Understanding ritualised aggression in dogs
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Understanding ritualised aggression in dogs

It can be very hard for dog owners to accept that their pooch has a behavioural problem, particularly if that problem is aggression, which can be both unpredictable and dangerous. Members of the public and other dog owners also tend to react badly if they get the impression that a dog has a behavioural problem such as aggression, which means that such problems aren’t talked about as openly as they should be, and this can both worsen existing issues and make it harder for the owners of a dog that can be aggressive to get help and resolve the issue.

However, the image that any given person conjures up in their mind when they think of an aggressive dog can be very variable – to some, a dog that is simply barking might be considered aggressive, whilst to others, aggression means a full-on attack on another dog or person.

This is partially because we use the word “aggression” as a catch-all title to encompass a wide range of different behaviours and actions on the part of the dog, but aggression or aggressive behaviour is much more detailed and complex.

Aggression doesn’t necessarily indicate a loss of control on the part of the dog too – and many behaviours that we commonly associate with canine aggression are actually deliberate and controlled, and despite appearances to the contrary, indicate that the dog in question is in fact deliberately moderating their behaviour to suit the circumstances.

Ritualised aggression is one such example of this, and being able to understand ritualised aggression and how this differs from uncontrolled aggression can help you to get to the bottom of your dog’s behaviours, and resolve undesirable ones.

In this article we will explain what ritualised aggression in dogs is, and how to tell the difference between ritualised aggression and uncontrolled aggression.

Is aggression an abnormal behaviour for dogs?

Aggression is something that we widely think of as an undesirable or taboo trait in dogs, with the ideal being complete compliance without any signs of dissent or negativity in any situation.

However, aggression is a normal and natural emotion in both dogs and people, and something that every dog and person will feel at some point in their life for a certain reason or within a certain situation.

Inappropriate or uncontrolled aggression in dogs is of course undesirable, unpredictable and problematic, but this type of aggressive display is very rare – so rare, in fact, that few of us will ever have witnessed it.

Aggression is an emotion, which can be partially hormonal – such as you may see in two unneutered male dogs that are competing for a mate. Aggression can also be defensive, displayed as part of a fight or flight response, and one of the mot common causes of canine aggression is actually fear.

Different dogs react to different types of threats or stimulus in different ways, and even across dogs that display aggressive reactions, the type of aggression shown can be very different from dog to dog.

What is ritualised aggression?

Ritualised aggression is a set of behaviours that dogs can display and deliberately moderate as appropriate to the situation in question. It is a way of letting another dog, person, or other type of threat know that the dog is annoyed, feels threatened or is delivering a warning, performed with the intent of causing the other party to back off.

A dog that patrols the borders of their garden and barks and makes a fuss at the fence if someone approaches is displaying ritualised aggression, or a warning that things might escalate if the threat the dog perceives remains or tries to enter their territory. You are particularly likely to witness this at home if your dog is from a breed that has strong watchdog or guard dog tendencies, like many German shepherds and Rottweilers.

Dogs at a dog park that are having a difference of opinion over something may also display ritualised aggression, to check and curb the other dog’s behaviour firmly and clearly.

The core concept of ritualised aggression is that the dog is delivering a warning – they are saying “I don’t want to hurt you, but I am prepared to consider doing so if you carry on.” Whether or not the dog follows through on this promise and how they do it can vary.

One thing that virtually all displays of ritualised aggression have in common is that they tend to be loud and obvious. The dog will probably bark a lot and bare their teeth, and they might also raise their hackles and stand side-on to the threat to make themselves appear larger and more imposing.

Most people who consider their dogs to be aggressive will find that their dogs are actually displaying ritualised aggression. This may well be inappropriate to the situation itself, but the key thing to bear in mind is that the dog retains a level of control over their behaviour, and despite their actions, they are trying to communicate a message rather than cause harm, even if they do ultimately do so.

How does ritualised aggression differ from uncontrolled aggression?

The formal explanation of the various different types of aggression that dogs can feel and exhibit are varied and numerous, but few of them are fully uncontrolled. Even a dog that bites another dog or person usually has a degree of control in what they are doing. This control is what enables them to bite without exerting the full power of their jaws, or causes them to release immediately after a bite has been delivered.

Fully uncontrolled aggression is very rare, even in reactive dogs, and is something most dog owners will fortunately never witness. Uncontrolled aggression is exactly what it sounds like – the dog effectively stops moderating or trying to moderate their behaviour and instead attacks or defends themselves as if the threat is life or death, biting without any control or moderation.

The dog is highly unlikely to respond to outside stimulus such as commands or even physical intervention (which is strongly to be avoided due to its inherent risks) and may not even register these things at all.

These types of aggressive attacks are often very serious, and they are also usually lightning fast and often quiet – a dog that is barking and growling has yet to reach the point of uncontrolled aggression, and may never do so.

It is this type of aggression that is the most dangerous and unpredictable, and that which poses the greatest threat to other people and dogs.

However, uncontrolled aggression can also be defensive, just as ritualised aggression can be, if the dog has been attacked or feels incredibly threatened, and potentially any dog may react in this way when the stakes are very high.

When you can tell the difference between ritualised aggression and uncontrolled aggression, you will develop a better understanding of dogs as a whole, and be better able to interpret and manage their behaviours.

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