It is hard to love a dog who has bitten you, or your child, or a visiting friend. A number of studies have shown that aggression in a pet dog is one of the top three reasons for getting rid of it. The levels of aggression seen in dogs can be shown to be related to genetic factors. However, recently researchers have started to look for things associated with the dog's environment, or factors associated with the way in which the dog's owners treat or interact with the dog that might increase or decrease aggression.
A report published in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science which provides some interesting insight into why some dogs become aggressive. The study was conducted by Yuying Hsu and Liching Sun at the Department of Life Science at the National Taiwan Normal University.
To measure aggression in dogs these investigators chose to use the Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ) which is a long (103 question) survey instrument that gets dog owners to rate various aspects of their dog's behavior. This questionnaire was developed in the laboratory of James Serpell at the University of Pennsylvania and has been shown to be a reliable way of measuring the temperament of dogs, including levels of aggression. For the current study the questionnaire was translated into Chinese and additional items were added to determine the dog's living conditions and the nature of interactions between the dog and its owner.
One important result was this data confirmed that canine aggression is not a single unified characteristic. We can break it up into three different types of aggression, namely aggression directed toward strangers, aggression directed at the dog's owner (or family), and aggression directed toward other dogs. This study showed, like others before it, that individual dogs can be high on one of these forms of aggression, but not necessarily on the others.
The findings in this study confirm the most powerful and important finding to come out of this new array of analyses has to do with punishment. What happens when a dog is physically punished for misbehaviors? Here, the results are impressive and unambiguous, specifically, the more frequently a dog is punished the higher the likelihood that the dog will be aggressive. Furthermore, the increased aggression that the dog shows spans the full range of aggressive responses, making it more likely that the dog will aggressive against strangers, its owner or family, and other dogs.
The interesting thing here is that we are dealing with punishment being applied for simple everyday forms of misbehavior. Thus if our pet dog comes too close to something which we are eating and looks like he might try to snatch a piece of it, we might choose to correct this intrusive behavior by giving him a slap with our hand. These current finding suggest that by using this physical intervention we have now increased the likelihood that in some future confrontation our dog will respond to us by trying to bite our hand, or our child, or a friend that we have invited into our home, or a dog that he meets on the street.
The obvious conclusion to draw from looking at this research on dogs is that if we want an easy way of reducing the likelihood of aggression in our pet dogs, we should reduce the amount of physical punishment that we apply to them in our daily interactions.