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Aggressive Behavior In Dogs: A Comprehensive Technical Manual for Professionals, 3rd Edition

Aggressive Behavior In Dogs: A Comprehensive Technical Manual for Professionals, 3rd Edition

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Aggressive Behavior In Dogs: A Comprehensive Technical Manual for Professionals, 3rd Edition

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Lançado em:
Nov 17, 2017


Aggressive Behavior in Dogs is a comprehensive technical manual, written for animal behavior professionals. It outlines why dogs aggress, how technologists can manage aggressive behavior cases from initial contact through the functional behavioral assessment process, establishing behavior objectives, designing and implementing a systematic contingency management plan and working toward resolution from a behavioral orientation. Although the content relates to dogs, it could be applied to various species of companion animals. The third edition has been completely revamped and updated.

Lançado em:
Nov 17, 2017

Sobre o autor

James O’Heare earned his Doctoral Certificate in Behaviorology from The International Behaviorology Institute and is a practicing behaviorologist. He has been an helping companion animal owners resolve problem behaviors since the 1990s and has writing about and teaching behaviorology for over 16 years.

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Aggressive Behavior In Dogs - James O'Heare

Aggressive Behavior in Dogs

James O’Heate

3rd Edition

BehaveTech Publishing

Ottawa Canada

Copyright © 2017 by James O’Heare. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by an information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.

Title: Aggressive Behavior in Dogs: 3rd edition

Publisher: BehaveTech Publishing, Ottawa Canada.


Author: James O’Heare

Cover art and book design: James O’Heare

Illustrator: Jaq Bunn

Limits of Liability and Disclaimer of Warranty:

The author shall not be liable in the event of incidental or consequential damages or loss in connection with, or arising out of the furnishing, performance, or use of the instructions or suggestions contained in this book. This book provides information of a general nature. Working with dogs can be risky.

ISBN 978-1-927744-16-1

I dedicate this book to all of the nonhuman animals who are brutalized by speciesist humans.










Risk Factors for Dog–Human Aggressive Behavior

Risk Factors for Dog–Dog Aggressive Behaviors


Roles and Perspectives of Technologists and Clients

The Behavior of Guardians of Dogs who Exhibit Aggressive Behaviors

Case Management

The Consult Sessions

Equipment and Supplies

Liability Issues

Guardian Liability

Technologist Liability


Introduction to Verbal Behavior

Prompting Productive Verbal Behavior

General Strategy for Training Humans

Establish Objective

Describe, Explain, and Demonstrate

Assess Proficiency





What is Aggressive Behavior?

Why Do Dogs Exhibit Aggressive Behavior?

Aggressive Behavior Categories

Aggressive Behaviors Generalize… and Fast!

Social Behaviors

What is Social Behavior?

Communication, Interpreting Body Language, and other Nonproductive Lines of Inquiry

Real Behavior versus Traits and Drives

Species-Typical Social Behaviors

Topography of Behavior is not Function of Behavior

Categorizing Species-Typical Social Behaviors

0. Socially Neutral

1. Approach Enhancing (Affiliative)

Play Behavior

Less Aroused Affiliative Behaviors

Ambivalent Approach vs. Escape (Appeasement) or Flight Behavior

2. Escape (Appeasement or Flight)

Appeasement or Flight Behaviors

Passive Appeasement Behavior

Active Appeasement Behavior

Flight (not strictly a social behavior)

Ambivalent Aggressive vs. Appeasement or Flight

3 Aggressive

Ambivalent Affiliative vs. Aggressive Behaviors

Competing Concurrent Social Contingencies

Greeting Behavior

How to React to Aggressive Behaviors

Problematic Human Behaviors




Definition and History

Philosophy of Natural Science

Natural Science

Radical Behaviorism

Modes of Causation

Selection by Consequences

Behavior Analysis


Medical Paradigm

Environment–Behavior Functional Relations

Behavior, Stimulation, and Functional Relations


Categories of Behavior

Operant versus Respondent Behavior


Functional Relations and Contingencies

Structure of Operant Contingencies

Respondent Contingencies



Effects of Conditioning on Behavior

Why Do Reinforcers Function as Such?

Contingency Analyses

Depicting Contingencies

Analyzing Episodes of Behavior

Component Contingencies in the Three-Term Contingency

Externalizing Contingencies

Increasing Complexity in Accounting for Behavior

Operant Conditioning

Postcedent Principles, Processes, and Procedures

Law of Effect

Foundational Terms and Categories


Added Reinforcement

Subtracted Reinforcement

Some Potentially Confusing Distinctions


Added Punishment

Subtracted Punishment


Variables Influencing Effectiveness of Reinforcement



Motivating Operations

Variables Influencing the Effectiveness of Punishment




A Note on the Rationale for Using Punishment Effectively

Antecedent Principles, Processes, and Procedures

Stimulus Control

Terms and Relations

Generalization and Discrimination Training



Transferring Stimulus Control


Function-Altering Stimuli

Motivating Operations

Terms, Processes, and Distinctions

Differentiating Between Motivating Operations and Evocative Stimuli

Differentiating Between Motivating Operations and Other Function-Altering Stimuli

Elicitation of Emotional Arousal as Motivating Operations

Other Function-altering Stimuli

Depicting Function-altering Stimuli in Contingency Analyses

Schedules of Added Reinforcement

Simple Schedules of Added Reinforcement

Continuous Reinforcement


Intermittent Reinforcement

Fixed Ratio Schedule of Added Reinforcement

Variable Ratio Schedule of Added Reinforcement

Fixed Interval Schedule of Added Reinforcement

Variable Interval Schedule of Added Reinforcement

Fixed Duration Schedule of Added Reinforcement

Variable Duration Schedule of Added Reinforcement

Schedule Extensions

Limited Hold

Compound Schedules of Reinforcement

Differential Reinforcement

Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior

Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior

Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior

Differential Reinforcement of Successive Approximations of a Terminal Behavior (Shaping)

Respondent Conditioning

Terms, Principles, and Processes

Other Respondent Processes

The Importance of Respondent Conditioning



Domestic Dog Development

Prenatal Period (Before Birth)

Neonatal Period (Birth to 2 Weeks)

Transitional Period (2–3 Weeks)

Socialization Period (2.5–3 to 9–13 Weeks, Peaking at 6–8 Weeks)

Juvenile Period (12 Weeks to 6 Months)

Adulthood (6 months to Variable)

Seniorhood (variable onset)

Conclusions Drawn from Scott and Fuller (1965)

Socialization and Beyond

Basic Socialization Program

The Program

7–12 Weeks of Age

12–16 Weeks of Age

16 Weeks to 1 Year of Age

1 Year of Age On (Adulthood and Seniorhood)

Practices to Prevent Aggressive Behavior

Basic Principles of Prevention

Early Recognition and Intervention

Bite Inhibition Training

Management of Child–Dog Interactions

Never Tie Out a Dog

Avoid Aversive Stimulation

Puppy Kindergarten Classes


NILIF, Leadership and Dominance? Forget it! Just Train the Dog

Possession Sharing

Handling Exercises

Food Bowl Exercises





Explanatory Fictions

Some Ethical Considerations in Assessment

Functional Behavioral Assessment


Functional Assessment Interview

Contingency Analysis

Defining the Target Behavior

Target versus Replacement Behaviors

Criteria for Target Behavior Definition

Functional versus Topographic Target Behavior Definitions

Labeling Target Behaviors

Concluding Remarks

Direct Observation


To Preclude or not to Preclude—Weighing the Benefits and Risks

Observing the Behavior Directly

Measuring Behavior

Measures of Behavior


Rate of Responding

Relative Frequency



Choosing Among Measures of Behavior

Measurement Systems

ABC Analysis

Event Recording

Partial Interval Recording

Whole Interval Recording

Selecting a Measurement System

Quantitative Methods in Tracking the Target Behavior

Clarifying Contingency Analyses with ABC Analyses

Establishing a Baseline

Graphical Representations of Data

Functional Analysis

AB Design…

Reversal Design

Guidelines for Engaging in Functional Analyses

Functional Analysis is Not as Difficult as it May Seem

Diagramming the Contingency Analysis

Functional Diagnosis

Socially Mediated Access (SMA)

SMA: Social Interaction

SMA: Tangible Reinforcers

Socially Mediated Escape (SME)

SME: Aversive Social Interaction

SME: Aversive Task

SME: Aversive Physical Stimulation

Multifunctional Behavior


Estimating Challenge

Goals and Expectations

Duration of the Behavior and Schedule of Reinforcement

Severity of Bite

Dog–Human Bite Levels

Dog–Dog Bite Levels





Social Motivating Operations

Children, Elderly, Mobility-Impaired, or Behaviorally/Developmentally Impaired Family Members

Size of Dog

Guardian Resources (Time & Money)

Guardian Commitment & Compliance

Resident Directed Dog–Dog Aggressive Behavior

Technologist Proficiency




Why is the Occurrence of Aversive Stimulation so Pervasive?

Problematic Effects of Aversive Stimulation

Respondent Side-Effects: Aversive Emotional Arousal and Conditioning

Operant Side-effects: Escape Behavior

Clarifying Punishment and its Role in Changing Behavior

Punishment is Less Efficient than Extinction

Some Problems with Effective Punishment

Does Punishment Work?



Avoiding Extremism and Dogmatism

Aversiveness-Ratcheting Strategies

Emphasizing Constructional Added Reinforcement-Based Methods

Why Implement the Constructional Added Reinforcement-Emphasized Behavior Change Strategy?

Strategy for Avoiding versus Banning Aversive Methods and Tools

The Strategy

Box 1. Functional Behavioral Assessment and Behavior Objectives

Box 2. Construct and Implement a Constructional Minimally Aversive +R-emphasized Contingency Management Plan

Box 3. Analysis of Failure: Identify and Resolve the Cause of Inadequate Progress

Box 4. Escalate Efforts to Identify and Resolve Cause of Inadequate Progress

Does Failure Constitute an Unmanageable and Unacceptable Safety Risk?

Box 5. Complete Review and Consider Supplements/Medications

Box 6. Emergency: Consider more Aversive Procedure

Box 7. Euthanasia


Introduction to Constructional Behavior Engineering

What is a Contingency Management Plan / Behavior Change Program?

Contingency Management Plan as Test of Contingency Analysis

Contingency Management Planning as a Comprehensive and Systematic, yet Practical, Scientific Process

The Constructional and Errorless Approaches

Thorndike’s Trial-and-Error Approach

A More Robust Perspective on Shaping

Prompts and Other Antecedent Control

Terrace’s Errorless Discrimination Procedure

Goldiamond’s Constructional Orientation

Shifting Paradigms and the Shaping of the Errorless Conditioning Approach

Application of the Errorless Conditioning Approach

The Graded Errorless Approach

Characteristics of an Effective Contingency Management Plan

Changing the Environment to Change Behavior

Contingency Management Plans are Derived from the Functional Behavioral Assessment Data

Contingency Management Plans Must be Realistic and Flexible

Behavior Engineering Procedures are Consistent with the Principles of Behavior and Empirically Supported Intervention Strategies and Procedures

Contingency Management Plans Make the Target Problem Behavior Irrelevant, and Ineffective

Contingency Management Plan Makes Target Behavior Irrelevant

Contingency Management Plan Makes Target Behavior Ineffective

The Behavior Replacement Strategy


Management Alone

Rehome the Dog


Contingency Management Planning

Second Opinion

Reality Check


Determining Formal Behavior Objectives

Stating the Formal Behavior Objective

Evocative Stimulus

Target Behavior and Replacement Behavior


Tracking Target and Replacement Behaviors

Establishing Behavior Objectives

Example 1. Postal Carrier

Example 2. Biting

Example 3. Cowering


Comprehensive Contingency Management Planning

Antecedent Control Procedures

Evocative Stimulus Control


The Graded Errorless Approach

Function-Altering Stimulus Control

Environment Enrichment

Eliminating Establishing Operations

The Role of Emotional Behaviors in Operant Contingencies

Changing Emotional Behaviors

Respondent Conditioning Based Procedures

Flooding/ Exposure and Response Prevention (Respondent Extinction)

Systematic Desensitization (Respondent Counterconditioning)

A Final Reminder on Respondent Conditioning Procedures and Externalizing Contingencies

Other Function-Altering Tactics

Adjunctive Procedures

Postcedent Control Procedures

Postcedent Behavior Engineering Procedures

Managing the Target Behavior: Preclusion vs. Extinction vs. Chain Interruption

Graded Differential Reinforcement


Traditional versus Broader Perspective on Differential Reinforcement

Differential Reinforcement Procedures

Replacing the Response Class Form (–R) or the Entire Response Class (+R)—Strategy Selection

Addressing Added Reinforcement Maintained Aggressive Behaviors

Addressing Subtracted Reinforcement Maintained Aggressive Behaviors

Graded Differential Added Reinforcement

DR for Socially Mediated Access (SMA) Behaviors Maintained by Added Reinforcement

The Strategy


Constructing a Plan

Implementing the Plan

DR for Socially Mediated Escape Behaviors (Maintained by Subtracted Reinforcement)

The Strategy


Constructing the Plan

Implementing the DR Plan

A Special Note on DRO

Graded Differential Subtracted Reinforcement—Transitioning to Added Reinforcement

The Strategy


Constructing the Plan

Implementing the Plan

Summary of General Components of a Graded Differential Reinforcement Plan

Added Punishment—or, Reasons to Avoid Punishment

Sorting Through the Procedure Choices

Working Toward Maintenance

Generalization Training

Thinning the Schedule of Reinforcement and Introducing Non-Technologist–Mediated Reinforcers

Monitoring and Re-intervening When Necessary

Contingency Management Project: Steps

Producing a Contingency Management Plan Document


Aggressive Behaviors Exhibited when the Dog is on Leash

Aggressive Behaviors Influenced by Pathological Medical or Genetic/Structural Illness or Injury

Aggressive Behaviors Exhibited Toward People Approaching the Home

Aggressive Guarding Behaviors

Food Bowl




Harmful Predatory Behaviors

Dog–Dog Aggressive Behavior

Remediation of Social Behaviors

Vocal Control Training (Chain Interruption)

Social Inexperience

Guarding Reinforcers from Other Dogs

Intrahousehold Dog–Dog Aggressive Behavior

Train Each Dog Individually

Train in Pairs

Train in Groups


Rehabilitation for Response Depression and Increasing General Level of Reinforcement




Exercise and Mood

Nutritional Support

Nutrition and Behavior

Psychopharmacological and Nutritional Supplementation Support

Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors

Fluoxetine (Prozac)

Tricyclic Antidepressants

Amitriptyline (Elavil)

Clomipramine (Clomicalm)

Nutritional Supplements / Pseudomedications

L-Tryptophan (ProQuiet)

5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP)




Aggressive Behavior in Dogs, Third Edition is a comprehensive technical manual for behaviorologists and professional behavior technologists addressing working through cases involving aggressive behaviors exhibited by dogs. It addresses managing aggressive behavior cases, the prevention of aggressive behavior, functional behavioral assessment of aggressive behavior, and the systematic construction and implementation of contingency management plans to resolve them.

Since this is a technical manual, I make use of appropriate terminology. For help with unfamiliar terms, use the Association of Animal Behavior Professionals Glossary at:


The currently titled book Dog Aggression Workbook (likely titled Aggressive Behavior in Dogs—Workbook for the next edition) was written as a complement to this manual, so that professionals can provide clients with reading materials to make their relationship more efficient.


Thank you to my Professor, and now colleague, at The International Behaviorology Institute where I attained my Doctoral Certificate in Behaviorology, Dr. Stephen Ledoux. My behaviorology repertoire expansion experience induces pride related behaviors—a very additively reinforcing experience. I would also like to thank Lawrence Fraley for interesting discussion and inspiration. Finally, thank you to students and faculty at the Companion Animal Sciences Institute, who provide stimulation discussion on a daily basis, which I benefit from greatly. In particular, thank you Bill Weiler and Vernessa Eadie for helping find typos and Kamrin MacKnight for proofreading. Any remaining errors are likely the result of my stubborn declining of what was probably good advice.


1.    What is aggressive behavior, and why do dogs exhibit such behavior?

2.    How can aggressive behavior be prevented?

3.    How can aggressive behavior-related cases be assessed in a systematic way that implies the appropriate resolution strategies?

4.    How can a systematic and scientifically sound contingency management plan be constructed to meet the formal behavior objectives and resolve the problem?

This manual will address these four key questions in detail. First, I would like to provide some broad contextual remarks.

In most western cultures, dogs are now predominantly family members. In a study by Barker and Barker (1984, discussed in Newby, 2001), in which participants were asked to diagram their significant relationships, more than one-third of the participants drew the family dog closer to themselves than any other family member. When a dog is considered a family member, people are prepared to sacrifice time, energy, and other resources to maintain this close familial relationship. In the past, if a dog exhibited behavior that might be characterized as aggressive, he or she might simply be discarded. These days, when dogs behave in an aggressive manner, we are less inclined to simply dispose of them, preferring to expend the resources necessary to resolve the problem. When technologists help clients resolve problematic aggressive behaviors, they are not merely making the client’s life easier or safer—they are intervening to help resolve extremely important family relationships. This is a very important role, which should prompt us to take it extremely seriously.



Part 1 addresses the scope of the aggressive behavior problems as well as the role of the behaviorologist or animal behavior technologist in working with clients whose dogs exhibit such behavior.



Does society really have an aggressive behavior problem with dogs? If so, how big a problem is it? If the problem is, in reality, not as frequent or severe as is commonly believed, why is it seen otherwise? Is the perspective different for society, guardians, and behavior technologists? In this chapter, I examine these questions so that we can proceed with our exploration of aggressive behaviors in dogs in a rational and grounded fashion.

In her book, Dogs Bite: But Balloons and Slippers are More Dangerous, Bradley (2005) provides a critical analysis of statistical and methodological aspects of the most frequently cited studies on the prevalence of dog bites. Many of these studies would have us believe that aggressive behaviors are a major and increasing problem in society. Bradley shows, through her strong analysis of the research, that, far from being a major societal problem, aggressive behavior in dogs has a relatively minor impact in terms of cost and injuries. The mantra of the book is the reality now is that dogs almost never kill people, and they don’t actually bite very often, and when they do, we’re seldom injured, and when we are, it’s seldom serious (p. 30).

So, how dangerous are dogs? According to Bradley’s (2005, p. 15) research, dogs are not as dangerous as front-porch steps, kitchen utensils, five-gallon water buckets, bathtubs, strollers, stoves, lamp cords, coffee-table corners, Christmas trees, balloons, or bedroom slippers. Your chance of being killed by a dog, Bradley explains, is approximately one in 18 million, which means that you are twice as likely to win the Super Lotto jackpot or five times more likely to be killed by a bolt of lightning. In the United States, children under 10 are killed by caregivers approximately 826 times per year, by buckets 22 times per year, by playgrounds 15 times per year, by balloons 11 times per year, and by dogs approximately 10 times per year. Car accidents kill 43,730 people per year, accidental falls kill 14,440, accidental poisoning kills 14,142, and even bicycles kill 774 people per year, compared with dogs, who kill 16 people per year. For injuries, Bradley reports 7,714,167 caused by falls, 3,990,652 by cars, 3,366,270 by overexertion, 909,688 by other bites, and 504,627 by bicycles, compared with a mere 340,784 by dogs. More people are hurt each year by slippers, sneakers, other shoes, tables, chairs, beds, and doors, than by dogs.

And when it comes to severity of dog bites, Bradley (2005) reports that the vast majority (92.4%) cause no actual injury, while 7.5% cause minor injury and a meager 0.076% cause moderate to serious injury. Accidental falls cause far more serious and costly injuries, and, in the domestic animal category, horses cause far more medically treated injuries or deaths than dogs. Even cows cause more deaths than dogs. Taken together, the statistics Bradley present paint a picture of the aggressive behavior problem that is vastly different from many people’s conceptualization. On a given day, being injured or killed by a dog is vastly less probable than dozens of other potential hazards that we rarely, if ever, become concerned about.

Why is there such hype about the growing aggressive behavior problem in dogs, when the reality is that dogs almost never kill people, they don’t typically bite very often, and when they do, we are rarely injured, and when we are, it is rarely a serious injury? A big part of the problem is the sensationalist way in which the popular media cover the rare stories of dog attacks. Much of our perspective on problems in society comes from the way that these problems are presented on TV, in newspapers, and in social media. However, the media rarely get the facts straight on dog attacks and tend to exaggerate or embellish their presentation in a way that suggests that dog attacks are a much greater problem than they really are. Sensationalism sells papers and TV advertisement space. Furthermore, as Bradley’s research has exposed, much of the statistical work on the scope of the dog attack problem is scant, weak, or flawed to the point that it gives us a very misleading, if not completely invalid, impression of the true problem.

Society has bought into a false dichotomy with regard to dog behavior. We expect dogs to act like Lassie, and when they offer even the most innocuous warning, we are shocked and take great personal offense. We expect dogs to be grateful for our taking them in and caring for them, and refuse to accept that they have likes and dislikes, fears and frustrations, and that they absolutely obey the laws of conditioning. Even though humans are far much more violent and aggressive as a species, we expect dogs never to be aggressive. If our dogs exhibit aggressive behavior, the shock and sense of betrayal lead us to fear the aggression problem and attribute more significance to the incident than is rationally justified. In short, we are more the problem than the dog. Put in proper perspective, as Bradley (2005) has done, dogs do (though rarely) bite and injure or kill people, but they are not nearly as significant a risk as slippers or balloons.

At a societal level, the frequency and magnitude of injuries and death caused by dogs are minuscule. From the dog guardian’s perspective, on the other hand, if their dog does develop a tendency to use aggressive behaviors, the guardian is at risk of physical, legal, and psychological harm, and the problem is far from minuscule. In the vast majority of cases, guardians love their companion dogs. Aggressive behavior jeopardizes their reinforcing relationship, and in some cases the behavioral well-being of the guardian. The guardian may have to decide whether to ameliorate the risk by euthanizing the dog, or consider how much effort they are going to be required to devote to changing the behavior. They may confront evidence that their actual values (i.e., reinforcers) differ from their stated values (i.e., verbalizations about reinforcers) regarding their companion dog. Behavior technologists sometimes have the opportunity to help reduce the risks associated with regular contact between people and dogs by advising individuals or groups on prevention practices. In most cases, behavior technologists are called on to consult with clients on how to change the behavior of a dog who has already begun to exhibit aggressive behaviors. In this context, behavior technologists share the perspective of the guardian; aggressive behavior is a serious problem when it directly affects an individual.


In this section, I explore some statistics related to dog bites, because an understanding of the demographics involved can help us understand aggressive behaviors in dogs, and the options for prevention and behavior change. It helps us understand where the real problems exist.

The present state of dog bite research has numerous methodological and statistical problems. In her groundbreaking book, Dogs Bite: But Balloons and Slippers are More Dangerous (2005), and in the Animals and Society Institute’s policy paper Dog Bites: Problems and Solutions (Bradley, 2006), Bradley outlines some of the pervasive problems in this area of research, critiquing specific studies and general approaches to the research.

One problem relates to replication and generalization. To date, only a few studies have addressed questions about dog bites, and these studies are limited in scope or location. The common practice of generalizing the results to larger groups is a poor practice and of low validity. Another problem is the very large confidence intervals of the results from many studies. Confidence intervals express the margin of error: the larger the confidence interval, the greater the statistically plausible range within which the true figure lies. Gilchrist, Gotsch, Annest, and Ryan (2003) identified 799,700 people requiring medical care for dog bites in 2001 in the United States, with a statistically plausible range of 345,039 to 1,168,363. Sosin, Sacks, and Sattin (as cited in Gershman, Sacks, & Wright, 1994) report 585,000 bites in 1991, with a statistically plausible range of 226,000 to 944,000. Bradley (2005) observes how wide these ranges are and hence how unreliable the figures really are. Another prominent problem in dog bite studies is lack of replication; without replication of a study, the validity of the statistics is called into question.

A significant problem with some studies is the identification of breeds involved in bite cases. Many studies rely on guardians or others to identify the breed of the dog. People are notoriously unreliable when it comes to breed identification; even those with experience, such as shelter staff and animal control officers, tend to follow certain unreliable general rules. German Shepherd Dogs, Pit Bulls and Rottweilers are overrepresented in dog bite statistics, compared with their numbers in the general population. It is likely that this partly reflects inaccuracies in breed identification, which lead to these breeds taking the blame for more than their fair share of recorded bites. Generally, any medium-sized, muscular dog with a short, wide muzzle and short fur is considered a Pit Bull, unless it has a black and tan coat, in which case it is considered a Rottweiler or, if the fur is long, a German Shepherd Dog (Bradley, 2005). Each of these breed designations (especially Pit Bull) probably includes more than one actual breed. Furthermore, when there is a bite incident, people probably have a tendency to attribute it to a breed that they believe is more likely to inflict bites (such as the Pit Bull). Once mixed-breed dogs are considered, the reliability of breed identification is reduced even further.

Some prominent studies have involved primary source data collection from newspaper articles. Several fatal dog attacks were not recorded (none of which involved Pit Bull type dogs) and, as a result, Pit Bulls were seriously overrepresented in the findings (Animalfarmfoundation.org, n.d.). This poor sampling procedure results in a non-representative picture of the true relationship between breed and dog attacks. Newspaper articles cannot be considered a reasonable approximation of representativeness because of problems in breed identification and the sensationalist selection pressures applied by editors.

Another important factor influencing breed-specific statistics on aggressive behavior is that the sample or population of dogs involved in fatal attacks, in particular, is so small. To achieve a population large enough to enable valid statistical inferences about breed tendencies would take decades. Because of the short generation time of dogs, breed characteristics can change significantly during this timeframe, making generalizations invalid (Bradley, 2005). Although frequency counts are of interest in their own right, problems arise when broad inferences are made from an extremely small number of incidents.

The bottom line is that making generalizations about breed-specific tendencies towards aggressive behavior based on unreliable breed identification, poor methodology and small samples confounds the results of dog bite studies and renders the information misleading. The purpose of statistics on dog bites is to help us identify particular demographics and other factors that can be useful in devising prevention strategies. However, it is important that the serious statistical limitations of many studies be borne in mind.

Risk Factors for Dog–Human Aggressive Behavior

An understanding of when and how people are bitten by dogs can inform us about risk factors. It can help us appreciate the safety issues related to dogs and aggressive behavior. Here we explore some available data on dog bites. As discussed above, there are significant problems associated with some of the major research projects dealing with dog bites. Therefore, I attempt to draw on sources that are more reliable, to the extent that is possible.

In 1998, the Canadian Hospitals Injury Reporting and Prevention Program (CHIRPP) published the results of an extensive study of dog bite reports in Canada in 1996. It identified 1,237 records, which represented 1% of injuries from all causes reported that year (CHIRPP database, 1999). The data can be summarized briefly as follows. Children between 5 and 9 years of age sustained the highest proportion of the injuries from dog bites (28.5%), although those aged 10–14 years (23.6% of bites) and 2–4 years (22.1% of bites) were also highly represented. Most incidents (65.2%) involved dogs who were either part of the family, part of the extended family or part of a friend’s family. The largest number of bites (35.1%) was associated with a friend’s, acquaintance’s, neighbor’s, or relative’s dog, but many (30.1%) involved the victim’s dog or the family dog. Many bites (34.2%) took place in the person’s own home, and 30.3% occurred in another person’s home. The rest occurred outside the home. Bites were sustained while the person was playing with the dog (17.5%), feeding the dog (18.5%), or hurting or disciplining the dog (13.5%). Most incidents occurred in the evenings (32.7%), on weekends (37.1%), or in the summer (37.7%).

The National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) carried out by the American Centers for Disease Control found 109 nonfatal bite incidents in 2005 per 100,000 people. Slightly more males than females were victims. As in Canada, most injuries were sustained by children 5–9 years old, with the incidence generally decreasing with age (Gilchrist et al., 2003). Most dog bites took place in the summer (Gilchrist et al., 2003).

It would seem from this research that children are the primary target for dog bites or attacks, and, not surprisingly, that the risk increases at times when dogs and people tend to come into contact with each other (evenings, weekends, and summer). Dog bite incidents are often associated with playing with the dog, feeding the dog, or hurting (or disciplining) the dog, and most dogs involved are known dogs. In other words, the greatest risk occurs when family or friends (particularly children) interact with companion dogs.

Karen Delise wrote an interesting book exploring fatal dog attacks in the United States. Delise (2002, p. 14) observes that intact dogs are 2.6 times more likely to bite than neutered dogs, and males are 6.2 times more likely to bite than female dogs. Delise notes that children are vulnerable because they are often unsupervised with dogs, and because they do not correctly interpret or understand the warning indications exhibited by dogs. Furthermore, children behave in a highly animated manner. The flailing and loud, high-pitched sounds that they make may disturb some dogs and stimulate predatory behavior in others. However, it is important to remember that statistics derived from correlations do not indicate a causal relationship. The overrepresentation of males and intact dogs in dog bite statistics does not mean that being intact or male causes greater degree of aggressive behavior. An alternative explanation is that the types of people who would contribute to aggressive behavior problems in their dogs tend to choose male dogs or keep them intact rather than neuter them. This is not necessarily the case, but it illustrates that correlation is not the same as causation. Statistics show us where the problem is more or less frequent, but determining the cause(s) requires true experimental manipulation.

Delise (2002, p. 16) points out that elderly people are also at risk, not because they fail to recognize warning indications, but because they cannot defend themselves or escape a dog attack.

Seventy-six percent of fatal dog attacks in the United States occur on the property of the guardian or within the dog’s territory (Delise, 2002, p. 17). This makes sense, since that is where the dog happens to be most frequently. In fact, the dog is probably on his or her own property more than 76% of the time. This is counterbalanced by the fact that dogs often come into contact with more people when they are off their property. Twenty-five percent of fatal attacks involved chained dogs, 25% involved dogs loose on their property, and 23% occurred in the house (Delise, 2002, p. 17).

One circumstance highly represented in the fatal dog attack statistics involves chained dogs. Delise (2002, p. 23) reports that chained dogs have killed at least 98 people, 92 of whom were children (in the United States, between 1965 and 2001). Not only may children unknown to the dog wander too close, or tease or hurt the dog, but familiar children may simply be in the wrong place—for example, trying to untangle the dog or feed him or her—when the frustration of being chained reaches a reaction threshold. Chaining (and tangling) can significantly increase the likelihood of a dog biting. However, the number of fatal dog attacks by chained dogs, without information on the probability of such attacks, tells us very little. If we knew how many dogs were chained and for how long in a given period, then the number of bites resulting from them would help us decide whether chaining creates a real menace or not. Furthermore, it may, again, tell us more about the guardian than the dog, since causal relationships cannot be derived from correlations. Still, the evidence suggests a relationship between aggressive behavior and chaining.

Data on people killed in their homes by their own dogs suggest that the dogs are often very newly acquired (Delise, 2002, p. 29). The stress of a new environment can make biting more likely. Furthermore, many people seem to be under the impression that, because this new dog is now a member of their family, the dog must automatically feel a family bond. Consequently, families will often allow a new dog, who may have an unknown history, unsupervised access to children. Although injury from dog bites is uncommon (Bradley, 2005), appropriate care should be taken to minimize the risk.

A perhaps surprising finding of Delise’s study (2002, p. 42) is the higher level of risk associated with dog attacks on children younger than 2 months, relative to the risk for other age groups. The frequency of attacks on children younger than 2 months is lower than for children aged 5–9 years, but the result of such an attack is often fatal, rather than merely injurious. Of the 81 infants under 1 year of age identified by Delise, the ages of 73 are known. Of these 73 infants, 53 (72%) were 1 day old to 2 months old! After the age of 2 months, fatal attacks are significantly less likely. Delise suggests that there seems to be a critical introduction phase within the first 2 months of a relationship between a newborn human and a dog. Young infants may also die as a result of the dog simply picking them up by the head and carrying them around, rather than through an attack.

The statistics for the breeds involved in fatal dog attacks cited by Delise (2002) are unreliable because of problems with breed identification and low numbers. Even if breed determinations were accurate and the numbers were high enough, correlations between the breed of dog and dog bite incidence do not prove a causal relationship. Such correlations may tell us more about the person who has adopted, raised, and trained the dog than about the breed alone.

A final safety concern is the use of electronic fences. These work by either shocking the dog or spraying citronella into the dog’s face when the dog approaches a receiver, wanders too far from a transmitter, or crosses a boundary created by buried wires. These devices fail to contain many dogs. If the dog becomes excited or overly stimulated, they may run right through the boundary (Phillips, 2006). When I worked in a shelter, I remember repeatedly seeing the same dogs returning to the shelter wearing electronic fence collars. Also, these fences do not prevent neighborhood children from approaching the dog. The absence of a fence can give children and others, the false impression that a particular dog is friendly (Phillips, 2006). Aversive experiences, including shock, can cause significant frustration and make dogs more likely to bite. One study found that dogs without previous aggressive behavior problems attacked people while the system was activated (Polsky, 2000). The majority of the cases were Golden Retrievers, dogs not typically associated with attacks on people, and many cases involved attacks of familiar people (Polsky, 2000). Furthermore, the dogs bit repeatedly, and none threatened before attacking (Polsky, 2000). Regardless of the marketing claims made by manufacturers of such containment systems, these products do not provide a safe solution to animal containment, for dogs, their families, or the public. Solid, high fencing and supervision are the best options.

In summary, even though serious aggressive behavior incidents are infrequent, the statistics on dog–human aggressive behavior indicate that certain demographics are at greater risk than others and assist with making judgments on how aggressive behavior in dogs might be avoided.

Risk Factors for Dog–Dog Aggressive Behaviors

Statistics on dog fights are less accessible than statistics on bites to people. Unshelm and colleagues (1993, discussed in Unshelm, 1997) found fights among dogs in Germany to have occurred on streets and sidewalks (74.8%), in parks (9.2%), in public buildings (8%), in private locations and in playgrounds (6%). Sixty-eight percent of dogs involved in fights were off leash, and 8.7% of them were roaming without their guardian.

Dogs exhibiting aggressive behaviors in the Unshelm and colleagues study came primarily from breeders rather than animal shelters, and victims were primarily from breeders and from friends. In most cases (70%), these aggressors were rated by guardians as occasionally attacking other dogs, and victims were rated by guardians as interested in or playful towards other dogs. Sixty-five percent of victims were off leash, while 35% were on leash. Eighty-six percent of aggressors were off-leash, and only 14% of aggressors were on leash. Given that most aggressors are repeat offenders and are more likely to be off leash than on leash, much interdog aggressive behavior could be prevented if dogs identified as being the instigator of a fight were required to remain on leash in public. The study also found that victims were more frequently owned by female guardians, while aggressors were more frequently owned by male guardians. When the dogs were owned by a mixed-sex family with no one in particular in charge of the dog, they were more likely to be victims than aggressors.

What is particularly interesting in this study is the relationship of training methodology to the recorded frequency of interdog aggressive behavior. Many dogs who had bitten in the past had been trained by hitting or shaking the dog on some occasions. Dogs who had been trained with commands, shouting and warning the dog using gestures were more frequently victims. Although there was no category for dogs trained with techniques mainly based on added reinforcement, dogs who were reported as untrained were far less frequently reported as victims or aggressors. Unshelm (1997) also found that, where guardians believed it important to train the dog to be obedient and nice, the dogs were predominantly victims (almost 60%), whereas, if the guardians believed it vital to undertake training so that the dog was not out of control, the dogs were more frequently aggressors. It is important to note that these are correlations and do not demonstrate causation. We do not know whether the guardians’ attitudes affected their dogs’ behavior, the dogs’ behavior affected the guardians’ attitudes, or some other variable affected both.

Unshelm (1997) summarizes the study as showing that aggressors are usually force trained by 30–39-year-old male guardians, who typically do not form bonds or attachments to the dog, and who respond to aggressive behavior incidents with shouting or no response at all. Victims are usually trained using more gentle methods, often by females who have a significant stated bond or attachment to the dog, and who respond to aggressive behavior incidents with consolation. Again, correlation is not causation.


Working with clients who share their home with a dog who exhibits aggressive behavior is an important job. Aggressive behavior exhibited by dogs presents many risks, ramifications, and challenges. It is vitally important that these cases (and all others) be handled skillfully and professionally. This chapter outlines some issues in working aggressive behavior cases and explores some of the logistics of case management.

Roles and Perspectives of Technologists and Clients

It is important that the behavior technologist understands their role and that the client understands both the technologist’s role and their own role in the professional consulting relationship. Misunderstandings are common and not conducive to an effective intervention.

The technologist has a responsibility to work with the client towards identifying the dog’s problem behaviors, to explore the client’s options, and to advise the client on how to meet the agreed upon goals. The responsibilities of the technologist are to both the dog and the client, much as a child behavior specialist has responsibilities to both the child and the child’s parents. Many technologists work hands-on with the dog, although most work with the dog only to the extent necessary to coach the client on how to work with the dog and to carry out certain tasks requiring a high degree of skill.

The client is responsible for their decisions about how to proceed and for carrying out the procedures agreed upon between them and the technologist. Even though the technologist has many professional responsibilities, it is ultimately the client who is responsible for their companion dog and the dog’s behavior. Behavior technologists do not dictate or impose treatments. Rather, they work with clients, making use of their expertise so that the client can make informed decisions about how to proceed.

Working with clients can present a number of challenges. The technologist and guardian may enter the relationship with different expectations of the roles each will play. Often, guardians are looking for a quick fix, or are hoping that the technologist will have a magic pill of some sort. They may want the technologist to endorse a notion (e.g., dominance) that they hold or a plan (e.g., to shock the dog for growling) that they have decided to carry out. Some want the technologist to take responsibility for fixing the problem, and some do not want to put much time or effort into working on the problem. Some may believe that the technologist will be able to assess the problem and formulate a complete contingency management plan (CMP) in a single session (as some popular trainers do on TV).

Clients and technologists may have completely different views of the relationship between dogs and people. Consequently, it can be challenging for the technologist to appreciate the client’s underlying assumptions. For example, the client may believe that dogs should be a low-maintenance distraction, and see nothing wrong with keeping a dog in a cold garage, whereas the technologist may see dogs as companions and family members who belong in the home in close social contact with the family. Other clients treat the dog as a surrogate child, never letting them out of their arms and continually coddling them in a permissive–indulgent fashion, whereas the professional might see value in promoting more independence.

Clients will sometimes present an ultimatum that they will euthanize the dog if the technologist cannot fix the problem quickly, permanently, and cheaply. These frustrated clients are trying to make the problem the technologist’s rather than their own. It helps to appreciate the contingencies under which these clients operate and the crisis that sets the occasion for such extreme behavior. It can be difficult for the technologist to refuse to accept this ultimatum or at least the emotional fallout associated with failing to achieve the unrealistic goal.

When consulting a family, technologists may find that the spouses disagree completely on the goals and preferred strategy for solving the problem. One may want to work on a solution, while the other is fed up and will put no more effort into it. They may argue openly in the technologist’s presence, making the technologist’s job even more uncomfortable, or worse, say nothing and then sabotage progress, either intentionally or simply through disinterest. One family member may attempt to gang up with the technologist on another family member when the technologist intended no such adversarial approach.

One of the most frustrating encounters for the technologist occurs when they are diametrically opposed to the client’s preferred approach. The client may, for example, interpret everything the dog does as dominance and believe that added punishment is the only solution to behavior problems. They may refuse to hear that behavior can be explained and changed without reference to dominance at all, and that aversive stimulation may be a counterproductive approach to solving behavior problems.

The Behavior of Guardians of Dogs who Exhibit Aggressive Behaviors

Having a dog who exhibits aggressive behaviors can be emotionally devastating. In some cases, it can constitute a crisis for the guardian. The role of the behavior technologist is to advise and coach clients on how to change the dog’s behavior. An implied ultimate goal is to promote a mutually beneficial—reinforcing—relationship between the client and their companion dog. In the vast majority of consultation relationships, behavior technologists work through the human rather than directly with the dog. It stands to reason that technologists should understand the behavior of clients working with companion dogs who exhibit aggressive behaviors and how to facilitate the rehabilitation of the human–dog social relationship within the context of achieving the goals of the contingency management plan. Below I outline a perspective on the behavior of guardians of dogs who exhibit aggressive behaviors, and some principles of facilitating consultations to promote greater long-term success.

Guardians often feel as though their dog’s behavior is outside their control, which can lead to feelings of conditioned helplessness and response depression. Aside from the obvious distress this process entails, it seriously hampers the guardian’s capacity to commit to and comply with a contingency management plan. Disempowered clients are far less likely to succeed with implementing a successful contingency management plan, and the dog (as well as the guardian) will be at significant risk for a diminished behavioral wellbeing.

A basic strategy to help disempowered clients is to empower them. This means demonstrating to clients that they can be successful through their own actions, and that when they experience failures, creativity and persistence will be reinforced. Empowering clients involves promoting resilience, creativity, and persistence/industriousness. The same principles apply to promoting empowerment in clients as to promoting empowerment in dogs. Briefly, begin by establishing goals with which clients can and will contact reinforcement. After an initial period of success, allow for challenges that require gradually increasing levels of creativity, persistence, and industriousness—working through the problem—so that the person (or dog) can succeed even if, at first, they do not.

See O’Heare (2011) for an elaboration of this topic, or a more current edition if available.

Case Management

In this section, I briefly address some key aspects of managing cases involving aggressive behavior, including the arrangement of appointments, and what the behavior technologist will need for the basic consult on aggressive behaviors. Other features of more general case management are discussed elsewhere (Wilde, 2001, 2003, 2004).

The Consult Sessions

Behavior technologists must ensure their own safety and the safety of others when meeting with a client whose dog behaves aggressively. If the consult will take place on the technologist’s premises, the clients should have the dog wearing a muzzle, and a leash as well, when (not after) they arrive. The technologist needs to be prepared with a basic understanding of the relevant evocative stimuli, and should ensure that the intake area and the activity occurring there will not provoke the dog.

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