It is also the behaviour problem where you can find a whole host of (usually self-proclaimed) ‘experts' giving all kinds of advice, including recommending some very aversive - and sometimes dangerous - techniques.
By looking at canine aggression towards humans from a more emotion-based perspective we can understand it better, be able to prevent it, and have a much more effective and humane idea of how to treat so-called aggressive dogs.
But first of all, we need to stop talking about ‘aggressive dogs' because using that kind of tabloid terminology leads to mismanagement. If you think of a dog as being ‘aggressive', the logical progression is to feel that you can do anything you want to change the behaviour of this ‘evil beast'; the end justifies the means. And we can see this on TV programmes where it is all about conflict and drama rather than about appropriate and lasting behaviour modification.
Instead think about such dogs as sometimes behaving in an aggressive way. The aggression is a symptom - it isn't a character trait - so it isn't about what a dog is, but how he is behaving in that moment. I am sure you are not an aggressive person but I don't suppose you'll have to think too hard to remember a time when you behaved in an aggressive way as a result of how events or people left you feeling.
Like all behaviours, aggression is a symptom of an emotion. Every single thing you do, every interaction you have, your every response to any situation, is dictated by how you feel. And the stronger the emotion, the stronger the expression of that emotion.
With dogs it is no different, and we need to remember this whenever we are dealing with behaviour, including aggression. Aggression is simply an extreme reaction to an extreme emotion. And, in the dog's mind, it is always justified even if we don't see it. We can't stop the aggression without changing that emotion. Some trainers will recommend all kinds of aversive techniques to stop the aggression but unless you change the emotion, all you have done is inhibit the symptoms, which can be dangerous in the long term.
The emotions that drive aggression, or certainly where most aggression has its origins, are fear and frustration, but mostly fear - of attack, of someone or something strange, of a strange situation, of losing a valued resource, or as a way of stopping something they fear (or in some cases something they have learned to dislike because they have found it to be unpleasant or painful).
These fears come from either never having learned that things are ‘safe' in the unique and very early period (five to seven weeks) when puppies are accepting of new things and novel stimuli, a lack of ongoing socialisation, or having learned through experience that some things or some people are scary or potentially dangerous.
When it comes to frustration, this is generally seen in dogs who haven't had a good upbringing (so haven't learned in their first few weeks of life how to manage frustration) or have been brought up in a way that causes frustration. Lack of exercise and an inability to do the things their breed and type is hard-wired to need can also give rise to frustration (the Border Collie who gets no exercise for example), as can extreme arousal.
Fear, however, is the big one. Not all dogs who bite regularly are fearful but in most cases, it was fear that led them to using aggression as a coping strategy to make the scary stuff go away. This reaction is reinforced by its effectiveness, and so they carry on, all the while getting better at it.
Fear is what leads under-socialised dogs to bite people who look strange, different, threatening, or just unknown. It leads dogs who haven't been taught that handling is a positive thing to bite through fear, pain, or dislike of being handled, or through the fear of being in a strange situation and having no way to get out of it (dogs always need an escape route), or being stressed and afraid.
Many fears or combinations of fears can lead to a dog biting. And once the dog discovers that biting makes their fears go away, they are more likely to resort to it again. In learning theory terms, the relief a dog feels when scary stuff stops (and generally when a dog bites, it does stop) is negative reinforcement - and any time a behaviour is reinforced, it is much more likely to be repeated. Again, that reinforcement comes from an emotion, but now it is relief. If you have ever been scared or in pain and that suddenly goes away, you will know just how powerful an emotion relief is, and why you would do pretty much anything that gives you that relief.
Generally though, dogs do not want to bite. Aggression is a bad strategy for a dog and so dogs are the ultimate negotiators. They have lots of ways to deflect and handle stressful situations without getting toothy. Fighting could and often does, in an evolutionary sense, lead to death.
Read the signs
Before aggression becomes an established way of dealing with a situation, there are always warning signs. We need to learn to read those signs and prevent bites before they become a dog's coping strategy. As with all problems, prevention is easy, cure is hard.
There isn't just ‘aggression' and ‘non aggression' and nothing in between. While there are certain breeds who have been established to show little to no arousal, and others who arouse quickly, there are always warnings.
Dogs give some very clear signals when they are feeling uncomfortable, it's just that we aren't very good at reading them. Children are even worse. Young children do not develop empathy for other humans before the age of about three, and they are a lot older before they are skilled in this area (and even older still before they can apply this to another species). That is why it is children who are often the victims of dog bites. Humans are a verbal species; we communicate with each other vocally. Many people do not recognise that a dog is feeling uncomfortable enough to bite until he gets to the point of saying something - in other words growling. And at that point, it may well be far too late.
Not all dogs show all of these signs, but if you see any of these, the dog is probably starting to tell you, loudly and clearly in his way, that he isn't comfortable and he would really like you (or the situation he is in) to go away.
The early stages are yawning, blinking, and lip or nose licking and turning the head away. These are very low-level indicators that the dog isn't comfortable. This is all still in the realms of social politeness. However if these signals are ignored, the dog will move on to turning his body away and if possible walking away.
Then you may see more obvious body language, such as low creeping, often with the ears back, or standing crouched with the tail tucked underneath the body, then possibly lying down stiffly, or lifting a leg.
Then we start to get on to some very strong signals indeed: standing stiff, staring, whale eye, non-blinking. The next step is growling (see how far down the line vocalising is) and possibly snapping.
And then we get a bite. And at the point when the dog bites, in his mind he has given us countless warnings that he is feeling uncomfortable, and he is left with no choice. Even worse, we have taught him that we won't listen to him until he bites - and so he is more likely to bite earlier next time.
We need to know enough to never push dogs this far or to bail them out long before they get to this point. Better still, teach the dog that all these things aren't scary, unpleasant, or dangerous - and are actually enjoyable, fun, and rewarding.
Sometimes however we are not very good at helping our dogs feel safe. You only have to look at Facebook and see lots of photos of people (generally children) hugging dogs who are obviously hating every second of it to know that we are not good at reading our dogs' emotions, or hearing them when they tell us loud and clear they are uncomfortable. It is surprising that more people don't get bitten and that is testament to dogs' good characters.
Thankfully with good management and rearing of dogs, we have all the tools we need to be able to prevent the fears that can lead to aggression.
First of all, the best way to prevent aggression in dogs is breeding and rearing them properly. This should include some kind of appropriate socialisation, habituation, and early education programme, such as The Puppy Plan, which should start from the very first few days of a puppy's life. The Puppy Plan is designed to help prevent all the behaviour problems that arise from fear (and frustration), and aggression is the big one. Find out more at www.thepuppyplan.com This kind of plan will ensure the puppy gets used to all kinds of people, other dogs, and strange situations in safety, and learns that they are positive, and things to look forward to. The same goes with handling, grooming, restraint, and any of the situations that can make a dog who hasn't had these early learning experiences feel uncomfortable. And they will learn how to deal with the inevitable frustrations in life.
Then as the dog grows up and goes to his new home (and this is the same for older dogs), he should continue his socialisation and education, meeting strange people in strange environments, always being able to trust that his interactions with people are going to be positive and rewarding for him, and so with no need to resort to taking matters into his own teeth. The key word is ‘positive' - he needs to learn that people are safe and good to be around. The plan also teaches owners how to interact with their dogs to prevent problems.
We have to be our dogs' protectors and make sure that our children, families, and acquaintances all treat our dogs with respect, and not allow them, for one moment, to consider that people are scary or cause dogs pain or distress.