Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=124687
Story Retrieval Date: 5/24/2013 11:10:16 AM CST
Some people think sterilizing your pet is the solution to dog aggression.
14th Ward Ald. Edward M. Burke renewed a controversial proposal last week that will fine pet owners $100 per month if they do not neuter or spay their pets before they turn 6 months old. Burke believes the proposal will curb Chicago’s animal overpopulation, as well as aggression in dogs, which he said has resulted in the city’s numerous dog attacks. As of last Thursday, the vote to approve the law was postponed indefinitely.
But veterinarians say that aggression is caused by factors beyond reproductive status.
“There are advantages in terms of reduced population problems, reduced incidence of some reproductive-related cancers and some behavioral benefits,” said veterinarian John Ciribassi of the Veterinary Specialty Center in Buffalo Grove. “Beyond these effects, there is little association between neutering and the expression of canine behavior.”
Other factors may cause aggression. According to Ciribassi, it may simply be genetics. “Anxiety and fear can be an overriding influence in dogs developing the use of natural aggressive behaviors to manage situations in which they feel anxious or fearful,” he said.
The dog’s sex may even be a factor.
Some studies have shown a decrease in aggression among male neutered dogs, but veterinarian Meghan Herron from the Penn’s School of Veterinary of Medicine said some studies suggest spayed females may have a higher incidence of aggression. “We need more information to give a definitive answer,” she said.
Still, owners can shape the way their pets behave. “The majority of bites occur towards young children from dogs in their own households,” Ciribassi said. Besides neutering, here are other ways to control your pet.
• Observe all leash laws. “They are there to prevent unattended dogs from pursuing and using aggression towards other people and animals,” Ciribassi said. “An inexpensive leash does much more good than laws costing governmental bodies hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
• Don’t leave dogs unattended or tethered in the yard. "[This] increases the degree of frustration of the dog towards human[s] and dog traffic passing within close proximity of their space," he said. "When there is an opportunity for the animal to get loose from the enclosure there is a higher likelihood of this territoriality turning to aggressive behavior."
• Avoid dog parks. “Off-leash dog parks should only be utilized by dogs that are social and comfortable around strangers and unfamiliar dogs.”
• Work on front door training. Teaching the dog to sit a comfortable distance from the front door when visitors arrive since aggression at the front door is a common area of concern.
It’s important to start behavior training early, Ciribassi said. Here are tips for pet owners who have puppies that may prevent behavior problems later in life.
• A puppy should be left with its litter for 6-8 weeks to allow normal exposure to other dogs which should help minimize fear of other dogs
• Enroll your puppy in a socialization class between 8-10 weeks of age. The primary window of socialization is 6-14 weeks of age, he said.
• Have neutering done between 4-6 months of age
• Enroll in an obedience program at around 6 months of age. “This program should focus on positive reinforcement based training,” he said. “Don’t utilize a program that makes use of choke collars, pinch collars, shock collars and forceful leash corrections for training.”
While neutering and spaying, especially done early in pets, is recommended, it may come with disadvantages. Studies have showed such health problems as an increased incidence of urinary bladder inflammations, hip arthritis, and noise phobia.
But the benefits outweigh the risks, Ciribassi said. Benefits include decreased obesity, separation anxiety, roaming and fear-based urinary accidents.
“Overall it’s a warranted procedure for most pets,” he said. “However, the decision to have a pet neutered should be left up to the pet owner and the veterinarian.”
Is Fido being aggressive? Don’t blame the dog – you might have to blame yourself.
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.
“[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.