04/06/2012 09:23 BST | Updated 02/08/2012 06:12 BST

Dogs and Stress

The dogs and I have been staying in a small agricultural village in Scotland for the last couple of weeks. There is a village green and the front door opens onto it.  People, horses and dogs wander past the front door. One local resident, Jack, an extremely old border collie, seems to be the guardian of the district. He spends his days roaming.  He checks up on all of us; me, the sheep, the horses, the cows, the bus stop, the weird bald cat, the birds collecting stuff to build their nests, the children, the shops. I've never seen his owner.

We first met him on our way up the hill side for a walk.  He was coming back from a visit to his flock, and was delighted to see us, in a most gentlemanly manner.  An off lead, strange dog approaching from directly in front, on a narrow path, would have caused one of the dogs with me, alarm, were we in London, but we had a very convivial meeting and Jack decided to join us on our walk.

There are quite a few dogs milling around the place and they all have wonderful manners.  They don't leap all over you. They are chilled out and friendly.  The strange thing is, it seems to be rubbing off on my dogs.  They have relaxed. Among the dogs here, I have not seen one incidence of aggression. I'm sure they would be territorial if required, but they seem far more adept at reading body language than the dogs in London who seem to bulldoze into each other, no respect for boundaries, in a frenzy of excitement. This is a common cause of fights, anxiety, and nervous aggression.

It may of course be partly down to how much exercise these county dogs get, but it's definitely more than that. I know dogs in London who get four/five hours running free a day, and yet seem so hyper regardless.  The dogs here seem unstressed, content. Happy.  It makes me wonder where most aggression comes from.  Working dogs need to be worked, that removes a huge amount of stress for a dog.

Even so, given a choice, dogs don't want to fight because no dog wants to be injured.  Dogs are cooperative by nature. We now know, from wolf and dog studies, that packs are not a straight forward dominance hierachy, but a team, each with a vital role.

The high incidence of aggression among dogs in urban populations may be largely caused by stress.  And dog leads!  And all the hustle and bustle. It's nerve wracking for some dogs to be tethered to us by a piece of string with lots of strange people approaching, including some off lead dogs. They are vulnerable. They have adapted admirably. In fact, dogs have learnt about us humans inside out, and it's time we learnt more about them!

I'm no expert, just someone with a minor dog qualification, who has read a lot and studied dogs a lot, but I have thought for many years that schools should, as part of the national curriculum, teach children about how to understand and approach dogs. Dogs are a huge part of our lives.  There is a huge lack of understanding which at it's worst, leaves children either bitten or afraid of dogs.

Dogs are roamers. Wild dogs and free ranging dogs behave differently to dogs that are kept enclosed or isolated. Though the dog evolved in the company of humans, and cannot easily exist without them, they evolved to roam with us. The vast majority living "wild" as village scavengers depend on proximity to humans. That relationship has become so intimate that dogs are often viewed as creatures apart. Biologist, James Serpell. "The domestic dog exists precariously in the no-man's-land between the human and nonhuman ...neither person nor beast."

Dogs with homeless owners look to me like the happiest city dogs going.  Of course, we can't do much about this because it would be carnage if city dogs roamed free.  Unless we got rid of all the cars, trains and buses, which frankly, sounds great!

There are so many different types of aggression that it's hard to know quite where to start.  The main types are dominance, fear induced, learned, medical, pain-induced, predatory, terrotorial, sex related and protective.  Some dogs seem to have a combination of two types or more.  What each case has in common is that negative corrective treatment will backfire.  It is particularly dangerous when inexperienced people dabble in the area of correcting aggressive dogs.  Here are some interesting ideas from inexperienced people that I have come across.

Firstly, aggressive dogs when growling, should have their muzzles squeezed until they yelp.  This is known as 'muzzle clamping'. This is bad news because a growl is a dog's warning system, if you teach it not to growl, you will not get the warning next time, it will go straight for the bite.  This is a training tactic used by bullies. Bullying dogs does not work.  Some bully-type trainers even use electric shock collars on dogs. The aggression will come out somewhere even if you teach a dog to fear you.  People like me want to work in harmony with our dogs and respect their differences.

Konrad Lorenz, Nobel prize winning ethnologist, author of 'king solomons ring', (and my hero!), believes dogs are very similar emotionally to people because of our long shared history (longer than any other two species co habiting).   Lots of trainers like to break dogs down into a series of reflexes, but the reality is that they are almost as complex as us.   In temple grandin's groundbreaking book 'animals in translation', she describes brain structures and  compares the mind of a dog to that of a person with autism. It's a striking theory that makes a lot of sense.  I'm trying to keep this blog short so I will not get into that here!

Another dominance tactic used by bullies is to pin the dog  to the floor using your whole body to stop the dog moving until it eventually gives up.  An eye for an eye and the world goes blind.  You are not going to solve aggression with more aggression.  John Bradshaw's book "In defense of dogs" is well worth reading.  It combines kindness with the most recent science in teaching us humans about how dogs learn and how we can live happily together.

My golden rule is this:  Whatever you give attention to, you get more of, and whatever you ignore, you get less of.   Aggressive dogs need to be kept out of situations where aggression has previously been triggered.  The thing to do is to disengage and rebuild trust slowly.  No dog wants to be aggressive, it is generally a learned behaviour.  Confrontational-style canine psychology may teach a dog to fear you, but it won't remove the aggression.

It is interesting to note the stark contrast between our relationship with wolves and our relationship with dogs.  Given the pathological fear wolves have of humans it is quite likely that the incidence and appearance of dogs at the time of our early human settlements may well have been caused by an abundance of freely available food. Other than sex/reproduction, food is very high on the list of vital resources, and we are a constant source of that. The Stone Age dog/wolf would have found us very useful.  A steady and constant stream of sustenance, and not having to hunt for it taught these wolves to evolve losing their fear of man.

On a related note, dogs like faeces particularly human; it is apparently a probiotic and a valuable source of proteins. In part of the Indian subcontinent you can see village dogs following naked children about waiting for them to defecate.  To prehistoric dogs our middens, latrines and village dumps must have appeared like manna from heaven.

In a wolf pack, aggression is unusual.  Cooperation is vital for survival.  Each wolf has a role; some drive the prey, others circle and harass, and others lie in wait and ambush. Some stay behind and guard the young.

It's only when you have a combination of emotional types that the pack (and the hunt) succeeds. Our modern working dogs are the result of genetic engineering by our forbears, they bred for certain traits, enhancing those traits by breeding like with like.  Aggression can be bred for but it takes some drawing out to get an aggressive dog.

A calm home environment,and, if absolutely ness (ie the dog cant be removed from the situation), a slow reintroduction to situations which previously aroused aggression, followed by repitioin are the agents of success.  Softly, softly.  Lots of patience.  You should never blindly trust an animal that has shown you aggression in the past .  However, it is striking is how effective love is in overcoming aggression.  Animals pick up vibes, and dogs know when you are showing love.

I really recommend any dog lover to read "One Dog at A Time" by Pen Farthing. Farthing was a Marine serving in Afganistan.  A big hearted dog lover, he became devoted to the strays there.  You will be crying all the way through if you are anything like me.  .

We mammals really are products of our environments.  The Afghan fighting dogs routinely have their ears and tails cut off (in the villages with no anisthitic or even clean water) ,to stop superficial injuries to theses extremities stopping the fight.  Beaten by the crowd, shackled with razor wire between fights, starved and teased, these dogs became highly aggressive towards people, understandably so.  And yet somehow, with love Farthing was able to help them trust again...He now has a charity which rescues the animals of Afghanistan and finds them homes.  If you are in any doubt about who to run your next 10 k for, the search is over!

There are some studies that show that a bitch raised in a stressful environment can produce aggressive pups, but this in utero behaviour can be unlearned during the weening period and with careful socialising.  Socialising carelessly though, is a common cause of fear aggression. It seems a shame that the wait for puppy innoculations to kick in, (which prevents  puppies from socialising for a few weeks), happens at a time in a dogs life when socialising is most important, and learning is at it's peak.  The first year of a dog's life is so important in forming character.  One early bad experience or lack of experience can have life long effects.   As the soon-to-be owner of a puppy, do your research extensively before the puppy arrives.  A young and sensitive pup can be turned into a nervous wreck by an inexperienced owner who allows other dogs to bound over and play too roughly.  The key though, I think, is to give our dogs freedom to roam at our sides as much as possible.    We would all benefit by roaming more.  Except maybe the diet food industry.

These are my thoughts in no particular order, We still have much to learn about the wolf and even more to learn about the origins background and sophistication of the worlds most successful domesticated mammal Canis lupus familiaris the dog.  Much is excluded here including terroririal aggresssion, and I've got a huge amount yet to learn from dogs, but what are blogs for?  I welcome your thoughts...