A Basic Outlook on K9 Aggression
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By Will Rivers

When the subject of an aggressive dog comes about, many think of the canine that acts like “Cujo”.  In reality this is only the tip of the iceberg, when it comes to reading and managing canine aggression.  Not too long ago a friend and I were walking down the road and passed a dog running inside a fenced in yard.  The dog came to the fence and started barking.  Immediately my friend says, “That dog is pretty aggressive, glad he’s in a fence”.  That was fine for him to think that because he did not have to deal with the dog and there was no likelihood for disaster. 

            What about the canine trainer who has to deal with dogs that he doesn’t know?  The point I am trying to make is this, reading and managing canine aggression is a skill that must be studied and practiced.  The dog that was in the fence just wanted to play.  What my friend failed to recognize were the other signs the dog was showing.  Yes the dog was barking, but it was a high pitched, repetitive bark.  The dog’s tail was held high, his body stood tall, and his ears were straight up, which told me he was not a fearful dog, but his overall appearance was joyful.  Not to mention when he ran up to the fence he had his tennis ball in his mouth and dropped it at the fence.   

            Many self-proclaimed “dog gurus” will argue two different theories concerning what canine behavior is.  Some will argue that animals learn everything, and some say that animals know what to do by instinct.  Many fail to take into consideration a different way to explain animal behavior.  The history of Ethology suggests that a lot of an animal’s behavior is innate and performed by instinct.  Ethologists will argue that all new behavior comes from maturation or imprinting. 

            In 1973, Konrad Lorenz, Nikolaas Tinbergen, and Karl Von Frisch shared the Nobel Prize in medicine for their studies of Ethology.  The three discovered four strategies by which the genes program behavior: sign-stimuli (releasers), motor programs, motivation or drives, and learning, which included imprinting. 

            Sign Stimuli (releasers) are signals that allow an animal to recognize a vital item, or another living creature when encountered for the first time.  An example of sign stimuli would be a cat low crawling after a bird for the first time.  Self-preservation is what compelled the cat to seek the food.  Sign stimuli is what enabled the cat recognize the bird as the vital item for self-preservation. 

            Motor programs provide an explanation of another type of behavior.  In the world of neuroscience a motor program is also referred to as a motor pathway.  The motor cortex is the portion of the brain that controls movement.  Anytime a movement occurs such as ears moving up and down, lips being pulled back or eyes moving it is a result of the nerves receiving signals from the motor cortex.  This in return causes the muscles to react accordingly. 

            The motor cortex knows how and when to send these specific signals by muscle memory (also known as automatic muscle memory).  When a fetus is in the womb, genetics are passed from the parents to the brain of the fetus.  Included in those genes are the most important memories (muscle memories) needed for survival.  These memories will be firmly written in the brain and ensures that any movement due to fear, hunger, sex, aggression, etc. is written on the motor memory pathway. 

            In order for the species to adapt and survive change, the motor cortex has to be able to change these motor memories, therefore, the motor programs may be added to.  Each time an animal encounters a situation where a physical action is needed; the brain opens that specific motor memory action and causes the animal to perform the action.  Everything that the animal senses while that motor memory is being carried out is then recorded to that motor program.  Then whenever the animal encounters something that is remotely similar to that experience, that specific motor memory will open and cause the motor cortex to send a signal to the nerves and the nerves will send a signal to the muscles to move the body. 

            Fear and aggression are emotions and emotional reactions are turned into physical reactions by the limbic system.  When something enters the brain through the senses and it is not picked up by a motor memory it goes to the limbic system for processing.  The limbic system will then ask the motor cortex to carry out a specific physical action.  Once the physical action is complete, the motor cortex will search the “files” to see if the request from the limbic system is in anyway the same as a motor memory that has been genetically written by the motor cortex.

            If anything similar is found by the motor cortex, it will link the request of the limbic system to that specific motor program.  The portion that is linked to the motor program is referred to as a learned pattern.  If nothing similar is found, the next time the animal encounters the same situation there will be no link to a motor program and the limbic system will have to process it again. 

            In an attempt to give an example I will use the teaching I received from Chris Aycock.  A canine is born with a genetically formed motor program to bite, but that motor program is not necessarily a memory of biting a human.  When a human presents a threat, the canine flips to fear-aggression and bites the human.  Since fear or aggression is an emotion the physical action of the dog biting the human was caused by the limbic system requesting that action from the motor cortex.  Now that the physical action has taken place the motor cortex checks the “files” and sees a motor program containing the act of biting, so the motor cortex links the biting of a human to the motor program for biting.  We now have a modified motor program and the next time the canine perceives anything similar to what has just taken place, this motor pattern opens and the dog does what is a now natural, bite.


            Fear is defined as a feeling of agitation and anxiety caused by the presence or imminence of danger.  A state marked by this feeling.  Reverence or awe, as towards a deity.  A reason for dread or apprehension.

            Fear should not be looked upon as only being scared.  Fear can also be agitation or dismay.  As canine trainers it is important to recognize the look of agitation in the canine.  Fear is always connected to submission.  An important note is “if the submissive individual becomes self-assured then submission will give way to dominance and fear disappears” (Roger Abrantes, 1997).  There are places that you want the canine to experience no fear, those being the place where the dog rests and the training grounds.  That is why when my canine and I are home, we are home, and we don’t work.  Home is a place of fun for my canine.  When training you want to be able to control as much as possible eliminating as much fear as you can. 

            Dogs communicate through body language and do so very well.  Fear can be recognized through various behavior patterns.  Facial and body language express fear.  Small eyes, retracted lips, flat forehead, and the ears laid back are all signs of fear.  In the eyes you may see them to be narrowed, have an averted gaze, or blinking.  The ears will be totally flattened or flickering.  The hairs along the back that are often raised when a dog is taken by surprise are referred to as the hackles. 

            Raised hackles can be a sign of fear/submission.  A canine raises its hackles in an attempt to appear larger and frighten the opponent.  A dominant/self-assured dog will automatically show body language of strength and will probably not have the need to raise the hackles.  Neck position should be observed as well.  A canine that turns his head to the side exposing the neck and not looking the opponent in the eye while cringing shows fear/submission.  


            Aggression is defined as the initiation of unprovoked hostilities.  The launching of attacks.  Hostile behavior.

            Being aggressive and showing aggressive behavior are two different things.  The difference is showing unprovoked aggressive behavior and retaliation after being provoked.  You may see competitive aggression when two different species are competing for the same resources like food and water.  Defensive aggression can be viewed by an animal under attack.  This can be viewed as a sort of retaliation.  Aggression is always defensive in one sense or another.  A canine can display aggressive-submissive behavior.  When submission is not accepted and flight is not possible, the canine will fight back.

Dominance and Submission:

            Dominance is defined as the exercise of most influence or control.  Most prominent.  Dominance is supremacy, ascendancy, pre-eminency.

            When dealing with situation here and now we refer to social-aggression and social-fear.  The object of social-aggression is to show the most influence or control.  That is why we call it dominance.  On the other hand, social-fear looks at resolving a threatening situation by surrendering.  That is why we call it submission. 

            Submission is defined as yielding or surrendering oneself to the will or authority of another.  To allow oneself to be subjected to something.  Submission means: surrender, concession, giving in.       

            Submission is always related to fear and dominance to aggression.  The signs of submission will look the same as those of fear.

·      Lowered ears, maybe completely flattened

·      Drawn back lips not showing teeth

·      Small, elongated eyes, blinking

·      Flattened forehead

·      Cringing or fawning

·      Lowered tail possibly between the legs

Dominant signs will appear as follows:

·      Large, confident body posture

·      Raised head and ears

·      Large eyes, often staring and curled lips

·      Tail held high

A dominant dog, when snarling its lips will be drawn forward and you may only be able to see the teeth from the K-9s forward.  When a canine snarls and the lips are drawn back that is a sign of submission (may be able to see all teeth).    The snarl should be confirmed with other signs such as the ears or eyes.  The snarl should never be confused with the smile, which is a sign of friendliness. 

            Now that you have the signs of the four great motivational factors (fear/submission, aggression/dominance), think about this.  There may be some things that you may want to avoid when conducting your training.  What do you think might happen if you stare into the eyes of an aggressive-dominant dog?  The canine will view that as a challenge, because staring is a sign of dominance.  When a canine wants to show aggression, he may snarl and show its teeth.  What are you doing when you are laughing and smiling big?  Showing your teeth.  Your child may show signs of affections by hugging.  What is the canine thinking when your child hugs it around the neck?  The canine may see that as a sign of aggression and thinks your child is trying to dominant him/her.  The best way to avoid disaster is to not allow these situations to occur.  The best rule to have is never allow the canine to interact with family.    

            With that said, timing is everything in the world of canine training.  Timing can be broken down into two categories, Augmented and Rote-Rehearsal.  To get the most out of your training and development both categories must be studied with the utmost focus.  As a matter of fact, all problems encountered while conducting the troubleshooting process for canine can be created and/or corrected within Augmented and Rote-Rehearsal Timing. 

Augmented Timing:

            This category is often viewed as the planning stage of training, but should be way more involved than just planning.  This takes place away from the canine and should include your thoughts on what will take place during the training, what the reaction will be from the canine and how you will deal with that reaction.  After the training session you should go back and compare what took place with what you intended on taking place and plan how you may do things differently to obtain the results you are looking for. 

Rote-Rehearsal Timing:

            This category addresses what is needed for on the spot decisions, both mentally and physically.  This is equally as important as Augmented Timing.  It involves things that can be seen, such as, when the trainer moves a certain way it causes a reaction from the canine. It involves handling mistakes and correct decisions, which are instant and your reactions cause new actions and reactions from the canine. 

            Any physical action from the canine is a response to a thought beforehand.  The physical action will usually present itself as a sign about 30 seconds before the actual physical movement.  Timing should be thought of as 30/10 seconds prior to the event and 10/30 seconds after the event. 


30 seconds prior to physical action:

            While you are conducting vehicle narcotics training you notice a change in body language from the canine.  You know that in 30 seconds one of two things will happen, the canine will shut down and stop searching or will false in an attempt to get the reward.        

10 seconds prior to physical action:

            You prepare for the action by moving to a clean vehicle.  As you round the driver’s side the canine slows and begins to position his feet to sit.  At that moment the trainer is able to issue a correction and stop the behavior before it is finished. 

            However, as you practice and master the skills of reading the signs, you can use it to prevent the behavior in the first place.  When you saw the signs you did not necessarily have to move to a clean vehicle.  You could have sped up or taken the dog directly to the source so that he could be rewarded.  By doing this the canine is taught that the feeling of frustration was not needed, because he would get rewarded sooner that he thought. 

10 seconds after physical action:

            When the animal makes the action it will either readjust itself to what has just taken place or try and create a new event as payback for the event that has just taken place.


            The canine is dominant and does not like the fact that he has just been corrected.  The canine is thinking that he is in charge and he cannot be dominated.  The facial expression immediately turns to anger and the trainer prepares for the canine to retaliate.


            The canine has been corrected and sees that the best response to what has just taken place is to hurry up and find the source so it can be rewarded.  The canine relaxes and begins a diligent search for the source of the odor. 

30 seconds after physical action:

            After the event the canine will process what has just taken place and make the decision as to what the best solution for the situation at hand.        


            The canine was corrected at the 0 mark.  The dog bites the trainers pocket at the 10 second after mark, ripped the pocket and got his Kong.  At the 30 second after mark the canine has his reward and the trainer is very angry.  The canine sees the anger in the trainer and has the reward, which triggers a release of dopamine.  This reinforces the behavior and dominant feeling in the canine. 


            The canine was corrected at the 0 mark.  The dog was cautious at the 10 after mark in fear of getting another correction.  The trainer continues to yell at the dog; therefore, at the 30 seconds after mark the dog has flipped drives and is now in defensive drive.  The trainer turns away to write something down and the canine runs away.  This really makes the trainer mad and he is steaming.  The canine processes what has just taken place and files the look of the trainer, his voice, and facial expression.  The dog notes the human to be aggressive-dominant and he should be avoided.  ‘

            This could have been avoided by the example of speeding up or taking the dog directly to the source for his reward.  At the 30 seconds after mark the dog would have viewed the trainer as someone that was trying to help him rather than trick him or dominate him.  The dog would have seen that the trainer was just as happy as he was and would have felt like part of the pack. 

Use Augmentation to train the dog:

            The best way to manage aggression is to divert the canine’s energy to something different.  This must be done carefully, because if the dog is acting dominant and you divert its attention to the reward he will consider you submissive and will show the aggression faster the next time.  In essence you must use this strategy as an augmented plan, ahead of the aggression.  By doing this you will be avoiding the aggression by making certain the entire training event is based on positive reinforcement for positive behavior.  The training sessions should be brief and extremely high energy.  Do not lollygag around or go in without a plan.  Get in and get out.  If the canine is not cooperating it should be kenneled without a reward.  This behavior should be monitor and after several attempts if the canine does not participate it should be washed from the program for being too aggressive.

Always protect yourself

            If you are attacked by a dog, reading the signs of aggression should be the last thing on your mind.  It does not matter what signs the dog is displaying, what matters is that you can get out of the situation.  When I am training my police canine I use several different types of tools, depending on the situation at hand.  When doing obedience work I use a standard obedience lead, which only has a bolt snap that connects to the dog’s collar.  When doing agitation work I use an agitation collar, but always keep the chain collar on for purpose of control. 








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