Veterinary Hospital Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Jardines de San Mateo; Private Practice in Small Animal Behavior, Naucalpan, Mexico
Classification of aggression can vary according to a combination of eliciting stimuli: Context, function, motivation, behavioral sequences.(1,2) It is the most frequent cause for behavioral consultations in Mexico city because it's implications for public health issues.(1) The majority of problems that arise between dog and owners are due to social conflicts between both species.(2) In order to prevent and control competitive aggressive behavior to owners, veterinarians must have a proper knowledge of canine social organization and communication.
At the VH UNAM the first phase in the treatment of any aggression problem is to consider all the risk factors to decide if the case could be treated with a minimum safe warrant to the owners.
Avoiding the situations that elicit an aggressive response minimizes danger. Once the competitive aggression towards the owner is diagnosed, the goal for the treatment plan is to train the dog to assume a gradually more submissive position in the family. If the risk analysis is too high euthanasia must be considered.(1,2,3)
The treatment protocol includes different elements:
Neutering in males
The first phase in the treatment of any aggression problem is learning to avoid the situations that elicit an aggressive response; allowing aggressive behavior to occur reinforces the tendency for the dog to act aggressively.(3)
When the dog growls, it is only possible for the person to act in 2 ways: withdraw or confront the dog, in the first case the dog realizes that growling allows the dog to reinforce his dominance. In the second case there is a high risk of getting bitten. Both alternatives are unacceptable, therefore the only possible choice is to avoid both scenarios.(3)
Not touching the dog while eating.
Not punish the dog.
Avoid any situation in which aggression has previously been showed.
Avoid gestures that elicit aggression.
Be consistent with the dog, it is important for the whole family group to interact with the dog using the same rules. Give the dog a reliable way of life making routines that are highly predictable.
Feed the dog after the family, don't give food from the family table.
Avoid rough games like wrestling or tug of war.
Use an obedience training program, obedience training does not solve behavior problems by itself and it should not be used as a substitute for a behavioral treatment, but as a support element.(1,2,3)
Teach the dog to sit and stay using positive reinforcement while relaxing, in a variety of circumstances; this is the foundation for teaching the dog context-specific appropriate behavior; the goal is not to get the dog to sit, sit is just a tool; the goal is teach the dog to relax.(3)
Ignore attention soliciting behaviors and reward submissive and calm behaviors.
Teach the dog to earn a salary for desirable behaviors; here is where obedience is of great help, the goal is to control good things in life, therefore the dog has to defer to the owner in order to have access to everything he wants.(1,3)
Use desensitization and counterconditioning techniques and/or shaping
Use behavioral accessories such as a Gentle leader® and leash to have a better control of the dog. If there is a high risk to teach obedience, habituate the dog to use a basket muzzle first.
Neutering: even though its efficacy is not completely estimated and the simple fact of castrating a dog is not enough to control aggression, in certain situations there is a hormonal influence in the development of certain behaviors such as territorial marking and dominance, therefore is worthwhile to add favorable conditions to the treatment. (1,2). It is contraindicated in bitches unless the aggressive episodes are related to estrous.
No drugs are approved for the treatment of aggression in dogs. Any psychotropic medication can have unexpected results, including increased arousal and disinhibition of aggression.(3) Clients need to be informed that there are no quick fixes for complex behavior and that aggression problems can be controlled and not cured. The use of medications must be considered as a way of complement the behavior modification program and not as the only resource.
The choice of medication or the combination of drugs will be according to the intensity and duration of the problem as well as if there is any anxiety or impulsivity component associated.
The drugs of choice are:
1. Heiblum, M educación continua "actualización en el diagnóstico y tratamiento de problemas de conducta en perros y gatos" UNAM 2001
2. Memorias de etología clínica en el perro y el gato, diplomado de educación continua UNAM-UAB 2002
3. University of Georgia, continuing education courses February 1999 Problems of aggression in dogs