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Dog Aggression Part II – the importance of stimulation and exercise

Written by Joachim Bartoll and Isabella Stapleton
Published on June 13, 2018

Having fun at the dog park

As we mentioned in the first part, dogs are social animals with a daily need for stimulation, just like any of us. While some breeds are more energetic than others, all dogs need some form of daily exercise and an outlet for stored energy and stress relief.

Exercise will burn the dog’s excess energy and it will help to maintain the dog’s healthy state of mind. This is why exercise is so important to a dog’s life – because removing the excess energy is necessary in order to effectively communicate with the dog’s mind.
If a dog is kept inside for too long, the excess energy will cause a stress response – and in order to cope with the stress from the unnatural ‘prison’ of being locked indoors, the dog might become destructive, start to bark, or leash out.

Stress and stress responses can either be immediate or something that slowly builds up. Stress can be categorized into the following categories or ”Zones”:

  • Green Zone: the dog is fully aware of its surroundings and its owner. The dog is susceptible to any stimulation. In other words, the dog is very responsive and highly trainable in this zone.
  • Yellow Zone: the dog is still aware of itself and any disturbance. The dog may not be aware of its owner but is still reachable in this zone, although you might need to try harder to get its attention.
  • Red Zone: the dog is no longer aware of its surroundings or its owner. In this zone the dog is no longer reachable and it is acting on pure instincts. It is in survival mode.

The red zone can be triggered if the dog feel extreme fear, is being attacked, or by a buildup of stress and a subsequent trigger. The more stress that has been previously built up, the easier it is for your dog to be pushed into the red zone. This is why a poorly exercised dog tends to pull its leash and may snap at other dogs, people, bikes, etcetera, without any provocation. They have already passed the yellow zone, and even the slightest provocation or misinterpretation is enough to push them into the red zone. You should also take note that if a dog is injured, experiencing pain, is on a poor diet, or has any medical issues, then its stress level is already heightened.

While walking or playing will drain your dog’s energy, mental stimulation is also important and actually more effective at draining off excess energy. Training of any kind, from basic obedience to fancy tricks, socialization, tracking or even agility training will tire your dog quickly. They are also great bonding activities. We will look into the various types of stimulation and different needs in future articles.

When pups are born, the mother is the natural leader, providing the pups with calm and assertive guidance. Once the pups are removed from the pack and placed in the care of a human, that balance must be maintained. At this point the human becomes the pack leader, and it is vital that the pups are reassured that someone is in charge; providing them with guidance and discipline. If you fail to acknowledge this natural hierarchy and don’t assume the role of a leader, then the dog will attempt to create that balance itself. For most dogs this is neither their natural nor preferred state, therefore, it can quickly become stressful to the point where it may result in aggressive and protective behavior.

The role of leader is a selfless and instinctual role – the pack leader is concerned for the pack and not itself. It is there to protect and lead. In return, the pack completely trusts the pack leader. As a dog owner you need to earn your dogs’ trust, loyalty, and respect. You accomplish these goals by giving them rules and limitations. Remember that being an ”alpha” or pack leader is simply being a firm, self-assured and gentle teacher.

What about genetic aggression?

As for specific genetic behavior, it’s important to acknowledge that the domestic dog displays greater levels of behavioral diversity than any other land mammal and holds the unique distinction of being the first species to be domesticated.
While researchers study ‘abnormal’ dog behavior to better understand some common human conditions such as anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and narcolepsy – research into specific types of aggression is more difficult.
One of the main reasons is that aggression can be classified in a lot of different ways, such as: territorial aggression, fear aggression, food guarding or toy guarding; aggression against other dogs, against humans in the family, against strangers, and so on. These different forms of aggression are all caused by different factors, possibly different genes, and different environmental changes. In order for researchers to study a particular form of aggression, they have to be certain that all of the dogs in their study have the same kind of aggression. However, canine behavior scientists haven’t completely defined the different classes of aggression, because they don’t completely understand its causes – which is part of why they like to find the possible genes affecting it in the first place. It’s a vicious circle which researchers have difficulty breaking out of.

Therefore, there are no mapped ‘aggression genes’ or genetic tests for aggression available today. While you can test your dog to find the breeds in her ancestry, you can’t know what personality traits each ancestor has passed on. In the end, we are back where we started – knowing that early socialization, firm leadership, and good guidance are the best ways to keep a dog behaviorally healthy. Therefore, it remains true that the best predictor for whether a dog will show aggression or not has nothing to do with the dog’s breed, but the environment he is kept in.

Swimming is great exercise

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