Updated: Jan 22, 2021
As any police officer can tell you, domestic violence calls can be tricky. The officer arrives at the home where a couple’s heated argument has progressed to violence. But although the two have been screaming at and even hitting each other, when the officer arrives, a strange phenomenon occurs. The target of the violence suddenly shifts to the officer.
Now consider two dogs who are fighting in the home. What started out as a skirmish has escalated to the point that the owner feels the need to step in. She approaches and tries to grab one of the dogs by the collar. The dog whips around and bites her on the arm. What’s going on here?
Both scenarios are examples of redirected aggression. Emotional arousal becomes so intense that it needs a release, and the target shifts from the original opponent to the source of interference. That’s one reason so many people are bitten when trying to break up a dogfight. It’s something most of us learn the hard way, and I’m no exception; I could show you scars.
Redirection doesn’t only happen to third parties, though. It can erupt between two dogs when caused by another. For example, a Labrador Retriever and a German shepherd are at the dog park, happily romping and playing together. A Boxer comes along and approaches the pair. Suddenly, bodies become stiff. Tension is in the air. Just as the Boxer and the Shepherd are cautiously checking each other out, the Lab slaps a paw over the German Shepherd’s shoulder as if to say, “What’s up? I thought we were playing!” The Shepherd turns and lashes out at the Lab. Again, the tension needs a target, and in this case, instead of being focused on the cause of the tension, it’s redirected to what drew the attention away, much as a lightning rod diverts lightning from a structure.
A common scenario for redirected aggression is when two or more dogs are behind a barrier, such as a chain link fence. Someone passes by the yard with another dog. The enclosed dogs begin to bark and jump at the chain link. They can’t get to the dog, so they become agitated. Frustration builds. When it reaches a boiling point, the dogs may redirect on each other. Barrier frustration can easily turn to redirected aggression in other scenarios, too: picture two dogs who both want to go out to the yard because they see a squirrel. They jump, whimper, and claw at the sliding glass door that leads to the yard. Frustration builds, and soon they turn on each other.
Anytime there is over-arousal, aggression can follow, and it will find the most convenient target. So what can you do to avoid redirected aggression? Be aware of the potential. Try to avoid putting your dogs in situations where redirected aggression might occur. If you see a situation building, interfere before it’s escalated too far. Teach a solid attention cue, meaning your dog stops whatever he’s doing to look at you when you call his name. Don’t jump in to the middle of a dogfight and expect not to be bitten. (How to properly break up a dog fight is a whole other blog.) Don’t approach dogs behind a barrier if they seem agitated; if they are calm but then become agitated, leave. In many cases, redirected aggression can be avoided. The more we understand about how dogs think and react, and the more vigilant we are about recognizing their body language and actions, the safer we can all be.
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