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Threat displays

These are my notes from a 2018 webinar by Sarah Whitehead from the UK.

This is MY interpretation of what she said, as best I could do writing fast while she talked!


Any time a dog needs to escalate its threat towards you, you aren’t doing your job.  Metaphorically speaking…if you can’t read the warning post-it note, you’ll get the angry email; phone call or knife attack!

Dominance used to be seen as the main reason for aggression (defined as an overt threat display). Then fear took over as the popular choice. Sarah suggested that we need to be careful about assuming fear when it may not be present.

She talked about why a dog would ‘choose’ aggression. Choice being a frontal lobe active or pro-active decision.

Fear is not a ‘choice’. It tends to be an automatic response to the amygdala firing.

A HABIT can form. The response is still automatic (but it’s based in the striatum and can happen without the amygdala firing or a frontal lobe ‘decision’.)

So why would a dog 'choose' aggression?

1. They ‘believe' there are no other choices available. This occurs because we aren’t very creative and we force the dog into aggression because we gave them no other option.

2. The dog is on a short fuse (mood state.)

This could be due to:

·         Diet – the dog is on the wrong food for them.

·         They are unwell/ in pain.

·         There has been trigger stacking through the day and they are at the end of their tether.

·         Overtired – especially likely with puppies in houses with lots of kids.

·         Genetic material – some dogs are hardwired for a shorter fuse.

·         Environment – the role of the mother. Excessive stress in pregnancy affects the young at a cellular level. It increases their response to stress and reduces their ability to recover. This can then be passed on by them to their young.


3. Previous learning. Aggression works. It stops things happening; makes things go away etc. Relief is a hugely valuable reinforcer. Prevention is way easier than trying to ‘cure’ this.

4. The dog ‘enjoys’ it. Successful risk taking is exciting and addictive.  This one is the most difficult to modify with reinforcers because what can you offer that’s better?

Treat the correct root source of the aggression.

But remember that it isn’t really remarkable that dogs behave aggressively. It is more remarkable that they so rarely do.


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