By Susan Martinez
Snipped from the SAR-Dogs list: "As much as I hate to post stuff to the list sometimes for fear of criticism, I'll share my situation in hopes that it will help you in some small way"
That was a very nice post and I'm glad you shared. I was just at an anesthesia conference and one comment made was that "we" as a profession ostracize the person who made a mistake and act as though we are better than they are, when what we need to realize is that sharing incidents and bad outcomes will help all of us become better practitioners. I think that is true in Sar, however I understand the fear as we truly beat down our own.
On the topic of social aggression...I am not an expert but will be glad to share knowledge. Steven Lindsay in his book Applied Dog Behavior and Training Vol. II has a chapter on social competition and aggression. He discusses play as a way to work out some of the social issues and encourage social cooperation. Play is incompatible with aggression and fear. Much of the play behavior involves competitive components incorporating low-intensity threats and aggressive displays that are kept within a non-injurious limits. He does however point out that the ability to play is contingent on a balance of health and emotional stability. Overly aggressive, fearful, depressed, or sick dogs do not show significant interest in play.
Lindsay states that "play encourages an empathic sensitivity involving gentleness and tolerance while expressing oneself in aggressive and sexual forms. Eibl-Eibesfeldt (1971) [Editor's note: Ethology, the Biology of Behavior (1975)] reported that animals that fight among themselves as adults practice agonistic skills as young, learning appropriate restraints and bite inhibition. If one partner bites too hard, the injured partner yelps and quits playing or retaliate in earnest which teaches the aggressor bite inhibition in the future.
This is one of the main reasons I believe play is important within search dog organizations. There are less scuffles as each of the members learn social interaction and work out dominance issues during play. What we've noticed within our team is that the dogs learn to defer to one another--they usually don't steal one another's toys unless they are accustomed to interacting with that particular dog on a routine basis. They will often carry a toy on a rope together while tugging.
Heightened anxiety or frustrative states will have an increased likelihood of aggression, therefore if introducing a new dog to the group, make sure they are both exhausted by exercise prior to doing so and don't foster confrontational stances. Make sure they are introduced when both are moving in the same direction and not head on. We've found that if we keep moving then they do better--no restrictive locations, i.e., no narrow paths with thick vegetation surrounding the paths as then the dogs cannot maintain their spatial requirements.
Most conflicts are mostly noise, and territorial aggression will stop once the handler moves away from the dogs and vacates the room. Yelling can go 2 ways...it can escalate the already heightened state and lead to more aggression or it can prevent the progression. You have to know the dogs and how they will behave. A pack of humans yelling "no" may curb the aggressive posturing. Whereas a group of humans running towards the dogs may escalate the aggression.
Prevention is a good stance however it doesn't mean the dogs may never learn to interact in the future. I've found in my pack the first 2 weeks of introduction with a new dog in the house is the most volatile so I start by keeping the dog protected in a crate while in the same room with the others. I have 2 male akitas, 2 female BC's and 1 female lab and often dogsit for other team members or friends. To prevent aggression towards the one in the crate, everyone gets treats and does obedience behaviors while in the room with the newcomer. They see me feeding the new dog and are not allowed to aggress towards the newcomer. They will receive rewards for good behavior. Eventually they are introduced one at a time until all can be out together without conflict.
Massage techniques work well with a dog in a heightened state of arousal. The dog learns to relax and you can make the dog roll on its side while being massaged, which is a passive stance. Then put this on cue--when you say relax or down, side, relax...then you are in control of how the dog reacts to other dogs in its vicinity. Let the new dog walk around while you have control of the aggressor. The reintroduction can be done in small increments. Understanding why the dog is behaving as it is will also help with prevention. Observe behaviors while keeping everyone safe. Keep a journal of what triggers the dog, videotape interactions if you can, do anything that will help document behavior so you have more understanding of why it is occuring. You must stop the chain of events early on or it will escalate--that means the first sign of posturing or a snarl or raised lips, so timing is of the essence before the sequence is played out. But always remember safety is first.