Tell Me About Your Dog! - Part 4

Continued from Part 3

There are a few more points I'd like to mention regarding defense drive. I strongly believe that these three defense drive categories are pre-determined and that this predetermination sets limits to how much we can change through training. Comments like "we need to put more defense into this dog" make me cringe and feel sorry for the dog. All we can do is work with what the dog brings with him. Less mature dogs generally cannot show either of the two strong reactions, so the only defensive reaction that can be elicited from them is the weak passive reaction. The strong reactions rarely appear in dogs before 18 months of age. An important point to remember when training young dogs.

As with all drives, the stimulation threshold is a factor during the assessment process. In this case the threshold is at what point the dog feels concern or worry. This threshold can be raised through deliberate confidence building exercises.

Frustration aggression

The next component of the package we call "fighting drive" is frustration aggression. Frustration aggression is also a form of reactive aggression that is created by depriving the dog in one of the lust oriented drives or at least by preventing their satisfaction. This form of aggression in my opinion serves the purpose of relieving built- up drive energy that has no proper outlet. The most useful drive to create this type of aggression in training is naturally prey drive. But other positive gain motivated drives can also be used. Such as hunger, sex drive, social reunification (or pack-)drive, or simply a high desire to expend physical energy through movement. When the satisfaction of these motivations is blocked, the dog experiences a sense of frustration. This frustration will reach a point where the dog reacts aggressively. Once this stage is reached, the aggression appears in the same form as all forms of aggression. Barking, growling and biting are the actions that are visible.

I made a short point during my discussion of prey drive, that a properly socialized dog will generally not bite a human being in prey drive. However, if the prey drive builds up to a certain level, and no outlet is presented, frustration aggression will set in. And once a dog is in a state of aggression, he will bite a human being.

Good examples of this model are high drive Malinois, who reach an aggressive state very quickly, because of their high drive and the fact that they seem to frustrate easily.

This is a very useful form of aggression, as it presents a much less risky training methodology than, for example, defense drive, yet still adds intensity and seriousness to many dogs.

Social aggression

Social aggression is the only type of aggression that can be categorized as active aggression. Even though the term active aggression is used frequently, it really only applies here. The reason social aggression is called active aggression is because it really does not require any specific action as a trigger stimulus. Social aggression serves two purposes of biological significance. One is ensuring the even distribution of a species across a given territory by repelling equally strong individuals. And the other is to establish and maintain order in social units such as a pack. Social aggression is always directed at the individual's own kind. In the breeds that were created for police and military service, selection took place that expanded the direction of social aggression to also included the dog's adopted kind, humans. As an example of contrast, in the dog fighting breeds, selection took place to ensure that the social aggression would not include humans.

Let me give you a couple of other reasons why I hold this view. In virtually all older texts describing the police service dog breeds a few points were always made. They were that the dogs show mistrust and aggression against strangers and that they are very devoted and loyal with the family and very loving with children. To me this combination of qualities stem from a very strong closed pack oriented social behavior. That means loyalty and devotion to members in the pack and aggression against all outsiders, even those belonging to the same species.

Unfortunately, this form of aggression is not very common in our dogs anymore, because many people find it to be socially unacceptable. Dogs today are supposed to be social and to a certain degree friendly. And while I see nothing wrong with a social dog, I personally also see nothing wrong with a socially aggressive dog. These dogs are not unpredictable menaces to society or vicious animals. They simply have inborn motivations that include this form of aggression. Social aggression is a trainable trait, meaning it can be directed and controlled. Naturally that requires the right handler, so that accidents are prevented.

Socially aggressive dogs have an urge to be aggressive towards strangers. This can be controlled and the dog can be taught to tolerate strangers. However, the dog will not become a social or friendly dog with strangers, no matter what type of training is done. The only way this urge to confront a stranger aggressively when not under control would go away is if the stranger meets the confrontation and social order is established. This happens either if the person can subdue the dog and subordinate him or if the person unequivocally submits to the dog. (At that point the person is no longer a stranger though but an integrated pack member).

The trend in breeding has been to breed dogs who do not have social aggression. And that may be what many people want. The point I would like to make is that social aggression is nothing that should be made out to be something evil. It is a valuable trait in dogs that are in the right hands. Such dogs do demand a high degree of responsibility and vigilance on the part of the handler. Socially aggressive dogs who are also dominant are difficult to handle and to train and should be in the hands of experts.

Dominance behavior

Dominance behavior falls in the category of social interaction behaviors. It can appear together with social aggression, but it does not have to. It can appear on its own as well. In many ways dominance behavior resembles aggression, but it really is not a form of aggression in itself. Dominance behavior stems from an internal urge to prove superiority and status. In discussion I use the phrase "this dog likes to throw his weight around." The reason I am making dominance behavior a component of fighting "drive" is that it has an impact on how a dog physically interacts with other individuals and therefore it becomes part of the picture we see.

Dominance behavior includes climbing up on the helper, eye contact, puffing up to impress, and physical dominance through power. Satisfaction seems to occur when the dog gets a sense of power over the helper. This trait is almost always more strongly developed in males than in females.

Dominance behavior can appear on its own or it can overlap with other components. For example, in a dog with a sense of dominance and good prey drive and a personality that frustrates easily we can see that the dog becomes aggressive only if he cannot get a sense of power. This is not the same as social aggression. This type of dog likes to assert his strength while working in prey, the frustration occurs when he cannot express his power over his adversary for the prey. We can also see a dog with a sense of dominance but only capable of the weak passive defense reaction. This type of dog must naturally have a lower threshold for defensive reactions. For him not being able to feel physical power over the helper triggers the sense of worry which in turn triggers the defensive reaction, which in this example would include retreat.

Naturally there are countless examples of different combinations. There is no need to list them all, the point I am trying to make is that dominance is not automatically aggression. It is not an isolated trait, and always occurs in conjuntion with another motivation. But it warrants examination on its own. I feel this is important particularly because the re-active forms of aggression can occur without any expression of dominance (Socially aggressive dogs always have some sense of dominance).


This is the last major component that I want to include in my discussion of fightin "drive." What is rage? Webster defines rage as "a furious, uncontrolled anger" or "a brief spell of raving fury." I think that definition gives us a pretty good point to start examining what I am talking about. Rage is a re-active form of aggression. Even though most dogs have some form of rage, only a few dogs have it as a useful trait for training. Rage can be directed, but it is very difficult to control. It is therefore not a trait that is selected for in breeding for performance dogs. Biologically this trait is if anything a contradiction. It does not seem to have a biological goal. Rage is triggered by mistreatment, pain, and opposition. It can appear as a result of frustration overload. What is unique about rage is that it is extremely forceful and violent and also that it seems to be able to override self preservation instincts. No other form of aggression has that quality. As soon as the negatives become too much and self preservation is threatened dogs will chose other options if they exist in defense, social aggression or frustration aggression. But rage seems to be able to shut out "good sense" even if only for a short period of time. Another unique quality to this form of aggression is that it has a certain vengeful or retaliatory tone to it. Vengeance may be the only goal we can give it. But that is very hard to quantify, and I may be anthropomorphizing a bit here. I am sure that rage differs from the active defense reaction, because I have seen dogs who clearly showed the weak passive defense reaction to all threatening stimuli. But when pain was caused without any further reduction of safety distance, the dogs suddenly became enraged and came forward aggressively without any regard for their welfare. I have seen the term pain aggression used in a similar way. However I feel that is an inadequate description of rage. The Germans use the word "Wut," which means rage or anger, as part of their protection terminology.

Continued on Part 5

Armin Winkler has been the instructor at many schutzhund training seminars. He has been training schutzhund dogs since 1976 and is a USA member who lives in British Columbia. His English translation of Dr. Helmut Raiser’s Der Schutzhund is available from Armin Winkler Publishing, 3503 Lakeshaw Road, RR#7, Duncan, BC Canada V9L-4W4 or by phone (250) 746-8989.

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