Dog Aggression May Be Caused By Aggressive Treatment by Owners, New Study Finds

Having lived with and loved a rescue dog who came to me with aggression problems, and having been around the block with various training philosophies to find one that worked,  I’m happy to see that progress is being made in the understanding of what actually helps and what hurts.  While I know there are many Cesar Milan fans out there, research is beginning to discover what many good trainers have known for a long time — traditional punitive training can have some serious drawbacks. Read on and decide for yourself.

by Sheila Dichoso Medill Reports – Chicago, Northwestern University
March 18, 2009

University of Pennsylvania veterinary researchers found that pet owners who used aggressive methods to treat their dogs’ behavior problems may be aggravating the problem instead of alleviating it.

The new study, published in the February issue of Applied Animal Behaviour Science, found that pet owners using confrontational, punishment-based techniques on their dogs were getting more aggressive responses from their dogs compared to owners who used positive-reinforcement techniques.

“By far the most common behavior problem we treat in dogs is aggression,” said veterinarian Meghan Herron, lead author of the study.

Although many veterinarians and dog trainers may not find the results surprising, the public is largely unaware of the ramifications of using confrontational training methods.

Herron said it was interesting that several confrontational methods, such as the “alpha roll” and hitting or yelling “no” at their dogs, elicited an aggressive response in more than a quarter of the dogs, according to the pet owners that were surveyed.

The alpha roll is a training technique in which the dog flips over on its back and is held in that position, usually by the throat. This has been traditionally thought to teach the dog that the trainer is the pack leader, or “alpha dog.” Herron said this aggressive technique, along with growling at the dog, staring down the dog or forcing the release of an item in a dog’s mouth by putting pressure on their gums with fingers are more likely to have the adverse effect them, or may not even help them at all.

Most of these confrontational or punishment-based methods are fear-eliciting, and the primary motivating factor for dog aggression to humans is fear, Herron said.

“[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][Confrontational and punishment techniques] may mask the aggression, but it doesn’t change the way the dog perceives what it is aggressing towards,” added Rendy Schwartz, owner and head dog trainer at Anything Is Pawsible in Noble Square.

Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine in Philadelphia collected 140 surveys with dog owners who made appointments at the school. It asked how they previously treated their dog’s aggression, what kind of response they received back and where they learned the training technique. It was done over a one year period and analyzed dogs that displayed all types of aggression, including separation anxiety and thunderstorm fear. They also found that dogs who exhibited aggression toward strangers were more likely to respond aggressively to the “alpha roll.”
Another possible way dogs can develop aggressive behavior is through games, such as tug-of-war.

“Tug-of-war is a great energy outlet for many dogs when played correctly,” Herron said. But when not played correctly, it can elicit aggressive behavior.

“Any contact with the dog’s mouth on people’s hands instantly ends the game,” she said. “When the game is over, the toy should be put away and tug should not be played with any other item in the household. This keeps the game very structured and prevents tug-eliciting behavior with other items, such as bedding or clothing.”

“We encourage owners not to engage in any rough play that involves hands, feet or other body parts, but rather to engage in play and exercise in a more structured fashion,” Herron said.

Schwartz likened treating dogs to how a parent would treat their children. “If you lead a child with a heavy hand, or through force, you can see these children act out in aggressive ways as well,” she said.

Herron recommends using positive reinforcement techniques, such using food. She also suggested owners should be calm, predictable and consistent when training their dog.

The study’s goal was to see if confrontational training methods led to aggressive responses compared with other training methods.

But preventing aggression in dogs is a lot easier than treating it. While most dogs have the capacity to rehabilitate, “it takes time and massive amounts of dedication and vigilance to help severe cases,” Schwartz said.

Herron said she hopes the study emphasizes the fact that using confrontational-based techniques will increase the risk of harm to dog owners and dogs, that are in turn relinquished or euthanized as a result.

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10 thoughts on “Dog Aggression May Be Caused By Aggressive Treatment by Owners, New Study Finds”

  1. Throwback at Trapper Creek

    Great post – Temple Grandin also mentions an interesting theory regarding Cesar Milan’s training methods with his own dogs, in her new book “Animals Make Us Human.” I think if someone’s method of animal handling mirrors your own, you are more likely to gravitate towards that particular method or not.

    I find Temple Grandin’s insight to cattle (dogs too) behavior to be right on. I grew up chasing and forcing cattle because that is what most people do. They’re big right? Humans must dominate! Through rotational grazing and different handling techniques my cattle are much calmer and easier to handle. They want to follow me, and it far easier than forcing them, and safer too.

    1. I find Grandin’s work fascinating. I’m with you, why use the stick when all living things respond better to the carrot. It’s just a matter of understanding what the carrot looks like for each species. This was also true for our horses. By learning how to communicate with my horse, he used to follow me everywhere, like a puppy.

    1. Carol, thanks so much for this link. Interesting woman. I will definitely be reading more of her.

      I also know from experience that what she says regarding academic research and paper publishing is often sadly true. Too many people quoting too many other people whose works they’ve never fully read. The “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” philosophy is alive and well.

      1. Just thinking… Along those lines, this gives me a nice opportunity to let my readers know that I do take the time to track down and read original research, so I can check for myself whether I find the testing methods and/or results dicey or valid. I’m sure the reason many writers (newspaper and magazine writers especially) don’t — aside from feeling they don’t have the time or budget — is that these articles aren’t written in “English”. For those lacking an advanced scientific background, the cumbersome 5-syllable words and convoluted writing style are enough to have one seeing cross-eyed in no time. Not to mention that paying for the privilege to read from these arcane journals can quickly add up. Still, that’s no excuse for passing along information based on “he said, she said” or, even worse, just plain bad research.

        So if I post an article here, please feel confident that I’ve read from the original work first, and have found merit there.

        Now, that’s not to say that I don’t have my own agenda. Because, well, of course I do. I’d like to see punitive training go the way of the platypus. And anytime I can find credible research that supports that, you’ll probably get to read about it here. In English.

  2. I think that’s true dog aggression may be caused by aggressive treatment by owners. Nice article! Did someone read this article a winner of its first $1 million makeover?

    1. Trisha, I’m familiar with Randy Grimes’ work. He’s amazing and most assuredly deserves to have won. Now if they’d only pay up…

  3. Holly, I agree that when taught properly, and depending on the dog, tugging can be beneficial to help focus and engage a dog for other types of training work.

    Cindy, there are many people who shouldn’t have dogs — or any other animals — for that matter.

    The unfortunate thing is that many people don’t know how to go about finding a good trainer. When they finally do seek help for their problem dogs (regardless of the cause), they don’t really know how to evaluate that help. They’re just looking for an “expert” to fix the problem. I understand that. When I look for a car mechanic, I’m also looking for an expert with good references. And when you’ve got Nat Geo pushing Cesar’s show, guess who looks like the endorsed expert…

    I’ll add a qualifier: while I often disagree with CM’s approach, I don’t hate everything he does. I do have a big problem with the way the show is presented; it is grossly misleading. Without accurate follow-ups of ALL cases, the viewer is led to believe that permanent change can happen in 30 minutes.

  4. “Do unto others”…..and that goes for animals too. Remember, animals will reflect back to us what they see and sense in our own behavior. Have a troubled pet? Look at yourself first. Beyond a real genetic or neurological reason, a dog will mirror your aggression back at you.

    Thanks again Karen, an important topic here. How many of us have seen someone mistreat a dog thinking they were doing it for the dog’s own good? Most times it’s someone who knows nothing about proper training or, the person is an angry individual to begin with, and the dog is their perfect scapegoat. A word to the wise….

  5. you know, I agree with this partially….but not the tugging. I think there is more benefit to the tugging than there would be potential aggression to tugging. However, the entire attitude of those who feel they have to “show the dog whose boss” has always escaped me. And CM….ugh. Just ugh.

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