The Importance of Management
Redirected aggression requires a strict management protocol. What does management entail? Management entails preventing the dog from engaging in the problematic behavior in the first place. Once the exact triggers or situations, known to cause redirected aggression are identified, it is important that the dog is not exposed to the those triggers.
So for instance, in the case of the dogs fighting in the home upon noticing stimuli that cause overstimulation, such dogs should no longer be allowed access to windows or the use of window film, heavy curtains or blinds may need to be employed.
In the case of dogs fighting over the arrival of guests, exposure to guests should be avoided (or delayed in mild cases, at least until all the excitement has reduced).
In the case of the dog redirecting upon being touched during a fight with another dog, the owner should prevent such fights from occurring in the first place, but should a fight occur, an alternate method involving not touching the dog should be employed (loud noise, tossing a blanket over the dogs).
Management may appear like an obvious and rather passive strategy and it is often underestimated. Yet, management accomplishes several goals. For instance, it helps prevent rehearsal of the problematic behavior. Every time a dog behaves aggressively, he learns from the event, and with repeated rehearsal, the behavior becomes more entrenched and more difficult to eradicate.
Management also provides dog owners peace of mind. Not to mention, it prevents the other animal or pet victim of the aggression to relax. When other dogs or animals are the victims of redirected aggression, such attacks may have a significant impact on their physical and emotional well-being. In negative experiences as such, victim dogs may learn quickly to fear their attackers and lead tense lives. Even one attack episode may be enough at times to cause such negative impacts, and when that happens it’s called one-trial learning.
Another level of management for mild cases may involve learning to recognize early signs of increasing overstimulation and intervening as early as possible to defuse the situation. Dog owners, for instance,with the help of a professional, can be taught how to redirect their dogs using a cue word that tells the dogs to stop in their tracks and follow their owner to a cabinet where they are dispensed a high-value goodies.
Behavior Modification for Redirected Aggression
While management prevents dogs from practicing the troublesome behavior until they can be trained better behaviors, behavior modification encompasses the active learning components.
Behavior modification for redirected aggression in dogs requires a multi-faceted approach. Complementary lifestyle changes may be therefore needed to help these dogs recover.
For instance, dogs who are prone to redirected aggression are often dogs who are highly impulsive in other areas of their lives and therefore need to be provided with structured exercise, training and mental stimulation. And no, this doesn’t mean more trips to the dog the park. “Structure” is the keyword here, not disorderly play!
A stress-reduction program may be important as well: dogs prone to redirected aggression may be overactive and may struggle to recover and calm themselves down.
Desensitizing and counterconditioning the dog to the triggers and teaching replacement behaviors is often the core of a behavior modification program for redirected aggression. This would help teach the dog to be more relaxed, change any emotional upset, and entice him to engage in a replacement behavior that is highly reinforcing.
For example, dogs who tend to get overstimulated at the sight of a dog walked behind a fence can be kept at a distance from the fence (on a leash or tether) and asked to perform alternate behaviors (sit, target, a few steps of heeling). These behaviors must be reinforced heavily with valuable treats. With time, the dog learns more impulse control and how to make good choices.
In the case of dogs overly excited by the arrival of guests, the dogs can be taught to go lie on a mat in another room where they receive some long-lasting goodies (e.g.a stuffed Kong) so that their excitement abates. Once calmer and once feasible, such dogs can be introduced to the guest.
Redirected aggression in dogs can be potentially risky behavior. For safety and correct implementation, these behavior modification exercises should always be strictly done under the guidance of a professional ensuring the dog is well under threshold as highly excited dogs can bite.
- Polsky, R. 2000, Can aggression in dogs be elicited through the use of electronic pet content
systems? J. Appl. Anim. Wel. Sic. 3, 345-358
- Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals, Karen Overall
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