The difference between aggression and predation
I recently received a distressed phone call from the owner a young Labrador retriever. The dog was guarding bones and had snapped at a family member who tried (unwisely) to take a bone away. The owner asked very earnestly if this was just the beginning. Would, she wondered, the dog kill the other dog next?
According to the Oxford dictionary:
Hangry (ADJECTIVE, informal) Bad-tempered or irritable as a result of hunger
I occasionally get a bit edgy if I haven't grazed in a while. Who doesn't? This word conflates two states: one physical (hunger) and one emotional (anger). It almost sounds the way it feels. Someone might reasonably wonder "do dogs get hangry?" when they see a dog guard a bone, chase a bunny, or growl menacingly at a person in a strange hat. Could hangry be what was going on with the bone-guarding Labrador?
Get away from me!
Dogs use their powerful jaws and impressive dentition to two ends. The first is to protect themselves and their stuff. When you see a dog who does any of the following:
- stays hunkered over a food dish growling if you approach
- picks up a bone and walks away if you approach
- snarls and snaps at another dog to prevent them from getting onto a favourite bed
You are seeing a dog who is protecting his stuff. This can certainly come off as rude, or "bad", but in fact the dog is best characterized as worried and upset. The dog has a bit of his wolfy ancestor coming out - and his wolfy ancestor would have died of starvation if he didn't keep everyone (yes even his family members) away from his food. Imagine losing your house in a weird mortgage rule change, leaving you broke and homeless. Losing the things you need to survive is scary stuff.
Even more alarming is when a dog uses their enamel weaponry to protect themselves. A dog who is terrified of strangers (and this is the state that a "guard dog" is in, by the way) might growl, bark, snarl, snap at, and even bite a person who comes too close. This dog is deeply scared, and needs the help of a professional trainer to overcome their fears. Dogs behaving aggressively towards strangers deserve all our collective efforts to increase their comfort and welfare, to say nothing of keeping the public safe.
For both guarding and fear of strangers, if the dogs are forced by circumstance to bite or fight, they usually do so without grievous damage. They are giving warnings. The warnings might be painful or scary...that's the point. But the dog is not trying to eat the other dog, or the the hapless bone-stealing family member, or the stranger. They just want them gone, and gone now.
Get in my belly.
The second way that dogs use their chompers is to eat. We grow crops or harvest pizza pockets from the primeval forest to get enough to eat. Dogs, being carnivores, occasionally run down small animals (or things that remind them of small animals, like balls, Frisbees, moving bike tires, and blowing plastic bags). Sometimes, when dogs catch small animals, they will kill and consume them. Whether or not they follow through on the killing and/or eating parts depends again on how much of the ol' wolf is showing up in their repertoire. All wolves will kill and eat prey. Wolves who politely refrain from getting food to eat don't pass along any of their non-death-machine genes to their pups, because they are dead.
Two very different motivations.
A dog who has guarded bones from people is likely to guard more bones from more people (or from dogs... or from cats they have befriended). A dog who is so scared of a stranger that they behave aggressively is likely to be equally scared of a similar stranger. In both cases, the dog is saying just one thing: Go. Get away from me. Give me space.
A dog who has chased down small animals is likely to do so again, given the opportunity. In this case, the dog is saying just one thing: Come. Get in my belly. Pass the salt; pull out the best china; it's time to dine.
So although a scared, aggressive dog and a hungry, predatory dog are both using their teeth, their behaviour is due to very different motivations. And while a particular dog might be both aggressive towards strangers and also predatory towards small animals, these behaviours and emotions don't overlap. They don't predict each other, any more than me feeling hungry predicts me being scared of my tarragon braised cabbage (it was bland, not fearsome). And me feeling scared of the momma grizzly I met once while hiking doesn't predict me biting gloriously into said grizzly after rubbing her with a mango-chipotle spice mix.
It's frightening and upsetting to us humans when dogs use their teeth, no matter if they're scared or hungry. Luckily, qualified dog trainers can help in both scenarios, so there is no need for either you or your dog to suffer. Grab a pizza pocket off your pizza pocket tree, find a good trainer, and get to work.
For more information on working with scared dogs, see my previous blog posts here and here. For more thoughts on natural dog behaviours that are hold-overs from their wolfy ancestors, see this blog post.